Free Amsterdam Walking Tours: Are They Worth It?
Some tour operators tell us they have filed legal challenges. Others indicate they are not yet sure what their approach will be. Some may end up charging a nominal fee. Others may pay the fee themselves, hoping to recuperate the cost from tickets sold during or after the tour.
Note that the operators report they have not yet received any official communication from the municipality of Amsterdam.
Like any major city, Amsterdam can be quite expensive — but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of inexpensive options available for just about anything you want to do: sleeping, eating, sightseeing, and even shopping.
Nothing beats something free, though, which is one reason why some tourists fall for those ubiquitous ‘free walking tour’ offers.
And that’s a problem.
We’ll tell you why.
By joining the tours put on by these companies tourists are actively contributing to what many locals consider to be the ‘destruction’ of downtown Amsterdam.
Free Walking Tour: What’s The Catch?
Yes, people always ask: “Are these walking tours really free?”
Indeed they are.
But there is a catch.
The Catch — or Catches
‘While tips are always appreciated, you don’t have to give any money’ to the tour guides, their official websites usually state.
Company policy or not, when it comes to tips some guides are less subtle than others — human nature being what it is. Often you are also strongly encouraged to leave positive reviews on review sites and social media. Fair enough, but you do have to keep that in mind.
A letter quoted by travel expert Rick Steves provides some insight:
I recently took a “Tom’s Free Tour” in Munich and talked later with the guide who explained to me their arrangement. Here’s the diary entry (word for word) I wrote minutes later. If my guide was telling the truth, the diary entry tells you all you need to know:
There were 38 people on the tour. The guide told the group at the start, “When we end the tour, if it was worth paying for, a tip would be most appreciated.” There was a Tom’s Free Tour handler there. The guide told me that he has to pay Tom €2.50 per head. The handler takes a group photo right at the start so Tom can’t be fiddled by his guides. While the group sees it as a fun group photo (available on the website), the real reason for the photo is so Tom’s guide knows that Tom knows how many were in the group.
Guides generally make enough in tips to cover the €2.50 per customer that they have to give to Tom. But sometimes they actually lose money, especially if it’s raining and people bail out before the end of the tour — i.e., before “tip time.” If people only tip €3, the guides don’t make very much.
– Source: Quoted by Rick Steves in The Ethics of “Free” Tours
And then there’s another catch.
The companies behind these tours also makes money selling tickets to other tours and attractions in Amsterdam.
Both the company and the guide get a cut of each ticket sold.
Hence, you may feel pressured to ‘take advantage’ of such-and-such ‘one opportunity’ to get one of more tickets ‘at a special, today-only price.’
If you are level-headed enough to withstand the pressure and/or temptation, your free tour will not have cost you much more than a tip.
Speaking of tips: The DutchAmsterdam preferred tours, attractions, and activities provider has a lowest price guarantee!
Addressing Livability issues
The number of tourists visiting Amsterdam has been steadily growing year by year. So much so that in recent years Amsterdam’s citizens have started to complain.
Nowadays, record numbers of visitors clog many of the city’s streets almost year-round. At peak times — Easter, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and many days during the summer season — crowds are so thick that the trams and buses operated by Amsterdam’s public transport system cannot safely operate in some of Amsterdam’s downtown streets.
That is particularly true in the narrow streets and alleys of the Red Light District, one of the busiest areas of Amsterdam.
The City aims to ensure the quality of life for both residents and visitors. It therefore actively pursues solutions to a host of crowd-related problems in this district.
A prime area of concern is the nuisance caused by the ever-increasing number of free- or paid tours.
Together with tour operators, locals, and interest groups, the City has come up with a set of guidelines designed to minimize the nuisance caused by large tour groups.
These guidelines are part of a voluntary covenant, that has been signed by many parties.2
Here is a map of the area covered:
- The goal is to limit the size of group to 20 persons. 20 persons is the maximum, but can be raised to 25 under exceptional circumstances
- No guided tours after 23:00 (11 pm)
- In order to limit nuisance to residents, businesses and road users, groups will not stand still in the crowd-sensitive areas of St. Annenkwartier district, the bridges of Oudezijds Achterburgwal, Stoofsteeg alley, Gordijnensteeg, Corner of Monnikenstraat, and Bloedstraat — as well as in front of the Bulldog, Casa Roso, Condomerie, and The Smallest House.
- The guides will make every effort to prevent groups from restricting the flow of traffic
- During opening hours there will be no stopping in front of shop entrances, or entrances to restaurants, pubs, etc. You may not stand still on steps/platforms in front of entrances, or stand on street furniture
The guidelines continue as follows:
Sandemans New Europe spoils the mood
As mentioned, many parties have signed this covenant.
However, as “D’Oude Binnenstad” — a quarterly publication for downtown residents and businesses — points out, “Sandemans spoils the mood.”
The weak side of a covenant is that it is based on voluntary participation. And one of the largest sources of nuisance, Sandemans New Europe, refuses to join the agreement. The behavior of their guides is a thorn in the eyes of the guides who do observe the livability agreements. Thus its appears that a division emerges between good guides and bad guides
– Source: Bert Nap, Sandemans spoils the mood, D’Oude Binnenstad, October 6, 2017. Freely translated by DutchAmsterdam
You can draw your own conclusions. But if, like us, you love Amsterdam and want to help keep Amsterdam enjoyable for locals and visitors alike, choose wisely when selecting a tour company.
Other Ways To See Amsterdam
In our opinion a paid walking tour usually is a better option.3 The groups tend to be smaller, making it easier to interact with your guide.
There are many specialty tours — for photographers, art lovers, those interested in architecture, Anne Frank, food, history, or the Red Light District, to name a few.
Check out these specialty Amsterdam walking tours
And don’t forget to relax and do your own thing. As we always say, Amsterdam is joined at the hip with serendipity.
One of the great pleasures in life is to simply walk out the door with no specific goal in mind. Go ahead: saunter along a canal, browse some boutiques and art galleries, enjoy a beer or two at an outdoor café, chat with some locals, take a tram ride ‘to nowhere’ — take in Amsterdam the way the locals experience it.
- There are many other tourist-related problems as well, such as the destructive influence of Airbnb and other short-term lodging brokers. However, that issue goes beyond the scope of this article. ↩
- The City says the following parties have signed the covenant: Actief Events, Amsterdam Experience, Amsterdamliebe, Amsterdam Marketing, Amsterdam Odyssey, Amsterdam Red Light District Tours, Amsterdam Underground (onderdeel van De Regenboog Groep), Amsterjan, Amstour Holland, Architour, City Free Tour Amsterdam, Coördinatoren schouwproject 1012/1011, De Buck travel, Downtown Citytours, Dutch Tour Company, FreeDam Tours, Gemeente Amsterdam, Gilde Amsterdam (Mee in Mokum Stadswandelingen), GO2NL, Holland Tour Guides, Holland Welcome Tours BV, Huisbrand Events, Karoline On Line, Kuoni, Specialtours & Events, Local Experts Amsterdam, Mokum Events, Nederlandse gidsenvereniging Guidor, Nout Travel, Old Amsterdam Tours, Oranje Umbrella Company, Original Tours & Activities, Plan A event management, PR consult, Proud belangenvereniging sekswerkers, Prostitutie Informatie Centrum (PIC), Puur Events, Randy Roy’s Tours, Regal Travel Service, RLD Amsterdam Tours, Rob van Hulst Evenementen, That Dam Guide, Toms Travel Tours, Ton de Graaf Events, Tours &Tickets, VAN AEMSTEL PRODUKTIES, Vanatour, Vereniging Amsterdam City, VVAB, Walking Tours Amsterdam, Wijkoverleg d’Oude Binnenstad en 360 Amsterdam. Later these parties also signed: A Dam good choice, Buendia Tours, Guided tours and I Walk You. ↩
- In the interest op openness, a fair disclosure: DutchAmsterdam.com receives a small commission — at no cost to you — from tours and other events advertised within the pages of our website. This helps us provide this tourist guide as a free service. As our Editorial Policy states, our recommendations (for or against) are not influenced by our advertisers. ↩
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