“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.”
Finding the Best Hop-on/Hop-Off, Free Walking Tours, and Other Guided Day Tours Worldwide
This post is a companion to 15 Tips for Finding the Best Escorted and Guided Tours Worldwide.
One of my favorite parts of being a Fifty Plus Nomad is taking guided day tours worldwide. While the quality of these tours varies, I always enjoy them, meet fascinating fellow tourists and enjoy hearing the guides’ varying perspectives on their hometowns and countries.
Hop-on Hop-Off Tours
- Hop-Off, Hop-On Tours are sometimes worth the time and money, and other times not. Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tours stop at most tourist sites within a city. (I have seen tours in places not listed on the above link Hop-on Hop-off Bus website. Most hop-on hop-off tours cost between $15-$30). Tickets on these buses are valid for an entire day, and you can stop whenever you want. You can usually hear a multi-lingual soundtrack using earphones that explain what you see between the stops. Hop-on, hop-off bus tours are helpful when you have only one day in the city and want to visit a couple of sights along the way (especially if these sites are a bit hard to reach by taxi or bus). They depart every ten minutes and every other hour, so if you get off the bus, you need to be sure that the site is worth enough time to explore so you don’t have to wait too long for the next bus. (Since the last trip is usually in the early evening, you must board the buses early in the day if you want to make stops along the way).
- Hop-on hop-off tours provide proper orientation to the city, but often the soundtrack is out-of-sync with what you see at the time. Many hop-on, hop-off buses have more than one route. If that is the case, take all the routes unless you want to make a lot of stops, since it usually does not cost much anymore. Most people stick to the most popular route even though the commentary is better on the less popular routes. The less popular routes visit places you would not see otherwise. (Usually, the most popular routes have lots of stops in a small downtown area which does not allow you to hear much commentary).
Other Orientation Tours: Grayline and Harbor Cruises
- I would recommend, however, that you take a bus tour led by a human guide over hop-on-hop-off tours. (Grayline usually has enjoyable tours.) It is easier to ask questions, and you get more helpful information for a person than from most hop-on, hop-off tours’ audio tracks. In addition, you will better see what the guide is talking about on regular tours than on hop-on-hop-off tours.
- I have rarely been on harbor cruises with worthwhile soundtracks. The soundtracks are almost impossible to hear over the engine, waves, etc. When you can listen to the commentary, it is usually poorly done anyway. I have, however, been on many harbor cruises with human guides that were highly informative and fun. (In fact, I prefer these cruises over bus tours).
Finding the Best Small Guided Day Tours
Specialized Guided Day Tours
- The best tours are usually the ones that attract the fewest number of participants. Tour companies only keep their least popular tours because they and their guides are passionate about the topic. In addition, these tours usually attract tour participants who are worldlier and more interesting than the rest of the cruise participants. The best cruise ship tour I ever took was an eight-hour highlight tour of the island of Corsica with only ten other participants. The guide was a native Corsican who lived in the US. For 20 years before returning home. When I talked to her after the tour, I told her how much I loved the tour. To which she replied, “I love leading it, too. We don’t make much money off this tour, but everyone loves it.” I had a similar experience on Elizabeth Taylor’s Puerto Vallarta tour.
- The variety of the tours is astonishing. I gave a class in the 2000s on Hidden Tours of California. While researching this class, I met wonderful people, learned to appreciate the history and culture of my home state, and found dozens of exciting things (including winemaking and molecular physics) that I never thought would interest me. More importantly, these tours are one of the best ways to learn a lot about a place in a brief period. I visited everything from salt ponds to neighborhoods, factories, dams, movie studios, and lighthouses. (I went on almost 300 tours over the last eight years.) Nearly half of the tours were free. Most of the rest of these tours were less than $10. Probably one-third of the time, I was the only tour participant. I was seldom on tour with more than ten participants. Here are some great ways to find tours on your own:
- Ask the guests on tours for their suggestions.
- Contact chambers of commerce, visitors’ bureaus, and tourism information offices (excellent resources in Europe).
- Look for tour listings in major guidebooks. I have found Rick Steves and Lonely Planet to be particularly useful.
- In the US and Canada, find tours by checking out guidebooks, especially those for parents who plan outings for their kids. Also, pick up brochures at tourist information displays at hotels, motels, and local attractions and look for attractions that include guide tours.
- I have taken several Pink or Lavender Jeep Tours in several smaller tourist towns in the US and enjoyed them all. Passionate locals give the commentary, and because there are few other tourists aboard, you can ask many questions and get to know the other guests well.
Finding Great Guided Day Walking Tours
- However, I have found that walking tours provide a better tour experience than any bus or harbor cruise tours. Many cities have fantastic short walking tours that will give you a better sense of the city’s history and culture.
- I have taken excellent guided day tours through the tourist offices worldwide.
- Los Angeles Red Line Tours, one to two-hour tours of downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. The Los Angeles Conservancy offers excellent architectural tours of downtown Los Angeles, San Pedro, and several other LA neighborhoods. $10, though you can get free tours with membership).
- San Francisco City Guides provides 30 free tours, most offered at least once weekly.
- Chicago Architectural Foundation costs $10-$60; however, you can go on many tours for free if you become a member.
- Florence, Italy, 3-hour tours of the history and architecture
- Airbnb has a fantastic variety of tours and experiences throughout the world.
Free Guided Day Walking Tours
One of the most significant changes in guided day tour offerings in the last decade is the tremendous proliferation of ¨free¨walking tours worldwide. ¨Free¨walking tours occur in hundreds of cities worldwide today. These ¨free¨ tours are so standard now that many cities no longer have paid walking tours. Advanced reservations or payments are never required. Show up and give the guide a tip if you feel it is appropriate.
In my experience, in thirty cities worldwide, the tours are worthwhile and of good quality. There are only two caveats: !) free tours often attract gigantic groups that detract from the client’s ability to ask questions, and 2) most of the other tour participants are young and almost sprint from place to place.
I have not completed the ¨free¨ tours three times because I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group! On the last several of these tours, I told the guide ahead of time that I’d give them a good tip if they checked to ensure I kept up with the group. It worked like a charm! (Interestingly, in observing the tours, the guides get much more money from these ¨free¨ tours than paid tours).
A Final Note on Viator
The best place to find a directory of tours available worldwide is Viator. They have contracts with hundreds of tour providers, large and small, worldwide.
While their customer service is reasonably efficient, they add bureaucracy and cost when using small, local tour providers. If the tour cancels or changes, Viator may not notify you. It can be stressful to call Viator when you show up for a tour, unaware the local tour provider canceled the tour. (This happened to me three times).
Therefore, I suggest using Viator for booking tours to popular destinations or tours organized by large tour companies like Grayline. However, if you want a local tour, use Viator to find out what tours are available and book them directly through the tour provider themselves!