How to: be a free tour guide

Written by Sinead


When one finds themselves in Paris, accidentally living in a hostel, and without plans for the morning or a penny in their pocket, what does one do? Dream, believe, ACHIEVE!


As I wandered into the common area of St Christophers Inn, my eyes caught a sign saying “Free Walking Tour”. Sorry, did you say, ‘free’? Convince no more, and the next morning, after a quick breakfast with my new hostel buddies, Clare and Caity, we assembled at the reception, waiting to meet our guide. A short metro journey to Place St Michel and we met the rest of the tour groups. There was the good old fashioned divide and conquer and we split into smaller groups of 20-30 people. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and asked the guide, “how can I do, what you do?”. He instructed me to apply online. Which I did, again, and again. I sent emails, lots of emails to the Paris headquarters, asking for a chance at being a tour guide.


After (seriously) 2 months of spamming the inbox of the tour company, I finally got a call back, and the chance for a meeting. I’m still not sure if this was because of my resume, or that I had just annoyed them to the point of giving me a chance. At that meeting I received a “script” and strictly told not to follow the script! 17 pages, back and front, half size print. Learn all of this (mostly dates and facts), and twice as much of your own content, email me when you’re ready to audition.

Light bulb moment

Some may be overwhelmed, but I took the challenge with enthusiasm, and dedicated my social life for most of the month of February to studying French history, city guides for Paris, and talking to as many people as possible for recommendations. At this point, I’d only been in France for 4 months, was constantly living off a tight backpacker budget and hadn’t had much of a chance to explore the restaurant scene of Paris. To ‘train’ for the tours, I found myself walking similar routes around the city, looking for potential odd questions about statues or place names. I also connected with a social community of Couchsurfing to host “practise tours” with locals and tourists, most of whom had the joys of being freezing cold, mid-winter in Paris.

Too cold to open my eyes!!

A successful audition was my foot in the door, but it was still a long way to success. There was the very clever business strategy of having more guides than required for every departure time, and being the newest, with an absence of sales statistics, it took a few weeks to climb to a spot that simply was not last. Each week we were ranked according to the sales we had made for tickets to other tours hosted by the company. This ranking determined which group of guests you took walking around the city for the next 3 hours, hoping for a tip at the end. Yes, that’s right. These tours were paid only in tips from the guests, actually, it cost ME money to take the tour in the first place. More on that in ‘Free Tours Exposed’ (coming soon).


I often was asked, “how do you survive off tips alone?”, and the short answer is that I didn’t. I also did other tours for the same company, that were paid as a flat rate, with a bonus depending on the number of guests, and received commission for the tickets I sold. There was an uncertainty every single day as I would wonder how much I would be paid for my days work. Sure, the tour was 3 hours, but we had to help at the meeting point before and after the tour, and when I got home, I’d often spend an hour or two researching or answering some of the days questions.

IMAG1075Fast 5:

Was it fun?

Yes, so much fun. Every day was like I was on holiday as I got to share my guests holiday with them.

Did you have any ‘bad days’?

Of course, but they were few and far between, usually involving torrential downpours.

Do you get to see the ‘real’ city?

You get to see a side of the city. If you only had one day in Paris, then you’d get to see some of the main sights and learn more than if you explored on your own. Having done ‘free’ tours in other cities, I think it’s a good way to start your trip and get your bearings. You also have a guide at your disposal, who can give you advice on transport, and attractions, even if it’s just this cool restaurant their friend went to the other day..

Would you do it again?

Yes and no. I often wonder if it was my age and experience that placed me on the lower to middle end of the table as far as income and sales. I have to admit, some of the other guides I worked with were comedians, an actress, history students and a few real funny buggers! Most had been guiding for at least a year and had established their style well.

Overall, it was a lot of fun. I may consider it again, in another chapter of my life.

How can I get started?

Do you live in a city that already has this kind of tour company? Talk to the company and go for it! Apply and keep applying. Learn as much as you can and know that the hot spots will constantly change. You do need to be confident in public speaking and have a voice that can take on the sounds of traffic and street noise.


Stay Safe and Travel Far…

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