Are Carriage Rides a Tourist Trap?

Horse-drawn carriage rides are popular with romantics and sightseers alike, but of course the experience doesn’t come cheap. Or does it?

This is not a post about horse-drawn carriage rides and animal rights; there are plenty of agenda posts and opinions on that subject already. This is a post about whether horse-drawn carriage rides are a high-priced tourist trap aimed at free-spending vacationers.

Are high-priced carriage rides justified? Well, that depends. The experience certainly lives on long afterward.

The first instance that I remember out of all the carriage rides I’ve taken is being pulled in a surrey wagon on Mackinac Island. Growing up in Michigan, a trip to Mackinac Island is almost a rite of passage. You catch a large ferry at Mackinaw City (yes, they’re spelled differently), under the shadow of Mighty Mac (the bridge), and are whisked back in time to a picturesque little island where motor vehicles are banned. It’s horse, bike or shoe leather if you want to get around, baby.

carriage rides

Surrey with a fringe on Mackinac Island – Photo:

For little girls like me, carriage rides go hand-in-hand with the love of horses, and this was my first. I was over the moon as we circled the island. I can’t even begin to fathom what the cost was fifty years ago, but pro-rating the memory over this amount of time reduces it to nothing. So the justification factor for a ride like this might be off the charts.

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Carriage rides in New York’s Central Park are another classic rite of passage, whether for visitors or nervous swains preparing to pop the question. Ahead of a proposed ban, tourists are rushing for a ride. Back when Tavern on the Green was still open I indulged several times, always with business associates, though. Not very romantic, but still quite memorable.

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Lined up at Central Park South

On a visit to Versailles in 2002, my 12-year-old pleaded for a tour by carriage. Back then, I was a single mom carefully budgeting the trip of a lifetime to Europe. Every penny was accounted for, and these carriage rides were going for a little more than $100. In a moment of temporary insanity (just where they wanted me), I said yes. What resulted was a wonderful afternoon, slowly ambling past the royal farms, follies and fountains, the steady clip-clop accompanying an occasional remark from our driver. We both will remember it until the day we die. No regrets.

Please, Mom?

Please, Mom?


Our Chevalles


So thrilled after all the museum stuff!


A cloudless day and a flawless memory

More recently in Vienna, Pete, our friend Cath and I were “assertively encouraged” into a carriage ride by an animated female driver who wouldn’t take no for an answer. We’d just come from seeing the Lippizaners exercising to music at the Spanish Riding School, so we were still in a horsey mood. Nevertheless, it was bitterly cold. Our driver tucked us under heated blankets and gave Cath a pair of gloves. We drove through tiny alleys and around the palace, then circled through the Old City. When the ride was finished, we returned to one of the oldest restaurants in Vienna (Griechenbeisl, established in 1447). We never would have realized it even existed without our driver’s mention. So, we got a 2-for-1 experience out of that deal.

Comfy cozy were we...for a while

Comfy cozy were we…for a while

And this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that we have a family connection to carriage rides. The little 12-year-old above grew up to become engaged to a farmer whose family traditionally owned Percheron horses. For several years, they hired out their pair for hayrides, civic events and weddings. Alas, “the girls” have moved on to another home out west, but it just goes to show. You never know how much a snap decision to do a touristy thing will impact the future, in memory or deed.


Pulling the sled

the girls

The girls – Gracie and Lacie

We may always question whether the prices charged for carriage rides are worth it. And now that they’ve become controversial, we look even more closely to see whether the horses appear healthy and cared for. But there is no arguing that some of our fondest travel memories are associated with a horse-drawn carriage ride in a magical place. And we know there are conscientious owners like our kids whose relationships with their working animals are respectful and caring. So for now, our verdict is: consider the overall value of the experience, and whether it is in alignment with your views. What say you?

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Cathy Sweeney

Monday 1st of September 2014

I was smiling the whole time I read this as you brought back some nice memories. One special memory was the carriage ride in Vienna where we also ate at Griechenbeisl after the driver told us about it. We don't take carriage rides everywhere we travel -- in fact, very few -- but there are some places and times where it just feels like the right thing to do. Horse-drawn sleigh rides are so much fun, too. I've take a few of those in Wisconsin in winter.

Betsy Wuebker

Monday 1st of September 2014

Aloha Cathy - How fun that we share a similar experience in Vienna! We don't usually opt for carriage rides, either, but every time I've gone on one, I've been so happy that I did.


Saturday 30th of August 2014

We've never taken a horse-drawn carriage ride before. We were tempted (kind of) in NYC and New Orleans, but we didn't give in to temptation. I admit I do feel sorry for the horses who have to stand all day, but mainly, it's the cost, they are SO ridiculously expensive. I know it costs a lot to care for a horse, but maybe if the prices were lower they'd get more passengers and it would balance out. But what do I know? Only that I want to spend my money elsewhere. ;)

Betsy Wuebker

Sunday 31st of August 2014

Aloha Patti - Agreed, the cost can seem exorbitant. It's easier to split when you have a group, of course. It's just good to be intentional with your spending as a rule. :)


Wednesday 27th of August 2014

I have never been on a carriage ride - ever! After reading your post it's something I want to try. What a great way to see an area and perhaps ask questions. It sounds like you had a great experience in Vienna!

Betsy Wuebker

Wednesday 27th of August 2014

Aloha Michelle - Yes, it was a great way to see the city center. I was distracted by the cold, though, and would have preferred a little more commentary from the driver. Other than that, fun! :)