I was 19 years old when I bought a plane ticket and jetted off to Europe completely alone. I had been abroad before, but family vacations can’t compare to setting off on your own for the first time. For my first adventure, I chose a Contiki tour.
For those of you who don’t know, Contiki, like many other tour companies, caters to young adults aged 18-35 looking for whirlwind trips where transport, accommodation, even sightseeing and meals are already planned. There are different styles of trips of varying lengths but they generally are all very fast paced visiting the top tourist destinations. Since this was my first solo trip, I was more than happy to have things planned for me (and have a group of new friends to stick with me the whole way through).
The Best Things About Contiki
There are a lot of “pros” to the packaged tours. The biggest one is the lack of necessary planning. Almost everything is planned for you. All accommodation is dealt with beforehand; you arrive and are handed your room key. About half of your meals are also planned, as well as quick city tours and other activities such as visiting a clog maker in Amsterdam and goldsmith in Florence. Your tour manager has also been to those cities dozens if not hundreds of times and knows exactly where to take you to have a great time. If you’re not sure where to go in your free time, they will be able to point you in a good direction.
Contiki also has a lot of “optional” activities, meaning activities that weren’t included in the tour but they would plan for you at an additional cost. They were everything from cultural tours to bar crawls to extreme sports. A few of my favourites were a black-light show in Prague, and paragliding in Hopfgarten in Austria. A lot of these activities I did purely because they were suggested to me and I was so glad I went because it wasn’t necessarily something I would have thought of and done myself.
Being jammed on a bus with 50 other young adventurous people, you also tend to make friends very quickly. The people on these tours are usually very like-minded, all looking to meet people and have a good time. There were a few people in the group who didn’t get along, but for the most part we were a big cohesive family. I made a ton of friends, some of which I am still good friends with years later. I have even gone to visit some and had some come visit me. Having international friends is great and having contacts in Australia (that I made on the contiki tour) is part of what gave me the courage to do my year abroad there a few years later.
For me, the best part about Contiki was the fact that I was able to see 10 European countries in just under 3 weeks. Having never been to Europe before I had no idea what specific area I really wanted to see. I had limited time to explore and a tour was the best way to see a lot in a short amount of time. Your own bus means being shuttled from point A to point B with zero worries. Most travel days I fell asleep as we pulled out of one hostel and woke up, excited and ready to go, as we pulled up to the next hostel. This especially came in handy when we were up partying all night and the only time to sleep was on that bus.
The Worst Things About Contiki
Of course, it’s not always a good thing to have everything planned. Sometimes you arrive in a new city and discover a whole bunch of things you had no idea existed. Already paid to do something else that day? Then you’re stuck with the awful decision of losing money or missing out on what you really want to do. Sometimes you just want to relax. Travelling can be tiring and sometimes you just want to have a day where you don’t have to do anything. Now there’s no rule saying you have to do everything Contiki plans for you, but when you only have a day or two in each city you feel like you can’t relax because you will then miss out on seeing that place.
My tour group was very laid back, but I’m sure you can imagine after several weeks in confined space with the same 50 people, tensions can run a little high. Friends who have gone on other tours have reported being stuck dramatic girls and chauvinistic guys. It’s a bit of a lottery when you don’t get to choose your travel mates.
A lot of people would consider seeing a lot in a short amount of time to be the worst part about Contiki, and I honestly don’t blame them. Visiting 10 countries in 3 weeks is exhausting and there is so much you miss out on. Europe is so diverse and you really only get a taste of each area before you quickly move on. At times I felt I hardly even saw the cities we stayed at because we arrived, ate, quickly looked around, slept, and then left again.
My least favourite part about Contiki was the cost. Contiki’s budget tours (hostels, campsites) run close to C$150 per day and that doesn’t even include half of your meals or many of your activities. I was quite naïve as to how much backpacking around Europe could cost and at the time I didn’t realize how badly I was being ripped off.
So would I do another tour?
No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I’ve now done more trips abroad, and have even lived abroad for a year. At this point I am much more self-sufficient and anybody else in the same position would also be crazy to do a packaged tour. But I don’t at all regret my decision to do a Contiki tour because I essentially got what I wanted out of it at the time. I was unsure how to plan a big trip abroad and they did it for me. I was nervous about travelling alone and I met tons of wonderful friends. I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to go and I got a taste of several different amazing countries. I had a time limit as to how long I could be away for and I think this also justified the cost for me a little bit. I definitely could have traveled for cheaper but I would have had to go much slower and plan a lot more carefully. So for all you other kids with a bit of wanderlust who are unsure where to start, take a look at Contiki.