I get a lot of questions from people asking me about my thoughts on joining tour groups in Europe. Most often I get asked about Contiki Tours. For those of you who aren’t aware, Contiki is a well-known bus/coach tour company that caters to students/youth travelers. Not surprisingly, based on their clientele, they have earned a reputation as being a booze-filled party tour.
I want to say upfront that I prefer traveling independently and I probably wouldn’t take a tour like this—but I know a lot of people who loved their tour. My goal for this review isn’t to convince you why you should or shouldn’t take a Contiki Tour. My real goal is to give you all the facts—the good and the bad—so you can make an informed decision on whether a tour like this is right for you.
Note: I have never been on a Contiki Tour. All my information is based off information provided by friends and acquaintances (some who loved their tour and some who weren’t as pleased).
Quick Overview of Contiki Tours
Contiki is the most popular bus/coach tour company for young travelers (18-35). They operate in Europe, Russia, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Asia (but most of the info in this guide will be focused on their European tours). They claim to have 150,000 travelers each year.
They offer a wide variety of tour options—ranging from week-long trips to multiple month excursions. Their most popular tours are their “budget” tours (which basically means the accommodation consist of budget hotels and camp sites). You can view all their European tours here.
All the accommodation is provided by Contiki and is included in the price—so you never have to worry about finding a place to sleep (conversely, you have no say in where you stay). There are basically two types of accommodation:
- Budget Hotels: They claim to only book “2-3 star” hotels but many have reported that some of the hotels were pretty sleazy.
- Contiki Owned Campsites: Think summer camp with shared cabins—not tents. The company’s employees staff the site.
On average, the quality of the accommodation tends to be on par with that of a hostel. The type of accommodation differs in each city and some are nicer than others. Some places are not that great, but some are fairly nice (for budget standards).
Much like a hostel, expect to share a room with 2-4 other people. It should be noted that the quality of some budget hotels is slowing declining because past Contiki groups have partied too hard and the hotels won’t allow the company to return—so Contiki is regularly forced to find crappier places that tolerate people being loud at 4am.
Be aware that you might not be located in the city. In larger cities (Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, etc) you’ll be staying far outside the city (sometimes 30-60 minutes by train/taxi). These locations are often not on any public transportation routes, so you’ll have to fork over 40-50 euros for a taxi ride if you want to spend time in the city.
Breakfast is provided everyday and it usually consist of standard food you’d find for free at almost any hostel (room temperature milk, cereal, toast w/ jam, coffee and tea). You will sometimes get lucky and have eggs or sausage.
Lunch is always up to you. A lot of times you eat at rest stops because you’re usually on the bus during lunch time.
Dinner is provided about half the time. Most of the time the staff at the campsite cooks it and sometimes you have to help with some of the cooking and cleanup. Taste wise, the meals tend to be adequate.
In some cities there are optional “special meals” that are served at restaurants. I believe these meals cost an extra 35 euros per person. Some have reported that the meal is delicious and some told me that it was mediocre at best. For a budget traveler, 35 euros is a ton of money and I know you can get a really good meal for 20-25 euros in any European city.
The breakneck travel pace seems to be a complaint that almost everyone has. Contiki Tours aims to hit as many places as possible so you end up barely scratching the surface of each destination. You’ll only spend a day or two in large cities (Paris, Rome, etc) and half days in smaller towns.
A lot of the time you are dropped off in the center of town, are given a map, and are told to meet back at a specific location/time. If you’re staying outside the city, the bus will take you back to the campsite/hotel at night, otherwise you meet at the bus in the morning (6-8am).
You will spend a lot of time on the bus—about 40% of the trip. Most people say that every second day is spent on the bus and most rides are 6-10 hours long. A lot of people spend their time on the bus sleeping off their hangover or socializing. The bus stops every few hours at roadside convenience stores and gas stations.
Without a doubt, you’ll see a lot in a short amount of time, but things often tend to blend together when traveling at such a fast pace. Some people told me that they liked the fast pace because it gave them a good overview of where they want to visit again when they come back for their next European trip.
Contiki Tours has earned a reputation for being a party on wheels. I have heard from multiple sources that many of the tours quickly turn into drunken parties with lots of sex. This really isn’t too surprising—young people + hormones + plenty of alcohol + close quarters with the same people for long periods of time + interesting accents = hazy memories. It is basically a college party on steroids.
Because of the constant parties and accelerated travel pace, many people have told me that they hardly remember anything about Europe. I’ve seen their travel pictures and they all look like the exact pictures you see posted on facebook after a random night out at the local bar/club. Some people have an absolute blast and just love this style of travel. Hell, I really enjoy letting lose and maybe having a few too many drinks, but doing that multiple times a week will really wear you down.
Of course, you don’t have to drink/get drunk, but prepare yourself for being surrounded by wasted people.
The Contiki Traveler
All travelers have to be between 18-35, but the average age is about 20-25. Contiki Tours is an Australian company so there are a lot of Australians, but there are also plenty of Americans, Canadians, Kiwis, Brits, and Irish (you’ll probably get a few other nationalities in there too). I believe there are generally more females than males and about half the people are traveling alone.
A large majority of former Contiki travelers often talk fondly of all the cool people they met and how much fun they had with them. A lot of people form really close friendships with their fellow travelers. For good and bad, many people’s best memories come from the people they meet—not from the sights. But, to be fair, some of my best memories of traveling came from the people I met in hostels, so I can’t see how this is any different.
Group Travel Frustrations
When there are 50 people in a group it is inevitable that someone will be constantly late—this is especially true in the morning when there are a bunch of hung-over travelers. Just be prepared to wait a lot.
You also run the risk of having a lame group. I have heard a few stories about travelers expecting a party only to find out that most people didn’t want to do anything. Or people could just not get along well and then you’re stuck with them for the duration of the trip.
The tour guides are rumored to get kickbacks for bringing their guests to certain bars/shops/restaurants so it is hard to always believe that the guide is showing you the best places to go. For example, on some tours you are taken to an Italian leather shop as one of your destinations, but it is basically a glorified tourist gift shop (there are also silver, glass, diamond and other shop “tours”). The people in the shop demonstrate their craft but then hit you with a big sales pitch. I’ve also heard stories about how the tour guides give travelers “city maps” but the maps really only highlight these “gift shops.”
I’ve also been warned that many of the “extra” excursions are extremely overpriced. It is usually best to book those on your own at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure to purchase these extra tours because you can either go or be stuck at the campsite (which doesn’t have access into the city).
Tipping is highly encouraged by the staff. Each person gets their own envelop w/ their name written on it and you’re supposed to put your tip in it. I don’t have a problem with tipping, but this method seems a bit forceful.
Reasons People Choose Contiki
No Need To Plan: Some travelers simply don’t want to plan their trip and they would rather just let someone else take care of all that work. I think this is understandable and I admit that travel planning can take a lot of time. Planning can also be frustrating, but I kind of like the planning part of the experience (obviously, I created this website). But I don’t fault anyone for just wanting to have a good time without having the headache of planning.
Security Blanket: Many travelers think traveling around Europe is difficult, but using trains, planes and other public transportation (especially in Europe) is usually pretty simple once you understand how the system works. But I can totally see how it would seem really intimidating—especially for someone who has no experience with public transportation (I grew up in the Mid-West and never took any public trans until I visited Chicago when I was like 21—I found that I picked up everything really quickly in Europe). Nonetheless, a tour can be a good choice if you still don’t feel comfortable traveling independently.
I also think a lot of travelers get caught up in the fact they don’t speak the local language. I totally understand as I still get intimidated when I travel to a foreign country. Being in a tour group takes away a lot of this apprehension (although most Europeans speak English well, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it).
Solo Travelers: Many solo travelers choose to become part of a tour group because they feel that traveling alone is unsafe and that they’ll be lonely—I hear this a lot from female travelers. These concerns are understandable, but I think these worries are largely unwarranted. I traveled solo and never had and problems, and I met plenty of solo female travelers. I read an interview with a hostel owner and he said about 60% of his customers were solo travelers. In fact, I encourage solo travel (check out my post on traveling alone in Europe), but tour groups are always an option is you are still a little wary of traveling alone.
Instant Friends: Being surrounded by 50 other people means that you’ll never go lonely. You’ll meet tons of people if you stay in hostels, but on a bus you have the opportunity to form much deeper friendships. Plus, you don’t have to constantly reintroduce yourself to new people over and over again like you do in hostels.
Always Something To Do: There will always be something going on every night. You have the option to do your own thing, but there is always an option to party with the group.
Some people love Contiki Tours and you can find plenty of people who rave about them online. In fact, many of these people take multiple tours with them. On the other hand, you will also find many reviews from people that didn’t enjoy their trip. From what I’ve found, most former travelers said that their tour was fun and they were not disappointed they took the tour, but they probably wouldn’t take another tour from them. I don’t think this is necessarily a negative thing since these tours help “ease” people into their European experience and it also shows how easy European travel can be. If you’re interested in learning more about Contiki Tours, check out their European tours options.
If you’re interested in hearing a tour guide’s firsthand account of leading one of these tours I suggest reading Rule No. 5: No Sex on the Bus: Confessions of a Tour Leader by Brian Thacker. It isn’t written about Contiki but I imagine many of the themes apply to all youth oriented tour groups. It is a pretty funny and interesting to read about all the crazy stuff a bunch of drunken youths can get up to.
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