Contiki Tours Review: The Good and Bad of Traveling Europe With Contiki

contiki review

I get a lot of questions from people asking me about my thoughts 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 reviewsContiki 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.

Accommodations

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 at 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.

Food

contiki breakfastBreakfast 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.

Travel Style

The breakneck travel pace seems to be a complaint that almost everyone has. Contiki Tours aim 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 on 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.

Party Atmosphere

party with contikiContiki Tours have 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 plenty of Americans, Canadians, Kiwis, Brits and Irish (you’ll probably get a few other nationalities 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—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.

Questionable Motives

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 several 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.

Conclusion

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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  • Sarah

    I took a Contiki tour 2 years ago. It was ok. There was a lot that I didn’t like but I still had a good time—we might have partied too much. But, looking back now, I wouldn’t do it again (or recommend it to other people).

    I was scared to go to Europe and I thought a tour was the best way to go. After about a week I realized that Europe isn’t a big scary place, it is actually really tourist friendly.

    First off, the whole tour was crazy rushed. We did see a ton but stuff really starts to blur together (it is even worse when you add a few alcohol-filled late nights). We got like a day and a half in Paris and it feels like I hardly saw anything… I guess thats thats the trade off you make.

    The meals were decent but nothing special. I paid extra for one “special” meal and it was a total waste of money. I could have taken that 35 euros and gotten something really good on my own. A few people and I ended up going out to a few restaurants on our own and those were the best meals of the trip.

    Some of the group excursions felt like a complete waste of time. Especially visiting some of the shops. A few of the guided tours were nice though.

    The hotels were ok. A few were pretty crappy and far away from the city. Some people got bed bug bites.

    After my Contiki Tour was over I spent an extra 10 days traveling on my own. That totally convinced me that independent travel was way more enjoyable.

  • Timmy

    my conkiki tour was pretty much a big party. there was a pretty good amount of hooking up, actually people seemed to hook up with other contiki tour groups more than anything else. i’m pretty sure our tour guide got with a few girls on the bus (i guess i can’t blame him).

    but yeah, i really didnt experience europe at all. lol. i guess the novelty of drinking freely (i was 20 at the time) was too much to ignore.

    if you asked me to go again I probably wouldn’t. the party was great in all but i feel like i really short-changed myself by going on this tour. next time i’ll go on my own.

  • J_elle

    i did a contiki tour last summer (italy espresso) and i was one of the solo travelers, also more mature (age 30)…
    i expected it to be too much partying and people being late in the morning, but really it was AMAZING!!  i was lucky to have a great group and tour leader… suprisingly, everyone would arrive at the bus on time every morning, people defnitely were NOT drunk all the time… we did party, but it wasn’t excessive at all.  We all had a great time and people bonded.

    i also thought the hotels would be crappy, but they were decent (the one near venice was the best one though)… the bathrooms layouts and tubs were super awkward though….  the hotel in Florence was the best location wise… i was able to go out and about on my own as it was surrounded by all the shops and it was easy to walk around everywhere… my least favourite hotel was in Rome, it wasnt bad but i just didn’t care for it in comparison to the others.
    i went on almost all of the excursions and it was so worth it – my fav were the italian pizza dinner, the tuscan dinner up on the hill top, and the boat party in venice.. oh and the pajama party in the hotel lobby lol…but everything was great.

    the first night in Rome felt like the tour leader was rushing us through the sites, so it was hard to take great pics – BUT, it was no big deal because we were back at the same places the next day so we had a chance to take it all in…  

    i think your review does sound a little more negative, but i see why you would make those points… i just think it depends on what tour you choose, your tourmates, your attitude and your tour leader….  i’m definitely not some big party animal, i’ve out grown it lol but i didn’t feel any pressure to party and didn’t feel like it was a constant drunken party feel…. it was absolutely an amazing and memorable experience and i’m going on another contiki trip next month – Amsterdam to Barcelona… i’m doing 11 days with the group and 6 days on my own… so i think that’s a nice mix and i’ll enjoy it!

  • Pats

    I found your article VERY useful. I’m actually planning a solo travel for new year’s eve and was considering Contiki but I don’t like the whole thing of running from one place to another and barely see the cities/places. Plus, partying with college boys/girls is not what I’m looking for. I’m 29 so I wonder if you have any recommendations or tips for traveling solo? I’ve traveled solo before but during new year’s eve so meeting people while traveling during this time feels kind of important.

    • TSB

      Meeting people while traveling is actually much easier than you would think…well, assuming you stay in a hostel. I traveled solo for about 2 months and was able to find people to hang out with 99% of the time.
      Just be sure to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to other people. In fact, I guarantee that you’ll find plenty of other solo travelers who will be in your same situation.

  • UnCo

    Thanks for that, good overview.

    I also found this food/restaurant focused blog about contiki Europe, sounds like similar decent advice:

    http://eatfamilylove.com/index.php/2011/10/23/amsterdam-contiki-europe-part-1/

    (it is posted in parts, so need to go back to homepage for next post on this guys tour).

    • TSB

      Great link! Thanks for sharing.

  • Dave

    I went on a Contiki Europe 45 day tour and it wasn’t a bad way to get a taste of most western European cities. A positive experience overall with so many awesome sights/cities.

    However I think the best advice for someone considering a tour is to be aware of the negative aspects and plan accordingly.

    One thing everyone argeed on was that it was too rushed. For example we visited Sofia, Bulgaria and spent just one night in the country. I believe the most common comment on our feedback form was that there should be a minimum 2 night stay in each location, which wouldn’t have added that much to the overall cost. I guess Contiki has crunched the numbers and realised the current tours are the most profitable way to operate.

    Our tour guide obviously knew the staff well at the ‘optional extra’ locations. I can tell you there is no way they don’t get backhanders for bringing groups to these places. On the coach our tour guide worked hard to convince the majority to sign up, then everyone else eventually gave in and joined in as well. I would recommend doing research on each city beforehand to decide what you will do.

    We were taken to what our guide called the best cannabis cafe in Amsterdam. I was a little pissed off when I googled it afterwards and it wasn’t even on any top 10 list.

    The tipping strategy was quite sly IMO. On our final leg back to London we were given envelopes and told the suggested tip was 2 Euro per person per day for both the driver and the tour guide. For our group this would have totalled around 6600 each! Most people tipped half this amount which is still a shitload of money. Everybody was watching each other put cash into their envelopes so there was clearly orchestrated peer pressure from our guide to get everyone tipping as much as possible.

  • Sarah

    I went on a Contiki tour this year to SE Asia and it was absolutely amazing and one of the best holidays I have ever been on. It helped that the average age of our group (28 of us in total) was about 27-28 and we all got along really well. Some of the younger members did stay out later at night (we were in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) but there was no judgement of those (me included!) who went to bed earlier.

    I would agree that the tour does pack in A LOT of stuff so it was a pretty tiring holiday but I made lifelong friends. In fact I am making plans at the moment to visit some of the people I met for another holiday!

    With regards to the party reputation; a few of the people on my tour had been on a Contiki tour before in Europe and they did say it was pretty mental regarding the partying etc. Even our tour guide said that she experienced a lot more partying when she was in charge of the European tours. The SE Asian tours seem to be more chilled out and the people in our group who had done both said that they preferred the Asian tour.

    I think because the Asian tours are more expensive with better hotels (therefore weeding out those only looking to party) and that area of the world is so HOT that it is impossible to just drink all the time. All of the people in our group wanted to learn about the culture of SE Asia so our attitudes helped too. Our group was a mix of Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Brits and even people from Germany, Sweden and Malta.

    All in all I had a brilliant Contiki tour so I wouldn’t tar all the tours with the same brush. At the end of the day it depends on the tour group, and I was really lucky to meet a bunch of absolutely amazing people and I can honestly say that I have met some lifelong friends thanks to Contiki.

  • Isora

    Its 2013 and this sounds just like my Contiki Simply Italy tour. from the glass blowing demonstration to the leather demonstration and bed bugs. Me and my friend both got bed bugs. The hotels were really really bad. I do think the one we were stayed in, in Sorrento was a hostel. Our AC was dripping water onto our bed, we were given towels with holes in them and it was just nasty. Out of all 12 dinners (I bought most of the optionals) only one was good – you’re better off getting meals on your own. And yes, everything was super rushed. I was in Milan for only 3 hours!!!!! Milan for god sakes! But, we did get to see everything in Italy – I can definitely say that Italy is pretty much covered and most of it I had to see through my pictures cause there wasn’t enough time to take it in when we were there. I call it the crazy race of Italy. I don’t regret the trip, it’s an experience as was seeing Italy – but I won’t use them again. It really isn’t a budget tour anyway considering how much you pay – you can probably do better on your own, in hostels, and pay a lot less.

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