Hello everyone and happy Tuesday! After a few weeks’ hiatus, Travel Tuesday is back! Over the last few months, I’ve chronicled my and Bernie’s trip last summer to Italy, France, and Spain with Contiki, a travel guide for 18-35 year-olds. We did a ton of things during our two week tour around the Mediterranean. We explored the Colosseum and visited where the Pope lives.
We toured the smallest Museum of Natural History ever in France.
We saw a lot of sights in 2 weeks and experienced things we never would have if we didn’t decide to travel together. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I don’t regret a second of it.
When Bernie and I decided to take a trip together, we sat down and brainstormed ideas of where to go. Ever the adventurer, it was Bernie’s idea to go to Europe. At that point, he and I had been together for about 4 months. I didn’t think the relationship was going to end before, but that’s a big commitment to make, to schedule a huge trip together months in advance when you had only been together for a short period of time. I took the leap of faith and said yes to Europe. A few weeks later, we paid a visit to a AAA travel agent in search of some help. We had both been abroad, but never traveled within Europe before. We didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do. This is where we found out about Contiki, a travel company that plans trips/tours throughout Europe and other countries. After crunching some numbers, we realized that traveling through Contiki would be about the same cost-wise or somewhat cheaper than traveling on our own. Between Euro Rail passes, hotel/hostel stays, and food/activities the trip’s cost added up fast. Contiki takes care of everything for you – hotels, travel between countries, some meals, and many activities. And during the entire trip, you’re lead by a guide who deals with logistics and helps you navigate a foreign country.
After searching through the GIANT Contiki tour book, we settled on “Mediterranean Highlights” which started in Rome and ended in Madrid. A few days later, we booked the trip online and waited!
Overall, there were good things about our experience with Contiki and some not so good things. Here’s a quick rundown of the pro’s and con’s of budget traveling.
Pro’s of Traveling with Contiki
- Convenience. All of the logistics of traveling in foreign countries is taken care of for you. Your hotels are booked for you, group dinners are scheduled for you, and tours of monuments/attractions are organized for you.
- Inexpensive (in comparison). While it’s not cheap to travel with them, it is cheaper than traveling on your own. There are many dinners and tours included in the cost of your trip. When we went to visit the Colosseum, we had a two-hour guided tour lead by a local guide. This was included in the overall cost of the trip. The day before, Bernie and I went to the Colosseum and had tours pitched to us for about 25 Euro each – VERY expensive!
- Hotels>hostels. We got to stay in some pretty nice places (for the price) while traveling. Our hotel in Madrid was beautiful; it even had a pool.
- Tour guides are live-in teachers. Our tour guide, Giuseppe, was amazing. He was from Italy, so he was fluent in Italian, but was also fluent in Spanish and knew a lot of French. He led us on some great walking tours of all the places we went, and taught us the native language of the country we were in. This proved to be key. It felt good speaking the language and experiencing it with more knowledge than the average tourist who was on their own.
- Traveling in groups is better than traveling alone. We made a ton of friends while on the tour. Since Contiki caters to 18-35 year-olds, everyone was in a similar age group. We all became very close over the two weeks and had a blast together exploring. I think it also helped me and Bernie not want to kill each other by the end of the trip. Don’t get me wrong – I love my boyfriend and spending as much time with him as I can – but traveling is stressful. Having other people to put your focus on and interact with makes a big difference.
- Free time. We were given at least a few hours each day for free time to rest, explore, or do whatever. We found these free time hours to be key to enjoying our vacation. While it’s great to go with the group, going off and doing things on our own was sometimes better than group outings.
Con’s of Traveling with Contiki
- This is a tour, not a vacation. While we knew that this trip wouldn’t be all rest and relaxation, I felt like sometimes the go-go-go nature of the trip was overwhelming. There were days where we were so completely exhausted, almost to the point of not even wanting to go out on the tours (which is crazy talk!). Our tour guide said on day one, “This is not a vacation, this is a tour.” He couldn’t have said it better. If you’re looking for a low key adventure vacation, Contiki is not for you.
- Cost. While the trip was cheaper overall, we ended up spending more money while there than we thought we would. Many of the extra excursions through Contiki were not included in the price – which we did not know. When we got to Europe, our tour guide laid out to us how much each excursion would be over the course of the trip. Before we knew it, we were dropping 250 Euro each for excursions. I wish I had known this beforehand so I could budget accordingly.
- Hotels are so-so. It was hit or miss with the quality of hotels we stayed in. The hotel in Rome was great, but the hotel in Nice, France was HORRIBLE! A kid in our group was covered in bed bug bites from that hotel. I developed a cold after two days in the hotel. There was visible mold everywhere. I know the trip included budget accommodations, but some of the hotels were even worse than “budget” level in my opinion.
- The tour group’s dynamic can be hit or miss. Our group had a fabulous dynamic! Our tour guide took us out to enjoy the nightlife, but we didn’t do it every night so it wasn’t overkill. We all bonded well as a group and I stay in touch with many people from the trip. We saw some other Contiki groups along the way, and some of them were wild – going out every single night, never sleeping, drinking until all hours of the night, hung over on all excursions. Apparently Contiki has a reputation to be sort of wild and crazy. This was not the experience I had, but I can imagine that the mindset of your tour guide and the people in your group makes a huge difference. Our group was all about going out and having a good time at night, but we also wanted to be refreshed enough to enjoy the sights during the day.
- Not enough free time. I wish that we had an extra day in each country to experience things on our own. Unfortunately, we didn’t. Free time was numerous, but it was often short and was spent napping, resting, or getting ready for the night ahead of us.
Overall, I don’t think we would do a Contiki tour again. Not because we had a negative experience, but because we’ve figured out how to travel through Europe and we want to do it on our own. Going our first time with a tour group was the best thing we could have done – we aren’t travel virgins anymore. Also, we weren’t nuts about all the countries in the tour. Italy was phenomenal, Spain was way cool, but France wasn’t great. I wasn’t that much of a fan, and could have done without it. If we were to go back to Europe, we would stick to one or two countries and tour those extensively.
Readers: Have you ever traveled through a foreign country? Did you do it through a tour or on your own? Share your experiences!