Since the other travel-oriented articles were so well-received, I've decided to write yet another one. Spring is upon us and it's that time again. The period when countless backpackers and other travelers invade Europe to discover the treasures of its numerous countries. It is also at that period that Contiki gets the bulk ot its annual customers.
If you have read my previous travel-related articles, you are aware that I'm sold to Contiki. Yes, I have also traveled on my own and saved a bundle by doing so. But for those who have little traveling experience, or for those who simply have no desire to deal with the hassle inherent of planning and then going on a trip, Contiki offers the best traveling experience. I have been on 5 different tours, and my Contiki adventures figure among my favourite traveling memories!:-)
I am conscious that many would-be Contiki customers initially show reticence before booking a tour. Well do I know, since I felt the same way. You read the brochures, look at the pictures, and think that it sounds too good to be true. Being on one of their tours, however, should disabuse you of that notion. Honestly, I would recommend Contiki to just about anyone.
So in this article I'll attempt to capture the essence of the "Contiki Experience." I'll try to give you a general overview of how tours operate, as well as give you the lowdown on a typical Contiki day. All in all, what's good and what's not!
Before you go:
Yes, the brochures are always neat, but you should do a little research yourself. Buying a Lonely Planet guide and doing a few internet searches are a perfect way to begin. It will make it easier for you to select wich tour is better suited for you. Not only will it help you come up with an itinerary, but it will also give you a general idea of how long you need to stay in a particular city in order to visit everything you wish to see. Although Contiki takes care of almost all your needs, you have a lot of free time. So a little preparation goes a long way. . .
If you have questions you wish locals or other travelers could help you with, log on to www.lonelyplanet.com. They have forums on which you may post your interrogations.
An up-to-date guide will also permit you to budget your adventure appropriately. Entrance fees to the attractions are not always included, so read the brochure carefully. Paying attention could prevent a few unexpected and unwelcome surprises.
Another thing that will aid you in planning your budget is the price of the optional excursions. There are a number of them on each tour. Simply ask your travel agent to request the information at the moment of the booking. By acting thus, you will know weeks in advance the cost of such excursions, and not just a week or so when you receive your documents. It will also give you time to research if they are worth your while.
And by the way, the Fly&Tour price quoted in the brochure is seldom a good bargain. Make your own flying arrangements, and you will almost always save money.:-)
A little planning can save you a headache when you reach your destination. The simple act of exchanging money in the local currency back home, at your own bank before you leave, is always a good idea.
A Lonely Planet guide will let you know what are the fastest and easiest ways to reach the city from the airport. In addition, your travel documents will include hotel vouchers. Find out the phone number of your hotel (or check on the internet for their email address), so that you may contact them before you leave home. They will give you easy-to-follow directions to reach them, and will bring your attention on any details you should be aware of. Some even offer shuttle service to/from the airport.
Another Contiki advantage is that you can often get an early check-in. Which means that regardless of the time of your arrival, you often have immediate access to your room. Which in turn allows you to take a shower, a nap, or just change your clothes so you may explore the town for a bit.
There is no mandatory single supplement. You will be paired with another traveler of the same sex. Free of charge, of course!
Ask the hotel reception for the Contiki info. It's usually on a board, and it will include your tour manager's name and where you should meet for your group's welcome drink/dinner. This is where you'll meet everyone! At that time, your tour manager will get the paperwork out of the way. After that, your only concern is to have fun for the rest of the tour!;-)
Following that welcome dinner, a number of people are always in the mood to go out to get to know one another a little better. Even if jetlag threatens to KO you right then and there, you should make it a point of going, even if it's just for a little while. Remember that you only have one chance of making a first impression. Plus, the first night is always the time when little groups form within the group. So you want to be there. For nothing else, it will give you a few people to sit with at breakfast on the following morning!
A Typical Contiki Day:
Unless it's a free day (there are few of those), you'll have to get a wake-up call or set up your alarm clock. In general, you have to wake up around 7:00am. Yes, it sucks, but it is a necessary evil if you want to make the most of your experience. You hit the road early to have the best hours of the day to enjoy your destination. And you can always sleep on the coach! Your tour manager will make it a point to blast your tour song through the speakers, in an attempt to get the group going!
Breakfasts are always a surprise. And it depends in which country you find yourself. If you are fortunate, you will get a buffet breakfast. The norm is the continental breakfast. But in countries where people don't truly eat breakfast, such as Italy, you may get a hard roll of bread and a coffee. Thus, at times breakfast is great, and at times it barely gets you started.
Hotels are usually 3-star establishments. Generally, they are very good value, especially if they are part of a chain. On each tour, you will get one or two which are below those standards. Again, it is a necessary evil. But for the most part, the hotels are nice enough, perfect for budget travelers. So forget about those stories you've heard! There are a couple of personal stories I could share with you here (don't worry, you'll have your own to tell!), but suffice to say that hotels are usually very nice and clean.:-)
Aboard the coach, your tour manager will provide you with the information you need for the upcoming day. I deliberately said "manager" and not "guide." The tour manager is there to make sure that things run smoothly. He or she is not a guide. Yes, they talk on board, about history, culture, and a number of other topics. Hopefully you won't be stuck with one who gives history lessons every day. You are on vacation, after all! They hand out maps and show you were to meet, where the ATM can be found, the shopping areas, the restaurants, internet cafés, etc.
In many locations, you will have a free walking tour with a local guide. Some are good and some are not. Learn to live with that. . .
Your free time is yours to do as you please. That's where a Lonely Planet comes in handy. Do we have enough time in each city, you ask? An answer to this questions remains elusive. In certain cities, you don't have enough time. In others, you have just enough. And yet in other towns, we have too much. In the end, it all comes down to what you are into. Once again, a little preparation before your trip could prevent your being disappointed.
Lunch is never included, so feel free to hang out with your new friends and check out the local specialities!;-)
As is the case with breakfast, you never know if the included dinners will be good or not. In any event, if you came here for gourmet meals, then you're definitely in the wrong place. Optional dinners can be a lot of fun, but they can be expensive. And in my opinion, you don't always get good value for your money. If most people are going, then so should you. But if many are staying behind, just head out on the town and do your own thing. Some of my favourite Contiki moments are from those impromptu dinners we shared among ourselves!
And speaking of newfound friends, I am persuaded that Contiki is the best way to meet travelers from around the globe! After spending a few hours every day aboard a coach with strangers, you'll soon realize that you now know more of them than of many of your friends back home. Sharing every meal with those people, discovering new cities and countries in their company, going out with them every night; all of this will allow you to forge bonds of friendship that are very special. My friend Anna claimed that this was the best thing about Contiki: instant-friends!:-)
Over the years, I've had the good fortune of meeting nice and interesting guys and gals on each of my Contiki tours. And they are the reason I've enjoyed those tours to such a degree. I'm still in contact with many people I've met through Contiki and I cherish those friendships.:-) I believe that, very often, the people you are grouped with will make or break the trip. Because in the end, it's all about the people you meet!
There are only two rules to follow on a Contiki tour: 1) See the sights. 2) Have a blast with the people you meet. Because the only thing better than climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, visiting the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, being awed by the splendors of St. Peter's Basilica, etc, is to have someone to share those moments with!:-)
So if you are debating whether or not to book a Contiki tour, my only advice to you would be to do it! You'll never regret making that decision. In my opinion, it's always a worthwhile investment.
And you'll return home with memories that will last a lifetime. And that, my friends, is priceless. . .
P. S. Feel free to comment or ask questions.:-) I'll do my best to respond.