Contiki: tours for young folks.

Thoughts, tips and experiences from the trip that got me back into travelling.

It was spring 2017, I’d been in my new job for roughly 6 months and passed through my trial period. I had a holiday allowance and an income for the first time ever. I’d not been on a holiday in 4 maybe 5 years. Plus I was back living at home and had become Robbie nae mates again. All my pals were either still at uni or spread across the uk with entirely different holiday situations from my own. What’s a gal to do? Top this off with the fact I’d never truly gone on holiday by myself. I felt awfully ill prepared and at a bit of a loose end. Enter Contiki.

Contiki is a holiday tour company that offers a range of holiday options for 18 to 35 year olds. It runs tours across pretty much everywhere, with a wide selection in Europe. I chose the Eastern Trail trip, which would took me from Vienna to Rome passing through 8 countries ( 7 are advertised but a lunch break in the Czech Republic brought the total up) in 9 days. I booked using a both their website and talking to their staff over the phone and I initially choose the trip using information from their website and the good old fashioned brochure. Some things might have changed from when I went but this is what I found when I booked and went on my Contiki trip.

Bus time equals lots of time to draw, especially the backs of people’s heads.

Booking and cost.

I found the booking process fairly straightforward and anytime I had a problem or any confusion I simply rang Contiki up. The people on the phones are really nice and eased a lot of my worries. I’d never booked or organised a big holiday for myself before and so it was a little outside of my comfort zone. Cost wise my tour came in at £881.62 and I paid in full and got an early payment discount. This covered the holiday itself, accommodation, some meals and transport during the holiday. Flights were not included but I was happy to book my own. Coming the west coast of Scotland I usually fly from Glasgow. Looking back my flights were not I suppose overly cheap but I had to include hold luggage and neither of my flights were direct. The delights of flying from Glasgow international mean I rarely get direct flights anywhere and generally always have to have a change at a London airport. Overall I was happy with the price I paid, I went in late June so not quite into full blown high season (during a practically hot spell of weather) and at the end of the day I had a banging holiday.

Views of the Italian countryside on the way to Venice.

Before you start your trip with Contiki, they send you loads of info; itineraries, leaflets, accommodation lists (I did a cheeky bit of review snooping on all the places we would be staying) and even a handy wee Contiki #noregrets travel documents purse. *(Contiki now shows where you’ll be staying on the website, when I went this was not the case)* As well as access to various online Contiki platforms for connecting with fellow travellers before you go. I’d discovered not long before leaving for my trip that my tour was in fact a small section of a larger trip. Which added to the initial anxiety of oh my god I’m joining a coach of people who have already been getting to know each other for 9 days and I’m on my tod. In the end it turned out to be really great. I joined the tour with 5 others girls, 3 Americans and 1 Australian. These gals became my travel buds for the trip and I can honestly say the whole 52 load bus was really nice and welcoming. Which I suppose brings us to the first thing apart from the destination or cost that a lot of people worry about…

I photographed a lot of my sketches from this trip in the hostel in Rome, hence the weird green background.

What if nobody likes me? Or flip side what if I don’t like anybody.

9 days with 52 strangers and many many hours of bus time and shared rooms can be a recipe for disaster. I feel I was very lucky with my group. Majority Australian, with handful of Canadians, Mexicans, Americans and little old Scottish me making up the group. The ages were varied, everything from wee 18 year olds who’d never been anywhere before to well travelled and lived 35 year olds. Couples, groups of friends and solo travellers like myself. Plus we had a really good tour manager and our bus driver was from Hungary which came in very handy when driving in Budapest. There was people for everybody to hang out with but it was also cool to explore by yourself. Yes there was quite a bit of drinking and there was definitely an element of people cutting loose on their first big trip away. There was a few Contiki romances going on I think, but I stayed out of it, it was a bit to high school drama for me. For the shared rooms, the first night the tour manager put the newbies in the rooms together and after that there was a sign up sheet and you could pick ,where possible, who you would be bunking with. They tried their best as well to accommodate for couples too. My advice on getting on with people on a contiki trip is what my Mum said to me when I left; play nice with the other children. And at the end of the day it’s your holiday, so if people are bumming you out remove yourself from the situation and chill by yourself for a bit. Life’s to short to waste it getting into arguments. Once we were in a city, I would usually explore by myself and meet up with my group or new travel pals for dinner or included tour excursions.

Driving through Slovakia.

The bus bible.

– Be prepared for a whole lotta bus time. Europe is pretty darn big. No use saying ‘this would be so much quicker by train.’ Cause you booked a bus holiday and that’s that. Bringing things to pass the time goes without saying.

– Respect your tour manager, driver and the bus. Especially the bus toilet. Any mess you make will end up being cleaned by them. Respect the bus.

– There is a wake up song and a stopping soon song. These will be embedded in your skull forevermore.

– Respect the other travellers as just as it’s your holiday it’s theirs too.

– Your WiFi on the bus is limited, use it wisely.

– Adhere to the bus leaving times, there will do a head count (kind of) but they will leave without you. The bus waits for no one.

– The air con stops when the bus is turned off, bring a fan for if you get stuck at a border and water is a must at all times especially in summer.

– No booze on the bus, alcoholic gifts can be stored in a lockable compartment by the tour manager if they allow.

– Don’t just stand around when luggage is being unloaded/loaded. Lend a hand.

– Make sure you have everything you want for the day in your day rucksack or handbag, nobody is going to be rummaging in the hold on a pee stop for your headphones.

– Take advantage of all the stops for bathroom breaks and snacks.

*Basically respect the bus and it’ll respect you.*

Where I went and how I got the best out of it.

To start with I did my research. Why did I want to go to Vienna, Krakow, Banska Bystrica, Budapest, Ljubljana, Venice and Rome I asked myself. To start with of course I either wanted to visit these locations or was intrigued by them. For example I really wanted to visit Krakow in Poland but had never thought of going to Budapest. In the end I loved them both. Check your included excursions and add on extras. For Vienna as I wouldn’t be officially joining the tour till 6pm I found my own entertainment and went to the famous Cafe Central for sachertorte, Viennese coffee and of course sausages. And the same went for my last day in Rome, I could have joined the tour on last time and gone to the Vatican but it was so hot and I really didn’t fancy it. Be prepared for the odd surprise as well, on my first night in Vienna it turned out I had an included excursion in the evening with the group to a theme park and an included meal. Now theme parks are really not my thing, but I was happy to go on the bumper cars, do some archery and hold handbags while people went on rollercoasters. #bonding.

The included excursions that really made my trip were: the Auschwitz & Birkenau concentration camps tour (one of the main reasons I picked the trip). And the visit to lake Bled in Slovenia.

I originally booked onto a lot of the extras, missed one due to mishearing the departure time (but got a refund) and ended up cancelling the others (got refunded) and doing either my own thing or going places my with new Contiki buds. The ones I did go on I really enjoyed. These included the; Salt mines and the Pierogi dinner in Krakow and the Budapest past & present tour.

I feel the key to getting the most out of your Contiki trip is balance. Know when you really need that nights sleep but also let loose and enjoy cheap booze if you want to as well. It’s all about understanding yourself and knowing how many vodka shots you can handle especially when you’re up at 6am the next morning.

Included meals

When I looked at reviews of Contiki trips one of the main downers people seem to have is the included meals. Now first off I have to admit I’m really not a fussy eater and I’m more familiar with standard or slightly more retro continental European fair thanks to some cracking family holidays abroad as a kid. Plus stodgy, meaty, carb laden food is something Scotland does quite well. I’ll eat pretty much anything. The included meals we had were; pork schnitzel in Vienna, chicken supreme in Krakow and then a bottomless pizza party in Rome. The last one was pretty banging. Cooking for 53 is no easy feat and add on dietary requirements and it must be a bit of a headache. The breakfasts were all really nice in my opinion. Big continental spreads. So warm rolls, meats, cheeses, salad bits and gherkins. Even the odd pastry in places. Plus lots of fruit, juice and hot drink options. Good simple food that fills you up.

Accommodation

During the Eastern trail trip we stayed in a mixture of hostels and hotels in single sex shared rooms. So here’s a quick fire through of the good, the bad and the ugly.

– Vienna: 1 night at the A&O Vienna Hauptbahnhof hostel. It’s a big hotel/hostel type complex. Pleasant, clean, decent breakfast and quiet at night. Only downside was our rooms lack of air con.

– Krakow: 2 nights at the Ibis Budget Hotel Krakow Stare Miasto. I really liked this hotel. Modern rooms and really close to the main attractions. Great all round hotel. Major plus air con.

– Budapest: 2 nights at the Wombats Hostel. Central location, slightly more rough and ready. Weird hostel system where you need to leave a form of ID to get more keys for your room. Which you really need as it’s a 4 bed room. And your ID was just kept on a shelf behind the reception desk. Might have changed now but I ended up leaving defunct student ID. As I didn’t feel safe leaving my driving license or passport unsecured. Hostel in itself was fine. Had air con.

– Ljubljana: 1 night at the B&B Hotel Ljubljana Park. It looks from the website that the tour no longer uses this hotel/hostel. I think the hotel side was probably much nicer than the hostel part we were in and I got some honey from the hotels city beehive which was a nice souvenir. But my word, it was so hot the night we stayed. Top floor (cracking views), 1 very slow lift and no air con. That doubled with stained and graffitied bunk beds (including the lovely message Bedbugs 4 Lyfe led to one sleepless night. Nice breakfast though.

– Venice: 1 night at the Hotel Vienna on the mainland away from Venice itself. Again it looks like from the website that the tour doesn’t use this hotel anymore and I’m not surprised. Me and my new Contiki buds heard how awful it was and booked a hotel round the corner on the day. So I actually stayed at the Hotel Roma, which was much nicer. Hotel Vienna turned out to have bed bugs and a girl on my trip got bitten. We’d heard about the bed bugs from another Contiki group we bumped into in Venice and none of us wan’t to risk it. I’d been told in no small words that if I brought bed bugs home I’d be sleeping in the shed. Glad to see Contiki are hopefully no longer using Hotel Vienna as it was seriously dodgy.

– Rome: 1 night at The Yellow Hostel. After the accommodation stress in Ljubljana and Venice I was apprehensive about a hostel in Rome. Turned out to be a perfectly fine. Hipster joint spread across two buildings opposite each other and down a small side street near the main train station. Bar on site with live music, as well as clean rooms and air con. Probably the most lack lustre breakfast but nice relaxed vibe.

Overall it’s nice to see they are updating their accommodation especially the places that were really not good. As it’s all shared rooms, so getting a good roommate is helpful and if your going to stay elsewhere for a night tell your trip manager and don’t be late for the bus in the morning.

Animal head statues in Rome.

Other things to be aware of.

– Plans can change quite quickly, and traffic getting into the cities can delay things. For example the sightseeing that was an inclusion for Krakow and Budapest didn’t really happen as we arrived late into both places. However the guided sightseeing in Rome was really good. Unfortunately there is no controlling traffic and as we had more time in both Krakow and Budapest we were able to see many things for ourselves later.

– Obviously trips can differ with each tour manager, ours had really good little maps and information. As well as information videos and presentations on the bus.

– A lot of the stops are really quick so make the most of them. Lake bled was great but it’s a short stop so make the most of it and the same with Banska Bystrica. A lot of the group I was with didn’t take advantage of this stop and were really disappointed. Me and my new Contiki buds explored a bit more and found a brilliant local restaurant. And got a 2 course meal for 4 people for €15 total. Nobody spoke English and we didn’t speak Slovakian but one of us had basic Spanish and so did one of the waitresses. We stuck it out and had one of the most memorable lunches on the trip. Sometimes it’s worth making the extra effort.

– The Contiki cold is a real thing and you will probably get a case of the sniffles.

– There is a lot of good info on the Contiki website in regards to currencies, average spends per day, luggage limits and recommended clothing. As well as links to good weather forecasting site. I took some euros in cash, had all my Polish złoty and Hungarian forint in cash and had a preloaded Caxton card with euros. And my credit card for emergencies. I didn’t use all of my złoty and exchanged it at service station for euros. I only used my credit card once when we stopped in the Czech Republic for lunch and I had no Czech koruna, as at the time I booked it wasn’t clear we would be stopping there.

– Let your tour manager know if something’s wrong, they are there to help. I had to go to A&E whilst in Budapest and even through I didn’t need accompanied she made sure I got to speak to the local guide on the walking tour and knew where I was going and texted me to make sure I got there ok.

Basically roll with the punches and have a good time.

Other great places I visited whilst on my tour, either with my Contiki pals or solo.

– Vienna: Cafe Central, a definite must visit and it’s worth waiting to get in. The Hofburg Imperial Palace, I was there to late to really go inside but the outside is stunning.

– Krakow: The whole old town and market square is gorgeous with loads of churches and stunning buildings. I really enjoyed walking around the outdoor sections of the Wawel castle and going up the guard tower. The art museum in the Cloth hall is really nice as is going up the town hall tower. The museum of archeology and the museum about Pope John Paul II is also very interesting.

– Budapest: The add on walking tour which included entry to the House of Terror was a really worthwhile extra. I unfortunately wasn’t able to use any of Budapest’s amazing spa facilities due to my A&E visit but my pals who did said they were great. The Great Market hall is amazing and where I picked up paprika and the famous Lángos. Amazing street food. We ate dinner at the Columbus Restaurant and Pub (boat restaurant on the Danube) and and partied at the Fogas Ház bar and club in the ruin bar area as well as the Erzsébet Square.

– Banska Bystrica: the aforementioned restaurant I believe was the Starobystrická reštaurácia, we struggled even when we were there to see the restaurants name as we entered via a side street and ate in the outdoor seating.

– Lake bled: I wasn’t able to go swimming (note there is a fee to go swimming) but a €15 boat hire between 3 people for an hour is well worth it. Especially if you’re not doing the rowing.

– Ljubljana: The Main Street along the Danube below the castle boasts loads of restaurants and souvenir shops. An added delight was the ‘puffy pancakes’ stall near the main square.

– Venice: Ah Venice, I had plans for so many galleries, but in the end the best advice for Venice is to get lost in the tangle of streets. Have espressos and aperol spritz’s. The basilica is gorgeous as are the many churches that litter Venice. Just be aware modest church dress is required for entry, covered knees, shoulders and chests. We found all the best food ourselves and had an amazing blow out lunch at the Michelin recommended Algiubagio. Plus we visited during the Biennale meaning there was loads of art exhibitions and installations dotted about. I even got a free tote bag.

– Rome: obviously you’ve got the classics, the Colosseum, the Pantheon but I also really the National Roman Museum at the Baths of Diocletian. A quieter way of seeing parts of Roman history away from the crowds. Our tour manger took us to the San Crispino gelateria, which had great gelato and we bumped into actor J.K Simmons. And chatted to him in the queue.

Main takeaway is that a Contiki trip is what you make of it. It’s a great way to see loads of places in a short time frame and a good way to meet people. I would probably go on a Contiki again especially as a way of getting a grounding in a new place. Going on my first Contiki trip gave me the confidence to travel more and ultimately plan my own solo trips.

#noregrets