I had never considered doing something like a Contiki tour before. Why would I want to go on holiday with a bunch of strangers and be told where to go and what to do? Yet, when I was offered one of their ten-day tours for free in return for modelling for their 2012 brochure, I wasn’t going to say no. Mid August I found myself on a plane for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
There were thirty of us on the tour, which, despite being the biggest number the group had ever been, seemed to be just right; the strange and boring few were dispersed evenly between the fun and interesting majority. I was surprised to find that although the tours are aimed at 18-35 year olds, I was by far the youngest at nineteen. One 35-year-old Australian told me, with a hint of embarrassment, that this was his eleventh Contiki tour. In justification, he called it ‘the easiest way to travel’- and I had to agree with him.
When you are trying to see a whole country in ten days there is something to be said for having your trip organised for you. The schedule ran like clockwork. Plane tickets were bought in advance and coaches were pre-ordered. A lot of distance was covered quickly and efficiently. Contiki handpicks the hotels we stayed in, so you can be assured that they are high quality. Our guide had taken the tour countless times before and had become an expert on the places we visited, able to recommend the best and cheapest restaurants, the liveliest nightclubs. You didn’t even need to open a guide book yourself to know you were making the most of a place. The tours aim to achieve the right balance between cultural sightseeing and fun and nightlife- meaning that in the same day you might find yourself visiting a Buddhist temple in the morning, water skiing in the afternoon and taking part in a cooking class before going out to a bar in the evening. Personally, it certainly encouraged me to try a lot of things I’d never considered doing before, with a whole new group of people eager to do the same thing.
And yet, the trip lacked a sense of spontaneity. Even with a fair amount of free time to go off by yourself, I didn’t feel that I was really able to explore a place. I found myself forgetting the names of places we had been because I didn’t need to remember them; it wasn’t as if I ever had to ask for directions myself. I couldn’t shake off the feeling of being on a school trip; being shepherded around and told what to take a photo of.
So, a few weeks later, I packed my rucksack and left to go travelling around Spain. I was lucky to be travelling with my best friend who I’ve known for years and been abroad with many times before; I already knew I probably wasn’t going to end up wanting to kill her. We set off to go with a sketchy plan, which we had agreed to leave open to change.
And we did change our plan- wildly so. We followed advice and recommendations; we bumped into people and places. We ended up doing things we had never dreamed we would- like going to the tomato festival in Bunol and swimming in waterfalls in Granada. We stuck to the guide-book and strayed from it too. We got lost. We studied maps and wasted time walking around in circles- finding hidden streets and secret places along the way. It was an adventure, and I felt a great sense of freedom.
Of course there were drawbacks to planning your own trip. We travelled by buses, which we booked on the spot when we turned up at a station- sometimes having to wait an hour or two. The hostels in which we stayed at, booked on the Internet, were of varying standards. There was no one to stop us wasting a whole day sleeping after a night out, no one to force us to make the most of the time even if we were tired. At times we ended up wasting money on expensive food- because we were hungry and didn’t know where to find a cheap alternative- or pricey drinks, preyed on by club promoters who knew we were susceptible tourists. All in all, we returned with plenty of stories, both good and bad.
As I found out, there is certainly a reason why roughly 150,000 tourists decide to travel with Contiki each year, and no shortage of other tour companies- such as Creative Holidays, New Horizons and Busabout- which offer a similar experience. The trip taught me that there are different ways you can travel, which can be better than planning a trip yourself, depending on your circumstances. If I ever plan to visit a country alone in the future I would definitely consider doing an organised tour- it is not only safer but a great way to meet other people. If you are limited on the amount of time you can travel for, you can be sure you will be fitting in as much as possible. And yet if you want to explore a country on your own terms according to your own itinerary, and are prepared to deal with the disadvantages as well as the advantages that come with doing so, it probably isn’t the thing for you.