As most of you know, I graduated from university last December. Unlike many of my classmates, I wasn’t ready to enter the workforce. I needed a holiday. I needed some ‘me’ time. Consequently, I booked a Contiki tour around the United States of America.
For those unfamiliar with Contiki, it is an international coach tour company (founded in 1962) for 18 to 35-year-olds, providing a mix of sightseeing, free time, culture, socialising and adventure. It is the most popular youth travel company in the world, carrying over 150,000 worldwide. For many young Australians and New Zealanders, Contiki is more or less a rite of passage.
If you haven’t read my previous posts, I chose to do the 28-day Grand Southern tour around the southern states of the USA. This is considered a ‘High Energy‘ trip, which basically means that you will be getting very little sleep; sightseeing during the day and partying the night away.
As painfully cliched as it sounds, it was my new Contiki ‘family’ that made the trip worthwhile. There were 53 of us all together (40 x Australians, 4 x Brits, 3 x New Zealanders, 2 x Americans, 1 x South African, 1 x Canadian, 1 x Japanese, 1 x Irish), alongside our American tour guide (Rachel) and bus driver (Ray). I can honestly say that I loved everybody on my tour and couldn’t fault any of them.
Now, rather than rambling on about my love for Contiki, I’m going to answer some questions that I had before starting the trip. If you have any others, feel free to contact me!
Q. Do Most People Go Alone?
A. I would say that about 85% of us went solo. It’s surprisingly easier to go alone as you’re more opened to making friendships, and are almost required to step out of your comfort zone to meet people. Many of the people who went as a couple said that they’d more than likely travel solo on their next Contiki trip for this exact reason.
Q. Do You Have To Share A Room With Somebody?
A. Yes, unless you pay extra for a single room. On a Contiki tour, booking a single room is the last thing you should consider doing (and it’s really expensive!). Irregardless of whether you connect with your assigned roommate, this feature of the tour pushes you to take part in more group activities, such as going out at night or hanging out with others on your free days. You will more than likely get on super well with your roomie and if you don’t, just speak to your tour manager and they can easily swap you discreetly. I was a bit apprehensive about sharing a room with a complete stranger, but by the time I arrived in New York City and had to have a single room in my new accommodation, I missed her company! My roommate (Dana) and I became super close and share so many memories that I’ll cherish forever. I still laugh thinking about some of them!
If you book a shared room at Contiki’s commencement hotel (which I highly recommend you do for convenience) the night before the tour begins, then your roommate at this time most probably won’t be yours for the rest of the tour. This is another opportunity to meet and mingle with more people on your trip!
Q. How Are The Hotels You Stay At?
A. Surprisingly nice! They’re all very spacious and clean! I couldn’t fault any of them. Contiki is synonymous with budget-travelling, but the hotels chosen for us were pretty amazing! They were all in the heart of each city and walking distance to all the attractions. My favourite would’ve been our Miami accommodation: Hotel Croydon Miami Beach. It was a beautiful boutique hotel mere metres from the beach!
So, the answer to that question would be: amazing! The hotels are big, clean and in prime positions!
Q. Do I Have To Party (… And Drink) Every Night?
A. Of course not! If you’d rather go to sleep early or relax and watch some television, then that is perfectly fine! You will not be judged whatsoever. I had planned to go to bed early, ready to get up early to sightsee the following day. That did not happen. Most nights, I went out with the rest of the bunch and drank a bit. But, I didn’t go as crazy as some of the others. It’s important to note that America is known for their ‘free pouring’ which means that they can put as much alcohol in your drink as they want. As a result, you’re more likely to get drunk faster than you would at home. Our tour manager said that if we ever felt like our drink had been spiked, it’s most probably the incredulous amount of alcohol in it! Make sure you’re aware of this before drinking excessively!
Just remember – you’re not on Contiki all the time, so why not have a little fun? #NoRegrets!
Q. Are Most Meals Provided?
A. Most breakfasts’ are included, and some dinners too. The breakfast buffets are fairly basic, providing a choice of cereals, toast, pastries and fruit. But, they’re all you really need! They were all fresh and in many cases, nutritious!
The included dinners are mostly buffets with a large variety of food. Sometimes we would go to a restaurant and have to order our meal beforehand (generally a signup form would go around the coach and we’d choose what we wanted).
All in all, the food was great!
Q. How Do I Contact My Friends & Family?
A. For me, I primarily contacted them using WhatsApp. However, many others bought a local SIM card at Walmart. If I were to turn back time, I probably would’ve done this too. I’m not 100% sure on the exact plan details, but T Mobile offers a great deal where you can buy a $40 SIM and receive unlimited data for a month. This is available at any of the Walmart stores you stop at on the bus. However, like I said before, WhatsApp worked perfectly for me as there’s free WiFi at every hotel you visit (aside from Las Vegas).
Q. Is Travel Insurance Really Necessary?
A. Yes! Although I didn’t need any medical assistance during my trip, anything could’ve happened! There was one guy on my tour who slipped and cracked his head in Vegas. He went for a visit to the emergency ward which resulted in quite a hefty fee (luckily he had travel insurance too!)
It’s also possible to find a great deal on travel insurance! I got extensive Woolworths Travel Insurance at an affordable price that covered both luggage and medical expenses. You cannot leave your country without getting travel insurance! It’s very important!
Q. What’s The Deal With Contiki’s Optional Excursions?
A. My biggest piece of advice would be to try and do all of the optional excursions offered to you. As a result, leave aside some money for this. For my tour, some of the excursions that were offered (and that I did) were parasailing, hot air ballooning, speed boating, helicopter rides and many more. While many of them were a tad expensive, they were worth each and every cent. It’s much better participating in these excursions with your new friends than sitting in your hotel room twiddling your thumbs. You only live once, go for it!
Q. Can You Talk To Anybody On Your Contiki Trip Beforehand?
A. Contiki has a ‘Meet Up‘ section on their website where you can sign into your tour group using your booking reference and surname. In many cases, somebody on your trip (or even you!) will make a Facebook group which makes it so much easier to communicate with others on your trip before, during and after the tour. They will generally post the link to this group in your designated MeetUp group. I found it nice just getting a feel of the type of people who would be joining me. It’s also great to ask the group questions if you’re nervous about something or want some advice. In many cases, only a quarter or so will join the online group beforehand, so don’t worry if there’s not many of you to begin with.
Q. How Do You Get From Destination To Destination?
A. For my tour, it was using our coach (her name was ‘Betsy’)! Some other Contiki trips have included flights but this one didn’t. The coach is very modern and perfect for your needs. It has air-conditioning, power-points for charging your phones and cameras and reclining seats. It also had television sets where we’d watch movies that generally had something to do with our destinations (i.e. Forrest Gump, The Hangover, Olympus Has Fallen etc.) Our tour manager would also play music on our drives and even put together a playlist that we all contributed to. Most of the time, our long drives consisted of sleeping (… and taking photos of others sleeping). Every couple of hours, we’d stop for a food and restroom break at Walmart or a service station of some sort.
Q. What Does A Tour Manager Do?
A. Everything! Literally. They organise all the activities so you don’t have to worry about a thing. We had Rachel as a tour manager who was absolutely fantastic! I couldn’t fault her at all. She not only organised everything for us, but she turned into an incredible friend! Being American herself, she knew the ins-and-outs of the USA including the good ol’ American slang. We probably would’ve been left stranded without her. If you feel like your tour manager and bus driver did a good job, then it’s customary to provide them with a tip (generally $3 a day). Rachel and Ray were incredible so they were tipped generously!
Q. What Should I Pack?
A. My tour started on April 12th, so I packed a variety of light t-shirts, a couple pair of shorts, tights, jeans and two dresses for going out. In the Grand Canyon and Colorado, it ended up snowing! Unlike many of the others, I also brought an all-weather jacket that worked a treat!
My advice? Pack the essentials and nothing more! I left Sydney with my suitcase weighing 16 kilos and returned with it weighing 24 kilos. There is no doubt you will be buying souvenirs while you’re away so take that into consideration when packing! Be aware that there are laundries at some of the hotels you stop at so you will be able to do washing while you’re away.
For some optional excursions, you’ll require an overnight bag, so pack one of them too, just in case!
Q. What’s The “Contiki Cough”?
A. Before embarking on my tour, I thought the “Contiki Cough” was just a myth. Oh, how I was wrong! It exists. Luckily, me and my roommate were two of the only members of our group to not get sick, and we put that down to the flu shot. Yes, both of us got the flu shot before embarking to the USA (oh, the irony!). Every other trip I have ever done, I’ve been the first to get sick, but luckily, not this time. We both also took ArmaForce tablets and Flo Travel Nasal Spray to boost our immune systems. Whether you’re going on a Contiki tour or just a trip of your own, I would recommend getting a flu shot and purchasing these tablets and nasal spray before embarking on your journey! You can thank me later!
Q. There’s So Many Travel Cards. Which One Do I Get?
A. Whenever my family travels internationally, they purchase the ANZ Travel Card, so naturally, I followed. I had no trouble with this card whatsoever and will continue to use it overseas in the future. Unlike many of the others of my tour, I had zero trouble withdrawing money from ATMs, nor did I have any difficulties accessing my account and purchasing using it. You don’t even have to be an ANZ customer to get one!
I am not as familiar with the other travel cards on the market, but do know that many of my travelling companions had loads of trouble with theres, leaving them on the phone with their banks for hours on end.
The verdict? If you’re Australian, save your time and money and get an ANZ Travel Card (Visa). Once again, you can thank me later!
Q. Would You Do A Contiki Trip Again?
A. Yes, yes, yes, yes. As soon as I got home, I began planning for my next Contiki trip. Contiki was one of the best decisions I have ever made. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 35 with a yearning to travel, then Contiki is for you. It’s the perfect way to travel!
If you have a question that hasn’t been answered, feel free to contact me and I’ll be sure to add it to this post!
* All opinions are my own and have not been influenced by Contiki or the above mentioned companies or individuals.