European Escapade » Review by Colin
This review will cut out half way through, if you want the rest, msg me.
I thought writing an extensive review would be helpful for people going solo and are somewhat apprehensive about it (and maybe their parents, too). This tour absolutely changed my life; I could not have asked for a better experience! If you want to see as much as you can in only a months time, I could not recommend any other trip. I felt safe and taken care of at all times -- you will always find some good travel buddies, and the contiki staff are so amazing, whether it is your tour leader, bus driver, or the contiki reps at each stop.
First off, budgeting. This trip cost me around $8 000 Canadian when including the contiki price, air fare, the ME time optional activities, food and spending money. FYI, you should sign up for all the optionals, as your tour group will be going to them regardless. Some people tried to save money by not doing activities like the white water rafting tour, but the bus will go to it anyway, so you're stuck. I'll let you know which optionals you can skip out on through this review.
From Canada, mind you:
ME optionals: 700-800
Tipping Guide/Driver: 100 at the end (2 euro per day is what they recommend)
Museums, Food, Shopping, Ticket Fees for whatever: 75-100 per day.
Extra Hotels: 150
Came to around 8000 for me, and I was pretty thrifty. I ate street meat whenever possible, and bought about 500 in gifts for family.
I traveled solo for the first time in my life (I was incredibly anxious at first), but the tour is structured in such a way that allows you to meet people right off the bat. You can meet all your fellow contiki travelers the first night after your group meeting and have a beer to get to know one another, so when the tour starts you have some familiarity. I took one of those cab/vans from Heathrow. It cost about 30 pounds as opposed to a 90 pound cab ride, and got me there pretty quick. They have counters for em all over the place. I booked the hotel for the day before (it took me a while to get adjusted to the time difference, so I slept quite a bit the first day). The next day I took an on-and-off bus tour of the city, which has a stop right in front of the hotel. Then by 6 PM, I met up with my group and had a beer. They pair you up with randoms in the hotel which is kind of sketchy, and they are not necessarily on your tour, so lock your luggage.
You are given a piece of paper with the list of every stop/number/address etc. on your trip, so if you get lost, simply find a cab and they'll take you to where you need to go. I never had to use it, but I know some people who drank a little too much during nights out on the town found it easy to get back to where they were supposed to be. My rule of thumb was to always travel around with people. You will quickly find out who you are compatible with. I found that at every city people would talk about what they wanted to see, and then you just break off into different groups. Some people want to shop, some want to see historic sites, it depends on the city. I went off by myself once to see some historic buildings in Munich, couldn't understand the subway system, got a little lost, but fortunately a cab driver got me back to where I was supposed to go. I generally stick in groups, especially if you're worried about safety, it's not a bad idea.
From this point on you are in the care of the contiki crew, and follow the itinerary. I have to say that it is exceptionally organized. Generally speaking, it is one day of travel with the night in the city which consists of a quick drive-through or a night event (sometimes optional stuff), and the next day you get to wander around, see museums, etc. Your leader gives you a map each time you go to a city so you don't get lost and suggests places to see (also shown on the map).
The food at each contiki stop was fine, it wasn't anything amazing, but it was usually themed for the country you were in. The travel days are where I found it to be the most expensive, as buying lunches and snacks add up quite quickly when you're on a bus for that long. I tried to eat cheaply to save money, so there's usually a sandwich option at the various stops that costs around 6 euro or so. I found this ate up more of my budget than I expected.
The actual sleeping quarters are kept quite clean by the staff. You are not experiencing anything luxurious on this trip. Most stops are cabins with 2 or 4 to a room, hostels with 4 to a room, and if you're lucky, you will get a hotel with 2 to a room (happened twice, and it was glorious). The cabins do not have air conditioning, in some cases they don't even have screens on the windows so you are trapped inside disgustingly hot, unsleepable conditions (Venice). For me, this was the biggest negative for the trip, as I need a good night's sleep. The partying in most of the campgrounds is quite loud, so bring ear plugs if you decide to stay in that night. The showers are hit-or-miss in terms of being warm, unless you are in a hostel or hotel. Most people compensated by sleeping on the bus, which is more than doable since you are on the road for hours on end some days. This is the only negative aspect of the tour from my standpoint, but it didn't seem to bother many other people, so I am somewhat finicky about it. You bring your contiki sleeping bag around so there's no worries about questionable sheets.
In terms of partying, it was almost every night. There were a fair number who chose to not go out drinking, but there were an equal number who went hard almost every night. Nobody holds it against you either way. I couldn't party like the 20 year olds every night, but they loved it when I came out. Some nights we played cards or watched a movie (some stops had optional "chill" activities for those who didn't want to drink). Just be aware that it happens, and it happens a lot.
Okay, enough rambling, on to the tour!
LONDON: The tour does not include London, so if you want to see anything, book a hotel the night before or after the tour.
PARIS: You will never have enough time to see everything. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays (or it was when I was there). I saw the Arc de Triumph (better view than the Eiffel), the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and another church I can't remember the name of, before heading out to the optional activity dinner and the Nouvelle Eve show. Each optional dinner usually comes with half a bottle of wine per person. I actually consider this the best day of my life! We stopped at the Louvre for 2h the next day before heading off, which was because our tour leader slid it in to the itinerary for us. Expensive, but I would do both ME optionals. The metro was quite easy to use here as well, so use it to save time walking and get more in.
BEAUJOLAIS: This is more of a relaxing day. It wasn't particularly my favourite stop, but it was a nice time to meet your group after the crazy rush that was the first days. The area is AMAZINGLY beautiful. You are staying in an old cheateau on the hillside (lots of pictures on the site). Go for a hike, chill out at the pool, play some soccer, and relax. This is one of those places where you're not getting any sleep -- they have a club in the basement, the rooms are quad-share...just overall noisy. So I wouldn't make this a catch up on sleep night, especially since the bus to Barcelona is the longest ride of the trip coming up the next day.
BARCELONA: I got sick that day, that sucked. The hostel we stayed at was nice -- some people opted to go clubbing. Visited the markets in the city, saw the FC Barcelona stadium which was worth the cab ride out, and saw the Flamenco show at night. It was okay, but again your whole group goes, so you might as well, it wasn't that expensive.
FRENCH RIVIERA: One of my favourite places. Some additional expenses: we went to a private beach which costs around 10-15 euro. Some went to the public beach, but your stuff could get stolen, haha. Entrance into the Grand Casino is also some extra coin. Make sure you bring some nicer clothes, but don't worry about being super formal. This place is amazing. Nothing in terms of places you HAVE to see, just wander around a bit and hang out on the beach.
FLORENCE: Very nice city, lots of museums, but honestly, there is so many statues and such lining the streets I was fine just walking around. Space Electronic Disco is definitely optional, but I found it fun. It's just a club, but the majority of people there were other contikiers or young children (16 year olds can go to clubs there).
ROME: See the Vatican -- you have to. It was only like 30 euro for a cab ride back to the camp from there. Take both guided tours, as they will speed things up as you avoid lines. We also got over to some other landmarks, but honestly there is so much to do here (like Paris) you can't get it in in one day. Plan wisely. The metro is also a quite easy way to get around.
VENICE: Take the Gondola Ride and walking tour. Most of the day you walk around and take pictures -- very expensive city. Your guide should warn you of this. Your campsite is outside the city, so you don't have time to wander at night. Again, some church fees etc. I avoided purchasing the tour t-shirts and group photos whenever possible, they didn't seem necessary when I could spend that money on a nice lunch or stuff. I bought a beautiful lace tablecloth for my parents here (around 150 euro). Some good shopping.
VIENNA: I love classical music, but didn't particularly care for the concert. If you want to save some money, here is a good place to do so. It's right in the heart of everything and your tour will stop there, so you can take the time to wander. It wouldn't hurt you to see it, but just saying its a place to save money. The schnapps museum is a tour stop, so you might as well do it, there's nothing in that area to explore if I can remember. The Viennese Dinner was quite fun, and you are WAY out of the city in the forest somewhere if they go to the same place still. We went to a war museum outside of Vienna that was amazing and I can't remember the name, but if you like history then it's worth a trip -- public transit takes you right there.
MUNICH: Take a bike tour, I wish I had of done that instead of getting lost. Go to the market and sample some cheese and meats, that was really fun. The Bavarian Beer Hall was a must dinner as well, very fun.
TYROL: They changed things around here a bit since I went. White Water Rafting is a must -- I still tell people about how I rafted the Alps! This area is so beautiful. I never did the Tandem Paragliding, but those who did loved it. It was one place I decided to cut costs, as the bus goes off separately to this activity, and doesn't punish those who opt out. Our mountain biking was cancelled due to weather, so some people hung out and watched a movie, while others went to a trout farm down the road where you catch and cook the fish. I wish I did that! The bobsled option wasn't there for us, so no comment.
SWISS ALPS: This place is unbelievably gorgeous. I thought the Tyrol region was amazing, but Switzerland is ridiculous. The accommodations were pretty standard in terms of quad-share, but this one has a WATERFALL behind it. Some walked over and had a shower under it, but its several hundred feet tall...I decided against it. Take the Jungfrau -- ya it costs a lot but it was so crazy taking the train up into the clouds. There are also tons of activities once you get to the top. You need a coat, it's snow. The town is beautiful as well, it's worth a walk around.
RHINE VALLEY: Very tame compared to the other stops. I think this is where we finally got a hotel...I took like a 2 hour shower just embracing the hot water. If you still have some money, buy a cuckoo clock or beer stein (they cost a lot of money but are pretty sick souvenirs). Just a cute town you can wander around. You don't stay long in Heidelberg, it's one of those stop overs to break the long drive, there's a few of them on the trip like Arles, Pisa, etc. They are pretty awesome little stops, though. You can grab local cuisine, and in this case, find a pharmacy. I'll talk about that later.
AMSTERDAM: Some people love it, I found it a bit sketchy. Red light district is fun to walk around. Anne Frank's house was not worth the line, and I'm a history teacher. I bought some cheese in Edam which is a very nice stop, but it all melted in my suitcase. DO NOT BUY CHEESE AS A SOUVENIR. The canal cruise was expensive, but it was okay. The final dinner was the crappiest dinner by far in terms of ME optionals, but it was the farewell dinner. Some people went out to bars/bakeries that night, but I stayed back and played some cards. This was a pretty crappy hostel -- the other hostels were actually quite nice, I have to say. They stuffed like 4 single beds into a room that should only have 2. I also stepped in somebody's puke that night. BAH! Check out the Heineken brewery, that was pretty cool and only around 15 euro.
So where I cut costs: tandem paragliding, group photos, t-shirts. I would recommend doing the dinners as they get you socializing. Any shows are a must. I think at the end it cost me like 700-800 CAN to do them all, but it was worth it. And in most cases, you either do it or stand around waiting until the group is done. Just take that into account.
Bring medicine: I was sick for 2 weeks because illness circulates around the bus's air conditioning. You also don't have time to find clinics or pharmacies.
Bring ear plugs: If you suck at sleeping through noise like I do, you need em.
Travel Bags: I brought a knapsack and it was a pain lugging it around. You can buy smaller travel bags (I think Swiss Army sells good ones). You also want to wear them on your front, so look into that.
Clothes: I brought one pair of nice jeans that could double for walking around on chilly days or going out, and one pair of dress pants. The only time you need dress clothing is for the casino, and I'm pretty sure I could have worn jeans there. It is hot as balls in July for most of these countries, so bring comfortable walking clothes. It only gets colder in the mountains, and even then it was mostly short weather. You'll need something warm when going up Jungfrau. I had a sweater with no jacket and couldn't go outside for long.
Shoes: I wore comfortable running shoes and was set for walking around the cities. Some people wore sandals/thongs, and their feet were swollen like crazy at the end of the day. 1 pair of runners, 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of nicer shoes, that's all you need.
Plastic Bags: Bring em, because your clothes won't dry, and they stink up all of your clean stuff. Believe me, it was a huge pain trying to keep my luggage away from getting that moldy smell. The dryers at most places suck, so make sure when doing laundry you give yourself time to hang stuff up outside to get dry. The humidity sometimes won't even let that happen.
AGE: I was 25 when I took this tour, and was like the 5th oldest on the trip. Our oldest was 28 or 29, but they fit right in with everyone. At the end of the day, everyone is there for the same reason, and I got along with some of the 19 year olds as much as the 29 year olds, age doesn't matter. I can see on certain trips where some people would not mesh and blame it on age, but at the end of the day thats the gamble you're taking when you go solo on a group tour. My group was fantastic, and 3 years later we still keep in touch. Some even became great friends and hang out with each other all the time. It is seriously a life changing journey.
Otherwise, look at the Contiki recommendations, they're spot on.
I hope this helps people who are anxious about traveling. The contiki staff were amazing from start to finish. The tour was planned down to the hour, the optionals were amazing, the accomodations were "okay". There's so much that isn't listed on the itinerary, but even if you know NOTHING about these cities, they will still give you suggestions. Doing the Great Britain tour this time, I'm 27 now, need hotels. :)
Review written Mar 2013event 0.3