This is what it was like to travel on Contiki in the 80s

Did you know Contiki has been sending people on trips since the 1960s? It won’t come as a surprise to you that things aren’t ~quite~ the same as they used to be, especially considering how much we like to innovate and how much we’ve grown. What was it like though? Were the coaches as comfy as they are now? What sights were must-sees? How did travellers pass the time without mobile phones?

We wanted to get a first hand account of what the yesteryears of Contiki travel were all about, so we sat down with Maria Dzopalic, who did three Contiki’s through the UK, Europe and USA back in the 80s and here’s what we found out…

Memories were everything

Flipping through the SIX (one is missing too!) photo albums from Maria’s three Contiki trips ranging from 1984 – 1987, it’s obvious that making and capturing the good times was deeply important. From documenting the Eiffel Tower to snaps from a night out that only an insider would know the ~real~ story behind, it’s really no different to the pictures we take today. The biggest difference is of course, we store them online in Facebook albums and not lovingly bound and captioned alongside smatterings of different currency, theatre tickets and maps.

Sleeping on the bus was still big business

The other thing we quickly noticed as a repeating motif was pictures of people snoozing on the coach. Maria admitted that she knows this hasn’t changed today, but they used to be made to feel guilty about catching the Zzz’s back then: “The driver and tour guide used to get cranky at us as we were always missing the sights as we were sleeping. We had to catch up on the sleep we were missing out on as the nights were always very good and very late.”

You were encouraged to NOT bring a backpack

Nowadays it’s common for travellers to rock up with a hiking pack for a trip, in fact, some say it’s easier than a suitcase. But in the 80s the Contiki brochures asked you not to bring them. Why? Well they weren’t easy to pack into the smaller coaches used back then and we know how big Tetris was in the 80s…

You had to be SUPER organised

Since there were no mobile phones or free wi-fi to quickly pull up your Google maps, you had to be on the ball. That meant packing a travel clock for an alarm (sorry, no personalised melody on your mobile to get you up) and looking after the maps you were given. You also needed to make sure your watch was set on the local time, because otherwise you could get left behind! “You could not be late or the bus would leave without you. There were no mobile phones to let people know you were running late or stuck somewhere. You had to be where you were supposed to be,” Maria warned.

The day songs were hardcore 80s jams

This fact isn’t really a surprise but we were dying to know what hits got the bus pumping (or cursing when awoken) in the time of big hair and killer moves. “On my UK Contiki it was ‘Sweet Dreams’ by the Eurythmics”, Maria revealed. “They’d play it really loud to get us going and awake, so we stole the tape (yes, tape in those days),” she continued, “But they were cleverer than we thought and they had about 6 copies so we still got it blaring every morning, much to our poor heads disgust.”

Getting addresses was important

Making lifelong friendships has been a staple of Contiki since day dot. In the 80s that was no different: “The social aspect of meeting people my age from different countries (even if most of them were Aussies) was fantastic” Maria explained. However without Facebook or Whats App, you had to collect everyone’s address if you wanted to stay in contact. The albums are full of details jotted on napkins and in long lists provided by the Trip Manager for letter sending, and the method obviously worked! “I am still in contact with a friend I met on the UK tour from Canada and I actually stayed with her when I went on the USA tour. She has since come to Australia” Maria confirms. “These days it’s birthday and Christmas cards and Facebook messages that keep us in touch though” Maria adds.

Money in Europe wasn’t fun

“Changing currency at every country border was painful,” Maria remembers. In the 80s the Euro hadn’t been invented, meaning each European country had their own currency and exchange rate and it’d have to be swapped over every time you left and entered a new country. Remember those travel days where you crossed from France to Belgium and then into the Netherlands in one day? Yeah, painful.

The sights were same-same but different

“Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time was something that made me stop and say WOW!” said Maria; a sentiment I’m sure many of us would share. But besides the big ticket must-sees there were a number in the photo albums that weren’t as easily placed, and that’s because they were stops designed around pop culture. There were plenty of shots showing off locations from the ‘Sound of Music’, which while released in the 60s, was still very popular in the 80s for the kids who’d grown up watching it. Much like we want to see ALL the Harry Potter spots today, they wanted to see the sweeping hills Julie Andrews sang over.

The travel bug was biting even then

One thing that hasn’t changed (and never will) for Contiki is it’s ability to inspire the love of travel. Maria said her first trip was a leap of faith and traveling with a group made her want to see more, do more and find more people like her!

“It made it comfortable to travel to other countries and not be afraid just because I can’t speak the language. It made me more confident. Travelling by yourself makes you talk to people and forces you to make an effort to meet different people. Just because you don’t have anyone to travel with should not stop you from doing something that you love to do.”

Have you been on a Contiki in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s? WE WANT YOU (to tell us your story). Tell us about your trip in the comments below!