Did you know Contiki turns 60 this year? And as we put together our birthday plans (stay tuned), we’ve been looking back on memories made over the years.
From the very first, slightly calamitous trip in the 60s. To initial excursions to Asia in the 70s. To where we are today, running 350+ trips in almost every continent (Antarctica, watch this space). It’s been a helluva ride. And all this feeling fuzzy and nostalgic got us wondering: what was it actually like, back then? Did people want to see the same things? Go to the same places? Was travelling more fun or less fun before smartphones? And what about the haircuts?
So, to get a firsthand account of what the yesteryears of social travel were all about, we sat down with Maria Dzopalic, who did three Contiki’s through the UK, Europe and USA back in the 80s. Here’s what we found out…
They wanted to capture memories
Flipping through the SIX photo albums from Maria’s three Contiki trips (ranging from 1984 – 1987) it’s obvious that making and capturing the good times was just as important as it is today. From documenting icons like the Eiffel Tower to strange snapshots from a night out that only an insider would know the real story behind, it’s not that far removed from today’s trips at all.
The biggest difference is of course, that our TikTok content isn’t lovingly bound and captioned with taped currencies, theatre tickets and maps. But hey, our digital memory banks move and have soundtracks, so swings and roundabouts, I guess.
You were encouraged to NOT bring a backpack
Nowdays it’s common for travellers to rock up with a big ol’ backpack for a trip. (Some say it’s easier than a suitcase. The fierce debate rages on).
But in the 80s our brochures explicitly asked travellers not to bring them. Why? Well they weren’t very 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
Of course, we had Trip Managers back then, too, so a lot of the organisation (itineraries, accom, experiences– we’ve been book and go from the beginning, baby.) were taken care of, just like today. But without phones you still had to be on your toes. Packing a travel clock for an alarm for example, and actually looking after/being able to read the maps you were given.
You also needed to make sure your watch was set on the local time, because otherwise you could (and would), 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 ALWAYS had to be where you were supposed to be,” says Maria.
The day songs were hardcore 80s jams
Not really a surprise. But we were still dying to know what got the coaches pumping back 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. But they were cleverer than we thought and had about 6 copies so we still got it blaring every morning.”
Touche, 80s Trip Managers.
You asked for addresses, not handles
Making lifelong friends has been a staple of Contiki since day dot. Just like today, 80s travellers simply didn’t want connections to end when the trip did. The only difference being, of course, you’d have to correspond via letters (instead of the loving transference of memes).
“The social aspect of meeting people my age from different countries was fantastic” Maria explained. “But without Instagram or WhatsApp, you had to collect everyone’s address if you wanted to stay in contact.”
Her albums are full of details affectionately jotted on napkins, and the method obviously worked. “I’m 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 says. “These days it’s emails that keep us in touch, though.”
European currency wasn’t fun
“Changing currency at every country border was annoying,” Maria remembers. “Each European country had their own currency and exchange rate and it’d have to be swapped over every time we left and entered a new country.” So going 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 icons there are a few destinations in the album that aren’t as easily placed (for young ruffians like us, anyway).
“We wanted to stop off at locations from the ‘Sound of Music’, which was still very popular in the 80s for the kids who’d grown up watching it.” Today, the equivalent might be Harry Potter filming locations, but we still do head to Salzburg if you want to swing around a field with your arms out. Julie Andrews is pretty timeless, tbh.
But the social travel vibes haven't changed at all
One thing that hasn’t changed (and never will) for Contiki is its ability to bring young people together and inspire in them a love of travel. Maria said her first trip was a “leap of faith”, but traveling with a group made her want to “see more, do more and connect with more people across the world.”
Sounds pretty familiar, right? So here’s to the next 60 years of social travel! (I wonder if they’ll be laughing at our haircuts in the future…)