The Checked-In Travellers, Annabel recently returned from a European Whirl with Contiki, here’s her take
By Annabel Fuller
Sightseeing, parties and incredible memories are what Contiki promised, and it sure delivered.
Two weeks on from my trip and I miss the long bus, rides, early wake ups and day-song more than I imagined I would, Here’s why ….
Contiki’s ability to fit nine countries into 14 days, is incredible. This high-energy, fast-paced trip is not for the faint-hearted, but the tour hit all the ‘European Highlights’ which in my opinion are a must. Despite the limited time spent in each destination, this tour was a fantastic introduction to Europe, as I now know I adore Nice, but could skip Italy on my next escapade. The tour itinerary allowed for one-two nights in each location; and while short, it was enough time to see the highlights, taste the food and embrace the local nightlife.
Our tour guide and bus driver, together, were very knowledgeable about all the different sites and cities and were able to give us a commentary of what we were passing by in the bus and seeing right before us on walking tours.
FTA’s (Free Time Add-On)
The term Free time add-on is slightly deceptive, as I felt that these ‘add-ons’ were not so optional, and we were heavily encouraged to opt-in. While it is understandable Contiki wants you to leave with “#Noregrets”, some of my fondest memories are from times I skipped the FTA. Nevertheless, here is my review of each FTA:
Parisian Dinner – €38:Although; I skipped this FTA, I still caught the coach with the group to Montmartre. Here I explored for a bit before boarding a 30-minute tourist train which took me to all the sights, including the Moulin Rouge. After this, I had time to explore Sacre-Coeur and enjoy a delicious French crepe made by a local expert. I met up with the group after their dinner; the reviews were mixed, mostly improved by the bottomless red wine.
Nouvelle Eve Cabaret Show – €82:If I had my time over I would have run from this FTA, however being the first night I made a lot of my friends here. The show was tacky and only an overpriced strip show. For not much more, I could have walked down the road and seen a real Cabaret: the Moulin Rouge.
Florence Tuscan Dinner – €41:This was the second of the three dinners I passed, and I had an excellent evening with a group of others also choosing to skip this FTA. Rather than attending this dinner we found an excellent Italian restaurant and made it to the bar where we were meeting the group for afters, in time for happy hour. We also enjoyed fresh Italian Gelato without copping the cost of this pricy dinner.
Vatican Tour – €37:Neither a Catholic nor first time visitor to Rome, I still felt the need to see the Vatican once more. This feeling was the consensus of our group with only one person opting-out of this activity. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the St Peter’s Basilica were highlights. While you could do your independent tour of the Vatican, aside from Contiki, I would recommend this one as the guide was knowledgeable, passionate and allowed us to explore freely.
Rome of the Emperors & Gladiators Including Colosseum – €32:Again, the Colosseum is a must in Rome, so I was confident I would take this tour. Unfortunately, as we were running late, the visit to the ancient city of Rome was rushed, but nonetheless, I am pleased to have seen it. There were many scammers around the area so we were keen to get inside the Colosseum to hear about the gruesome and gory history which made this building such an incredible sight. The guides storytelling ability made it clear to visualise the brutal murders that occurred within.
Note* If taking both Rome tours, you only have around an hour between for lunch and other sightseeing, which was fine for me/my friends as we had explored the day prior, but others found this bothersome.
Hidden Venice & Aperitivo – €17:This FTA was cancelled on my trip due to a traffic delay that caused us to miss the tour.
Gondola Ride – €23:Yes, I know, another overpriced tourist attraction, but honestly the Gondola Ride was one of my favourite activities on the trip. Sailing through the Venetian canals, with a group of your new best friends was a once in a lifetime experience.
Munich Mike’s Bike Tour – €22.50:This FTA is the most fun I have ever had on a bike. The tour guides were hilarious and knowledgeable. After only a few minutes on the bikes, we stopped to learn some German history before jumping on the bikes again to explore the second largest beer garden. The pretzels, sauerkraut and giant beers had us all shouting “Prost”.
St Goar Wine Tasting – €9:Although this FTA had poor reviews regarding the taste of the wines, everyone who attended was full of joy due to the quantity that was available at this very affordable add-on.
A’DAM Lookout – €24:Unquestionably my favourite FTA. Although freezing and pouring with rain, the thrill of Europe’s highest swing was electrifying. Not to mention the hot chocolate inside the lookout was also incredible.
1STE Klas Diner – €35:I again did not attend this dinner, the service gained poor reviews, and the food was said to of been of average quality.
Amsterdam Canal Cruise – €24:Floating through Amsterdam’s canals was a lovely way to say goodbye to my Contiki family, the guide on this tour was unnecessary as the microphone was poor and everyone was chatting away. However, it was a nice gesture.
Trip-t-shirts – €21 – €32:I was hesitant as to whether I wanted Contiki branded apparel. However, I can say without a doubt I wear my t-shirt to bed most nights and many others on my trip still wear their hoodies/ merch.
- Night Tour:The night tour of Paris was so much fun. It was a great way to meet the people on your Contiki, while also getting to see some of Paris’ most famous sights from the comfort of the coach. We were lucky enough to have made good time, which meant we were able to get off the coach and watch the Eiffel Tower twinkle.
- Perfumery:The perfumery, among other included activities was a way to upsell overpriced products to naive tourists. The tour, however, was exciting, time efficient and a well-worth experience. On my trip, this activity was optional and in Paris, but I have heard for others it is held in Nice.
- Rave Cave:The rave cave at the Contiki chateau is incredibly fun. At the cash-only bar, two Smirnoff ice was less than €10 (very cheap for Europe). The best part about partying here was that our beds, showers and ample bathrooms were only a few floors above us.
- Wine tasting:I’m not a massive fan of red, but if I were this would have been the place to be. The tasting begins with a brief history of the region, the winemaker and his family before the tasting begins. All up this experience only took 10-15 minutes, which was more than enough.
- Monte Carlo + Casino: Our visit to Monte Carlo was short but sweet. Seeing all the expensive sports cars roll past the exclusive casino was exciting, as was seeing the formula one hairpin turn and the Hotel de Paris. Entry into the casino was €17, but you got given a €10 chip. Some people won big; others lost big!
- Leaning Tower of Pisa:The leaning tower of Pisa is a must on any European Bucket List. Aside from the swarms of tourists trying to ‘hold’ the tower in various ways, the street vendors sell all kinds of ‘genuine fake’ leather goods. If you’re looking for a fake Michael Kors, Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag you’re in luck, but likely they’ll have everything but the one you want.
- Walking tour: Unfortunately, due to the heat and a big night before this tour more effort than it was worth. While it was interesting seeing the Duomo, the statue of David and Ponte Vecchio – tired, hungry and blistered this tour felt never-ending.
- Leather making display:Another upselling opportunity. We were taken to a small room to be instructed on how authentic Italian leather is produced. This short display was followed by a tour of the expensive goods they had on sale. Although they were fine, there were leather goods just around the corner of the same quality for a lower price.
- Aperol Spritz making class:This class was far lower key than I had expected. The class takes place at the Contiki campsite and is led by a Contiki staff member who briefly explains the history of the Italian cocktail before pouring everyone a shot to taste the local aperitif.
Dachau: When booking this trip, I was most deterred by the fact we would be visiting a concentration camp. While confronting Dachau was an experience I won’t forget. Upon arrival, we were given the option to wait at a nearby café if we didn’t want to go inside. For those of us that went in, we were free to self-guide our tour so we could spend more time looking at specific areas and less time in others. Although nervous, I am glad I explored the camp as it gave me a real insight into the living conditions for the 200,000+ Jews that once lived there.
- Bike tour:This bike tour around the canals of Edam was highly enjoyable. The bikes were vintage, aesthetically pleasing bikes, but this made them harder to ride as they had no handle brakes and the bikes were very narrow, but once we had the hang of it, it was exciting riding around like the locals.
- Cheese + Clogs:Cheese and Clogs was a fun, light-hearted activity to experience the art of clog making. The demonstrations were funny and engaging. Although no one purchased any clogs, not all of them were as wooden as I had of expected.
The rooms on this tour were quad share. However, it was common for triple and twin rooms to be available. We got to choose our roommates each day on the bus, so getting stuck with the wrong person was never overly bad.
Paris – 2 Nights – Ibis Paris 17 Clichy Batignolles Hotel
Although this hotel is small and located in Paris outer suburbs, it was relatively good. Positioned near a metro station, this hotel had reliable WIFI, a large breakfast spread and a travel necessity vending machine.
Lyon – 1 Night – Contiki Chateau
For a Chateau the rooms here are small, but as it was only or one night, it was fine. As there is little to do here, the castle is decked out with a swimming pool, table tennis, pool table, card games and a rave cave.
Nice – 2 Nights – Premier Class Hotel Nice
This hotel was described to us as small as it was “ocean view” and while the hotel had ocean views from the restaurant and some rooms, that view was impeded by the airport. This accommodation is the airport hotel, which made it rather busy. It is also home to the world’s smallest and slowest elevators. The rooms were a shoebox with barely enough room to open a carry on case, this accommodation was certainly the worst, but in reality, it wasn’t all that bad
Florence – 1 Night – Camping Internazionale Hotel Florence
When I realised, I had booked a Contiki which camps, I was a little concerned. But thankfully for me, European Highlights is a hostel+ trip which meant no tents for us. The cabins at all the Italian campsites were good, but Florence’s were the best. The rooms were spacious and clean, and the campground was well maintained.
Rome – 2 Nights – Seven Hills Camping Hotel Rome
This campsite was very similar to Florence, the rooms were quad share, but as it was a two-bedroom cabin, it was like a twin share. The campsite was clean, and the showers were warm – really all you can ask for.
Venice – 1 Night – Camping Fusina Hotel Venice
These triple share rooms again were fine, but because of Venice’s bug problem, you had to always sleep with your windows shut to avoid a mosquito infestation.
Munich – 1 Night – Haus International
This hostel looks like what I imagine an asylum is like. There is a lack of colour on the corridor walls, stainless steel pipes and an eerie echo. The rooms, however, are pleasant but do run warm.
Koblenz – 1 Night – Hotel Montag St Goar
Take my advice, if you are advised to pack a day pack for this accommodation do so and save yourself the struggle of heaving your suitcase up four stories of spiral stairs. Although getting to the room was a challenge, once inside the rooms were excellent and more hotel like than anywhere else we had stayed on this trip.
Amsterdam – 2 Nights – Via Hostel Amsterdam
Via Hostel is the coolest hostel I have ever stayed at. The hostel had a theatre room, hanging swing chairs in the lobby and cool geometric designs on the walls. The rooms were spacious and designed to share with others comfortably. While it is a way out of central Amsterdam, it is nearby a train station and has local eateries surrounding.
After two weeks on the Contiki bus, I have learnt to sleep in positions I didn’t know was even possible before. The bus is actually a coach, fitted with USB ports in each seat, tray tables, a toilet, overhead storage and the loudest base I have ever heard in a vehicle. It is more like a rolling hotel, that’s until its time to sleep. Having 44 people on a coach made for 50, made early mornings after long nights rather challenging. But when you’re as tired as we all were the cosy conditions were just another opportunity to get to know your trip mates better. The aisle down the centre of the bus, sometimes made for the perfect dance floor mid-bus ride, while other times it was a place to stretch out and catch some winks.
Unbeknownst to me, the drives between cities were far longer than I had expected. It was not unusual to be on the coach for up to six hours a day. So after a long nap, frequent service stops were an enjoyable break to stretch our legs, grab some food and use the bathroom. The quality of the service stops varied by location, but for the most part, they were giant service stations, which often had fast food outlets within them. The toilets were mostly free; however, when payment was required, there was a discount coupon or any items purchased within the store.
In terms of included meals, it was undoubtedly a case of you get what you pay for – which in my case was very little.
The included daily Breakfasts were minimal with there being no food, cutlery or drinks left at certain locations with many other tour groups such as Nice and Munich. When breakfast was available, it was mostly pastries, cereals, toast and rarely hot foods such as crepes, bacon and sausages. As it was always the first thing to go, I would always stock up on fruit the second I saw it, as surprisingly it was harder to get a hold of than I had thought.
As for the included dinners, I was not a huge fan as I am a particularly fussy eater. However, the group vote was that a free meal was a good meal, regardless of the quality.
Travelling alone I was nervous as to what the group dynamic would be like, but this didn’t prove to be of concern at all. In fact, most people on my tour were travelling solo. The group was mostly girls and mostly Australians, but we had a good mix of Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Indians, a South African and even someone from Zimbabwe. It was really easy to make friends and our whole group got on really well together, which made nights out, FTA’s and long bus rides even more enjoyable.
What to Expect
Each day is wildly different; whether that means flying above the Mediterranean in a parasail, surfing in a river in Germany or just sleeping on the bus, you’ll never know what to expect. That is why day-sheets are the biggest lifesavers; they tell you where to be and when as well as some useful tips for the city your in. Contiki also supplies you with a map pre-marked with hot-spots so if your low on data, or battery you can still get around. You should also expect to hear your day song on the bus each morning; it’s supposed to be a pump up for all the exciting things your about to experience. Our song was Take the World by Storm by Lucas Graham, and although we all doubted its catchability at the start, it was in everyone’s head by the end of the trip. If you’re lucky, you may also get to know the Contiki classic hits, Helikopter 117 and Johnny Dapp 😉
Overall, I had the most incredible experience on Contiki’s European Highlights. From the experiences to the sights, the people and the TM + bus driver, I had the most wonderful time. I am grateful to have been to some of the destinations previously as I do feel like this trip was racing to see as much as possible in a short time, but I wouldn’t change this as I believe the fast pace is what kept the group energy so high. After this Contiki, I am inspired to return to the new cities I haven’t explored before and take a deeper look into the culture and history of each place.
Although I had the most incredible experience on my Contiki and would do it over in a heartbeat, I wish I had listened to this advice more seriously.
The blisters are serious:On my first day in Paris, I walked over 22km, causing serious blisters (that I still have now, three weeks on) in shoes I thought were comfortable. Even if they are not the best looking, honestly, taking walking shoes will seriously save your feet and your bank (band-aids are not cheap in Europe!). One of my friend’s feet swelled so badly she could barely walk for a few days, putting a damper on her experience.
The Contiki Cough is real:I knew this ahead of my trip and fortunately packed cold and flu medication. However, no matter how careful you are if you are spending hours on a bus with 40 other contagious people, you are going to get sick. Just try and pace yourself and make sure you have plenty of strepsil.
Baggage Weight:As I started in Paris, not London, my bag wasn’t weighed, and the size of my large, heavy bag was never mentioned. Those who started in London said only some of their bags were weighed.
Thank you to ContikiAV and ContikiMichal for making the experience so memorable. If you have any questions about an upcoming European Contiki, feel free to contact me in the about section of this blog 🙂