Anything other than Contiki?
April 30, 2008 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Travelling +strangers is better than travelling alone right? Well, that's a dilemma my friend (I swear, it's a friend!) is in this summer as he has time off but none of his friends do. He would like to go to Europe but be a bit social about it. Everyone mentions Contiki but I want to know if they might have any competitors that people feel are better. Do they?

(Previous inquiries seem to ask for low cost alternatives or plan your own trips -- The cost of Contiki seems just right for my friend so options near or above their price range would be fine). Also, he would like to target Italy/Southern Europe -- but mostly Italy. Thanks!
posted by skepticallypleased to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Taking a tour is the travel equivalent of reading the Cliff Notes.

They'll hit some of the highlights, but they'll be exactly the same highlights as every other tourist hits. You do what they say to, or if you go off on your own have to be back to meet their schedule which can be very tight. The hotels are often out of the way so that you can't do what you want when you want even when you're staying in a town for a bit.

How sociable is your friend? He might be better off traveling to Europe and trying to meet up with other travelers at hostels or hotels and seeing if any of them want to continue together.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:10 PM on April 30, 2008

Would you friend have objections to hostels? How old is he? I've traveled alone several times, and almost always stayed at hostels. If your friend does the same, he would have to TRY to not be around other people. You can spend a day touring a city or attraction together, have dinner/drinks with people, or if you really get along with them, tag-team to another city. You meet some of the most amazing people traveling alone, where if you travel with friends, you might miss out on meeting some pretty kickass people. My favorite was meeting Sophia, a 75 year old Polish woman, that lived in the Netherlands, but was coming back to Wroclaw, Poland just to get her annual mammogram. She only wore black (including black leather pants), and made me chicken bouillon tea, which I thought was pretty bizarre at first, but now drink the same elixir when I feel under the weather. We talked politics, travel, love, and then she gave threw me a lemon for good luck the morning I left to move on to a new city. Sophia was the epitome of badass. I would have never have met her, and other awesome people had I traveled with a cookie-cutter tour or with people I knew.

I generally value my alone time, but traveling solo has a really nice build-your-own-socialization component to it. He might like it...
posted by raztaj at 1:36 PM on April 30, 2008

Traveling alone (assuming your friend is open-minded and up for meeting people) is the fastest way to meet new people. I often connected with people in one city and traveled with them to the next one.
posted by salvia at 1:43 PM on April 30, 2008

If your friend is anything close to eurail / backpacker hostel age and ethos, tell him to go it alone. He'll be able to be as social as he wants without having to lock himself into a tour with people he may or may not wind up getting along with.

Backpackers are constantly hooking up into ad hoc traveling groups -- I'm generally pretty shy and antisocial and even I had a very easy time finding other travelers to be social with when I wanted to. That first day off the plane will be a bit OMG what have I gotten myself into, but within ten minutes he'll find himself in the company of a bunch of affable loudmouth australians and an insane bearded ex-new yorker wearing a canadian flag lapel pin. If my experience is anything to go by.
posted by ook at 1:49 PM on April 30, 2008

My husband and I honeymooned in Italy on a Contiki tour--but we also broke away from the tour for a couple days and then met up with them again after that. We then stayed several more days after the tour ended. I thought this was a good mix of using the tour for its advantages (pre-set plans and hotels, meeting people who are on the same tour, and someone to lug around your bags!) and also getting to venture out on our own, getting away from the tour's disadvantages (getting sick of the same people, the same bus, the set schedule) and having fun and figuring things out on our own--plus we got to a part of Italy that wasn't on the tour that we really wanted to see. Now of course I had my hubby with me so it's not exactly the same thing, but I think a single traveler might have success mixing it up this way too.
posted by rio at 1:54 PM on April 30, 2008

I've taken Contiki tours in the past. They are fun for what they are. You don't have to do any planning, you just follow someone, there's LOTS of drinking, and while the groups are too large, it does mean you usually make some good friends. Single country trips are much better than multi-country ones, which tend to only hit the capital cities and involve far too much drive time. You also want as many multi-day stays as you can get. If you spend every day getting up early to pack, and then driving to somewhere new, that's not much of a vacation.

To your question: Top Deck is a major competitor and has some really interesting trips, like sailing from Croatia. I would avoid any open-age tour companies (like Trafalgar or Globus), because they tend to be dominated by older couples.

Personally, over time, I've moved to hostels. Compared to tours, they require a lot more planning, the same amount of drinking, and you can ditch people you don't like entirely, instead of having to spend a week of your vacation time with them.
posted by smackfu at 1:54 PM on April 30, 2008

Here to throw my support to the 'hostels' camp. Like raztaj said, you can really construct your social environment as you go, especially if you have the freedom to decide how long you'll stay in a place and where you'll go next. Meet someone you like who's headed to Florence? You can go with them. Everyone you've met at the hostel is going to Naples tomorrow, and they're all loud and annoying? Stay back a few days. You won't get stuck in a single group of people for a long time, which is why travel groups have never been appealing to me. Also, in a travel group you don't get the benefit of meeting people who are in the midst of traveling different routes. Some of the best travel advice I ever got for upcoming cities were at hostels from people who had just come from that place a few days earlier. You get up to date tips on restaurants, events, places to visit, etc. Finally, there's less pressure at a hostel in terms of socialization. If you're feeling quiet, no one knows you, so it's no big deal to people watch at the bar. If you want to go all out, do so by all means, because in a few days no one will remember it. You said that your friend wanted to be 'a bit' social about his trip, and through hostels he can easily accomplish that. Hostelworld is a helpful website for coordination and research.
posted by farishta at 2:36 PM on April 30, 2008

nthing hostels, alone. Some hostels even allow you to reserve a single room if your friend is weirded out by sleeping in a bunk with 11 strangers. I've met all ages at hostels (the older folks are always the most interesting so don't discount them out of hand). If your friend is shy he will have to make an effort to sit down next to strangers and chime in on the conversation and even invite himself along with the group. It may be hard the first time or two but it gets much easier. Most people will be in the same boat and you can tag along for the day, the week or just for dinner. Personally, I like to do most things on my own in my own time but it's nice to meet up for someone for dinner.
posted by Bunglegirl at 2:56 PM on April 30, 2008

A hybrid of the tour buses and the self-guided backpacker route (which I'd have no hesitation recommending) is a hop-on hop-off tour. I think Busabout might be the most well known of the lot. Your transportation is all taken care of and if you want to stay an extra day/week in a given city, it's not a big deal.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 5:00 PM on April 30, 2008

As you specifically asked for suggestions other than Contiki, I will say that I took a Breakaway tour offered by Trafalgar, specifically the Viva Italia, mostly because my family was way too freaked out to let me travel alone in Italy, and I have to say I was pleased with the tour.

The Breakaway tours are targeted at 21-38 year olds, so it still had a youthful feeling to it and people were definitely friendly and outgoing. I still talk to folks I met on that vacation and look back on it with fondness.

I think of going on a tour like this as a sampler, getting a small taste of a lot of different areas of Italy and now I have a better idea of where I'd like to go back on my own next time. If you or your friend were interested in hearing more about my experience, feel free to Mefi-mail me!
posted by harrumph at 7:14 PM on April 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you so much for the great tips and alternatives. I think the hostel thing is a great idea but he is almost 30 and I feel that might skew more post-college. Oh, btw, Raztaj, great story.
I'll be forwarding him the thread.
posted by skepticallypleased at 3:17 PM on May 1, 2008

Hostels really aren't for only post-college folks. I was 29 the last time I stayed at one and wasn't the oldest one there. Every hostel has a different demographic. Some may have a younger party atmosphere but others don't. You can read reviews about them on hostel booking sites. Honestly, a lot of those tours you're talking about taking skew post-college (or will have at least 50% people in their early 20s) and they drink every night too.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:08 AM on May 3, 2008

I've had really great luck with It requires some planning, but you end up staying with locals and finding out much more about where you're staying than if you were on a pre-packaged tour. It's also (ostensibly) free, although every time I've "couch surfed" I've ended up taking my host out for a really nice dinner. The site reports ages and gives you a general idea of the typical lifestyle of the host, so you're not staying at "party central!!" or "we go to bed by 9 pm" if you don't want to do so. There are people of all ages with all sorts of "couches" available. I've also used the site to contact people where I've travelled, without necessarily staying at their places. I would say that combining contacts with hostels could really make for an excellent trip.
posted by tractorfeed at 7:02 PM on May 3, 2008

I think the hostel thing is a great idea but he is almost 30 and I feel that might skew more post-college.

Keep in mind that Contiki in the summer skews very college. Especially college, "oh my god it's legal to drink here". In September, the age goes up because college kids go back to school.
posted by smackfu at 9:11 AM on May 4, 2008

i'm a bit late to the party, but i second what tractorfeed said about couchsurfing. it has totally changed the way i travel. i have met some really awesome people throuch cs, and have found it's a great way to know and come to love any place you're visiting. i've never been into hostels much, but the couchsurfing experience is miles beyond what i have done in hostels.
posted by whatzit at 2:23 PM on May 7, 2008

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