A year ago today, I was traveling overseas in Hungary and Croatia with not a care in the world. As it hits that year mark, I want to reflect on the amazing time I had.

              I was on a weeklong travel advisor educational trip with the tour company Contiki, and I must tell you, this trip was incredible. First, let me talk about Contiki as a company and then outline the reasons why I think twenty-somethings should travel on a guided tour with Contiki. Then I will write about the highlights of the trip and my day-by-day so everyone can get a sense of what a trip with Contiki looks like.

            Contiki is a tour company exclusively for 18-35-year-olds with a mission of connecting “young travelers to the time of their lives”. Contiki is a guided or escorted tour company, but I promise you, don’t get hung up on the whole “escorted” or “guided” thing. To Contiki, guided means making “travel easier and more social by organizing accommodation, food, experiences, and transport”. And that is exactly what I experienced on my trip with them.

The group on day 1 in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

            Traveling with Contiki was very easy. Mostly everything from A to Z was planned for us with some free time and meal options in there as well. Other than getting from the airport to the hotel upon initial arrival in Budapest, close to everything else was organized for us. Normally I am the planner and researcher of all trips, but for a change, this trip was plan-free, research-free, and most importantly, headache-free. We received an itinerary prior to departure detailing where we would be each day and what was included as far as activities and meals. So for the most part we knew where we would be each day. While in destination, the most important part was the clear communication between us and our trip manager. Each day there was a hand-written itinerary posted up in the hotel and in the Facebook group, so we always knew what was happening that day, start times, meeting points, important reminders and in turn, how to dress. I honestly think that deciding what to wear each day was the most stressful part of the trip.

Traveling with Contiki was very easy. Mostly everything from A to Z was planned for us with some free time and meal options in there as well. Other than getting from the airport to the hotel upon initial arrival in Budapest, close to everything else was organized for us. Normally I am the planner and researcher of all trips, but for a change, this trip was plan-free, research-free, and most importantly, headache-free. We received an itinerary prior to departure detailing where we would be each day and what was included as far as activities and meals. So for the most part we knew where we would be each day. While in destination, the most important part was the clear communication between us and our trip manager. Each day there was a hand-written itinerary posted up in the hotel and in the Facebook group, so we always knew what was happening that day, start times, meeting points, important reminders and in turn, how to dress. I honestly think that deciding what to wear each day was the most stressful part of the trip.

VARIETY 

– With Contiki’s extensive list of itineraries, you have endless opportunities to travel. You can hit those far-off, not as easily accessible locations. In my experience, we were able to port at these small Croatian island towns that would have been difficult to get to on my own.

EASE PRIOR TO DEPARTURE 

– Trip planning and traveling is rewarding but can be a huge headache. With Contiki, accommodation, meals, experiences, tours, and transports are all planned for you.

– Contiki has over 300 itineraries to choose from. Choosing the itinerary may just be the hardest part of your trip!

– Contiki has financing options, so if it is not possible for you to put the full payment down, there are options so you can still manage to go on the trip of a lifetime! 

– Choosing accommodation in destination can be quite difficult. Similar to restaurants, I always find myself on the internet overwhelmed with all the options, what neighborhood should I stay in? Should I go cheaper or nicer? Is breakfast included? How do I get to and from the hotel? I always find myself picking apart each online review. With Contiki, your accommodation is set for you. While it might not be your luxurious 4 or 5-star hotel, all our accommodations worked great for what we needed them for and included breakfast, which is usually an accommodation must for me. 

– Another task of planning a trip is researching and choosing what activities to do in each destination. Contiki has “No Regret Inclusions” meaning their itineraries include many activities so you don’t have to research the best tour company or read reviews about which sites are worth visiting and which aren’t. If a tour or activity is not included in your cost and itinerary, Contiki has “Free Time Add-Ons”. These are activities that you can choose to do in your free time (often with a cost). Contiki will provide you with detailed information and direction about the activity or tour so you can experience it with ease.

EASE WHILE IN DESTINATION 

– While in destination, typically you must figure out how to get from point A to point B whether it is within a city or crossing country borders. With Contiki, the coach bus takes you to where you need to be each day, with the exception of some free time options to make your own way to and from somewhere if you choose.

– Choosing where to eat is hands down the most stressful thing on vacations. It typically makes people “hangry” and leads to family or friend arguments. Everyone wants to make sure to find that quintessential, non-touristy, non-price inflated, authentic restaurant, which can be difficult. With all our meals except a few included for us, there were no arguments or driving yourself crazy with googling “best restaurants in Budapest” and analyzing each review. For the meals, we were responsible for or if we just wanted some snacks in between, we were always given suggestions so even then we did not have to think too hard on where or what to eat. In each destination, our trip manager told us the name of local specialties or must-try foods and drinks. To me that knowledge is priceless.

– Similar to choosing restaurants and going out to eat, going out is an important factor for people traveling, especially 18-35-year-olds. Experiencing the nightlife in other countries often leaves you with the most memories and laughs. Partying is not required on a Contiki trip, but if that is what you want to do, they will point you in the right direction to have an amazing night (dancing until the sunrise!). Because Contiki repeats each itinerary multiple times, they are familiar with all the hot spots and the must visit bars and clubs on each trip. You don’t have to spend time researching and debating the best nightlife, so you can go out and enjoy yourselves.

– My trip included a coach tour and a walking tour with a local Hungarian tour guide and a trip manager that was a wealth of knowledge all throughout our vacation. Which tour company should I use? Which tour should I do? These are tough questions to answer because of the endless options for tours online. These questions are easily answered with Contiki because your tours are selected for you as either inclusions or add-ons.

OTHER IMPORTANT INFORMATION 

– Contiki trips are great for solo travelers. They say that solo travelers make up 55% of their travelers. By solo traveling with a group and knowledgeable guide, it ensures the safety and comfort you might not otherwise feel while exploring new destinations alone.

– Traveling with a group of people means you are meeting new people and making new friends… potentially friends for life. The awesome group I had the opportunity to travel with was easily the best part. It was so fun getting to know everyone and just being ourselves, no prior knowledge or judgements about each other. An incredible thing about travel is the different cultures and languages you immerse yourself in and the different people you meet. On Contiki trips there are people from all over the world. You are guaranteed to meet people who come from a different background than you with a different story than your own. You will snap pictures and make lifelong memories with your new friends.

– Safety. Safety is a big concern for many people (and our parents!). Traveling pushes you out of your comfort zone and can put you in situations where you may feel unsettled or unsafe. Traveling with a group minimizes the chance of something bad happening to you. With Contiki, not only are you usually traveling in a group, but you also have a trip manager and at times, a local tour guide and bus driver as well. I felt safe 100% of the time on my trip. You also have peace of mind knowing that you are staying in safe accommodations and you are traveling on safe and reliable transportation.

For those that are interested, here are little blurbs about each day-

Day 1: I flew from Minneapolis to Budapest through Amsterdam. Because of prior contact with Contiki, I knew that my flight was landing later than any others. The plan was to set out on a coach/walking tour at 5:30pm. My plane was set to land at 4:20pm. Like most times in my life, I am always last minute. As my transfer was pulling up to the hotel, the group was outside standing with the big “CONTIKI” coach bus. No confusion on my part as to whether or not this was my group. 

            One of the male Contiki sales reps grabbed my full-sized suitcase and told me he would bring it to my room quickly and then we would go. Having just traveled for over 14 hours and in my sweats, I told him I needed to change and freshen up. Now maybe because he is a male, or maybe because he wanted to keep our group on schedule, he asked me if I could do it in 1 to 2 minutes. Who can dig through a suitcase, change, brush their teeth, wash their face, and apply make-up in 2 minutes!? Well I did my best. After that, we were off on a short coach bus tour of Budapest with a local tour guide. Having a local tour guide join us for the night is a benefit of a guided Contiki trip because then I didn’t have to book my own separate walking tour, it was already included in the itinerary. We hopped off the bus and continued on a walking tour before arriving at the river to embark on our Danube River Dinner Cruise, where, as you guessed it, dinner was served for us. Included in this dinner were two bottles of wine per 4-person table, one red and one white, as well as a bottle of water and a few soft drinks. There was a bar on the ship if you wanted to purchase more drinks. Given that it was day 1 and people were tired after long days of travel, the coach bus took us back to the hotel, but you had the option to stay in the city center to go out and make your own way home… nobody took that option on the first night. 

Day 1 Itinerary

Whole group in front of Contiki coach bus

Day 2: This morning we had breakfast included at the hotel and had a meeting time for the coach bus to load us up and take us to the Szychenyi Baths. Built in 1918, these baths are a popular attraction in Budapest. If you have an Instagram, chances are you know exactly which baths I am talking about. Contiki had pre-booked our tickets, so upon arrival our trip manager was handing us wristbands and we were entering the bathhouses. While everyone got a wristband and went inside the complex, not everyone went into the baths themselves. That is the great thing about having options, is if you didn’t want to do it, you didn’t have to. Even if you don’t go in, the baths and the palace-like complex where they are located is worth seeing. After the baths was our free time. Our trip manager, Renae, explained how to get back to the city center from the baths via multiple ways of transportation and highlighted some museums, food options, and sightseeing activities to do in our free time… no need to google “what to do in Budapest” or “best restaurants in Budapest”. We were free to do as we wished for the next 7 hours or so. The coach was set to bring us back to the hotel at 4pm, if you wanted. If you wanted to keep shopping, eating, or sightseeing, you were free to make your way back to the hotel whenever you wanted as long as you were ready by 6:30pm to leave the hotel for dinner. For those of you who may feel like guided tours are restrictive this is a great example of how Contiki is not always. I really appreciated this free time and option to get myself back to the hotel. I ate at Central Market Hall with some others from the group, then I split up to shop by myself, went to Fisherman’s Bastian to snap some great selfies, and then took the metro back to the hotel. Easy. That night we had a Goulash cooking demonstration exclusive to our group which included a three-course meal and, of course, lots of bread. For me, dinner also involved beer, but that had to be purchased by me. While on vacation, choosing where to eat is typically the hardest part, and the only time me and my family members or friends get in arguments on said vacation. You want to make sure you are eating local cuisine, not eating at a tourist trap restaurant with sky-high prices, and that you are getting an authentic experience. With Contiki, all of our dinners but one were included in our tour. The best part? The dinners were all local, authentic dishes and experiences. Where else are you going to get a goulash demonstration by a cook who doesn’t speak English?  Or a dinner cruise on the Danube with buffet-style Hungarian dishes? Throughout the trip, I never felt like I was missing out on eating at a local or non-touristy restaurant because I was eating with Contiki. That night they took us to a cool, unique ruin bar where you had the option of staying or going. The rest of the night was your choice!

Danube dinner cruise

Goulash cooking demo

Day 3: This morning we had another included breakfast and then we headed out on the coach bus for our 5-6-hour drive to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia! We all settled into the brand new 2019 coach bus. Gone are the days of wondering when you will get to charge your phone or camera as each seatback had TWO USB ports. We had to cross the border from Hungary into Croatia which could take anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours. That amount of time is out of Contiki or our trip managers hands, but what they can control is their transparency. Renae was honest with us about the possible hassle and long wait at the border so there were no surprises. After crossing the border, we made a brief stop at a service station to stretch our legs, grab a snack, and use the restroom. Back on the bus, Renae had each of us introduce ourselves, where we are from, and what we were most excited about for the trip. On this trip specifically, we were all solo travelers. Save for a mom and her son, no one knew each other prior to the trip, so this was a nice way to hear everyone’s name, origin, and a little something about them to remember them by. In fact, 55% of all Contiki travelers are solo travelers (more on that later). We made it to the park and as we were unloading our things and getting off the bus, Renae was checking in for us so it was an easy process getting into our rooms.  Next, we had free time in the national park to take in the stunning views of lush greenery and flowing waterfalls. We just had to be ready for dinner by 7:45pm. Another 3-course meal and we were off to bed for the night.

Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

 We had to stay on the boardwalks because the park had flooded, but i think it made the park even prettier

Day 4: We loaded up the bus early and set off for Split, Croatia, stopping in Zadar on the way. Just like the past couple days on the coach, Renae passed the drive time by giving us in-depth information about Croatia, telling stories, and giving us the details we needed to board the ship and have a successful next few days of sailing. The communication and transparency throughout the whole trip by our trip manager was fantastic. I was never confused about when or where I needed to be or what was coming next. Boarding the ship in Split was easy. We were assigned rooms, given keys, and then the very good-looking and strong crew did the hard part of lugging my 55 pound suitcase up to the above deck part of the ship where my cabin was. Once everyone was on board, we had a housekeeping meeting in the dining area. We officially met the crew, had a safety debriefing, and then a summary of what was happening the next three days on our new home.

           The next few days were relaxing and enjoyable, definitely the highlight of the trip. While sailing, the time was yours to do as you wished. In the morning, breakfast was available to come and go, and then you could sleep, suntan, read, drink, swim, and just hang out. We all met in the dining room for lunch served at one o’clock each day. After lunch we would have a swim stop and then make our way to a port where we would dock for the night. Once docked in each port, you were free to do as you wanted, making your way back to the ship for dinner and happy hour around 7:30 or 8:00pm. But before Renae set us all loose in Croatian seaside towns, everyone met on the pier so she could get us acquainted. Renae gave us brief information and history of each town and then suggested what activities to do, where to eat, what native souvenirs to purchase, and even an exact location to catch the most breathtaking sunset. Once Renae familiarized us, we were free to go about the town or back to the ship if you wished. This happened in each port and it was extremely helpful and informative as I didn’t even have to turn on my brain to try and figure out what to do or where to eat in this new destination… honestly it was so fantastic and easy that it is a major reason I would do a tour with Contiki again in a heartbeat if not for anything else but the ease and relaxation.

           Today we docked in Makarska, Croatia. An idyllic, seaside town with a stunning backdrop. We took some photos, collected a few souvenirs, bought a snack, and enjoyed ourselves. As the sun set across the sea it illuminated the buildings and bobbing boats in a fiery pink color. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.

Sunset in Makarska

 Morning in Makarska

 The Labrador

Day 5: Now when I said that I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than a sunset in Makarska, this town definitely had some tricks up its sleeve for me. Waking up and stepping outside of my cabin into the bright morning sun shining and reflecting off the glistening blue waters of the Adriatic Sea was INCREDIBLE. I immediately grabbed my camera, book, blanket, and sat on the front of the boat to soak up the sun and beautiful views. One of the advisors on this trip is a yoga instructor so that morning we did yoga aboard the ship.

               Today we sailed to Hvar, the most well-known of the Croatian Dalmatian Islands, fit for the rich and famous. A lot more populated than our previous stop, we “hiked” up to the fort and looked down on Hvar and the port taking in beautiful views of the cobblestoned streets, orange-roofed buildings and U-shaped marina half-filled with bobbing boats and yachts. Tonight’s dinner was the only dinner throughout the whole trip that we were on our own. Following Renae’s suggestions that she told us in-person, as well as dropped the names of the restaurants in our Facebook group and even dropped pins to their locations, we easily found a great dinner stop. That night we had happy hour back on the ship playing drinking games, dancing to loud music, and getting to know each other better. Almost all of us went out on the town as a group that night. Because of Contiki’s status and the large number of us, the bar did a special happy hour exclusively for us all night long. This was common throughout our trip because Contiki and their trip managers build relationships with the people and businesses in the destinations they frequent. It was a nice little benefit of traveling with the tour group. Tonight, we might have missed the sunset, but a few of us stayed up long enough to catch the sunrise just before we set sail for Split.

Day 6: This morning was similar to the last few; wake up to the serenity of the sea, eat, lay out, swim, and eat again. When I say “eat”, some of you may be wondering what I am eating. Well I’m here to tell you that I am eating a lot of bread. Croatian’s love their bread and for each meal aboard the ship there was an endless supply of bread as the crew kept filling up the breadbaskets (against our will). As we were driving from Hungary to Croatia, Renae said verbatim “if bread is not your thing, it is now” and that really stuck with me. At one point I even told my new friend Patrick to “slap my hand if I reach for more bread”. Forgetting I said that, as I reached for bread, he slapped my hand. Not knowing the pact I had made with Patrick, the other girls at the table looked shocked with a “a guy does not slap bread out of a woman’s hand” expression. Besides bread, an important part of traveling and seeing the world is learning about each country and its history, so this morning on the boat we had an hour-long history lesson with our trip manager, if you wanted to participate. We docked in Split this afternoon and the rest of the day was ours until dinner. Tonight, was the last night all together and we had a Captain’s Dinner meaning the captain of the ship joined us for our final meal. This dinner was also pirate/sailor themed. Over the last few days each of us picked up some kind of a costume or prop for tonight’s themed dinner. Theme night is usually a fun little something that happens on each Contiki trip. After dinner most of us went to an open-air bar/club. Because we were a couple weeks before the season really starts, there wasn’t much going on. Upon arrival at the bar we all got a free shot (again, a plus of being with a well-known tour company), but after the shot we were all so tired we headed back to the ship for our final sleep of the vacation.

Captain’s Dinner theme night

Day 7: Waking up in Split knowing we had to get off the boat today was a sad feeling, yet you were surrounded by the glistening sea, a backdrop of mountains, and a historic old town in Croatia so you really had couldn’t feel that sad. We all disembarked the ship with the help of the crew for all our luggage, said our goodbyes, snapped a few last pictures, and all headed our separate ways. From there I flew back to Amsterdam and, at my dismay, eventually ended up in Minneapolis once again. I spent the hours waiting at airports and flying high above the clouds replaying the last week and going through all my photos. This was a trip I am never going to forget.

               Reflecting on my trip, I can’t help but smile. It truly was amazing with many new friends and new memories made. To sum it all up, after experiencing a guided tour with Contiki, I would not hesitate to book myself or anyone else on a trip with them.

Trip manager Renae and I

Some of the group in Hvar