A few weeks ago, Contiki Holidays put up a message on Facebook that “you can literally save hundreds of dollars going with Contiki over doing it on your own” and that backpacking was “so 1997.” Amused, I tweeted how that wasn’t right since independent budget travel is always cheaper. Contiki tweeted otherwise.
Whether or not you believe backpacking is “so 1997,” (it’s not) it doesn’t change the fact that Contiki is NOT cheaper than independent travel, and I found it completely disingenuous they even tried to make that point (twice!). The Contiki tweeter pointed out that they get group rates, and can therefore get better deals. I don’t think so. I’ve been on tours before. I like tours. They have their moments and can be especially good for first time travelers who want to go places but are scared to do it by themselves. But even the best companies are never cheaper than solo travel. This is because these companies have to pay for guides, buses, insurance, and administrative costs.
But the reality is in the numbers. For example, let’s look at one of Contiki’s “budget” European tours. I called Contiki to make sure all my information was correct. And it should be noted that their operator said the rules by which the budget tours operate are the same as the others. The difference between budget tours and other tour classes is simply accommodation standards.
European Horizon Tour (12 day tour)- Contiki calls this a 12 day tour for $1415 or $117 per day. The tour includes 10 nights accommodation (3 to 4 people per room), 9 breakfasts and 6 dinners. However, Day 1 is the day you fly to Europe and the last day is a transfer to the airport, making this really a 10 day trip at $141 per day. Now, let’s assume your average budget meal in Europe is 8 euros, which adds another $145 onto your trip (10 lunches, 3 breakfasts). Moreover, no entrance fees to any attractions are included. Most people spend about €20 per day ($280) on attraction entrance fees. Additionally, the average cost of a flight to Europe right now is $600. Adding the numbers up, the total cost of this trip is now $2,440 without counting alcohol, any optional activities, or anything more than a budget meal. So for 10 days you are really spending $244 per day not $117.
Contrast this with doing it on your own. For ten days of travel, you get numbers that look like this: Flight= $600, Meals = $280 (€20 for 10 days), Sightseeing = $280 (€20 per day), Transportation= $250 (local train travel), Accommodation = $420 (4 bed dorm, shared bath at €30 per night) bringing your total to $1,830. Note: For accommodation, I used Amsterdam prices. This tour goes to many places, but Amsterdam is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, thereby making sure I am not accused of trying to “lowball” estimates for literary effect.
That is a $600 dollar difference, not including the fact that most hostels include breakfast (lowering cost), you can Couchsurf (lowering cost), or make your own meals (lowering cost). Even if backpacking is so 1997, you clearly can’t save hundreds of dollars by going on Contiki.
What do you get for your costs? Well, in my opinion, nothing I want. I’ve never taken a Contiki tour. I’ve thought about it many times but I’ve never been able to justify the cost and pace of being shuffled through Europe quickly just so I can party more. Geared to 18-35 year olds looking for a good time, tours on Contiki tend to be filled with parties, young people, and alcohol. Most of the travelers on these tours have just a few weeks in Europe and are there to have fun before going back to work. Friends of mine have gone on Contiki, and they all come back with the same story: it was fun, they met a lot of people, and they partied hard.
I generally avoid tours because I don’t like spending one day here and one day there. And Contiki is that type of tour company. Now, I’m not here to blast Contiki. Contiki travel works for many people, and they have a clearly defined audience (of which I am not a part of). I’m not even blasting tour groups. I think you can get a lot of value from taking a tour. However, I simply found it disingenuous of them to state they are cheaper than doing it on your own. Because they aren’t. In fact, no tour company is- they all have administrative costs to cover that you don’t.
I am a huge fan of G Adventures. I’ve done many of their tours and my first trip with them inspired me to travel. Travel companies take the planning out of travel for you while giving you an environment as structured as you want. You can go on highly structured tours or tours where you get days and days to yourself to do what you want. The people on these tours are looking for a good time, but they aren’t looking for a booze-filled time. However, even while these tours tend to be cheap, they are still not cheaper than independent travel.
There are many good tour companies out there. Every company, including Contiki, has a certain audience and is right for certain types of travelers. But don’t be under the impression that tours are cheaper, and don’t buy into the sales pitch that they are.