Updated: March 13th, 2019 | Posted: July 31st, 2009 (Updated with added information and resources)
I’m a solo backpacker at heart. It’s the type of travel I enjoy the most and find the most rewarding.
Personally, I don’t care if you’re a solo backpacker or someone who prefers tours. All travelers are created equal.
But that doesn’t mean all budgets are going to be equal.
So when Contiki tours put up a message on Facebook that “you can literally save hundreds of dollars going with Contiki overdoing it on your own” and that backpacking was “so 1997.”
My jaw dropped. Tours being cheaper than solo backpacking? Dream on.
I tweeted how that wasn’t right since independent budget travel is always cheaper.
Contiki tweeted back saying 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.
And you, the solo traveler, don’t!
Contiki Tour Cost Breakdown
To find the truth, we need to look at 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.
One of their budget European tours in 2019 is their “European Discovery Tour.” This tour is 12 days long and costs $1,656 USD. The tour includes 16 meals (5 dinners and 11 breakfasts), 21 activities (and 12 optional activities at an additional cost), and 11 nights accommodation in shared hotel rooms with 1-2 other people.
This tour breaks down to cost $138 USD per day. Though looking at the itinerary, you can see that both the first and last days are spent almost entirely in transit. So you really only get 10 days of travel, making the daily breakdown more like $165 USD per day.
Now, let’s assume you spend $9 USD per meal for all the other meals you have to pay (which you won’t because that’s eating only sandwiches and who wants to do that in Europe?). That adds another $180 USD onto your trip.
Moreover, there are also a dozen additional activities to do that will all have an added cost. Most people spend about $30 USD per day on attraction entrance fees (that’s an extra $360 USD). Additionally, the average cost of a round-trip flight to Europe is around $600 USD.
Adding the numbers up, the total cost of this trip is now around $2,800 USD — and that’s without counting alcohol or anything more than a budget meal.
So for 10 days you are really spending $280 USD per day, not $138 USD.
Contrast this with doing it on your own. For ten days of travel, you get numbers that look like this:
Flight – $600 USD
Meals – $300 USD ($30 USD for 10 days)
Sightseeing – $300 USD ($30 USD per day)
Transportation – $250 USD (local train travel)
Accommodation – $350 USD (4-bed dorm, shared bath at $35 USD per night)
TOTAL – $1,800 USD ($180 USD per day)
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. If you traveled in Eastern Europe, you could likely cut a lot of these expenses in half.
That is a $1,000 USD difference, not including the fact that many hostels include breakfast (lowering cost), you can Couchsurf (lowering cost), find free activities (lowering your costs) or make your own meals (lowering cost). In fact, you can get by in Europe for about half that if you’re a smart traveler!
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. Plus, I’m older than 35 now so I’m too old for the tours.
Tours from 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). Many of my friends have taken Contiki tours and LOVED them. They’ve loved them so much they’ve taken multiple. I’m not even blasting tour groups. I think you can get a lot of value from taking a tour.
If that is what you want, I say go for it! Drink away!
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.
Contiki will not be cheap. It will be much more expensive than if you did it on your own. (And, in Europe, you’d meet a lot of people doing it on your own. You’d stay in some awesome hostels, make friends, and save money. Go solo. Tours in Europe are dumb. You don’t need them.)
If you do take a tour…
If you are looking for a tour company for your next trip (and don’t want to party hard all day and night) I would consider Intrepid Travel. I am a huge fan of Intrepid and have been using them for years. They offer good small group tours that use expert guides and leave a small environmental footprint.
I’ve been on a handful of their tours over the years and they are my favorite multi-day tour operator. What’s good about travel companies is that they take the planning out of travel for you while giving you an environment as structured as you want. As a solo traveler, sometimes it’s nice to just relax and let someone else worry about the logistics.
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 buy into the sales pitch that your Contiki tour will be cheaper.
How to Travel the World on $50 a Day
My New York Times best-selling paperback guide to world travel will teach you how to master the art of travel so that you’ll get off the beaten path, save money, and have a deeper travel experience. It’s your A to Z planning guide that the BBC called the “bible for budget travelers.”
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for nomads)
- World Nomads (most comprehensive)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.