I recently returned from an 11-day Outback Adventure with Contiki. Was it what I expected? Not even close! Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Before I launch into the benefits of a Contiki Holiday, I feel I owe them an apology.
You see, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy an organised trip that much. After months of independent, mostly solo travel in South America and New Zealand, I’m ashamed to admit I’d become a bit of a ‘travel snob’.
I’d survived muggings, altitude sickness, pervy dorm mates, awkward conversations in foreign languages, 30-hour bus journeys and untrustworthy cab drivers. I thought a Contiki tour would be ‘too easy’. I assumed I’d be travelling with mollycoddled kids who lacked the courage or initiative to plan their own adventure. And at 30 years of age, I felt like I was probably a bit too old to get involved with the heavy drinking and crazy parties I know are often associated with these kinds of tours.
I could not have been more wrong.
During my trip in the Australian Outback, I met a fantastic group of lifelong friends, packed some incredible experiences into a whirlwind of an itinerary and enjoyed every second. The people in my group ranged from 18 to 31, were of many different nationalities, and everyone got on well. Despite our trip taking in Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I was actually surprised by how little people drank (although I’m pretty sure the remoteness of the outback had something to do with it). It was a blessing not to have to worry about planning every move, and the benefits of travelling with a tour company became increasingly apparent…
1. Value for Money
When you look at the prices of organised tours, they might seem extravagant, but part of the reason is that it seems worse when you have to pay for everything in one bulk sum. Adding up everything that was included, and taking into consideration the quality of some of the places we stayed, it would be very difficult to do it cheaper independently. If I’d been backpacking, I’d have stayed in the cheapest hostels I could find and while that might have saved a few dollars here and there, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as relaxing.
Most of the places we stayed had large rooms with en suite bathrooms and the tour bus was comfortable and fully air conditioned. A lot of the activities and some of the meals were already included in the price and Contiki had deals going with independent tour providers and bars to ensure that when things weren’t included in the initial cost, they were at least discounted.
2. Travel Companions
While it’s usually not that difficult to meet other travellers when you backpack independently, it’s too often the case that their plans don’t match yours. You move from one place to the next meeting great people and then having to say goodbye the next day. On a Contiki trip, you can really get to know your travel buddies in the knowledge that they’re with you until the last day.
After the initial night or two, you can choose who to bunk with and, after spending 24 hours a day with these people, friendships form much faster than in the real world. You also get to avoid having to share a dorm room with total strangers. The biggest advantage of this is that you all have to get up at the same time each day, so no one will annoy you with late-night partying on the eve of a sunrise tour or bag rustling when you finally have the chance to lie in.
When you have your own tour bus and driver, you don’t need to worry yourself with checking the reputation of local bus companies or ensuring that your taxi driver has a license. And you won’t find yourself behind the wheel of a rental car in the middle of the outback cursing the day you thought watching Wolf Creek was a good idea. When you visit stops en route to your next destination, you can leave your belongings locked safely on the bus and when you’re in your accommodation, you’re sharing with people you know and whose trustworthiness you’ve already determined.
The outback can be a dangerous place, with its creepy crawlies, crocodiles, relentless sun and, sometimes, unsavoury characters. If things do go wrong, you have a tour guide who’s trained in dealing with these issues and will give you hour-by-hour advice on what to carry with you and which places to avoid.
One of the great things about organised tours is that they put in a special effort to make sure everyone gets to know each other well and they aim to keep you entertained 24/7. Even if you meet plenty of people when travelling solo, you will find yourself struggling to stay sane on some of the longer journeys between popular destinations.
On our first Contiki bus trip, we each had to take to the mic and introduce ourselves with a story of ‘fame’ or ‘shame’. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but everyone’s in the same boat and it makes the journey much more interesting. Later in our trip, we put together our own quiz by contributing two questions each – such a simple but effective way to kill time on the road. Every morning, as soon as we boarded the bus, our tour guide Bec would play the same song. The idea was that when we heard it in the future, we’d associate it with the trip and smile at the fond memories. She also showed us classic Australian movies depicting the places we’d been that day, and her rule of ‘no nesting’ when it came to seats on the bus ensured that we got to know each other quickly.
5. Time saving
You can fit so much more into each day when your bus follows your every move. There’s no waiting all afternoon for the next scheduled departure or hanging about while a transfer bus fills up. Sure, you could rent a car and take a road trip, but that’s only really an option if you can get a group together to travel with. You also can’t catch up on sleep if you’re behind the wheel. The Northern Territory is very, very big! If you planned on driving those distances, you’d need to factor in additional time to rest, which would eat into your itinerary.
Some destinations are made for guided tour groups, and I believe that the Northern Territory is one such place. Places of interest may be hundreds of kilometres apart and public buses are few and far between. Even if you do manage to book transfers between towns, there’s no flexibility in where they’ll stop, so you might have to miss out on some fantastic additional sights. Some of the highlights of our Outback Adventure were road side rest stops!
Your Contiki guide will also have the contact details of all of the places you intend to visit, and they’ll call ahead to confirm your plans. Chances are, their knowledge of the area will enable you to fit in as many activities as possible without having to contend with last-minute cancellations. Also, with the outback being so vast and remote, sometimes tours won’t run unless they meet minimum numbers. There’s no better way to guarantee a small crowd than to travel with a tour group.
Of course, I understand the excitement of travelling independently and the anticipation that comes with never being sure what the next day might bring. I value that sense of accomplishment you get from knowing you planned an entire trip and had no major pitfalls, and I love meeting new groups of people in every hostel. But sometimes, it’s good to take a back seat and enjoy the ride and I have absolutely #NoRegrets about joining Contiki in the Northern Territory. I’ve swallowed my pride and I hope to have more opportunities to join organised tours in the future.
My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience.