I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about these two tour companies for ages!
When I was in the stages of planning my trip around the world, I knew I wanted to do a tour across the states but I was having a hard time deciding what one. I’d heard so many different views from people but it was always the same. Friends who went on Top Deck recommended it as “the best thing ever!!” whereas Contiki go-ers loved their trip “Soooo much!!”
I decided to go on both to find out which one I enjoyed more.
I allocated myself just over a month in the USA. I wanted to start my travels on the West Coast of America in August so I could experience some of their Summer time.
I looked into Contiki Tours first. They aim their tours at people aged 18-35 years old. For their American & Canadian tours they had a selection of 34 different trips to choose from with lots of different tour dates which suited me really well.
They have 6 different types of tours that you can do around the USA & Canada.
- Discovery Plus – See the best parts of each place you visit while staying in hotels
- High Energy – Explore during the day and party it up at night!
- In-Depth Explorer – 2 night stays in most places so you can explore more + more free time
- Easy Pace – Slower, more relaxed seeing only a few of the states.
- Festivals & Short Stays – Pretty much what it says. Shorter trips focused on one thing like Las Vegas for New Years or 4 Days in New York.
- Winter & Ski – Skiing & Snowboarding activities, Zip-lining and Snowmobiles are included on trips like these.
I was tossing up between the ‘High Energy‘ and the ‘Easy Pace’ type of trip. Basically the Easy Pace is where you get to have a sleep-in most mornings and than board a plane to your next destination. It’s quicker I guess to see each city but then I felt like you wouldn’t really ‘get to know’ your Contiki group on a plane compared to the 6-8 hour bus rides you can do instead. (They sound boring but you get that much needed sleep)
In the end I chose the High Energy style tour. Which included…
- Twin Share Hotel accommodation (or a room to yourself if you pay extra)
- Breakfast every day
- Trip Manager & Coach Driver
- ME Time
- Air Conditioned Coach – you drive across the USA
- Included Activities & Some sightseeing toursThis is more for travelers who want to see as much as possible as their trips range from 8 days to 26 days
Don’t worry if you don’t want to just do the States! Contiki also have tours around Europe, Asia, Latin America, Australia & New Zealand.
For the Europe trips, if you’re on a Budget they also have Camping trips where you stay in tents with 1 other person (Of the same sex) or opt to pay a bit more for a single person tent.
Top Deck has similar style trips as well which include staying in Hotels, Camping, Winter trips and Club trips to suit what you want to do.
I looked into their American trips, specifically their Road Trip USA tour that went for 28 days which started in LA and finished in New York but decided on doing a Contiki in the end.
Looking back, I’m not sure which made up my mind…the Top Deck tour went for longer and it was cheaper than the Contiki. Hmm..
What I decided for America
I embarked on a 26 day tour with Contiki called The Grand Southern – starting in Los Angeles.
I made sure to spend 5 days in Los Angeles beforehand at a hostel because once the tour starts, you leave LA immediately and won’t have any time to explore.
(I’d recommend 3 days at least in LA so you can do Theme Parks, Hollywood Sign, Bus Tour etc)
I took an Uber from my hostel to the Kyoto Hotel** the night before the Contiki started and attended a brief orientation with our tour manager and the rest of the group.
You don’t have to go to this, but it’s beneficial as you can give all your passport information and next-of-kin info to your group leader and don’t have to worry about it in the morning.
It’s fun too because you get to meet everyone that you’re going to be travelling with and then head out for some drinks etc.
** – Please note that the Kyoto Hotel is now called DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel
I’ve already written a day-by-day blog on everything I did on my Contiki which you can start to read about here.
My Thoughts on Contiki
The trip on the website promised…
- “An experienced & professional Trip Manager & Driver team”
We defiantly got this, I absolutely loved our Manager and our Driver. In my head, I assumed the driver would literally just be driving us places and not saying much at all.
The very first day he stood at the front of the bus and explained the rules of the bus (No hot food, no hot drinks, no dairy on the bus, no using the bathroom unless for absolute emergencies)
I think a few people thought he was way too strict throughout the trip but I’m glad he was as the bus didn’t smell like hot food or urine like I can imagine some to be.
He had a rule where you had to be on the bus by the allocated time every morning to leave for our next destination and if you weren’t on the bus he’d leave without you.
He was true to his word and we left someone in Memphis!
When I did Top Deck they were a bit more relaxed about it but it did get annoying when you were always having to wait for someone and then got to your destination way later than you wanted to.
Lateness = Less time in cool places
- “32 meals: 19 breakfasts & 13 dinner”
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but throughout the 26 days we had some great dinners. When I read that we’d be getting dinner included in the cost of the Contiki (for some of the days) I was a bit disappointed. I wanted to go out and choose my own food and pick what I wanted to eat that night!
It ended up being great though. Whenever we were going to be arriving at our destination, we’d have a sheet our tour manager would hand out on the bus a couple of days before with about 5 different options of meals to order at the restaurant we’d be going to. We’d write our name down and what we wanted to eat so they could serve it up really quickly when we arrived.
The best meal I can remember was from Ellens Southern Kitchen in Dallas, Texas.
I had Buttermilk Fried Chicken which was fresh organic marinated chicken, fried crispy and served with broccoli and sweet potato fries.
You got Breakfast at pretty much each destination too. Some were a bit mediocre but most places did bagels, oatmeal, cereals, toast etc…
- A list of Inclusions (Things included on the trip)
- We did an Evening tour of the famous Vegas ‘Strip’
- We Visited Fremont Street & saw the light-and-laser show in Las Vegas
- We got into groups and did the Vegas strip in a limo with champagne
- Non-stop nightlife (You can be out as late as you want, just as long as you’re back on the bus by a certain time in the morning)
- Stopped for photos & souvenirs in pretty much each state we were in.
- Hiked along the Canyon’s South Rim
- Drove through the Rocky Mountains
- Visited Old Town Albuquerque
- Visited the unusual outdoor tribute to the American automobile at ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and got to spray paint old Cadillac’s.
- Experienced Big Texan culture & food.
- Visited the infamous John F. Kennedy Sixth Floor Museum
- Visited Fort Worth Stockyards
- Mingled with cows and cowboys in this rodeo town in Texas.
And much more!
- ME Time Options
Contiki has these ‘extras’ you can sign up for on the trip. A piece of paper is passed around the bus before you get to the next destination and it has written down all the ‘ME Time Options’ you can do.
On the Grand Southern Tour, we got to sign up for activities such as…
- Cirque du’ Soleil show in Vegas – AWESOME by the way!
- High Roller Day Pass
- Grand Canyon Biking (seasonal)
- Helicopter Flight of the Grand Canyon- Imperial
- Rafting (seasonal)
- Snowmobiles – Single or Double Rider (seasonal)
- Horse Back Trail Ride (Seasonal)
- Hot Air Balloon over Albuquerque
- Cowboy Stadium Tour (including transportation)
- Rock & Soul Museum
- Visit the legendary Sun Studios
- School of Cooking in New Orleans
- Airboat Swamp Tour
- Universal Studios
- Miami Party Cruise
- Bike tour of South Beach
- Thriller speed boat ride in Miami
- Speedway Tour in Daytona
I didn’t do all of these but overall everything I did do I enjoyed.
You don’t pay for anything until your tour finishes which ended up being easier otherwise your tour manager always has to chase you up for your money and then it gets confusing remembered who has and hasn’t paid for what.
At the beginning of your trip you get given a list of all the ME time activities you can do and the prices next to it so you always know from the beginning how much you’ll be spending.
I’ll say this now, if you have the money, try and sign up for as many activities as you can!
Even if it’s not really your thing, you could end up having such an awesome time because of the people you’re doing the trip with. Also, it’s no fun sitting in your hotel room while everyone else goes out on these cool adventures.
- Shared Accommodation in Hotels
For the accommodation you’re paired up with 1 other same-sex partner on your Contiki. (You don’t choose unless pre-arranged beforehand I think) and they’re your room-buddy for the whole trip. Obviously if you’re travelling with your partner, let Contiki know so they can put you in the same room.
On my trip, one of the girls had major problems with her room-mate being a bit of a physco (very annoying, complaining the whole time, criticizing her etc…) so she ended up pairing up with me when my room-buddy went home half way through the trip (Long story but she basically missed her boyfriend)Anyways, at the beginning my new room buddy and I got along great!!
We had similar interests and loved getting glammed up etc, until it got to the last 2 days of the trip and we basically had a falling out because she started talking shit about me to other people on the trip.
I’m glad I only had a few nights with her and it’s really unfortunate that girls just some times can’t get along. Our Team Leader always said to say something straight away if you’re having problems with someone, but I guess it’s hard when people are already buddied up and don’t want to switch to a new room mate.
Now just because there were a couple of problems on my trip, don’t let this deter you from sharing a room!! Things like this rarely happen and it was just unfortunate that it happened on mine.The places we stayed at however were great!
I think there were probably only 2-3 places out of the whole trip that I wasn’t really fond of. But they were more because of Wi-fi problems or the fact that my headphones were snapped out of my Tablet while I was out for the day. (Grand Canyon House keeping I’m looking at you)
Other than that, I always felt safe wherever we went and you can see that Contiki tries really hard to find centrally located places for us to stay at. Contiki people are usually a rowdy bunch so it’s good that the hotels put up with us!!
Overall, I absolutely LOVED my Contiki. Beforehand, I’d read some people say things like “For the same amount of money, I could have stayed at 4-5 star hotels and had private tours of everything”
This may be true, but Contiki is such an experience in itself. I traveled by myself for 3 months and Contiki was one of the highlights because of all the people I met, because I could sleep on the Coach all day travelling to my next destination hungover while our driver drove us, because I didn’t have to research ‘What to do’ in each state and Contiki organised it for me. So many reasons!
“The meals are crap. Everywhere. If they are included, they are crap.”
This is SO not true!! I Loved all of my meals! I can’t even remember a meal that I didn’t like. If I didn’t like something it’d probably have been because it was Seafood and I hate seafood. But they try and cater to everyone (Gluten free, vegetarian etc…) so I don’t think I even ever had a seafood meal.
“You’ll stay in the outskirts in most places, which makes it very difficult to get around”
I guess there were a couple of places that were a bit ‘out of the way’ like in Orlando we were around a grocery store, about 3 steak houses and LOTS of souvenir stores but that was it. We were only in Orlando for 1 full day anyways and we all did Universal Studios so it was probably good there weren’t any bars or clubs around! I couldn’t imagine going on a roller coaster hungover.
Most of our other hotels however were centrally located. In Memphis we could walk to the main bars, in Las Vegas the bars were IN our hotel, in Washington D.C we were right next to the Subway so we could catch that to the city center.
I guess a few weren’t close enough to just walk everywhere, but our coach always took us out at night if we had dinner or were going to some event. You’re in a group anyways so Taxi’s end up being super cheap (Even cheaper if you take an Uber) which is perfect if you’re dying to head down to the clubs.
“The whole journey is full of alcoholics, the tour manager was arranging partying and drinking nearly every night”
Whoever wrote this obviously went on some type of High Energy Trip and didn’t read that this is usually what happens on them.
If you’ve got some party places on your map of destinations, you’ll most likely be going out! However, never EVER are you forced to go out with the group if you 100% don’t want to.
In reference to one of the girls on my trip who was a bit of a physco, when we were in Las Vegas she yelled at me for drinking a big bucket of margarita in the street (by the way, this is legal and expected in Las Vegas) and whenever someone got drunk she’d tell them how irresponsible and awful they were. We were all baffled as to WHY she was even on the trip.
If you don’t drink, that’s fine, just don’t criticize other people for doing what they want to do on their trip that they’ve also looked forward to for months.
There were about 3 girls on our trip who very rarely drunk alcohol so when they came out dancing with us they’d stick to juices or sodas but still had a great time.
Our Tour Manager had been doing Contiki’s for ages so he knew the best clubs to go to and how to get us some VIP tickets which was great. I never saw him wasted off his face though. If any of us got too drunk while he was out with us, he’d make sure they got back to the hotel safely. I guess some Tour Managers get a little bit crazy, but you have to remember they’re allowed some free time too. If you’re even on a Contiki, you’ll be over 18 years of age and probably don’t need to be baby-sat on your night out.
I had 15 days in Europe before I had to head off to Croatia to start my 1 week sailing trip. I decided on doing a Top Deck tour called ‘European Express‘ NZ$ 1,494 which was for 11 days starting in London and finishing in London.
Day 1: London, UK to Paris, France
Day 2: Paris
Day 3: Paris to Swiss Alps, Switzerland
Day 4: Swiss Alps
Day 5: Swiss Alps to Venice, Italy
Day 6: Venice
Day 7: Venice to Munich, Germany
Day 8: Munich to Rhine Valley
Day 9: Rhine Valley to Amsterdam, Netherlands
Day 10: Amsterdam
Day 11: Amsterdam to London, UK
I chose this tour purely for the fact I only had a short space of time in Europe and all of the other tours Top Deck offered were longer than 15 days.
I also got to quickly see France, Germany and Amsterdam before I headed to Croatia which I was really excited to see 🙂
I guess I didn’t start my Top Deck tour off very well.
I stayed at the hostel that Top Deck recommends you stay at as the tour leaves from there. It’s called Wombats Hostel and you can read my review on it here
If you can’t be bothered reading my review, in brief, the hostel was amazing and probably the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed at.
But that’s not why my experience started off badly. On the very first day when I woke up at 5am to board the bus by 6am I had the flu!!
My whole body was aching, I had a temperature, I had barely slept and just wanted to curl up into a ball and be taken care of. Instead I had to board a bus to the Ferry Terminal and take the Ferry across to France with all my new Tour mates.
I probably wasn’t the most social person at the beginning of the trip either because all I wanted to do was sleep. 😦
The first thing that bothered me about the Tour was our first driver. When we got picked up from the Hostel, we were greeted by a ‘larger man’ who spoke in a thick British accent and smoked like a chimney and just seemed angry about having to even take us to the Ferry Terminal in the first place. Just the way he spoke came across grumpy and it felt like he was complaining about every little thing. I’m not sure if it was his sense of humor and maybe he was trying to be funny but all I remember thinking was ‘Oh god, please don’t let him be our driver these whole 2 weeks’
Thankfully he wasn’t our permanent driver. He dropped us off at the ferry and went back to central London on the Top Deck Coach. We were met with another driver when we arrived in France.
With my particular tour, we stayed in Hostels that had been pre-arranged. Unlike Contiki where we where partnered up with someone for the whole trip, Top Deck allowed us to choose who we’d share a room with.
Every day before our new destination, a sheet was passed around the coach with 5-6 different dorm rooms written down (Usually each with 4-6 beds) and we could write down who we wanted to room with that night.
It’s good if you get sick of someone and want to change to hang out with different people.
Also if you’re hooking up with someone on Top Deck I guess it’s a good way to stay in the same room as them as our Tour Guide didn’t actually care if Males & Females roomed together.
I roomed with 2 girls the first night – Kara & Kelly – and ended up having a blast with them the whole time on Top Deck.
My Thoughts on Top Deck
The trip on the website promised:
- Optional Activities
I understand that this trip was considerably shorter than my Contiki so there wasn’t a whole bunch of activities over the 2 weeks, but the activities I did do I didn’t actually overall enjoy.
I did the Seine River cruise in Paris and thought it was a bit average.
I actually ended up listening to my iPod the whole time because the audio over the speakers (which explained all the landmarks) on the cruise spoke about the same thing 4 times in 4 different languages. It just got a bit boring to listen to when it was repeated so often.
Also you got given your ticket to do the cruise at your own time that day which meant if you hadn’t made friends yet you’d just go by yourself and compete against all the other tourists trying to board the boat at the same time.
I actually ended up going by myself as the girls I made friends with were doing the Bike-Ride around Paris tour and I didn’t sign up for it (I wasn’t sure how I’d be feeling as I still was a bit sick)
We all attended the Traditional cabaret show in Paris and again, this wasn’t anything to brag about. It maybe went on for a little bit too long and one of the guys on our trip even fell asleep. Eek!
However, in their defense, I’d seen the Cirque du soleil in Las Vegas on my Contiki Tour and that was bloody amazing. You could see how much they practiced because everything was done so over the top and was really made to ‘wow’ the audience. I admit I think I ‘compared’ the two shows to one another and kept noticing the dancers in Paris not being ‘in time’ with one another and to be 100% truthful, a little boring. It didn’t capture my attention for long that I was actually looking at my phone some of the time so that was a bit disappointing.
We did however get the chance to go up to the highest point on the European continent when we were in Switzerland- the top of Jungfrau Mountain via the Jungfraubahn railway. I was keen on this as the pictures looked amazing but it was so bloody expensive I didn’t end up doing it. I think it ended up being nearly NZD$250 just to get the train and look from the top. I know to some people that’s such an amazing experience, but I was travelling for 3 months and didn’t have that kind of budget to spend on a view.
Now this annoyed me a bit. I booked my Top Deck Tour at a Travel Expo back home in New Zealand. While I was looking at the ‘Top Deck Display’ I remembered talking to the Promoter about being in Europe in October and him getting really excited because I’d be in Germany at Oktoberfest time. Yay!
I booked the Top Deck tour that very day because they were having 15% off all tours and also I didn’t want to miss out on Oktoberfest because he made it seem like Top Deck specifically went out of their way to make it an amazing time for us all.Anyways, when I was on the tour, our Top Deck Leader didn’t have any plans for Oktoberfest! Here I was imagining we’d all go out and buy those cool Bavarian Wench Costumes and the boys would dress up in Beer Man Costumes and we’d all pre-drink beforehand and arrive at Oktoberfest partially off our faces.
But instead our leader said we could leave Venice early on our travel day to Germany and hopefully get there around 6pm so we could attend Oktoberfest. But if we where to do that, we had to go and ask our driver really nicely and it was only a ‘maybe’ as the driver had to get adequate sleep time. (Which I understand but…what!? I thought this would have been organised)Me and some others were a bit confused because I felt like I was sold on this tour because I got to do Oktoberfest. Instead we ended up arriving in Germany at 5.30pm and had only half an hour to get ready and then all set off to Oktoberfest.
Grrr. Sharing a room with 5 other girls and getting ready for Oktoberfest was so stressful. 1 Bathroom to share and only 2 mirrors to do our make-up in.Not to mention, only a few of us on our Top Deck had the traditional outfits to dress up in for Oktoberfest. We had no where to buy them before we arrived in Germany. No stop-offs anywhere so people could buy outfits, no suggestion on where to go, no option for anyone to even think about getting an outfit.
Luckily, me and a few other girls bought some from a supermarket in Switzerland while everyone else was out doing the Jungfrau Mountain trip that I didn’t attend.
Oktoberfest was fun but as I don’t drink Beer I didn’t get that drunk. If we’d had the day in Germany I would have pre-drunk or something beforehand and had a blast but oh well. The food was amazing and the atmosphere was great so I’d defiantly do it again another year but be so much more organised. As we only had that night in Munich, we couldn’t go back the next day to do it all again.
- 8 nights in hostels & 2 nights in bungalows at European campsites
The hostels were fun. The hostel we stayed at in Paris seemed to be in a slightly dodgy area with people always hanging around outside but it had it’s own bar and everything which was cool.
It did however have the weirdest smell in the bathroom, yuck!The ‘Top Deck Campsite‘ they use in Venice called Camp Jolly was horrible.
We stayed in cabins with 1 other person which was fine but when we turned up at 6pm half of the rooms hadn’t even been serviced.
Pretty much all the driers were broken for when I went to do my washing and in the midst of my shower our cabin’s power went out for ages.
In the Summer Time I can imagine it to be much better as they have a big pool and a bar etc… But I just found the staff there so rude and un-helpful. I needed coins for the Laundry so went to Reception, who then told me to go to the Camp Supermarket next door, where I stood at the counter for 3 minutes while the cashiers could finish gossiping and then serve me. But not without rolling their eyes because I needed some special ‘laundry coins’
Good news was, the Top Deck Staff in the ‘Top Deck’ Dinner Tent were awesome and the food was great!
The bar the campsite had was probably the only other great thing about it. There was another Top Deck Tour there at the same time so we all got drunk and danced away drinking the bar’s cheap drinks.
- The Food
Top-Deck provides a lot of food so as to ‘save you money’ but I wasn’t a fan of much of it. We always stopped for ‘picnics’ but it was always the same stuff.
Bread, cold meats, salads and some slices. By the second week I was so over eating cold food all the time I just wanted to eat a burger!! Plus if we did have an included dinner, we didn’t even get to choose what to eat which was a bit disappointing.
It sucks that it seems like I wrote alot of bad things about my Top Deck tour and that could have been because I started off my trip being sick.
Obviously on my Contiki I was with my group for nearly a month so we all got to know each other really well and made great friendships.
On my Top Deck I was only on it for about 2 weeks so I didn’t make any close-close friendships (apart from with a couple of girls).
Also I did Contiki in the Summer time so Summer Weather = Happiness!
There were obviously some great moments on my Top Deck. Hanging out in Amsterdam was awesome, meeting people from lots of different countries on my trip was sweet! Drinking and dancing together in the underground bar in Switzerland was a fun time 🙂
Contiki was the best.
Top Deck was good but comparing the time’s I had on my Contiki – it just didn’t quite measure up.
I think even if I didn’t do my Contiki I’d still maybe have been a bit disappointed with the Top Deck Tour.
The food on Contiki was better. The activities were funner. The drinking and nights out were more crazy.
I read online that people are put-off from Contiki because it seems like such a party atmosphere. When I read negative reviews online it’s usually from someone who doesn’t like to drink, or is more of a quieter reserved person which is fine, but maybe Contiki isn’t quite for you. (Or it could bring you out of your shell like a few people on my tour!)
I drink, but even I was nervous doing the tour. I imagined waking up to shots of Vodka in my face every morning and spewing on the bus every second day.
But I was absolutely fine!!! You honestly don’t have to go out if you don’t want to. Everyone is really accepting and if you don’t want to drink, no one will force you. We had a few girls on our trip who didn’t drink but they still came out with us and had a great time.
The only problem we had was with one girl because she criticized the rest of us all the time for drinking. Even in Las Vegas she looked at me in disgust because I was drinking from a bucket. People like that just ruin it for themselves because while we all ended up having a great bond she was always excluded because she just didn’t want to accept any of our personalities and we had to always do things ‘her way’
I didn’t spend my days too hungover to appreciate America though! It wasn’t all just drinking. We’d have dinners together even if it wasn’t included on our trip, we took group photos and played games on the coach together. We had nights out bowling and did our optional activities together. We even had a few couples on the trip and they had a great time! They still joined in on our nights out but still had the opportunities to go and have private dinners together or just spend the night in their room together if they couldn’t be bothered going out. No one ever made anyone feel bad for not going out.
Contiki is aimed at customers who are students and young travellers between the ages of 18 and 35. They operate in North & South America, Europe, Asia, New Zealand and Australia. They frequently put up last minute deals on certain destinations and offer major discounts to solo travellers.
Lunch is always up to you. A lot of times you eat at rest stops because you’re usually on the bus during lunch time. Some trips include 1-2 lunches.
Dinner is provided about half the time.
Some budget hotels that Contiki uses are slowly declining because past Contiki groups have partied too hard and the hotels won’t allow the company to return (We got warned beforehand at some hotels to keep it down a little bit)
Topdeck is another major international tour operator providing tours throughout, Europe, North America, Africa, Egypt, East-Asia, Latin American, Middle-East, Australia and New Zealand.
Breakfast is provided everyday and Lunch is usually up to you, most tours will include a few lunches where you stop and have a picnic.
Accommodation varies depending on destinations. They have Hostels, guest houses and bungalows with selected free hotel upgrades. They also have special stop overs such as flotilla sailing in Greece. Rooms are single sex and multi-share, usually 4-6
people per room.
If anyone has any questions about Contiki or Top Deck, let me know in the comments! I love talking about my trip 🙂
And if you’ve done one of their tours, let me know how it went, everyone has different experiences depending on the people they’re with and the things they see so it’ll be interesting to read.