Bonding on the bus

Contiki, catering to travelers ages 18 to 35, offers tours of the United States and the world over, but the real draw is the chance to socialize with peers.

By SHEILA FLYNN, Associated Press
Published April 2, 2006


Retirees and all-you-can-eat buffets? Not on this travel bus tour.

How about bar-hopping? Adventure side trips? Even scheduled free time and the potential for romance?

Only travelers between the ages of 18 and 35 can board a Contiki Holidays bus for sightseeing trips geared toward the young and social. Singles are okay, as well as those in relationships, but travelers on many trips must declare "red light" or "green light" status to show their availability for dates.

"The concept is really for young, like-minded travelers who want to experience the world with other people in their similar age group," said Lisa Wooldridge, Contiki's vice president of marketing. "It's not your grandmother's tour."

For 40 years, the Geneva company has offered tours worldwide for young travelers, but they're still catching on in the United States. Many tour companies offer specialized trips - like adventure or music tours - for young tourists, but "Contiki has been one of the pioneers in their market segment" for general sightseeing tours, said Michael Palmer, executive director of the Student Youth Travel Association.

"One of the successes of a model like Contiki is that they found ways to bring people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds together," Palmer said.

Itineraries vary from whirlwind four-day trips to 48-day tours of 16 countries, with prices ranging from $225 to $5,585. In the United States, Contiki offers 18 trips, ranging from three to 24 days and locations from Hawaii to Maine. New York and Los Angeles are big draws for travelers from abroad, Wooldridge said.

Jordan Allen, a 24-year-old tour manager, said the confines of the bus can create international friendships and even marriages.

"There's a lot of single people and tight spaces," Allen said recently during a cross country trip. "You're forced to get to know each other really fast."

Caroline Bussey, a 21-year-old beautician from Tulsa, Okla., said she didn't book her Contiki trip to Europe last year with the intent of finding a boyfriend, "but I found a great guy and I credit the tour, because you can really get to know someone in 46 days."

Contiki trips are well-known in Australia and New Zealand - they were started by New Zealander John Anderson in 1961 - and are popular with Europeans and Canadians. While less known in the United States, young tourists who've discovered the trips say they're a great way to meet people from different countries without traveling internationally.

"I really like talking about different cultures, talking to people from different countries," said Bussey, the only American among mostly Australians and New Zealanders on a cross country U.S. tour called the Grand Southern that toured 22 states, starting in New York and ending in California.

The tour included stops in Texas, where travelers want to see "the over-the-top big things that people always associate with Texas," Wooldridge said. "They want to see a football game, they want to see the Dallas Cowboys, the big 56-ounce steak."

On the Grand Southern, the group of 34 travelers ate lunch in Texarkana before arriving in Dallas, where they toured the Sixth Floor Museum for a history lesson about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. They were offered the options of drinking and dancing in the downtown club district of Deep Ellum or attending an NBA Mavericks game. The next day, they moved on to the open spaces of West Texas and the Cadillac Ranch, an artistic display of 10 graffiti-covered cars planted upright in a wheat field.

The itinerary also offered scheduled free time throughout the trip, letting travelers decide on their own activities, with the input of tour managers - who worked with travelers to determine their interests and offer suggestions.

Though the sightseeing is good, many repeat customers say it is the Contiki company and like-minded travelers who make it worthwhile.

"You could click overnight," said Australian Ben Lengyel, a 27-year-old tour driver in Europe who took the Grand Southern trip during the European off-season. "They've got one thing in common, which is travel."