How tours with Contiki, Topdeck and others have changed forever

If you're over 30 and you've been to Europe, then you probably have a misty-eyed idea of what coach tours there are all about. After all, most of us have been there and done it, on Contiki, on Topdeck, on BusAbout or the like, taking a whirlwind journey around the Western half of the continent while drinking far too much and making out with strangers.

You probably picture backpackers still doing that, too: picture them rattling around in an old bus with dodgy airconditioning, sleeping in tents, drinking at the campsite bars, getting up in the mornings to pack up their tents and wash all the dishes, spending hungover days dragging themselves around tourist sights, going a little crazy and having fun doing it.

But if you think that, you're wrong. Pretty much, anyway. The backpacker tours as we knew them, as we loved them, are finished. They'll never be the same again. They'll never return.

To begin with, most people don't camp anymore. Contiki, the juggernaut of group travel for young people in Europe, now only offers one camping itinerary around the continent. One. Out of more than 300 trips the company runs there.

By far the more popular accommodation options involve staying at a mix of hostels and cabins (sometimes in campsites, sometimes aboard ferries or yachts), or staying in proper hotels in twin-share accommodation.

And even for the hardy few, camping tours ain't camping tours anymore. Those passengers don't even have to set up their own tents. They don't have to wash their own dishes. There's far more focus on travelling for them, and less focus on doing chores.

Topdeck, meanwhile, offers 16 European camping itineraries, but that's nothing compared to its 72 Hostel Plus trips, or its 62 hotel-based itineraries. Modern-day backpackers don't camp. That much is clear. And they don't travel on coaches that aren't fitted with USB chargers and reclining seats.

But there's more that's changed about touring life, more that's altered the dynamic on these rite-of-passage journeys.

One of them is a little thing called the internet. I used to work on tours, as a travelling cook for Topdeck, and a large part of that job was being able to think on your feet. You either knew the answers to everyone's silly questions, or you could come up with believable alternatives. It didn't matter if you were 100 per cent correct – if that monument on the horizon really was called Castle Schloss, or if Ausfahrt really was a huge city in central Germany – it only mattered that you sounded correct and people believed you.


Now, of course, everyone has Google. They have Google, and they can access it at all times, because both Contiki and Topdeck offer free Wi-Fi on board their coaches. (The blurb on Contiki's website reads: "Some things are just essential in life. Water. Food. Wi-Fi. Mainly Wi-Fi.")

That's a huge change. Not only does it mean they get to call "bullsh-t" any time a trip leader or a coach driver or a cook makes something up on the spot (ahem), but they're also always connected, and probably always making use of that connection. Passengers might be sitting there on the coach listening to their trip leader bang on about the history of the Visigoths – or, more likely, they'll be checking Instagram to see how many likes their last post got.

Social media also creates a permanent record of the goings-on of a tour, which is going to subtly alter people's behaviour. It used to be that going away to Europe meant you could cut loose, you could be whoever you wanted to be, you could act in ways you never would at home and be confident that no one you know would ever find out about it.

That's not the case anymore. You go out and get hammered in Florence and people are reading about in it Brisbane in real time. You make a fool of yourself in Amsterdam and everyone in Wagga Wagga will get an immediate update.

The interesting thing, though, is that that lack of freedom is probably not grating on too many passengers, because they don't want to do those things anymore. Millennials are pretty savvy – they know food, they know culture, they know sights and attractions, and they want to see and experience them. They want to go out and have fun, sure, but getting boozy in a campsite that could be pretty much anywhere in the world is not high on their list of priorities.

Being constantly connected does have its upsides, though. Topdeck has an app that connects everyone on a particular tour in a group chat. It allows people to drop pins on locations so they can meet up with each other, or allows their trip leader to drop pins on suggested attractions. That's slightly different to the tour groups of old, who'd just follow each other around aimlessly whenever they had free time.

The other thing that's changed is where people are travelling. Those coach tours around Western Europe aren't coach tours around Western Europe anymore. To begin with, the east – Budapest, Prague, Sarajevo, Krakow – is extremely popular.

But tours aren't limited to Europe, mostly because Millennials aren't limiting themselves to that continent as a first destination. Contiki has trips in the USA, Canada, Latin America and Asia. Topdeck goes to all of those places, plus the Middle East and North Africa. There are plenty of other companies, too, that offer competing products in those markets: the likes of Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Geckos Adventure, Tucan and more.

You can poke fun at Millennials if you want. You can laugh at them with their Wi-Fi and their hotels and their aversion to roughing it. But they're savvy, adventurous travellers who are seeing the world, just in different ways to generations before them.

The tours they go on will never be the same as ours. Their drivers will never get lost. Their accommodation will never be terrible. Their food will never be questionable. Their hangovers probably won't be as bad.

But maybe that's a good thing.

Did you go on a coach tour when you were a young traveller? Did you enjoy the experience the way it was, or do you think they've changed for the better? Leave a comment below.



See also: The backpacker hostel, as you knew it, is dead

See also: 13 signs you're too old to be a backpacker

New episodes: Flight of Fancy podcast

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here or download using your favourite podcasting app.