Contiki Tour: The Easy Way to Travel Solo to Europe

McKenna Carter Avatar

Profile view of woman standing at rail of boat in sunglasses, black shirt, white skirt, on a boat tour in Aveira, Portugal with Contiki tours.
Boat tour in Aveira, Portugal. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

The writer was hosted.

Touring Portugal and Spain with Contiki, a travel tour company that organizes trips for people ages 18-35, made me realize how easy international travel could be for a woman traveling solo. I didn’t have to plan anything; all I had to do was pack my bags and show up!

I could put all of that planning energy into being present in the moment – and getting to know my traveling partners and exploring the wonders of Spain and Portugal.

As a woman in her mid-20s, I felt like the best part of the trip was the people I got to meet. During the days spent riding in the coach from one place to another, I formed bonds with random strangers from all over the world who ended up becoming some of my closest friends, who I still keep in touch with today!

Sharing these experiences with equally enthusiastic travelers and making connections is what makes Contiki so special and unique.

Here’s my take on Contiki Tours, along with some tips for making the most of your trip.

Contiki Tour Highlights

  • Everything is planned for you – accommodations, transportation, and tours.
  • It’s easy to bow out of the planned itinerary and do your own thing for a few hours or a day.
  • Traveling with people from around the world who become like family by the end of the week.

Things You Need to Know

  • Bring extra cash. There are opportunities for add-on excursions that are not included in the base price of the tour. And not all meals are included.
  • Pack light. This tour changes hotels every night or two. You won’t want to drag a huge suitcase along.
  • The tour activities are mostly walking tours. And there is a lot of eating! Bring pants with a stretchy waist.

A Note about Safety

Never did I ever feel unsafe throughout the trip. Everywhere I was, there was always Contiki staff or the group nearby to help if I needed it.

I could not recommend Contiki enough to young people who are looking to travel and meet new people – experiences like this that get you out of your comfort zone are worth it. Traveling with Contiki makes it stress-free and easy to dip your toes into the traveling experience!

Read More: Check out my Contiki Tour packing list so you don’t forget anything you’ll need — and don’t bring anything you won’t!

Blonde woman in green shirt taking a selfie in front of an ancient building in Cuidad Rodrigo, Spain while on a Contiki tour.
Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Before the Contiki Tour Begins

My tour of Spain and Portugal officially started when the group met at a hotel in Lisbon. But a week before, I was surprised to get a box in the mail from the Contiki staff. The box included a Contiki-branded travel backpack, a Contiki-branded stainless-steel water bottle, travel-themed stickers to decorate my new water bottle, and a small package of Paella seasoning.

My new Contiki backpack was exactly what I needed as my carry-on bag for the trip. In that bag, I packed my new stainless-steel water bottle decorated with all my new Contiki stickers. The backpack also held all of my in-flight essentials, and books to have on hand.

I held onto the Paella seasoning for after the trip when I felt like reminiscing.

Meeting the Group

I arrived in Lisbon early, so I took a few hours to explore the city before returning to the hotel to meet the group. In the lobby, I was greeted immediately by my wonderful Contiki Trip Manager, Maddy, and our coach driver, Bart.

As members of the group trickled in, we introduced ourselves and shared stories of our journey to Lisbon. It was exciting to learn this trip brings people together from all corners of the world!

Next, we headed into a conference room for our “Kickstart Meeting.” That was where we were briefed with introductions, general contacts, what to expect, safety considerations, and given the opportunity to ask any questions.

This was where I learned about the thieves who pick the pockets of tourists in Europe and to always keep our bags and smaller items in a secure cross-over bag or hidden somewhere. This was never an issue during my trip, but it was good to know.  

The Contiki Tour Difference

There are, of course, many tour companies that operate tours in Europe. Contiki focuses on people my age, which meant that I was traveling with people of a similar age and travel style. We were all excited to experience Spain and Portugal and we were all enthusiastic travelers.

Since the tour is geared toward young people, I was a little surprised to find that most of the touring involved walking. Like me, the other tour participants were fit and physically able. We did get a chance to zipline one day; I enjoyed that very much. I would have liked more opportunities for that kind of elevated experience.

Walking is always a great way to see a city, but for people who are used to more vigorous physical activity, it would have been nice to have some more exhilarating activity options.

SheBuysTravel Tip: One of the best things about Contiki is the option to not follow the planned itinerary. I highly recommend taking time for a little solo exploration – on your own or with one of your new-found friends.

My Tour of Portugal and Spain

Contiki offers tours in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. My tour hit the highlights of Spain and Portugal, including lots of delicious food stops.

Several men stand at a wine barrel counter paying for wine bottles while through the open door a stone wall with window and greenery is visible.
Companhia Agricola do Sangeuinhal – Countryside wine tasting in Portugal. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Portugal with Contiki

Stops in Portugal included Lisbon, where our tour started, and Porto, where we visited Companhia Agricola do Sangeuinhal, located in the wine countryside.

Along the way, we explored the cobblestone streets and tasted traditional Portuguese tarts. Every local we asked had the same recommendation: “Go to Pastéis de Belém.”

This place has served fresh, traditional egg tarts since 1837. It is the staple of the city and once you show up, there is a line of locals out the door holding their blue boxes of tarts, which is always a good sign. Pastries are cheap and can range from $1-$5 USD.

People viewing the Belem Tower while on a walking tour with Contiki Tours.
Belém Tower Walking Tour. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Conveniently, the Belém Tower is nearby. It’s a breathtaking, 16th-century landmark that symbolizes the colonial power of Portugal. You can’t miss this.

As a group, we shared traditional Portuguese dishes with beef and roasted local vegetables,  but the best of the best we decided on as a group was the Pici Cacio E Pepe, thick, handmade pasta in a creamy decadent, and peppery sauce, and to finish, the dessert had won us over when the waiter came out with a massive dish of Tiramisu over his shoulder and a very large spoon to serve right onto our plates – pair that with a little glass of red wine or some espresso and you are already feeling like a European.

SheBuysTravel Tip: There was a slight language barrier if you do not speak Portuguese or good Spanish, but with pointing and a little knowledge of Spanish, they can help you successfully order. And, of course, the Contiki tour guides were always happy to translate!

Blonde woman in blue helmet, blac tank and jeans ziplines over a river in Toledo, Spain.
Ziplining with Fly toledo. Photo courtesy of Fly Toledo

Exploring Spain with Contiki Tours

Toledo is where we thrill seekers had a blast. We headed to Fly Toledo, a company that specializes in ziplining across the river. It is the most thrilling and exhilarating experience! Don’t forget to smile at the end when they take your picture and give them your email so they can send the photo to you.

But ziplining isn’t the only reason to visit Toledo. If, like me, you’re a Game of Thrones fan, the city will take your breath away. As you head into the city, stop at the scenic overlook to snap some pictures and videos or simply admire the views of the ancient city.

Table at La Cave Restaurant after a group has eaten and left, before the table was bussed. The walls are stone, with a lamp in the corner and artwork hanging above the table.
La Cave Restaurant. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

For lunch, head to La Cave, where you can dive into rustic underground caverns, followed by some cheeses, bread, and roasted meat entrees that come right off the grill.

Madrid, Spain

This iconic city is home to stunning architecture and landmarks. Your first stop needs to be The Royal Palace – it holds more than 3,000 rooms inside!

Next, grab an espresso and the most buttery and flakey croissant you’ll ever have at Grupo Lezama, a cafe right on the corner that overlooks the palace. Next head to Plaza Mayor, one of the most popular destinations in Madrid – and for good reason. Everyone and their entire family and friends were out in this plaza, grabbing a coffee, grabbing lunch, or simply just getting some sun in. The plaza is massive and is surrounded by stores, cafes, gelato shops, and churro vendors.

The must-have sweet treat of Madrid is Churros. For the most traditional kind, go to Chocolateria San Gines, which has been serving since 1894. You’ll find it on a quaint cobblestone street with iconic green and white frames with servers bustling out the door with hot plates of crispy churros stacked on a plate with mugs with steaming hot, thick chocolate. At one point, I did stop eating the churros just to sip on the decadent mugs of chocolate – seriously so good.

Table at a Flemenco dancing restaurant with several plates full of paella and wine in glasses on a white tablecloth.
Paella at Flamenco Dancing. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Lastly, you can’t say you’ve been to Spain if you have not been to a Flamenco dancing show. One of the oldest flamenco dancing establishments in the world is Tablao Flamenco – 1911. Make sure to wear your best flamenco outfit!

As you are guided to your table in the open ballroom, wine or other beverages are served first, followed by the biggest, heaping plate of paella you’ve’ ever seen. Men and women begin their performances in an authentic and traditional flamenco show; the ladies worse beautiful flowing red gowns and you cannot keep your eyes off of them.

Plan to Bunk with a Roommate

We stayed in four different hotels on our 8-night tour. All of the hotels included a television, wifi, and two twin beds.

Contiki encourages roommates in order for people to get to know each other better. I traveled solo so Contiki assigned me a roommate for the trip. I could have requested a room to myself but because getting to know the people is the most important part, I welcomed a roommate.

Karinna, my bunkmate for the trip, was the most wonderful and kind person. It was great to come home from a long day of adventure and have someone to share stories and laugh with at the end of the day.

These are the hotels where we stayed:

View of the front facade of the VIP  Zurique hotel in Lisbon, Portugal
VIP Zurique hotel in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Hotel VIP Zurique, Lisbon, Portugal

We stayed here our first two nights. It’s located right in the heart of busy Lisbon. I arrived early and was unable to check in before 2 pm, but the front desk did offer to hold my bags while I solo explored the city.

The hotel is moderately sized, and the lobby is clean and kept up. Breakfast is included and is served on the second floor in the large dining hall.

My room was small – it could accommodate no more than two people – and had a sliding window that overlooked the city. The bathroom included towels, a hair dryer, shampoo/conditioner, and soap.

Ibis Porto Gaia, Porto, Portugal

This hotel was nuzzled right into the community of Vila Nova de Gaia, close to the heart of Porto.

We were greeted by the friendly hotel staff as soon as we walked into the lobby. To the left is the buffet area sorted with lots of different breakfast and beverage options.

The rooms are sleek and modern with two twin beds. As nice and clean as the rooms were, this was by far the smallest hotel room and bathroom we had throughout the trip. It would be quite cramped to try and fit even one more person into the room.

The one window could be cracked open for fresh air, along with the option for a black-out curtain, if needed, and a desk was available for work, charging phones, or holding your backpack and things.

Person walking down front steps of the Hotel Bardo in Spain.
Hotel Bardo in Spain. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Hotel Bardo Recoletos Coco, Salamanca, Spain

This charming hotel is located about a 30-minute walk from the center of town in a calm area outside of the city. So if you’re looking to come back to some peace and quiet, this place is the perfect getaway.

The ambiance of the hotel was upscale and offered a completely separate restaurant/dining area for breakfast.

The rooms were very spacious, clean, and cool. The bathrooms were very nice, with lots of room as well, including all the shower necessities. However, we were not expecting to have black garage-like balcony shades to block the sun from the window – once we got that up, we were able to enjoy the sunset from our room.

Front lobby with person checking in at desk of the Melia Castilla hotel in Madrid, Spain.
Melia Castilla hotel in Madrid, Spain. Photo credit: McKenna Carter

Melia Castilla, Madrid, Spain

This was by far the best stay of the trip. The hotel’s website calls it “An oasis of serenity and refinement in the center of Madrid.” And that description hits it right on the nail.

As you enter through the large revolving doors, you step into a large luxurious lobby with lots of comfortable seating options and a bar/lounge area. Exotic plants and custom lights decorate the space, which touches on traditional Spanish design. I immediately felt like a VIP guest.

After receiving the keys, I took some time to explore and found a wonderful array of amenities, including a restaurant/bar, pool and wellness center, buffet dining area, and gym.

The rooms are spacious, light, and open. The bathrooms offered various mirrors, a hair dryer, and all the shower necessities. The shower at this place caught everyone’s attention – it is a rainfall shower with all sorts of different mechanisms, like mist!

Bottom Line on a Contiki Tour

I do not think I would have found the opportunities to fit in as much activity and sightseeing if I had been traveling on my own. My fellow travelers on the Contiki tour were just as passionate about travel as I am. It was a refreshing experience to meet such fantastic, unique, like-minded people.

McKenna Carter Avatar
Meet McKenna, a globe-trotting travel writer with a knack for uncovering the hidden adventures within cities. By day, she works as a Sustainable Design Consultant within the architecture industry, passionate about diverse landscapes and vast differences in urban development. But when the workday ends, McKenna swaps blueprints for a backpack, setting off to explore the world’s most intriguing corners. As a travel journalist with an eye for detail, McKenna brings readers along the journey, capturing the essence of what it is like to travel as a woman in different cultures and environments. Through words and design, McKenna is on a mission to spark adventure and excite others to make the world a greener, more vibrant place—one building and one article at a time.
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