Friday, January 20, 2006

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

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

Only travelers between the ages of 18 and 35 can board Contiki Holidays buses for sightseeing trips geared toward the young and social. Both singles and those in relationships are OK, 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,” says Lisa Wooldridge, Contiki’s vice president of marketing. “It’s not your grandmother’s tour.”

The Geneva-based company has offered tours worldwide for young travelers for 40 years, but it’s still catching on in the United States. Many tour companies offer specialized trips — such as adventure or music tours — for young tourists, but Contiki has been “one of the pioneers” in its market segment for general sightseeing tours, says 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,” Mr. Palmer says.

Itineraries vary from whirlwind four-day trips to 48-day tours of 16 countries; prices range from $225 to $4,439. In the United States, Contiki offers 18 trips, ranging from three to 24 days and in locations from Hawaii to Maine. New York and Los Angeles are big draws for foreign travelers, Miss Wooldridge says.

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

“There’s a lot of single people and tight spaces,” Mr. Allen said recently during one of many cross-country trips that stop in Dallas. “You’re forced to get to know each other really fast.”

Caroline Bussey, a 21-year-old beautician from Tulsa, Okla., says 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. Though they are less known in the United States, young tourists who have 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,” says Miss Bussey, the only American among mostly Australians and New Zealanders on a cross-country U.S. tour called the Grand Southern. That itinerary hits 22 states, starting in New York and ending in California.

The tour includes stops in Texas, where travelers want to see “the over-the-top big things that people always associate with Texas,” Miss Wooldridge says. “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 on the assassination of President Kennedy and also visited Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play.

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 offers scheduled free time, giving travelers the opportunity to decide on their own activities, with input from tour managers.

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

“You could click overnight,” says 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.”

• • •

Contiki Holidays offers tours for people between the ages of 18 and 35: or 866/266-8454.

Here are some sample routes:

• Grand Northern, 24 days, featuring New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California; $2,645.

• Grand Southern, 24 days, featuring California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York; $2,499.

• Parks and Canyons, 13 days, featuring Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California; $1,665.

• California Highlights, six days, featuring California, Nevada; $649.

• Big Apple Explorer, four days, featuring New York; $485.

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