Traveling to another country is one of the best chances to experience other cultures. And while some people enjoy the planning stages, for others, it might be intimidating to figure the ins and outs of a place you’ve never been — especially if your friends suck at getting the trip out of the group chat and solo travel is a bit too intimating. Group travel arranged through a travel provider is a great compromise to be around like-minded people with the same passion and interest in seeing a destination as you do.

As someone who has only traveled with friends, as a couple, or with other journalists, I was nervous about going on my Contiki Portugal trip with 21 people. I didn’t expect to have the time of my life and make relationships I’ll never forget. Once I got back, I found that there were some key advantages to traveling this way.

You don’t have to worry about planning anything

I chose the Portugal City and Surf tour, which is the perfect balance between beach areas like Peniche and Algarve and major cities like Porto and Lisbon. But the trip didn’t end there. Usually, when I’m on vacation, I only get the opportunity to visit one or two cities. But over eight days, we explored seven other towns along the way. On our stop in Nazareth, I witnessed some of the biggest waves in the world. During our time in Coimbra, we visited the oldest university in the country and coincidentally ran into a traditional university celebration. These aren’t the type of places I would have stopped if I had planned a trip on my own, but they’re experiences I won’t forget.

Deciding where to stay, how to get around, and the best places to stop can be overwhelming for any traveler. Contiki takes the guesswork out of it. While riding around a country by bus might sound uncomfortable, the coach was actually more enjoyable than some flights I’ve taken. Sometimes I’d chat with other trip members, but most of the time I slept so I’s be well rested if I wanted to enjoy the nightlife when we arrived.

Every Contiki trip has different accommodations. On my trip, we spent the night in two Selina hostels, where I shared a room with five other women, and two hotel rooms where I had a roommate or two. Before my time in Portugal, I had only spent the night in two different hostels in the states. The Selina hostels were not only clean but had lots of amenities I hadn’t seen at the other ones I stayed in. Both had cool bars to hang out in and cute cafes to eat in. The aesthetic was a very hip setting for meeting other travelers. While blackout curtains easily block any light if you plan to go to bed early or sleep in, my suggestion would be to bring earplugs or something to muffle the sound. I wear a sleep mask with speakers built in so I can fall asleep to music or a podcast, and they were also very effective in blocking out unwanted noise.

You’ll learn history and culture and get recommendations from a knowledgeable guide

group travel, mass in fatima

Photo: Olivia Harden

Europe is a popular destination for many reasons, one being that the continent’s history is well documented. When I travel, I always try to spend some time at a museum or cultural monument, but I won’t hesitate to cancel my plans if my hotel bed feels super lush. On a trip like this, you start learning the moment you step on the coach. Karin, my Contiki guide, had worked for the company leading group travel tours for the last 10 years. Every morning she’d hop on the mic inside our bus and go over the plans for the day and why we were visiting the destination. On our way to Sintra, a town full of castles and palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage site, she explained the history of the royals who resided in them and why Sintra was so famous.

One of my favorite stops was Fatima, where our guide explained the story of the miracle where three peasant children were blessed with a visit from the Virgin Mary (known as Fatima in Portugal) in 1917. During our visit, we saw a mass where thousands of people gathered. Karin also explained why we saw visitors in long lines with massive candles as a way to repent for the sins of their loved ones. I left Portugal feeling like I got a more complete picture of the country’s past and the people who live there now than I would if I had arranged my own travel.

On most days of the trip, breakfast was included, but we could go to town and explore the local cuisine for lunch and dinner. Karin was quick to recommend places to eat local specialties. And while she couldn’t come out to bars and nightclubs with us, she did have recommendations for where we’d find popular spots in the area. Karin recommended her favorite place in Porto to get a Francesinha sandwich (a beloved favorite among locals) and what part of Lisbon we’d find popular bars and nightclubs. Her advice made it easy to navigate on our own.

You can decide your budget with free time add-ons

group travel, travelers sitting at a table with charcuterie boards

Photo: Olivia Harden

Contiki divides time between guided activities and free time that allow you to explore, but they also offer extra excursions you can pay for and add to your trip. If you’re looking to keep your spending under a specific limit or there’s an activity you’re not interested in doing, you can pass on it for extra free time. My favorite additional activity was our trip to a vineyard in Bombarral. Quinta do Sanguinhal is a traditional family-run winery that began in the 19th century. We got to walk the vineyards and then do a wine tasting in the barrel room. I liked one of the white wines so much that I bought a bottle to take home.

Other add-ons included an EatWith in Porto, where locals prepared a home-cooked meal for us, surf lessons in Peniche, a street art tour in Cascais, and buggy tours in the Algarve. But if money is tight or you’re not interested in any activities, there are still plenty of excursions included in the trip, like a canal ride in Aveiro, time to explore castle and palace ruins in Sintra, and time on the beach in Santa Luzia.

You’ll be encouraged to try new foods

group travel, prepared octopus dishes

Photo: Olivia Harden

Anytime you travel to a foreign country, local delicacies might go anywhere from sounding delicious to totally out of your comfort zone. Portugal is known across the country for its national dessert, the custard tart pastel de nata. It reminded me of creme brulee wrapped in breading, so it felt familiar and easy to try. But other local favorites might be a bit more difficult for someone with an American palate to wrap their head around.

Call it peer pressure if you want, but it makes it a bit easier to try foods you’re not used to when you’re doing it with friends. The Francesinha sandwich from Porto is a local favorite made of bread, wet-cured ham, a smoke-cured sausage called linguiça, fresh sausage, and steak or roasted meat. It’s then smothered with melted cheese, a hot and thick spiced tomato and beer sauce, and topped with a fried egg. This heavy sandwich is not for the faint of heart, and it’s personally not something I would order on my own, but I’m glad I got to try it while in Porto. The same was true for me with the octopus in Santa Luiza.

And trying new things doesn’t mean you have to like it all. While I loved the octopus and thought the Francesinha was just okay, there was one thing I tried that I absolutely despised. Porto is the home of port wine, which is made by adding a distilled grape spirit to the wine base, causing it to stop fermentation and result in a higher alcohol content of up to 20 percent. We did a wine tasting, and I did not enjoy it at all — and that’s okay. The important thing is that I tried it and exposed myself to something new, even if it wasn’t for me.

If something goes wrong, Contiki helps take care of it

Whenever you go on vacation, there’s always the possibility that something won’t go exactly as planned. While we were in Porto, the company that was initially supposed to offer our Port wine tasting canceled at the last minute, but Karin was able to get in touch with a local who showed us around Porto, and she scheduled a private tasting at a restaurant nearby.

While we were exploring Portugal, I also caught a severe ear infection. Karin helped me get in touch with a telehealth doctor to write me a prescription for antibiotics and helped me find the closest pharmacy to pick up the prescription. I was out of commission for a good 36 hours, but I appreciated the help in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

You’ll make friends that will last a lifetime

group travel, group photo

Photo: Olivia Harden

When you spend 24/7 with 21 people, you may start as strangers, but you very quickly develop relationships that you otherwise wouldn’t imagine. I now have friends from as close as the United States and Canada to as far as Australia. Many of the people on the trip I met had been on multiple group travel trips with Contiki, and when I asked why, one of the main reasons was the connections they’d made.