Despite hailing from the only city with the dubious distinction of turning down the Olympic Games, I love the Olympics. I love the ceremonies, the traditions, the obscure sports, and the competition. Plus, it’s the only time where I can get extremely passionate and argumentative about the merit of archers from Kyrgyzstan and not be labeled a nutcase.
So when the Olympics came to Vancouver in 2010, I made attending a priority. But planning for the Olympic games isn’t like planning for a normal vacation; there are many more factors to take into consideration. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on a city for an Olympics, creating all kinds of challenges when getting around.
So with the games of the XXX Olympiad now upon us, I figured now would be as good a time as any to share my tips for planning a trip to the Olympics.
Getting Tickets is the Easy Part
I bought my tickets to the Vancouver Olympics almost two years in advance. To do so, I entered a lottery with the United States Olympic Committee, chose the events I wanted to see and the days I wanted to go, and crossed my fingers that they’d draw my number. Fortunately, my lucky number was called and I had the priviledge of paying way too much money for tickets to an ice hockey game and a curling match.
These efforts were completely unnecessary.
Many events at the Olympics do not sell out, and unless you’re looking to attend the big-ticket events or medal rounds, there will be plenty of seats available in the days leading up to the games. I found discount tickets on sale for significantly less than I paid on the days of the events.
As an added benefit, if you wait to buy your tickets you can choose the nations you see. When I won the ticket lottery, Olympic qualifying events were still months away and the tournament schedule was a long way from being decided. Of course it would have been nice to have seen a USA v. Canada ice hockey game, but instead I ended up with tickets to Lithuania v. Slovakia.
Unless you have a very specific event in mind that you want to attend, don’t be afraid of tickets selling out. There are so many events at the Olympics that there will always be extra tickets.
Getting a Hotel Room Is Not So Easy
I almost cancelled my trip to the Olympics due to the extremely high price of hotel rooms in Vancouver. Many basic rooms were going for more than $1000 a night, crushing my dreams of Olympic glory. While searching for accommodations, I did find one reasonably priced domicile for rent in central Vancouver – a cozy place that slept two for only $100/night. Not bad until I found out that this wasn’t a hotel room or an apartment, but the back seat of a Subaru Outback. No thanks.
I ended up looking outside the city of Vancouver for accommodations. Harrison Hot Springs is a small resort community two hours west of downtown Vancouver and during the Olympics, it was where I laid my head, took a shower, and not much else. I woke up early each morning to make the two hour drive into the city and didn’t make it back until late at night. Total cost was only around $120/night for two people and the accommodations were far better than the back seat of a car.
If you’re trying to save a few bucks, don’t be afraid to look outside of the host city for accommodations. As long as you have a method of transportation for getting around, the distance shouldn’t be a barrier. Driving a few hours each day can be more than worth it when accommodation costs can be so prohibitively expensive.
Expect Lines. Everywhere.
When I think back on my Olympic experience, I mostly remember the good times – watching the Canadians passionately cheer on their curling team to victory, soaking in the energy that was so palpable on every block in downtown Vancouver, and getting emotional as the stars and stripes were raised and the national anthem was played at a medal ceremony. But in reality, most Olympic visitors will spend more time waiting in line than doing anything else.
There are lines to get into the athletic events, the medal ceremonies and the Olympic exhibitions. But the lines don’t stop there. All of the restaurants in downtown Vancouver had lines out the door. The line to enter Hudson’s Bay Company, the popular department store selling Olympic merchandise, was over an hour long. Even Tim Hortons, the usually speedy Canadian donut shop, had massive queues of donut-hungry customers.
There typically aren’t ways around the lines (unless you’re Michael Phelps), so just know what to prepare for and plan on ways to keep yourself occupied while you wait for everything.
Zig When Others Zag
If waiting in long lines isn’t your thing, one strategy for avoiding some of the oppressive crowds is to do exactly the opposite of what a sane, reasonable person would do.
While staying in Harrison Hot Springs, I planned on driving into suburban vancouver and catching the SkyTrain into the city. The rest of Canada had the same idea. Lines at the stations were over two hours long and parking was non-existant. Understanding that this would no longer be an option, I instead did the unthinkable – I drove into the middle of downtown Vancouver in the midst of the biggest party the city has ever held.
To my surprise, downtown parking was abundant.
Within blocks of the main event sites, I found cheap and plentiful parking spaces. Parking downtown must have seemed like such a bad idea that no one actually tried, leaving hundreds of prime parking spots available for the risk takers.
You’ll Want To Do It Again
There is nothing else quite like the Olympics. Countries from all over the world come together not only to compete, but to celebrate unity, sportsmanship, and foster greater understanding. Of course there are downsides – the Olympics are expensive and crowded, but in the end, it won’t be the lines you remember. Attend once, and before you know it you’ll be planning your vacations around the Olympic calendar.
Have you ever been to the Olympics? Tell me about your experiences in the comments.