With the 2012 Olympics based in London, one of the tourist capitals of the world, to hope to offer a collection of travel tips that are not abundantly available elsewhere would be an impossible task. You already know that the London Eye goes really high, and can learn in hundreds of guidebooks that the Tower of London Beefeater tour is interesting, brutish and short. (If you do want a primer, check out our London travel guide.)
So this time out, I thought it more useful to address traveling to a host city during an Olympic year more generally, both during and after the competition. It can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience not just for athletes but also for visitors. Here are my observations and tips for making the best of it -- as it's never too early to prepare for Sochi or Rio.
General Olympics Travel Observations
1. Having been involved in the past five Olympics in one way or another, I've discovered one near-truism: thanks in part to doom-saying from their own media outlets, many locals flee the area for much of the Games. As a result, visitors have a much easier time getting around than would be expected, as the massive influx of Games-time visitors is largely balanced by the far lesser number of regular folks simply trying to get to work, go grocery shopping and do other day-to-day activities. Throughout our stay in London, the Underground was less crowded than the New York City subway on a normal day; this changed only as the final weekend of the Games approached, as more and more athletes had finished their competitions, and Londoners returned to their homes in anticipation of a regular work week starting on August 13.
2. You will see the host city at its cleanest and most well-policed, and on its best behavior. In this regard, London was the best Olympics I have seen; true armies of volunteers were everywhere, to the extent that you could nearly always see someone in the ubiquitous red and purple London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) shirt who could help you, no matter where you were in the city.
3. You will also be enveloped by an absolutely rarified air like no other. An Olympics host city really becomes a significantly amplified version of itself, and in some respects, almost a separate, superior thing entirely.
4. If you get shut out of tickets in the normal ticket go-round, it doesn't mean you can't attend. Check immediately with the officially designated tour companies, which, as part of their hotel packages, also have access to heaps of tickets for some of the very best events. I met a family from Scotland that had failed to get any tickets at all in the first two rounds of sales, but then contacted the official tour company and ended up with a serviceable and affordable hotel (for London during the Olympics, at least), transport to and from the airport, and tickets to Usain Bolt's 200-meter night at the Olympic Stadium as well as the gold medal women's soccer game.
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5. During this era of social media and craigslist sales, getting tickets remains possible pretty much right up to the day of competition. I know one American who checked craigslist for women's soccer final tickets at 4 a.m., negotiated a price of 120 pounds, got on the Underground to an agreed-upon location, called from a phone booth to describe the clothes he was wearing, and closed the deal in a Burger King during breakfast hours. This may be harder than you want to work for tickets, but it can be done.
6. Finally, if you can't obtain (or afford) event tickets, the host city often sets up free viewing places in public parks, tourist centers and more. One spot about 50 yards from the entrance to the Olympic Park was sponsored by Heineken; needless to say, this was a pretty hopping spot. You can usually find out more about these locations by doing simple Internet searches.
And don't forget that many outdoor events are absolutely free -- there is no cost to line the course for road cycling, or the marathons -- and these can be some of the most fun, exciting events out there. This is not a consolation prize; seriously, if you come away from the Olympics having seen "only" the road races and both marathons, even if you did not pay a dime for a ticket, you have definitely seen the Olympics.
The Transport Challenge
Getting around at Games time can be one of the most challenging logistical components, as official transport lanes, elaborate Olympics busing systems and even commonplace methods like subways are all tweaked to accommodate peak Olympic crowds. Official Olympics transport is sometimes available only to ticketholders on the day, and can be limited to competition hours. At the rowing venue where I spent the first week working, for example, official transport ended three hours after competition ended. So if you wanted to go see the racing, then spend the day in nearby Windsor, the final leg of your journey was really up to you to figure out. In that case, you might do well to investigate alternate transport; it turned out that a regular, year-round boat service went back and forth between Windsor and the rowing venue, at a cost of three pounds, about one-fourth of the cost of a taxi ride over the same distance. I took it almost daily.
During the competition, it will help to be on top of the overall competition schedule, especially for events that take place in the streets, such as the torch run leading to the opening ceremonies, some bike races, and both the men's and women's marathons. (Note that the men's marathon is on the last day of the Olympics, but the women's marathon takes place on Sunday of the middle weekend of the Games.)
So when I was done my work at the rowing venue near Windsor on the middle Saturday, and was ready to move to central London with my family to see some events and tour London, I was careful to avoid a route that got too close to the women's marathon route, as the event required numerous road closings and detours. We took a route to the north of central London, then zoomed south in a direct line to our hotel in the Bloomsbury neighborhood, nicely clear of the marathon.
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Due to the amount of photographic equipment I have to carry, we took a taxi; it cost about 70 pounds, ouch. In Beijing, most Americans quickly found that traveling by taxi was fast, efficient and extremely affordable; small groups could zoom all over the place for the equivalent of $5 - $6 per ride for everyone, less than a subway pass in most cities. London is a different story; in fact, many returning Olympic athletes found their post-competition party schedules somewhat hobbled by hefty transportation expenses.
But don't write off taxis entirely. Before our departure, I had our hotel front desk inquire about a taxi to the airport for our family of three, along with the 85 pounds of photography equipment; for this trip, it turned out to cost 32 pounds, which was less all told than it would have cost three people to get on the Tube, then take the Heathrow Express from Paddington.
In Rio, the taxi will most likely be the go-to method of transport again; in fact, according to this guide to Rio taxis, it already is for most tourists. Most taxi rides cost in the 15 - 35 BRL range, which at present is $7 - $17. In Sochi, it looks like transport will be about as improvised and chaotic as possible -- taxis will be a cash-only and haggle-in-advance scenario, and very few drivers are likely to speak English, let alone be licensed as taxi service providers. That said, reports do indicate that there are a lot of taxis on the roads. The most affordable option will be marshrutka minibuses, or shared taxis, that run the same routes as the local buses and cost a fraction of the price of a taxi.
Finally, expect to do some walking. Out at the rowing and canoe/kayak venue in London, buses dropped ticketholders at the entrance to the Windsor Royal Racecourse; the walk to the bridge over the Thames to the rowing venue was advertised as about a kilometer, but that seems to have been for the actual official pathway between the bus area and the security area; using the gmap pedometer, I estimated that all told, from bus stop to your seats, it was more like two kilometers, or a mile and a quarter.
The rowing venue isn't an unusual case. We went to four different venues by Games' end, and each required some serious walking; simply strolling the length of the ExCel venue, where a number of sports were held, you logged 600 meters, and the truly vast Olympic Park took about 20 - 25 minutes to cover end to end, even without a few hundred thousand people walking around.
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After the Games
After the Games end, there is a very unique and brief opportunity for off-season pricing on just about everything for several days. Hotels are empty, flights are empty, tour buses are empty -- and all are priced accordingly. It lasts only a few days, and then the Paralympics sweep in and the Games start all over again, albeit on much more modest terms. A search with only seven days' advance notice for the weekend in between the Olympics and Paralympics showed flights to London that were more than $200 cheaper than what I paid months ago.
And this provides an opportunity of its own; in London this year, when the competition reached a fever pitch, and enthusiasm for the London Games skyrocketed, demand for tickets for the Paralympics exploded. Folks realized that there was still an opportunity to experience some of the Olympic magic in a couple of weeks' time, and seized it.
But then, after the Paralympics end and the whole show is finally and truly over, probably for decades, you'll find the real touristic opportunity -- prices absolutely plummet, to "dead season" levels. Every single piece of your trip should cost less at this time.
If you do travel post-Games, there will likely be some host city fatigue, and there may be some closings or short staffing or similar issues brought about by the years of preparation for the Olympics finally coming to an end, and the locals needing a bit of a break. That said, it will just be you and the locals basking the afterglow of the Olympics, the new and global Greatest Show on Earth.