Editor’s note: The 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo have been postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attending the Olympic Games can be both thrilling and challenging, with all of the usual travel logistics ratcheted up to an Olympic level. Here are the essential Olympic travel guidelines and tips you need to know as you’re planning your trip.
Note that most of the following tips apply to both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which tend to occur about two weeks apart. The two-week break makes it very tough to attend both, but the Paralympic Games are typically less crowded and even more exciting and inspiring, so they’re worth consideration in and of themselves.
Getting Tickets to the Olympics
Event presales are handled by a single vendor depending on where you live; in the United States, ticketing is handled by CoSport. Here is the full list of authorized vendors by country for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Event tickets tend to be released in waves; in 2020, CoSport released tickets on the following schedule, according to spokesman Michael Clyne: “Past sales were on July 9, October 10, January 16, and February 6. Additionally, on October 17, CoSport debuted hospitality pass package sales, which combine high-demand tickets with access to a cultural hospitality experience at Japan’s National Theatre, where entertainment, fine food, and beverage combine into a world-class Olympic experience (these are still available).
“For tickets closer to and during Games-time, CoSport.com will continue to sell tickets for Americans via the website.”
Additionally, once you arrive in the host city, you can purchase tickets locally at event venues and other official Olympic locations
When choosing events, I have found this strategy to work well: First get something you really care about, and then choose something that seems interesting but you know very little about. For example, at one recent Olympic Games my family went to a tae kwon do event when our son was involved in the sport, and we even saw his teacher there working as a judge. The next day we went to mountain biking, which was wild and very cool, with attendees all running around the fields that connected one obstacle to the next.
Tickets to many events may officially sell out up to a year in advance, but are often still available through package deals from the official ticket vendors. A visit to those vendors’ websites will tell you a lot about what is on offer.
Figure Out Your Lodging Next
Lodging is likely to be your biggest challenge and is the trip component you should research and lock down first. You can use your favorite search engines to get started, comparing your options to the venues you hope to attend. The venues are set years in advance, so you can start searching fairly early on. Brace yourself, as there is quite a bit of speculative pricing that can go on, and availability can be hard to come by; in fact, one 2020 Olympic hopeful I know booked their entire family into double rooms at a Tokyo “love hotel,” yikes.
The sanctioned ticket sellers also offer Olympics travel packages that include a certain number of nights’ lodging with a certain number of event tickets—but those tend to be somewhat pricey compared to DIY lodging options. That said, purchasing from the official outlets does tend to ensure some level of quality as well as a centralized location, so it is always worth a look.
Finding Olympic Flights
Many Olympic host cities have more than one airport, and it is worth your while to research airfares to all of them. For the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, for example, you can choose between Narita and Haneda. Narita is the much larger airport and has many more flights, but is far away from the city center, while Haneda is smaller and has fewer flights, but is less than 10 miles from the Olympic Village and numerous event venues.
Weather, Transport, and Getting to Venues
You’ll want to prepare for extreme weather no matter which Olympics you’re attending—pack plenty of warm layers for the winter Games, and prepare for heat if you’re attending a summer event.
Transport to venues varies tremendously depending on the host city and the location of a given venue. As you get farther from the main venues, transport connections can become more tricky. Public transportation in Tokyo is superb, and should be running at full strength; the same was the case for London. Rio was a different story, but taxis were so affordable that they were actually a preferable option in many cases (just be careful to use sanctioned taxi services).
It almost goes without saying that you should give yourself some extra time whenever you are headed to a competition; if you miss a bus, end up on a long security line, need some time to find the correct entrance, or can’t quite figure out where you are supposed to go, you could miss the most dramatic moments of the competition.
You should also be prepared to walk a bit; entrances may not be right in front of transportation spots, security might be purposely far from the competition area, and the venue itself may be spread out.
Find the Free Events
Even before you start attending competitions, every Olympic host city has some kind of massive public space for exhibitors and sponsors to put on shows, display wares, and more. These are often (although not always) right outside the main Olympic Stadium and have the host mascots running around, interactive games and exhibits, giant jumbotrons showing live events and highlights, and the like. These are worth seeing just to get the overall vibe of the Games, to people-watch, and to pick up (often free) souvenirs.
Additionally, at every Olympics there are a number of events that take place in semi-public places, allowing you to see significant parts of the event at no cost whatsoever. You might not get to see the athletes at the starting line, or celebrating up close, or receiving their medals, but you can still see the heart of the competition at no charge.
These are usually distance events of some kind in which the venue is huge and can’t be entirely closed off, or even runs through the streets and public spaces of the host city. These typically include the following:
- Road cycling
- Rowing, canoeing, and kayaking
I’d also throw in surfing; this is the first year of surfing at the Games, so there is no history of how it is set up, but it seems like a candidate for being able to watch from near the event.
Then there are venues that back up to public spaces; in both Rio and reportedly Tokyo, rowing was one of these; in Rio, the lake on which the event took place was right in the middle of Ipanema, and you could see athletes competing from all over the place. The finish line was right next to a small skateboarding spot, and the crews headed right toward the kids skating there, while the start line was against the ring road around the lake at a spot where a small playground and picnic area remained open throughout the Games. The starting tower was surrounded by picnickers, and the local spectators were perhaps 50 to 80 meters from the athletes at the starting line.
In Tokyo, the rowing can be seen from a couple of interesting vantage points; the starting line is again up against a public road that is supposed to remain open (although it is fairly industrial and hardly a picnic spot). Farther away but more interesting is the public walkway on the giant Gate Bridge, which looks directly down at the course along its entire span.
These can be a bit tricky to figure out—for example, in London, you could not see rowing at all because the venue was surrounded by a huge moat (English enough?) that prevented anyone but ticket holders from getting anywhere near the course—but if you survey the venues and racecourses, you can usually figure out where you might hang out to see the athletes zoom past.
Consider Heading Home Early or Late
I have found that folks trickle in to the Olympic host city over time, but everyone leaves over the same day or two. Leaving the day before the closing ceremonies, or staying on a few days afterward, can often help avoid the stampede as well as keep airfare prices down a bit.
More Olympic Travel Tips
Travel light to each event. The biggest slowdown you will encounter will almost always be bag check lines when entering (this is a rule at almost all large events these days). If you can avoid backpacks and bags, you can save time and aggravation.
Add in some “regular” tourism. Most host cities are exceptional destinations with or without the Games, and can be even better during the Olympics when even the non-sports attractions will get caught up in Olympic fever and put their best foot forward. Definitely visit some non-Olympic events to get a feel for the host city and country while you are there.
Get official info. For details on transportation, venue locations, things to do and see, and more, the official site of the Local Organizing Committee is the place to start. Here are the sites for the next few Olympic Games: Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, Paris 2024, Milan Cortina 2026, and Los Angeles 2028. For safety tips, you might also want to check the State Department’s country information and travel advisories.
Get into the spirit of it all. The volunteers at most Olympics really bring it when they are out interacting with all of us visiting the Games, and the overall vibe on the ground can be exhilarating. Give yourself over to the whole thing and you can be a true part of the Olympic spirit.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Every Country That Requires a Visa for Americans
- 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
- The Essential International Packing List
Ed Hewitt has covered the last five Olympic Games as the publisher and founder of row2k.com. His writing and photography have appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, websites, films, and other media.
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