Olympics: Wrap Up

This is my way delayed wrap up post dedicated to planning a trip to the Olympics. While we went to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, I’m hoping some of this information will come in handy for others planning trips to a future Olympics. It’s the advice I wish I had read and the advice I would give to anyone looking to attend the Olympics. We hope to go to another Olympics in the future (hopefully Paris 2024?) and plan to use what we learned to make the next trip even more memorable.

This post will be a bit different from my other Wrap Up posts, as it’s less destination specific (I hope), and more event related. Hopefully some of what we learned and advice I can give, will carry over to other Olympic host cities. Rio was a bit unorganized it seemed and a very spread out city so I almost feel that any other city will be a bit more organized and have the arenas closer together. But regardless, I feel it’s sound advice for someone looking to attend the Olympics. As a reminder, here’s my timeline of how we prepped for the Olympics (written before we left). So without further ado, let’s get on with this…

How to Purchase Event Tickets:

  • The most important aspect of your trip and likely the first commitment you will make in regards to the Olympics.
  • For the Rio 2016 Olympics in August, the schedule was released about 1&1/2 years ahead of time in the spring of 2015. Local residents were able to buy tickets first and I’m assuming this will be the case for future Olympics, though I can’t say for certain. In order to make sure you don’t miss any of the key dates, make sure to sign up with the official host city website to get the latest info and make sure to also sign up for the Authorized Retailer allowed to sell tickets in your home country. For US residents, it has most commonly been CoSport for all recent Olympics.
  • The initial ticket lottery was at the end of April to beginning of May in 2015, so a bit over a year before the Olympics, so don’t miss it!
  • The initial allocation of tickets from CoSport will be divided up via a lottery system. Continue reading below a bit in this post for my lottery advice. You can register a different account for each person in your party. So if you have two people going, you can put in lottery requests for two different accounts, and so on. Each account will be limited to a certain number of selections you can make. If the max is 48 that doesn’t mean 48 events it means 48 tickets. So once again, if you have two people in your party it’s really only 24 events that you are entering into a lottery for (2 people x 24 events = 48 tickets requested). Each account can chose the same events or different events. There are also different price levels of seats and if you chose Level A (most expensive) you can be allocated to any of the lower price level of seats, but you will never be upgraded to a level above what you initially selected.
  • We got the results of the lottery about a week after the deadline passed and we were a bit happy and a bit disappointed with our “winnings”. We got a lot of tickets, but missed out on some of the bigger ticket items we wanted to see like beach volleyball and women’s gymnastics. You don’t have to buy all your lottery tickets that you are allocated. We got awarded with a bunch of indoor volleyball tickets and we didn’t chose all of them. Some of the times of course can conflict, so you will have to choose which you’d rather see if you get overlapping times. Continue reading further down in the post for my advice on how to schedule your Olympic events.
  • After the initial lottery, the Authorized Retailer will have all those tickets that people were awarded and didn’t purchase that they will have to sell. Some will sell at a live release date or as CoSport did, have a second lottery with what they have available only. We didn’t get any tickets awarded from the second lottery.
  • After the initial ticket purchase, it’s a bit of a wait and see game as the retailers will release tickets sporadically throughout the rest of the year. Sometimes the ticket releases will be announced, other times it will just be a lucky chance if you are checking the website. It’s a good idea to maybe follow a couple Olympic message boards (or some sort of Social Media website) that may be easier to check than logging in randomly to the retail website.
  • Right before the Rio Olympics in June 2016 (2 months prior), all visitors were allowed to purchase event tickets straight from the Brazilian ticketing website which was way cheaper and less over priced. I’m not sure if this is always the case, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on as it gets closer to the Olympics and if the host country has excess tickets remaining.
  • The hardest to get tickets are typically the Opening and Closing Ceremony tickets (especially at the lower ticket price point). Gold medal events in the more popular sports like swimming, gymnastics, tennis, and others will also be hard to come by, but are possible if you are pretty good at checking the website. The preliminary round tickets were fairly easy to get if you had patience. While we didn’t get everything we wanted, we could have if we had just been a bit more patient in filling up our days and saving time back for those more important events. We ended up seeing tickets on sale for just about any event we had considered attending at some point in the year leading up to the Olympics.

Rio 2016 Tickets

 

Ticket Lottery Advice: This is what I wish we had taken into account, but honestly we were just so darn excited to be headed to the Olympics, that I’m not sure we would have listened anyway. 

  • Don’t waste a lottery choice on easier to find events, unless that event is your number one or two priority to see. If your primarily want to see gymnastics, swimming, and tennis, don’t waste lottery picks on badminton or archery. Those events are going to be easier to find on future releases. Put all your lottery picks into those harder to find events. We did this on the second go around and it didn’t work out for us as we didn’t get any tickets allocated, but I still feel it’s sound advice. Stack the deck in your favor for the events you most want to see. But be warned, if all you want to see is the top Gold Medal events, you may come up empty handed in the lottery.
  • Some events (mostly Gold Medal events) will be capped at 2-4 tickets per request in the lottery. If you have a larger group going, make sure to talk this out first about your strategy before selecting those events. You can use multiple accounts to request the same event so theoretically you could luck out and get everyone a ticket in the lottery, but what happens if you get awarded only two tickets? Are you going to keep the two you are awarded and who will get to go if you don’t come across more in the free-for-all ticket stage. If you don’t want to break the group up or can’t decide who would get those tickets, don’t waste a pick on those items. You will just have to cross your finger and hope you find them in the future when the max isn’t capped at 2 tickets.
  • Chose the highest ticket level that you are comfortable paying. If you can afford the Level A tickets, chose that level. How they do the lottery is give out the Level A tickets first, then B, and so forth. Anyone who requested a Level A ticket but didn’t get awarded one is eligible for the lottery in lower level of tickets also automatically. If you choose Level C or D, you will never be awarded a higher level ticket. Some of the events are cheaper and the price difference between the levels isn’t great, on others it is astronomical, and you can vary choosing different levels for different events.
  • It really does seem to be all about luck, some people seem to get everything they want in the first round, others get nothing. If you don’t get what you want, don’t panic. The lottery is going to be over a year before the Olympics so you have plenty of time to track down tickets.
  • If you know someone who lives in another country and isn’t going to go to the Olympics, hit them up to have them use their own Authorized Retailer for you. Different countries will have different demand for events and different amounts of allocated tickets, so you may get lucky that way by being able to buy swimming tickets from a country that isn’t as invested in the sport as the USA for example.

Other Ticket Advice:

  • As of the 2016 Olympics, CoSport was still operating on a physical ticket only. The tickets purchased through the Brazilian site were available also as electronic tickets. I’m assuming eventually this will change, but who knows. In regards to requiring a physical ticket, you will either have the choice to mail them to you or to pick up in person in the host city. Tickets purchased after a certain date (about 3 months prior I think) had to be picked up in person per CoSport. because of that, we had the majority of tickets mailed to us, but we did have to pick up a couple sets of tickets in person. The mailing fee is per account even if you purchased tickets at different times. However, if you used multiple accounts to secure more lottery choices, you will have to pay the mailing fee for each account even if the mailing addresses are the same.
    • I read horror stories on both options (mailing vs picking up). Some people who have chosen mail never get their package of tickets for some reason. Luckily this can be resolved and you can pick up in person. The horror stories of picking up tickets in person almost always included a long, chaotic wait in line. The pickup location for Rio (and seems to be fairly common) was a bit out of the way of anything else Olympic related so it will involve some time to get your tickets. I would recommend as we did, go on your first morning in town. We arrived on a Friday, but waited until Saturday morning to go and made sure to arrive a bit before they opened. We were met with a minimal line though the chaos was still evident. They were a bit unorganized, but luckily we were able to get our tickets relatively fast. Though by the time we left the line was already quite long.
    • If you have early in your week events, I would definitely try to have those mailed if possible, just in case there is an issue with picking up tickets. The pickup location for tickets was opened several days prior to the Olympics, so if you are in town early that’s an easy way to avoid a lot of the crowds by going before most people arrive the day or two prior to the Opening Ceremony.
  • With the only option of physical tickets, they are all souvenir quality and very sturdy. I did read on the Brazilian site that if you chose the electronic ticket option, you could pay a small fee for a souvenir paper ticket.
  • Don’t get upset if you don’t have too many events that your home country is participating in. We only got to see the USA twice and initially we were disappointed. Of course, those events were a blast and you were typically surrounded by many fellow countrymen. But it was equally fun getting to watch teams you never would have a chance to see if you were at home. For example, we saw the Serbia women’s team play indoor volleyball twice and we all walked away very impressed by them. None of us were shocked when they made it to the gold medal game and it was then fun to watch from home and cheering on a team we likely never would have if we hadn’t watched them live. We got to see an Egyptian female beach volleyball team compete in their first match ever for their country. We got to see Argentina vs. Cameroon in indoor volleyball, both teams making their first appearance in the Olympics for their country. It’s events like that, the events that you allow you to witness history that will leave with what I can only describe as the Olympic feeling. The feeling that will make you want to return to the Olympics again.
  • Try to get more events within the main Olympic Park complex! We only had a few events there and they were all on the first two days of our time in Rio. We wished we had another event or two later in the week. The main Olympic Park was so much fun and full of Olympic spirit, that we missed some of the that by the end. The free standing complexes were nice and not as crowded, but there was no where to really go between events to watch other ongoing events and hang out with other fellow Olympic goers. In Rio at least, you were not allowed within the Olympic Park itself unless you had a ticket for an event taking place within the complex so we all decided we would have made sure to stock up more on those events if we had been given a re-do.

Olympic Park

How to Schedule Your Olympic Events

  • This was where we messed up a bit and would be my one major piece of advice for others and for myself in planning any future Olympic trips. A lot of this is variable of course, some people will be going for a certain event, while others just want to capture the Olympic spirit. So this is what I learned and what you do with it, is up to you!
    • Don’t overload yourself with one sport: Now of course, if you are a major fan of one sport, feel free to ignore this bullet point. But for everyone just wanting to experience the Olympics, try to get a wide range of events! We were a bit bored of indoor volleyball by the time we came to our fifth scheduled event. Of course, it didn’t help that they weren’t as competitive teams for our last session. If we had ended with a USA match, maybe it would have been a bit different. But either way, we saw waaaay too much volleyball between beach volleyball and indoor volleyball. We were super amped up about it prior to arriving, but on the way home we all wished we had diversified our events a bit more. There are so many sports to chose from while there, don’t limit yourself to just one sporting event. I would say based on what we experienced unless you really, truly love a certain sporting event, schedule a max of two sessions per type. For us that would have been two beach volleyball (instead of three) and two indoor volleyball sessions (instead of five!). You could maybe go up to three if you are mixing men’s and women’s events. Some sporting events will already mix genders (like beach volleyball or badminton), but many don’t, so you will have to pay attention when choosing events.
    • Go to a sporting event you know nothing about: We went to one session each of handball and badminton and had a blast. We didn’t do a lot (okay, any) research ahead of time on the rules of handball, but we were able to catch on pretty quick and it was fun just watching the game. Badminton, of course, we knew a bit more about, but it’s not something I’ve ever watched live other than family games in the summertime. And badminton is something I wouldn’t typically watch much of on TV during the Olympics (maybe part of a match at the most), so it was also a lot of fun experiencing something new.
    • Go to a sporting event that is the host country’s passion: It happened that two of our must see events (beach and indoor volleyball) are one of Brazil’s favorite sport (along with football), but I would recommend this for any Olympics even if that sport wouldn’t be a favorite of my own. The crowd for those events were always louder, even when Brazil itself wasn’t playing. The fans just seemed more into the game itself. Of course, if you can also manage whether with luck or patience, scoring an event in which the host country loves and is also participating, expect a rockin’ atmosphere. So if you’re going to Tokyo 2020 Olympics for example, try to get tickets to baseball (though with Japan being an entirely different culture, it won’t be party rockin’ like in Brazil, but will still be an incredible experience with the home crowd and their favorite sport).
  • If you mostly want to see a certain team (ex: Kerri Walsh-Jennings in beach volleyball or the USA Men’s Basketball team), leave plenty of time available on back to back days. The schedule will be released in the month or two prior to the Opening Ceremonies. Event schedules will be released sporadically as all the spots are taken, so you will have to continually check the official Olympic website as it gets closer to the Opening Ceremony for the events you are looking for. A lot of teams will play every other day, so if you are looking for one specific team make sure to leave back to back days open so you can increase your odds of still having an opening in your itinerary for that team. If you only leave openings on odd number days, and your team you are looking for plays on even number days, you will be out of luck. Even leaving back to back days, won’t guarantee that you will find available tickets left once the schedule is released, so I wouldn’t recommend waiting until the schedule is released to buy ANY tickets, but if you have your heart set on seeing a certain team or country, leave one set of back to back days open to increase your odds.
  • Pay close attention to where the events you are choosing are located. Events will be scattered around the city in most cases and make sure you leave plenty of time if you are choosing events in different complexes. Due to high crowds, transportation will likely take longer than you think and you don’t want to miss an event because you didn’t plan enough time to transfer between complexes. Better yet, stick to one set of complexes per day. You’ll be able to fit more in and have more time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere if you aren’t rushing off immediately to another part of the city.

Packing: I won’t add a ton here because with a wide range of countries hosting the Olympics, you of course will have to pay attention to that country’s weather in regards to what to bring, but I do have a few general tips.

  • I am not normally one to wear shirts with the American flag on it or the letters USA. I don’t wear those at home and especially when traveling abroad. It’s usually just asking for trouble. The Olympics is the one exception. I say this from experience, as none of us brought a ton of USA gear and we all kinda wished we had worn more of it to the events, especially the events featuring the USA. Most people will be sporting country gear and you do really get into the spirit of pride while there.
  • I had a shirt that I had bought in Canada years ago with a maple leaf on it and it was even fun wearing that on the day we saw two different Canadian teams competing, so don’t limit yourself to just your own country’s gear. If you have shirts from different countries and you are going to be watching one of those countries compete that day, wear that shirt!
  • Some of the arenas were cold and some were hot, so make sure to dress in layers or at least throw a cardigan or something in your bag that you can slip on if your arena is cold. The outdoor events will go on in all types of weather, so if you have some outdoor events, make sure to pack a rain jacket or poncho. The Olympics have a very tight schedule and they aren’t going to postpone an event for rain unless there’s lightening.
  • If you have a lot of outdoor events, I would also recommend brining a hat. Most of the events will be multi hour events and a hat will help protect you from getting sunburnt.

Supporting different countries!

Lodging: We booked via AirBnb approximately one year ahead of time and incredibly paid just over $100/night for the four of us! Here’s my tips to hopefully score you the same deal! 

  • We booked our lodging for the Olympics about a year ahead of time. We booked via AirBnb and as a general guideline we used to determine which place to request a booking in order to decrease the chance of being canceled on closer to the Olympics for are as follows:
    • Chose an apartment that has lots of reviews as that would indicate the owner has a lot of experience. Also, if they have multiple places available and all have generally favorable reviews, that is a good sign as well.
    • If the Olympic host city also is known for another huge festival of sorts (ex: Carnival in Rio), search back through the reviews mentioning that festival and how those reviews fare.
    • Chose a place that has already increased their price for rental during that peak period. If they have their place listed for $100/night during a random week and it’s still $100/night during the Olympic week, chances are good they will cancel and re-adjust their price at a later date once they realize they didn’t update their calendar. If the place you are interested goes for $50/night normally and is listed at $150/night during the Olympics, chances are way higher that you won’t get a cancelation due to surge style pricing.
  • Of course, you can browse through hotel listings, but they were outrageously priced and a lot of hotels will block off their rooms for packages of sorts with the different authorized ticket retailers, so a lot of hotels will be unavailable for the general public. If you are booking closer to the Olympics themselves, you might have a better chance of finding an available room at hotel, once the packages stop selling. Of course, the price will be high per night.
  • Try to book your lodging after you at least have a few event tickets. If you have the majority of your early morning events in one part of the city, try and book closer to that location so you don’t have to wake up so early to transport there. Or if you have a lot of events in one part of the city, try to book closer to that area to decrease some transport time.
    • We chose to stay closer to the Maracanã area because we had so much indoor volleyball tickets and it wasn’t that far from Copacabana area. While there were times we wished we had stayed closer to the beach, we were glad we had just a 5-10 min transport from our AirBnb to the stadium for half of our events. The Copacabana area was also a lot higher priced in terms of rentals available. For us it was worth the cheaper cost of lodging and shorter transport time for a lot of events rather than staying somewhere a bit more central for a higher price and having a longer ride on public transport the majority of days. While a lot of reasoning would be given to staying somewhere central which is between all of the different complexes (like Copacabana in Rio), we were glad that some days we had very little time on the metro compared to if we had stayed centrally, every day we would have had at least 20-30 minute ride each way.

Gymnastic arena

Transportation:

  • Rio was a bit chaotic in the transportation department and involved a lot of rides on the subway and transferring to special Olympic routes and buses. I don’t anticipate all Olympics having the complicated and long commute that Rio did. Luckily it was pretty well advertised ahead of the Olympics that transportation was going to have some issues and we were able to pre-plan our route and know the first time we traveled to the Olympic Park, it would be complicated. Public transportation on the subway is something that I am really good at grasping, so I had an advantage here and I took charge of making sure our group got to the right place. If you aren’t comfortable navigating public transportation, especially in large crowds, give yourself plenty of time the first trip or two to ensure you arrive to your event on time even if you get on the wrong line.
  • Rio had a pre-purchase multi day transportation card special for the Olympics. I would highly advise purchasing something similar if offered at any host city. The Rio Olympic card offered unlimited transportation in either 1, 3, or 7 day tickets. We were in Rio for 10 days so we purchased a 7 day and a 3 day ticket upon arrival at the airport and didn’t have to worry about queuing to buy transportation tickets again. It was well worth the hassle. We probably didn’t need a full 10 days of unlimited transportation as the first day and last day we only took 1 ride, but that’s not an expense any of us regret or question. The lines will be long to purchase single journey tickets so factor in the time waiting if you are unsure or  don’t think you will get the full value of an unlimited transportation card. Some cities may do it differently of course, but I would definitely go for any type of card that will allow you to bypass the ticket machines every time you need to use the public transportation system.
  • We used Uber to get around Rio a few times, but we always used the public transport system and dedicated Olympic lines to get to the venues themselves. Rio had it set up that most “private” transport like taxis, Uber cars, etc couldn’t get super close to the venues and would require a bit of a walk so it was easier and more convenient to take public transportation which could get closer anyways.

Olympic Park

Resources: The following are suggestions for places to keep an eye on for Olympic news leading up to your trip!

  • Trip Advisor Olympic Message Boards (and the host city message boards): The Olympic boards are found under the beyond destination category and are a good place for Olympic news and questions, in addition to checking out the host city/country boards.
  • Games Bid: This was hands down my favorite website/message board to get information. Leading up to the Olympics there were threads filled with questions, advice, and news. I learned a lot reading threads after I discovered this site.
  • The host city’s Official Olympic webpage will also offer lots of information about the upcoming Olympics.
  • CoSport: At least for USA readers, as it has been the authorized ticket retailer for many Olympics for the USA.

Hospitality Houses: We didn’t do a very good job of experiencing the hospitality houses. We were all amped up for them, but we just didn’t execute our plan very well. Some of it was due to the transportation issues in Rio itself, so in other host cities it might be easier to reach than in Rio. In the end we only visited two (The Swiss house and Finland House). 

  • Hospitality houses are a big part of the Olympic culture recently. The original was the Heineken House which opened to the public for the first time in Sydney 2000. Prior to that, countries hospitality houses were for athletes and families only. Since then the houses have only expanded and some provide incredibly unique experiences known in their country. Almost all feature food and drinks from their country with a range of exhibits. Most also feature big screen TV’s to watch Olympic events and some have medal presentations in the evening for their athletes.
  • Some hospitality houses are still closed to the public (like the USA) and others require a ticket to get inside, but some are free to enter. Information about the location of the houses and admission requirements started coming out just a month or two prior to the Olympics.
  • We had big plans to attend the France house for the Opening Ceremony and had bought tickets online ahead of time, but when we showed up about 90 minutes prior to the start of the ceremony, the line was like 5-6 blocks long and wasn’t moving so we bailed and went back to our AirBnb to watch on our own TV. I would say if you want to visit a hospitality house for Opening Ceremony, make sure to get there 2-3 hours ahead of time!
  • Lines can be long to get inside even at other times for the more popular houses, especially in high traffic areas. We passed by the Brazil House multiple times, but the line was always incredibly long and likely because it was located on the Olympic Boulevard. If you have your heart set on a certain house, try to be prepared to wait and go early in the day.
  • They are a fun way to experience international food. We had one of the best meals of the trip at the Swiss house!

Money Spent: Surprisingly after putting in all the money we spent into my spreadsheet and comparing to other trips we have taken, our trip to the Olympics isn’t the most expensive trip we’ve taken. While definitely not a budget trip, with decent planning it’s not outrageously expensive. Of course, if the host city is in a more expensive location to begin with that would change things. A European or USA host city will likely have more inflated costs.

  • Where our money went: Our biggest expense of course was the Olympic event tickets which totaled around $1300 USD for the week. We did partake in a lot of events seeing a total of 11 different events (1 gymnastics, 1 handball, 3 beach volleyball, 5 indoor volleyball, and 1 badminton events). We spent $500 for lodging (the AirBnb was only $1000 for the 8 nights and we split it in half with the other couple) and a little less than $500 on gifts/souvenirs. A lot of the gifts/souvenirs were for family members and we basically did our Christmas shopping in Rio. We spent approximately $360 on food (both meals and snacks) for the entire time, which is definitely on the low end of what we spend on vacation but we didn’t splurge at a nice restaurant and Rio food is fairly cheap to begin with. We spent under $300 for transportation for the entire trip.
  • Tips for splurging: Opening and closing ceremony tickets are outrageously priced, so if you really want a splurge those are the way to splurge. Also opting for gold medal events at the higher category level of tickets really raises the pricing.
  • Tips for saving: There was a wide range of event ticket pricing (beach volleyball and badminton being the cheapest, gymnastics and indoor volleyball being the most expensive). If you want to make the Olympics happen on a budget it’s possible by choosing the lower category tickets and choosing less high profile events (avoiding gymnastics, tennis, swimming, etc). Beach volleyball tickets were only $35 USD per person for category C making it a lot cheaper than most sporting events in the USA. Book your plane ticket and lodging early to save money also. We paid a total of $1000 USD for the 4 of us for 8 nights in Rio at a fairly small AirBnb, but we weren’t in Rio to hang out inside and watch the TV so it wasn’t a problem for any of us.

 

Olympic Rings at the Beach Volleyball Arena

Other General Tips:

  • Take at least 1-2 days off from the Olympics to see and explore the host city. We flew in the day of the Opening Ceremony (arrived early morning) and spent the day exploring the beaches of Rio. We also had a dedicated day where we went on private guided tour of the city hitting many of famous sights including Christ the Redeemer. On a third relatively Olympic-free day, we went on a food tour around Rio before a late night beach volleyball session. It was a good mix of Olympic filled fun and a few days off from events to experience Rio culture. I would recommend how we mixed it up rather than doing all your Olympic events then exploring the city or vice versa.
  • You will have lots of souvenir options from Olympic gear at mega Olympic shops to local souvenirs found in local shops. If you have your heart set on certain Olympic gear items, buy early as by the end of week one even they seemed to be out of some sizes of shirts. Different mega stores had different selections of souvenirs, so make sure to visit more than one if you don’t find exactly what you want at the first one. Also different hospitality houses will have souvenirs from that country, so be sure to browse through those shops if interested in a certain country.
  • You will feel an incredibly unique feeling during the Olympics and is something even over a year later I still remember so clearly. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but it’s a sense of just taking in a sporting competition that goes beyond just winning and losing. Yes it’s fun when your country wins, but the Olympics are more than that. It’s about celebrating incredible moments of human nature and crossing boundaries. While we didn’t get to see every heart warming moment from the Olympics, watching the highlight reals when we returned home and knowing we were there for that brief moment in history is humbling. As someone sitting next to us on the plane down said, you go to one Olympics and something changes inside of you and it’s hard not to come back. He had been to 4-5 Olympics and I hope to return to more than one in the future. While I know not everyone will be able to attend the Olympics, I hope if you are given the opportunity, you take it. It was an absolutely incredible experience and one I will never forget. So many memories and feelings from the 9 days we were in Rio that will stay with me forever.

 

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