How to Take Your Family to the Olympics on the Cheap

Bit off topic today but I have Olympic fever.

A good friend of mine has been to several Olympics as a spectator. It’s a family affair: initially it was a trip with her parents and sibling, then spouses joined in and now her son has been to his first Olympics.

I was always impressed that they made the effort to go. I was also impressed because I thought seeing an Olympics first hand must be very expensive. They must be committed fans to spend that much money.

From newspaper reports of ticket prices and the tourist gouging that happens I imagined seeing Olympic events live was exponentially more expensive than visiting an Olympic city at any other time. The cost of it seemed far beyond what we could ever afford. And I say that with the caveat that we earn a good income and travel is one thing we spend a lot of money on. We can usually afford two one week trips and a few weekend trips a year with what we put aside for travel. When I thought about going to the Olympics I thought we’d have to cut out all other travel and save for a once every four years trip.

Here’s what I know after going to two Olympics myself: taking your family to the see the Olympics isn’t cheap but it isn’t as exorbitant a price as you may think.

Here are some of my tips from seeing two Olympic games as a spectator.

Skip the hotels.

Hotels in an Olympic city book fast and can be hard to come by even well in advance of Games times. If you’re a family looking for accommodation hotels also aren’t ideal. I much prefer renting an apartment to cook meals, have at least one separate sleeping room and get that extra space so you can play/read/relax as a family. I find that if an apartment is more expensive than a hotel we usually save the difference plus some by cooking our own meals. We also enjoy our trip more if we can put our son to bed in a separate room and have some adult time in the evening.

A year or so before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics my husband and I toyed with the idea of renting our condo out during the Games and going to Hawaii with the proceeds. Ultimately we decided to stay and enjoy the two weeks of crazy but I was floored at the prices listed for rentals when I did some research. At that time they really weren’t affordable for most families I knew.

Our friends that came up for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics didn’t book their accommodation until a few weeks before the Games. It was a smart move. The prices had dropped significantly and they found a great apartment to house six adults and a baby.

Lesson: sometimes it pays to wait to book accommodation. As the Games draw closer the locals that have set their prices too high for rentals will bring them down so they can actually fill the rooms. Other locals will decided last minute that they don’t want to live through a two week party and will put their home up for rent at the last minute.

If you are considering a hotel we learned that they can be relatively affordable if you book just outside the venue city. We considered renting a hotel room near the rowing course for our first night in London to avoid what was described as a monstrous commute. Surprisingly there were still hotel rooms available and the rate wasn’t more than you would expect for the area. We ended up saving our money and making the commute but it was good to know that if you are prepared to be a bit off the beaten path, there can be reasonable hotels available for an Olympic city.

Of course, we had the ultimate in cheap accommodation for London: my sister’s living room.

Pack snacks and cook your own meals.

Restaurant dining adds up fast and Olympic venue concessions can be expensive. I placed an online grocery order to be delivered to my sister’s flat the night before we arrived in London. I planned for most breakfasts and dinners at home and some hearty snacks to take to the venues. We weren’t allowed to bring water into the venues but there were lots of water stations available to fill up our water bottles.

This is one of those frugal traveler rules that never gets old: avoid eating at restaurants for every meal. You not only save money but you feel better. Restaurant meals tend be heavy and super-sized and will slow you down on your long days seeing sights and Olympic events.

Opening Ceremonies and Gold Medal Swimming are out of most people’s league but the 99% of events that make up the rest of the Olympics aren’t.

If you want to go to the Olympics and see all the premier events, the ceremonies, the 100 metres men’s final and have killer seats, you’ll spend a fortune. This is what most people think of when they read about attending the Olympics: crazy ticket prices. But there are many ways to experience an Olympic Games in the host city without spending a fortune.

If you want to go and soak up the atmosphere, see some great sport and experience what the Olympics are really about, it’s surprisingly affordable. We saw the British men’s volleyball team take on Poland, and, sadly for the home team, lose and we watched Angola play the Czech Republic in women’s basketball. They weren’t games with medals on the line or even quarter final matches but they were still engaging and fun to watch. And the tickets were reasonably priced.

Henry’s ticket to the preliminary rounds of the Men’s Team Sabre competition  was just £2/$3. If you’re traveling with children research any children’s ticket options and find out if a child in arms/lap is free. For London they had some C and D class tickets where a child’s ticket was whatever their age was in £s. At the fencing venue we were surrounded by lots of other families that had taken advantage of the child ticket scheme. At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics Henry was only a few months old and was free as an in arms baby. He saw a hockey game, a Victory Ceremony and the Opening Ceremony for the 2010 Winter Paralympics.

The only tickets we had for a medal winning event were for rowing. This was our marquee event: two of my friends were racing and it was the catalyst for the whole trip. We splurged on those tickets and got B class seats. Those tickets alone cost as much as our tickets to three other events combined.

For the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics we purchased very inexpensive tickets to the evening medal ceremony concerts. While we didn’t see the medal winners compete live we did get to see them receive their medals in front a very appreciative crowd. Plus there was a concert in the lead up to the ceremony with some great Canadian bands.

There are many ways to experience the Olympics in a host city for free.

London had several Live Sites and we had a nice evening in the Hyde Park Live Site watching events on the big screen and enjoying free concerts. When a British Cyclist won a medal they had a confetti and streamer explosion and the thousands of people at the venue let out a roar. It was exhilarating to feel that host country pride all around us.

One of my favourite memories of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics wasn’t a ceremony or sport event, it was the people. There was a joy, a happiness, a cheer that was palpable on the streets. People were happy to be there, they were excited to see great athletes compete, they were thrilled to be a part of all of it. It was two weeks of smiles. I only had to step outside to feel it, that joy and energy from the locals and visitors, people from every corner of the world, in one place to celebrate one thing: the power of sport.

Have you ever traveled to something most people consider expensive like Disneyland or a World Cup Soccer game? How did you make it more affordable for your family?

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  • Another option for Olympics is the Paralympics. We got tickets to sledge hockey in vancouver…it was super fun and much less expensive! We also got an amazing deal at a high end hotel apartment (l’hermitage with two bedrooms and full kitchen for $139/night…something that typically would be $250-400) because the main events were over. It was also a great chance to see the venues when it was much less busy but there was still plenty of Olympic fever to enjoy.

    • Forgot to mention the Paralympics! Yes, we had a fabulous time at them and I also went out to a great sledge hockey game at UBC.
      Small world :) Also, my sister was living at L’Hermitage at that time.

  • We went to see the cycling road race in Dorking last Saturday. Only cost was our train fares (£6 for all of us). There was a fantastic atmosphere. We took a picnic to eat in the park there afterwards, which was full of people watching the rest of the race on some big screens. A great day that we will all remember and we can say that we went to the Olympics extremely cheaply!

    • When we were walking out of Hyde Park the barriers were up for the marathon, race walk and triathlon. There are lots of Summer Olympic events outdoors that you can watch for free. I think if we do another Olympics trip (husband has the fever and is talking about Rio 2016) we will build in some no ticket days to see the free outdoor events.
      Have to agree, a great atmosphere at all the free venues and in the Olympic Park. The volunteers were smiling and so helpful.
      PS. That is really cheap. :) Well done. I think we only went to a handful of ticketed events at the Vancouver Olympics but we did something Olympic-y every day. Our biggest expense for the whole thing was our grocery and beer bill – we had loads of friends coming through to visit. :)

  • As a Brit who’s been busily working on the Olympics for the last 18 months or so it’s great to read such a positive experience from you!! It’s good to know that the country seems to be getting it right so far!!

  • Another tip for getting seriously discounted tickets is to buy them the same day as the event, when re-sellers are more likely to be desperate to offload them. I really wanted to go to the closing ceremonies in Vancouver, but tickets were an absolute fortune. I checked Craigslist and people were actually asking *more* than face value for their tickets! As the event drew nearer, ticket prices began to drop. I ended up negotiating 2 x $800 tickets down to $200 each (amazing seats!), just two hours before the show was to start. The guy knew that if he didn’t sell them to me at that point, he wasn’t likely to sell them at all.

    I agree with you, though, that the best part of the Olympics (in Vancouver, at least) was not an event – it was the vibe in the city.

  • This is a good idea for Disneyland, Disney World or any overpriced park. Planning ahead, finding an inexpensive place to stay and taking your own food instead of buying it at restaurants can save you tons of money.

  • Another on-the-cheap option in some Olympic cities is camping. For Atlanta, my hubby and I camped outside the city and used the shuttles/lots provided to bus in every day. It took some planning to come and go, but it was well worth the savings… and the ability to get out of the crowds and into some quiet each night!

  • I lived in London for 13 years until returning to Australia last year and I’m very jealous of family and friends there who are enjoying the Olympics – the cycling road race went right past my sister-in-law’s house! One friend went to a technical rehearsal for the opening ceremony and said it was amazing, nearly as good as the real thing, and I think the tickets were free.

  • Rachel what great pics! I too have Olympic fever, and am very proud of the UK for pulling it off. We are so easy to self-critise in this country and it’s so great to hear such positivity surrounding this Olympics!
    For me spending is about prioritising. You wanna go to the Olympics – go! Not frittering away cash mindlessly year-round means you can. Consciously spend! (and don’t blow loads whilst there saying ‘well it’s a once in a lifetime experience’ because by watching what you do spend you can have even more experiences!).

  • What an awesome opportunity…to be at the Olympics! One thing we almost always do in the States is rent a house if there are two or more families. This is usually a better alternative to a hotel or even an apartment since you typically have more space and can find amenities like a pool and or fenced backyard…which is great for kids. In addition, we often rent a house when travelling internationally so we can immerse ourselves a little more into the culture of where we are going instead of staying in the high tourist areas- which often cost more anyhow.

  • I’m thoroughly enjoying the Olympics from the comfort of my own sofa. I’ve been to a few sporting events in the past and while I’ve appreciated the atmosphere, you just can’t beat the camera angles and coverage that the tv gives you … that, and the ability to pause so I can leer at Roger Federer :-)

  • That is awesome that you’ve been to 2 Olympics! I can say I am very jealous you were in London! I went to the 1996 Games in Atlanta – my family had planned wayyyy in advance to take my brother and I (I am from FL and in driving distance to Atlanta). We rented a condo outside the city with another family, commuted in, and saw several events, not all of which were top-tier. We may not have had the best seats in the house but as an 11 year old, it didn’t matter! I will never forget that experience and I’m so thankful my parents took us.

  • I was fortunate enough to go to 3 different games of the 1994 World Cup with my Dad. I was only 6 years old, but I have very vivid memories that I still cherish today. The atmosphere at the games as well as my exposure to foreign people and cultures was incredible. Luckily each location was within a 6 hour drive, so we drove in for the game and then drove home, so we avoided any logistical headaches of lodging or difficult transportation.

    This was a great post on how to go to the Olympics! I’d LOVE to try it some day and I’m sure my kids would love the opportunity too.

  • While I haven’t been to the Olympics, I did want to write and add my support to the don’t eat in restaurants rule of frugal traveling. We have done a lot of traveling and to many of the world’s most expensive cities and we always either cook our own food or buy take-out food and eat it in the hotel room. If you go to a grocery store there are often many items of food that can be cobbled together to make a dinner. We even take food with us if we want to simplify our time so we don’t have to search out a grocery store.

  • I don’t have much to offer in the way of discussion, but I just want to say what a sweet little boy! Mine is almost four and I love to see that look of wonderment come over his face. It’s so amazing to be there while they experience something for the first time. I think as adults we get a bit cynical and jaded and forget about the how alive we felt as kids when new and exciting things happened.

  • Oh, I forgot to add my younger boy is the same way. The expressions that come over his face are so interesting.

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