As any Olympic athlete can tell you, the road to the games is paved with sacrifice, commitment, hard work and dedication. Making the most of everything you've got. In my case, "everything I've got" amounts to $1,000 and a week off work in mid-February. And while I don't stand a chance of making the podium, I do intend to make it to the Olympics.
A quick fare search, however, and the first setback becomes clear: Return flights from Eastern Canada to Vancouver during the Winter Olympics will run you in the neighbourhood of $1,000. It may be just as well. Arrive in Vancouver needing a hotel room and risk facing nightly rates close to the four-figure mark. Even budget accommodations on the outskirts of Metro Vancouver, ordinarily just less than $100 for a night's stay, are advertising rates six times the norm.
As countless TV spots have been pointing out for months, "the games are coming to Canada." But what happens when Canada can't afford to come to the games? The answer involves a little patience and a large penchant for adventure. With these ingredients, and the tips below, I can prove a week at the games can be accessible to almost anyone, and for less than $1,000.
If you live east of Calgary, driving to the Olympics is out of the question, given the time it takes and the weather in February. But hark: Three quarters of our population lives within 150 kms of the United States, a country blessed with discount airlines. A lagging travel sector has driven U.S. airfares even lower than usual. Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue operate no-frill services with cross-continental fares costing a fraction of what they do in Canada.
Flying midweek (much cheaper than weekends) to Seattle from such cities as Buffalo, Detroit and Minneapolis currently costs less than $350, return, taxes included. Other points of departure close to the Canadian border -- Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vt., for example-- have fares for less than $400. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport clocks in at a distance of only 250 kms from downtown Vancouver. Consider it an added West Coast sightseeing opportunity: Roundtrip ground transport on the Washington State Quick Shuttle costs $87, if booked 24 hours in advance.
FOOD AND SHELTER
It's often said that some of the best parties during the Olympic Games are within the gated walls of the Athletes Village. But unless you have a six-pack of abs and a security badge, your chances of gaining access are nil. Next best place to let loose, and grab a couple hours of sleep, is at one of the more than a dozen hostels scattered throughout the Vancouver area. Most are filling up fast, but Hostel International's Jericho Beach location is one of handful with beds remaining through the Olympics. At just $30 a night for a bed in a shared dormitory, the price can't be beat and neither can the location: The hostel is a short walk from Thunderbird Arena, site of qualifying Olympic hockey games. Sharing rooms with strangers can be fun; sure Sven and Soren, the Swedish curling enthusiasts, are loud snorers, but their passion for face paint and patriotism is part of the Olympic experience. Added bonus of a hostel: There are often self-catering kitchens, so you can shop at local grocery stores and cook meals yourself.
Hostels are proving to be such an attractive option that the government has decided to jump on board. Late last month, the 2010 Organizing Committee announced it was taking over Vancouver's Hotel Eldorado and opening its doors as a youth hostel for the duration of the games. A rate of $34 a night will get you dorm-style accommodation in one of the facility's 300 beds, along with an affordable breakfast, Internet access and TV lounge.
TICKETS TO THE GAMES
It's difficult to justify travelling all the way to the Olympics without actually taking in any of the games. Currently, the 2010 ticketing site has seats remaining for qualifying men's and women's hockey and curling matches, plus nightly medal ceremonies at Vancouver's BC Place. While most of the sought-after tickets are long gone, all hope is not lost. A fan-to-fan web-based marketplace should be up by mid-December, and will allow ticket holders to donate, trade or sell tickets to those looking to attend events. The site will guarantee legitimate transactions and limit the markup sellers can impose. Nothing, however, prevents dedicated fans from showing up in Vancouver with empty hands and open wallets.
As the games unfold, asking prices for tickets will almost certainly shift. The silver lining to a poor showing by Canadian athletes will likely be more access to tickets for impoverished fans. While attending actual events is not crucial to the Olympic experience, it does make for more satisfying trip. Plus, as an added bonus, access to the Metro Vancouver transit system is included with the Olympic ticket on the day of that event.
My own elaborate travel itinerary is giving the Olympic Torch relay, the longest ever held within the borders of the host country, a run for its money. My trip to the Winter Games will begin with a Greyhound ride down the QEW to Buffalo and on to a Southwest Airlines flight bound for Phoenix. A couple of hours later, another flight to Seattle. Then I'll board an Alaska Airways plane to the Vancouver International Airport. An 18-hour journey, but one that is running me a fraction of the cost of a direct flight from Toronto to Vancouver. The trip home is similar, save for a stop in Chicago (and, perhaps, Guam).
In Vancouver, I'm crashing on the floor of a former university roommate. I've already invited myself to dinner at the homes of a dozen friends conveniently located throughout B.C.'s Lower Mainland.
As for tickets, I camped out on the official Vancouver 2010 ticket site during the final phase of the public on-sale period and grabbed scored tickets to a couple of medal ceremonies and a women's curling qualifier. Not the most sought-after events, but the Olympics nonetheless.
The Vancouver Games will be a massive party, a proud moment for Canada and, at the end of the day, filled with stories you will tell your grandkids. Can I afford this trip. Probably not. Can I afford to miss the opportunity to experience the Olympics in my own backyard? No.
Is the trip worth all the work it has taken to get me there? That question I won't be able to answer until hour six of my layover in Phoenix.
- Mackay Taggart is a producer at Newstalk 1010 radio in Toronto.
WHAT IT WILL COST
-Return flights from Buffalo, Detroit or Minneapolis to Seattle: $350
-Return shuttle bus from Seattle Airport to Downtown Vancouver: $93
-Six nights at Hostel International's Jericho Beach: $180
-Tickets to five events, including hockey and curling: $212
-Food and spending money: $164