Sure, the Olympics are pretty big, but for most of the world, the year's biggest sporting event is the World Cup of soccer, which will be held across South Africa in June.
If you're looking to go cheap and you haven't laid any groundwork, forget it. It's a precarious quadruple hurdle of airfare, hotel, car, and tickets. Scrounging tickets to the matches is the least of your problems. At the New York Times Travel Show, WalletPop's Jason Cochran met Terry Von Guilleaume, whose company Destination South Africa puts together World Cup vacations for Americans.
The airfare alone, expensive even when things are quiet, is being jacked up around the tournament and it will knock you back for $2,000 to $2,500 round-trip.
Then comes hotels. In South Africa, you don't want to pick just any hotel, mostly because foreigners won't feel (or be) safe in just any neighborhood. During the World Cup, even a three-star hotel that might normally charge $100 a night can get away with charging three times that. Then there's the issue of not being able to find a room near where you need to be.
The International Federation of Association Football's official World Cup site at FIFA.com may state that tickets are all gone, but accredited tour operators bought them in bulk. "The tickets are out there. They're still there," says Von Guilleaume. But to get access to those tickets, you're bound to buying a whole vacation package, too.
These companies also bought their accommodation and match tickets in bulk when the Cup locations were announced -- Von Guillaume's company purchased from 42 different hotels across the country -- so even if a place claims to be sold out to the general public, a tour operator is likely to still have an allotment of rooms left at this point. Destination South Africa, for example, still has rooms ranging from three stars to the extreme high end.
Match locations are sprinkled throughout the country, including in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Port Elizabeth. If Americans are going to see the U.S. team play in its group matches, they'll find themselves in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, which can easily be combined with a safari in the famous Kruger National Park, a wild expanse roughly the size of Israel.
Other games, ones not involving the U.S. team, are being held around stunning Cape Town, too, in a new stadium built on Table Bay in the shadow of Signal Hill.
Von Guilleaume says that his experience with American consumers shows that if you want to spend 10 days in South Africa and attend two games, you need to be able to afford at least $4,500. It's possible to bring that number down -- staying in hostels, for example, and trying to use the country's daunting minibus system, which isn't for beginners -- but for someone who wants to stay in a hotel and take their own car, $4,500 is a reasonable starting point.
It doesn't matter much whether you go down early in the tournament or later. Game tickets cost less earlier on, but hotel, airfare, and car rates are sky-high the whole time, so you're not saving much.
Sure, you could go down and stay with friends, and you could try to score tickets online or in that city, but that can be a chancy strategy for a sport that, unlike baseball's so-called World Series, the entire world really does turn out to see.
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