This post is all about the logistics and planning for the Winter Olympics XXIII. My sister, brother, husband, & I decided to go to the Olympics on a whim not knowing a thing. We've always loved the Olympics and winter sports so we figured why not go and make a trip to visit our sister, Dani, living in Dalian, China as well! We tried to research attending the Winter Olympics prior to our trip, but there was not much information out there so I'm writing this in hopes it provides insight for anyone wanting to plan a trip to attend the Olympics.
This Olympics was actually located a few hours via train outside of Seoul (opposite coast of South Korea) in Pyeongchang & Gangneung, South Korea. There is not much going on in these areas and they were built up just for the Olympics, which was great because we only had to deal with those crowds and not that of a normal city. The downside was all accommodations were built just for the Olympics. Once we booked flights we knew we needed to lock up our hotels since we decided to go only 5 months out! South Korea is a little challenging because they don't use google, they don't use any map apps that we use in the US, etc. so that made booking a hotel and train tickets a bit more challenging than usual. We lucked out in that one of my sister's student's moms booked our hotel & train tickets for us since she was a local. I wouldn't say the Olympics are impossible to do as a foreigner, but having a connection like that and having someone travel with you who speaks the language were immensely helpful for our trip!
This hotel was the most expensive of our whole trip by a long shot. Each person paid $355 for 3 nights total. The hotel we initially booked emailed us 1 week prior to our arrival stating that they did not pass inspection and would not be completed in time. They were able to secure accommodations for us at another hotel, Tops10, and did not charge us more despite the room rate being significantly higher at this other hotel. We were nervous about this happening because of what happened in Sochi, but we were really impressed with how the hotel relocated us so smoothly! This hotel was a serious upgrade, but it was a solid 30min cab ride from the train station and kind've by itself along the coastline.
Because the games took place a few hours away from Seoul and there was only one train line out there from Seoul (with a lot, but not a ton of train times), we bought our tickets in advance. We found you were able to easily purchase at the stations as well, but it was nice to have ours in advance for peace of mind. Transportation around the games was pretty easy, but you did have to factor in a good amount of time (~1.5hrs to get in between the two clusters, 30-40min to get around within the clusters depending on where you were going) to get from place to place. Overall, it was organized very well (was easy to find the appropriate shuttles & trains around Gangneung + Pyeongchang) and there were plenty of cabs to leave the Olympics venues and get to your respective hotel. Also, the shuttles in Korea are pretty fantastic... they are just begging for some k-pop to be played.
Due to the political climate leading up to the games, many people asked us how we felt about going to South Korea and if we were nervous about security. South Korea was a fantastic host and they did a great job with the overall organization and making sure you always felt safe. To enter either cluster you needed have a valid ticket for an event at that cluster that day. If you did not have a ticket, you could go to the box office that was right by the entrance to purchase one. From there, you went through typical airport-like security. For the mountain cluster events that were more spread out, you would go through the same metal detector security for those events as well. There were always a ton of volunteers/staff working the events (I swear the whole country was working at the Olympics) and we always felt very safe!
The only time we encountered the North Korean cheerleading squad was at the pairs finals figure skating. They had their own section and honestly just kept to themselves. There were tons of paparazzi, but the people working the event made sure people kept their distance so nothing would happen.
What to Pack
This is what I was most concerned about! Since we were traveling Seoul & Shanghai (~50°-60° most days) in addition to the Olympics, we needed to pack for those parts of the trip as well. The Olympics were between 20°-30° which made it easy to pack for because you essentially wear the same thing every day. We bought a bunch of hand warmers + toe warmers in the states and stocked up on Korean body heaters/hot packs (the same thing, but larger and come with an adhesive back). Most days I wore on bottom: under armour base layer, leggings, jeans; on top: under armour thermal, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, packable down jacket. Also, 1 or 2 pairs of socks, lined snowboots, a neck warmer, hat & mittens. Since no one can see your layers, we rewore things a lot, and my sister & I swapped some items to change things up. The indoor venues were a comfortable temperature, but the outdoor venues at the mountain cluster were very cold! They only way to prepare is wear a lot of layers. Through writing this post, I just found this helpful packing guide as another reference.
One thing I google searched a ton was restrictions the International Olympic Committee had on bag sizes and cameras. I wanted to bring my canon 6d DSLR + 35mm f/1.4 lens, and was fearful they wouldn't allow it. The only information I found was that your setup couldn't be longer than 300mm (11.8in) in length so I was good to go. I saw many DSLRs with crazy long telephoto lenses so I think most spectator's camera setups should be fine. I believe the bag size was restricted to 50cm x 50cm x 50cm because that's the size of the scanner. We brought a small backpack and had no issues going through security.
Food & Drink
We packed some snacks (small nut packs and bars), but the food at all Olympic events was accessible and cheap (they had traditional korean options that were delicious, as well as western food options, and even a McDonald's) so we mostly purchased food in the venues. We were shocked at how affordable it all was. The prices seemed to be in line with the cost of living for this part of the country. Our theory is that Koreans are generally very honest people so it's not in their culture to upcharge, but who really knows why! Every event served beer and did not have a limit for purchase, unlike in the states. Beer lines were often very long (~20-45min wait) so we would usually have one or two people buy a tray (they would give you the lid to a box) of 12 beers to last us a while. It was amazing! Also, beer was only ~$3!
Tickets ranged in price from $17-$768. Many events had tickets at $70 or less to attract visitors. Every event had 3-tiers of pricing - section A (premium), B & C, and the actual seats/locations just depended on the type of venue. This guide helps explains the various ways to acquire tickets. As you can imagine, purchasing tickets to the events is the most challenging aspect of planning your trip! We purchased pairs figure skating finals ($140, section C), ski jumping qualifiers ($70, section C), and USA vs. Russia hockey tickets ($135, section A) in advance, while we bought Sweden vs. Norway hockey ($30, section C) and Women's Freestyle Slopestyle Finals ($211, section A) tickets at the box office at the Olympics. We tried to get tickets to curling and speed skating, but both were either very expensive or completely sold out. My advice would be to try to purchase as many tickets in advance as possible (keep checking back at the website and whenever some come available for the event you're looking for, snatch them up!). Try to do one morning event and one evening event per day, but stick to one cluster per day to maximize your time.
Want to read about our itinerary and experience? Check out my other post here. Anything I didn't cover? Feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions. We met so many wonderful people attending, and many of them had been to a handful of previous games as well. I could easily see why. We all had an absolutely incredible time and agreed if the opportunity to attend another Olympics presents itself, we would all quickly hop on board! Tokyo 2020, anyone?