How Much Would a Spur-of-the-Moment Trip to the Olympics Cost?
Canada has hosted the Winter Olympic Games only twice out of 22 tournaments. But no matter where the Games are held, something about the sight of our rugged athletes swaddled in their high-performance gear against a snowy alpine vista makes me feel right at home. The athletes must feel it, too. Team Canada has competed every four years since the first Winter Games in France in 1924, proving itself to be one of the given’er-est teams to ever give’er. We’ll be sliding into PyeongChang, Korea as the number six medal-earning country in the world—number five if you only count golds. All of this is pretty great to watch on television, but take it from a sports and travel (not to mention sports-travel) junkie: You have not truly witnessed a medal earned until you’ve watched it unfold from behind ice-encrusted lashes. Beauty.
The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony takes place on February 9, meaning that any trip you’re booking now is going to be spur-of-the-moment. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. First of all, there are now 102 events across 15 sports, which translates into the most-ever trips to the podium in a winter Games. Also, PyeongChang will be your first chance to see four news sports—mass start speed skating, big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, and mixed team alpine skiing—at the Olympic level. Make sure you get your Can-con on: don’t miss Ivanie Blondin in the mass skate or big air snowboarder, Max Parrot. The story of the Canadian bobsleigh team may not carry the underdog cache of their Jamaican colleagues, but they’ll appeal to anyone who prefers cheering for medal contenders. Pilot Kaillie Humphries and brakeman Heather Moyse will be looking for a third gold in a row for the women. Finally, no round-up would be complete without a nod to the Games’ talented, spinning glitterati: the figure skaters. Canada is expected to fiercely battle the Russian-but-not-‘Russia’ (the Olympic Athletes from Russia, more accurately) squad for a team gold. And Canada’s flag bearers for the opening ceremony, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, are looking to become the most medaled figure skaters in Olympic history.
You probably don’t need much more convincing, but how about this: You can stop scrounging behind the couch cushions for stray loonies. I’ve put together a guide with everything you need to know to get you to the Olympics and to save some dough in the process.
Before you book, you need to know where you’re going. The Winter Olympics venues are divided into two “clusters.” The Mountain Cluster is in PyeongChang and Jeongseon and will host snow sports like skiing, biathlon, and snowboarding, and sliding sports like luge and bobsleigh. The Coastal Cluster in Gangneung is for ice sports; you’ll want to go here for skating, ice hockey, and curling.
For either location, you can fly into Seoul and take a train to your destination (~$60 CAD each way), but when looking for flight deals it’s good to be flexible. Aside from having a wicked airport code, Samchok International (SUK) is only 47 kilometres from Gangneung and 60 kilometres from PyeongChang. Yangyang (YNY) and Cheonju (CJJ) are also closer to both clusters than either Gimpo (GMP) or Incheon (ICN) in Seoul. If you add national airports, your options multiply. For flight deals, check domestic airlines like Air Seoul, Air Busan, and Jin Air as well.
Assuming you’re flying into Seoul (and the vast majority of you will), you can find some decent last-minute deals especially if you’re flexible with your dates. I found these fares using an aggregator but here’s a tip: Once you’ve identified the flight you want, visit the airline’s site to book. There are often additional deals to be had.
From Vancouver: $811 CAD
From Calgary: $760 CAD
From Toronto: $834 CAD
From Montreal: $909 CAD
From Halifax: $1134 CAD
Ticket prices change minute to minute, so when you find a good fare make sure you lock in your flight. And if you miss all the bargains, don’t despair—there’s more than one way to ski a slalom (that’s a saying, right?) Check your credit card for perks. The Scotia Gold Amex, for example, gifts you 15,000 rewards points when you sign up, and is one of the few cards left in Canada that allows you to apply their points to a flight after it’s booked. That 15K can knock $150 off your ticket price.
After flights, your accommodations will likely be your next biggest expense, but it’s also an opportunity to save big. Capsule hotels, where you sleep in a space the approximate size and shape of a coffin, are popular in Korea and are a really sensible way for anyone but claustrophobes to keep their lodging bill down—even during marquee events. Expect to pay around $120 CAD per night in Gangneung. Another budget option is a bed in a dormitory room (often called “guesthouses” in the region) and these go for about the same. Savvy travellers should be able to find similar rooms in PyeongChang for $50-70 more per night.
This late in the game, most mid-range accommodations are booked. AirBnB is a terrific option (and an official accommodations sponsor) so the site is a must-search. If you’re ready to splash out for a little privacy and space in a hotel room, be prepared to pay between $250-400 per night near either cluster. Take heed: Some guesthouses or hotels will advertise that their rooms are “Korean style.” Most often this means that instead of a mattress, there’s a futon. All part of the fun of globetrotting!
As with all your trip costs, the amount you’ll pay for tickets depends on a variety of factors. The good news is that with just a week to go to game-time many tickets remain unsold, which means you have a better chance at booking your favourites. In Gangneung, you can snag seats to a figure skating training session for as low as ￦30,000 (~ $34 CAD) or splurge on ring-side seats at the men’s hockey gold medal match for ￦900,000 (about a grand). Events held in the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster are slightly more economical. Watch the primary luge heats for ￦20,000 (~ $23 CAD) or drop ￦200,000 (~ $230 CAD) on the men’s ski jumping finals.
For the best bang for your Canuck buck, though, look for seats at events where Canadians are likely to make waves. Tickets to the women’s bobsleigh medal round range from ￦100,000 (~ $115) on the high end to ￦40,000 (~ $46 CAD); the men’s big air snowboard finals start at ￦180,000 (~ $205 CAD) but you can also get a seat for ￦80,000 (~ $90 CAD); and, you can watch the figure skating team medal round rinkside for ￦600,000 (~ $690 CAD) or from the nosebleeds for ￦150,000 (~ $170 CAD). Note that you might find deals on resale sites, but beware of counterfeit products. The real deal has a hologram and a QR code on it. Now, pick your seats, don your toque, and get ready to cheer Team Canada!
Okay, you’ve got your flights, you’ve got your accommodations, and you’ve got your events tickets which means you’ve got an itinerary. What are you going to do with your free time? Eat!
You probably already know about kimchi and bibimbap (and if you don’t, you will), but how about ssam or bulgogi? Eating out in Korea is a culinary adventure I urge you go on, but without a plan your costs can add up quickly. Budget between ￦15,000 and ￦20,000 ($17-22 CAD) for a mid-range meal in a sit-down restaurant, but order with the caveat that portions tend to be large. Read: you might benefit from going splitsies.
You can’t go wrong with street food for eats on the cheap. Scan for something that looks like a deconstructed corn on the cob—that’s hweori gamja, or “tornado potato.” Not only fun to say, but delicious! Try twigim, deep fried veggies and fish that look like tempura and can be dipped in soy sauce. Often filled with leeks and green onions, Korean pajeon are reminiscent of French crepes. If you’re looking for a more balanced meal, find the yaki noodle vendor—a portion typically contains pan-fried noodles and vegetables.
If you’re like me, penny pinching is difficult on an empty stomach. Why not offset your food bill by using a credit card to your advantage? The Home Trust Preferred Visa is the only Canadian credit card left that waives foreign transaction fees, saving you 2.5-3% on every purchase made abroad. Or use the Rogers Platinum Mastercard and get 4% cash back on overseas purchases—enough to cover the foreign transaction fee and then some.
See You in Korea!
Now that you know exactly how to get to this once-in-a-lifetime event, and to do it for less, there are no excuses. Pack your bags and join me—and Team Canada—in PyeongChang. See you soon, or as they say in Korean, ‘god boebgessseubnida!’
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to practice that on the plane.