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Is it too early to book your 2008 Olympics travel arrangements?

It’s never too early to make arrangements for a blockbuster event—or is it? In fact, for many such events, you can start too early. That’s certainly the case for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing: No reservations are available yet. Even though you can’t book anything, however, you can at least start some preliminary planning.

A reader recently asked, “Going to the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But most of my international travel has been pre-arranged through work or school, so I don’t have a travel agent I can trust. I’ve never tried to coordinate all the different facets of something like an Olympic trip, and I’m not sure where to start. I’m also wondering: Am I trying to do this too early, when reservations may not all be worked out by the host sites yet? I want to get my reservations in for the best places and deals now. What should I be doing?”

Where to start

As this reader suspects, it’s far too early to book firm reservations now. Airlines typically don’t accept bookings more than 330 days in advance, game sponsors haven’t yet priced or allocated tickets, hotels haven’t set up room allocations or prices, and tour operators haven’t developed packages. Given recent history, though, here are some of the developments you might expect:

1. Olympics authorities will likely designate one or more wholesalers in each major country to sell airfare-hotel-event packages plus event tickets. To my knowledge, no U.S. wholesalers have yet been designated for 2008. Once designated, those wholesalers will offer their own tours; they’ll also sell to other tour operators.

2. If you want to buy individual event tickets and arrange your own transportation and accommodations, wholesalers and their affiliates will probably offer individual event tickets as well as packages. While tickets are usually sold first-come, first-served, tie-in purchases may be required. If you want to see the gymnastics finals, for example, you might also have to buy tickets to an early round of some lesser event.

3. Depending on the relative demand, some operators in other countries may offer their ticket allocations in the U.S. market. That’s against Olympic rules, but not illegal. Usually, those third-country allocations become available late in the process, if at all.

4. Once on the market, tickets are likely to sell out quickly. That may or may not be the case, however, for accommodations and airline seats. In several of the recent cycles, sponsoring cities have been disappointed by low numbers of international visitors. While the stands were full, most of the spectators were locals who didn’t spend much on hotel accommodations and therefore didn’t contribute as much as hoped to the local economies. Whether this will happen in 2008 is anybody’s guess.

5. While airline seats and tickets are not yet available, you might be able to book hotel accommodations this far in advance—it depends entirely on individual hotels. You could check a few websites or a guidebook, select a few hotels, and inquire about early booking. I suspect, however, that any such hotel would reserve the right to change the price.

6. If you want to be sure of your arrangements, act as soon as the market opens up to American travelers. But if you have a gambling spirit, you might consider waiting until a month or two before the games begin to find some markdowns in airfares or hotels.

Keep your eyes open

Clearly, you’ll want to keep tabs on Olympic marketing and be prepared to act as soon as bookings become available. Here are some places to monitor:

  • Beijing 2008 is the official website for the 2008 games; the home page is in Chinese, so click on “English” in the upper left corner for an English version. As of this writing, the site shows no information about tickets, accommodations, or tours.
  • CoSport is an official U.S. outlet for tickets to the 2006 winter games in Torino, and it will be handling 2008 tickets as well.
  • City Travel is taking pre-registrations from travelers interested in the 2008 games. At this point, though, it’s unclear what this might get you.

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