For me, a Korean-American adopted to the United States the year of South Korea’s first Olympics in 1988, the 2018 encore has been an occasion I’ve long anticipated. Now, three decades later, the Pyeongchang Winter Games are nearly upon us. And my life so far, book ended by Olympics, feels close to coming full circle.
The XXIII Winter Games, set among the temple-dotted mountains of South Korea’s northeastern Gangwon Province, will take place February 9 to the 25th. With 102 events, they’re poised to be the most action-packed Winter Olympics to date and feature a number of firsts: history-making attendance by North Korea, the premiere of mixed doubles curling, alpine team skiing, big air snowboarding and mass start speed skating — and maybe even Afghanistan’s debut Winter Olympians.
If you’ve been dreaming of spectating, snow-frosted and shivering with glee, like I have, there’s still time. Despite the scant daysbetween now and the opening ceremony, it’s not too late to plan a trip.
While the Winter Olympics never attract the same crowds as its splashier warm-weather sibling, the Pyeongchang Games have faced even greater challenges, due in part to their proximity to the peninsula’s demilitarized zone, a mere 40 miles away.
To alleviate anxiety, Pyeongchang Organizing Committee spokeswoman Nancy Park said, organizers are working with intelligence agencies, conducting safety drills and communicating with everyone involved. “In Korea, the average Korean isn’t that concerned,” she said. “But for international visitors, we know that it’s a concern, so we try to get out all the information about what it is that we’re doing.”
Still, Pyeongchang’s name has proved to be a point of confusion. Even after its capitalization was changed from Pyeongchang to “PyeongChang,” some Koreans worry foreigners could be too afraid to come because they mistake South Korea’s host city for North Korea’s capital. At an Olympic launch event at the United Nations Headquarters Dec. 13, Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon stressed, “Pyeongchang is different from Pyongyang. Very different. Please do not confuse.”
Round-trip, nonstop flights between the U.S. and Seoul routinely go for well over $1,400. But this winter season, despite the Olympics, they’re a bargain.
Travelers coming from New York can still secure direct flights for around $1,150 on Korean Air or Asiana. Connecting flights are less than $1,000 on China Eastern. From Los Angeles, they’re even cheaper, with nonstop on Singapore Airlines as low as $800 and one stop on China Eastern around $570. From Chicago, expect to spend about $1,150 for direct and $900 for connecting.
To track down the best deals across airlines and dates, use Google’s ITA Matrix. Seoul is served by two international airports, Incheon (ICN) and Gimpo (GMP). Although Incheon is the bigger and busier of the pair, include both in your search since many East Asian connections do terminate at Gimpo.
Authorized Olympic ticket resellers differ based on spectators’ country of residence. For U.S. residents, the Team USA website directs you to CoSport, which offers various ticket combinations, including stand-alone events, multi-event bundles and hotel and events packages.
Depending on your sporting interests, the prices vary widely, with qualifier rounds costing much less than medal events. For women’s ice hockey, for example, the preliminaries are as little as $23.44 a ticket, while the gold medal game is $295.03 and up. Some sports, like bobsleigh, skeleton and luge, have completely sold out already. Others, like figure skating, are available on an event-by-event basis, with the most high profile ones snatched up long ago. Sixty percent of tickets have been sold, according to Ms. Park’s estimates, so while plenty still remain, it’s best to order as soon as you can.
South Korea’s host city is actually a county, and the venues are scattered between two clusters across three districts. The Mountain Cluster straddles Pyeongchang and Jeongseon counties, while the Coastal Cluster is in adjacent Gangneung district.
Among the Mountain Cluster’s venues: Alpensia, home to the biathlon, cross-country skiing and ski jumping events; Phoenix Snow Park, for freestyle skiing and snowboarding; the Olympic Sliding Centre, for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge; and Jeongseon and Yongpyong Alpine centers. This Cluster is also the site of the opening and closing ceremony, at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, and the medal ceremonies, at Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza.
About 30 miles east in Gangneung, the Coastal Cluster will host the ice sports, including figure skating, speed skating, curling and hockey. When selecting a lodging locale, spectators should consider the cluster they plan to patronize the most.
By now, most accommodations near the venues have been booked, so you’ll find better prices if you look farther afield in surrounding cities. For access to the Mountain Cluster, scout westward in Wonju. For the Coastal Cluster, eye Yangyang and Sokcho to the north and Donghae and Samcheok to the south.
For assistance (in English, Chinese, Japanese or Korean), you can dial the province’s new 24-hour Olympics Special Call Centre (+82-2-1330), Ms. Park said. “If you give them the dates and your price range, they’ll look for accommodation for you.”
The other option is South Korea’s capital. “It really depends on what you want to see. Not everyone wants to see just the competitions,” Ms. Park said. For spectators hoping to do a lot of sightseeing in Seoul, it’s a good idea to set up there and commute into PyeongChang for the Games.
Korail’s new high-speed train, the Gyeonggang KTX, makes it simple, departing from three points in Seoul — Seoul Station, Cheongnyangni and Sangbong, and arriving in 90 minutes or less. Seoul accommodations are also likely to be cheaper and easier to come by. When hunting, keep in mind that Seoul Station is closest to the city’s best attractions and night life, but farthest from the Olympics. Cheongnyangni will enjoy the highest frequency of train service. In all three areas, there’s an ample array of hotels, guesthouses and Airbnbs.
To take the Gyeonggang KTX from Seoul to the Olympics area, visitors can buy one-way tickets, ranging from KRW 19,900 to 27,600 apiece, economy class. For repeated back-and-forth trips, however, the 5 or 7-day unlimited Pyeongchang Pass makes more financial sense, priced at KRW 168,000 or 195,000, respectively. The purchase deadline is Jan. 31. Visit the Korail site to buy one, and be sure to reserve your seats so you’re not left standing.
During the Games, the Gyeonggang KTX will travel from Seoul to Gangneung more than 50 times each day, stopping at six stations along the way, with some trains originating from Incheon airport. Hop off at Jinbu for the Mountain Cluster and Gangneung for the Coastal Cluster. From the stations, transfer to free spectator shuttle buses to reach the venues. The earliest train departs Seoul Station at 6 a.m. and the latest returns from Gangneung at 1 a.m., meaning it’s entirely possible to catch a late-night event and make it back to Seoul the same evening. (Know, though, that the subway stops running around midnight.) For spectators staying north or south of Gangneung, get to the Games by express bus or taxi.
For more options, and details on sights and sounds once you’re in Pyeongchang, check out the official Pyeongchang 2018 mobile apps. They’re free for the iPhone and for Android devices, and include event calendars, details on the games themselves, and information for visitors.
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