A Procrastinator's Guide To The Games There's still time to book a trip to the Athens Olympics. You may even be glad you waited
By Dimitra Kessenides

(MONEY Magazine) – Athletes have dedicated years, even decades, to practicing and training, inching their way, one competition after another, closer to next month's Olympic Games in Athens. You, on the other hand, can still make it to the Games even if you hadn't given it much thought until now. For would-be spectators, in fact, last-minute travel planning may prove a competitive advantage.

Widely reported delays in building stadiums, concerns about terrorism and rumors of price-gouging by hotels all resulted in fewer early bookings than expected. But now the main venues are complete; a comprehensive security plan is in place; and the body in charge of the 2004 Olympics, the Athens Organizing Committee (ATHOC), has issued price guidelines governing 80% of the rooms in the city's large hotels. As the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies approach, tourism officials and travel agents in Athens say prices on unregulated rooms around the city are likely to drop. Space was still available in mid-June and more should open up in mid-July, when ATHOC is expected to release rooms it's holding in reserve.

What's more, tickets remain for most competitions, even popular sports like gymnastics and basketball, as well as for the closing ceremonies.

Still, the situation remains in flux. Air fares and hotel prices will continue to fluctuate based on demand. And you'll be competing for deals with friends and relatives of athletes who won't finish qualifying events until July. What you need--and what follows--is a strategy for playing the Games right. (Accommodation prices listed are per room, per night, with a three-night minimum, unless otherwise noted. Prices in dollars are based on a rate of $1.21 per euro.)

Pick your Games

First things first: Secure event tickets through Cartan Tours (cartan.com), the only officially licensed ticketing agent in the U.S. (Cartan also offers package trips.) Even if you end up with a package that includes tickets, you'll probably want to supplement them. Top events are going at a premium ($400 and up for finals), but there are loads of tickets, many released for sale only in late May, priced at $14 and $28. Semifinals run $80 to $112. Cartan's excellent site also includes maps, photos and descriptions of the events and venues. Check the official Olympic site (athens2004.com) and NBC's (nbcolympics.com) for updates on qualifying events and schedules.

Find a travel agent

You can find local agents specializing in Greece at www.greektourism.com/tours. They'll be the first to hear when additional rooms are released to the market, and most know the city well enough to guide you in choosing a hotel and steering clear of bad deals. These agents also will be tracking air fares and are well positioned to book flights when your plans are in place. In June, fares were running about $1,100 round trip from the East Coast.

Book a room

As of mid-June, according to George Tsakiris, president of the Athens Hoteliers Association, some 4,500 beds were available throughout the greater Athens area during the Olympics, not including the beds reserved by ATHOC. Most of these rooms are in three-star hotels across greater Athens; these tend to be older hotels that have been renovated within the past two years. Accommodations in the northern suburbs, close to the main Olympic stadium, and to the south of Athens, near the port of Piraeus, are less expensive than those in the city center and are actually closer to many events. (Piraeus is minutes from two Olympic venues and 45 minutes from the main stadium in Maroussi.)

The southern seaside resort areas of Glyfada and Vouliagmeni make excellent home bases. They're close to the Faliro stadium and the Hellenikon Olympic complex, have some of the best beaches in the Athens area and provide easy access to the port of Piraeus, where ferries depart for day trips to nearby islands. In mid-June a double room at the Paradise Hotel in Vouliagmeni was $545, including breakfast. The four-star seaside Hotel Glyfada had double rooms for $650, including breakfast and one additional meal.

If you think proximity to the Acropolis and Athens' other famous attractions justifies braving the city center's inevitable congestion, you can check with any of the area's five-star hotels, where rooms should become available in mid-July. They'll run you upwards of $1,000 a night. For a less expensive option almost as centrally located, direct your travel agent to the hotels in and around Omonia Square, which is within walking distance of all the famous antiquities and also has a major transportation hub. CoSport, a New Jersey tour operator (877-457-4647), sells packages at the Omonia Grand Hotel starting at $8,480 for five nights, breakfasts, some dinners, event tickets and ground transportation.

Back when a serious room shortage looked likely, plans were hatched to station cruise ships nearby as "floating hotels." Nine ships will dock in Piraeus. Affordable cabins are small, of course, and some won't have windows, but you may happily accept that trade-off for the amenities and controlled environment of a modern cruise ship. Two Holland America vessels, the 924-cabin Westerdam and the 658-cabin Rotterdam, still have space available. Prices start at $2,850 per cabin (assuming double occupancy) for three nights in an inside cabin, including all meals and ground transportation but not event tickets; an outside cabin with a balcony is $6,000 for up to four people. CoSport has packages available on Cunard's lavish new Queen Mary 2; five days and four nights in a deluxe cabin with balcony, including all meals and five events, is $6,870 per person.

And now, let the Games begin!