We’ve been to London once before and boy did we see London then. London Passes paid for and in hand, we were determined to get our money’s worth. Big Ben and Parliament, Kensington and Buckingham Palaces, the London Eye, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London just to name a few. We managed to fit in lots of lesser known sites and activities that were included with our pass – the London Zoo, Aquarium, and even a guided bicycle ride. At least two weeks worth of stuff packed into ten days, as Elliott likes to say. We were TIRED.
This time was different – we came to London for two specific reasons. One was to visit family, and one was to (hopefully) see the Olympics. Going to the Olympics has been something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. I think it first struck me as possible when they were in Atlanta, GA, and I found out a friend carried the torch for a stretch. Elliott and I talked about going for the past two Olympic Games in Vancouver and Beijing but never got organized enough to do anything about it. So back in January, I started looking for tickets. It turned out ticket sales in London had been a complete fiasco, with many Londoners unable to even buy tickets. The only somewhat useful information I could find was that some tickets would go up for resale in April.
Fast-forward a few months, and I came across a super airfare deal on one of my miles web forums. Boston to Dublin, one way, for just 12,500 miles per person. This was it – the defining moment. If we booked this ticket, we were committing to taking the time out of life to travel for a while. Meanwhile, I had been checking the London Olympics ticket website month after month to no avail. We finally decided we’d go to London no matter what, and visit Elliott’s aunt and uncle; and we purchased our plane tickets.
As luck would have it, I later found out the website I was checking for Olympics tickets was only for those living in the UK. Once I found the US site, I found tickets left for exactly three events. One of them was very exciting to us – Men’s Artistic Gymnastics – Elliott’s #1 choice! And although the tickets were only available for one date, it was an amazing date, because it left us time to visit both Dublin and Scotland after our flight, and still get to London in time for the event!
This stop in London would end up being the first truly relaxing times during our trip. Staying with family was wonderful – we had our own guest room, time to relax, access to do our laundry, and a wonderful host and hostess, Elliott’s Uncle David and Aunt Gilly. We saw family members Elliott hadn’t seen in way too long and some we had never met.
On top of all of that, we had a Chase Visa credit card, which allowed us access each day to a VIP Lounge. This lounge provided us with a central location to all sorts of sites in London, free (and useful!) gifts, large flat screen TVs on which to watch the Olympics, breakfast and lunch, visits with prior Olympians, and dinner cooked by none other than Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who has a restaurant back home in Philly! Each day Elliott’s Uncle David would drive us into the city and we would use the lounge as our base.
Our first day in the city, we familiarized ourselves with some of our favorite sites, starting with Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. We went to the Tower of London and took photos in front of the Tower Bridge, decked out in its five Olympic rings. We went back to Saint Paul’s, Big Ben and Parliament. We found people in pink everywhere, and quickly learned that pink was the official color chosen by London to represent the Olympic Games this time around. The people in pink were stationed all around the city, solely there to help point us tourists in the right direction and answer any questions we might have about the Olympics. We rode the tube and noted the new voice announcing all the stations. And we went to check out Olympic Park, marveling all the way at the pink signs and tape posted everywhere with information on how to get to the Olympic venues. To say things were well-organized would be a huge understatement.
We were bummed to find out our gymnastics event tickets would not gain us access to Olympic Park, so we took some photos of the outside and continued on to our venue, the O2 Center. Once off the tube, things were so well organized that they were only allowing people to go in barricaded, set pathways. We navigated through the maze and found a little place to grab some quick sandwiches for dinner, then jumped up and down a lot on our way into the venue. We were so early we had time to wait in the tremendously long line to look at official souvenirs and were psyched to find a purple gymnastics Olympic magnet we absolutely love.
Our seats turned out to be better than we realized – we were in a “suite”, which meant there was a room with comfy couches behind our seats – and we were thrilled with our view. (Philly sports fans would know this as a superbox.) We could see all six apparatuses on the floor – floor exercises, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bars. There were five country teams and one mixed team spread out over the apparatuses. They got two minutes to practice, then did their performances simultaneously, before rotating to the next apparatus while motivating music played in the background. The athletes’ strength and performances were amazing, and the entire experience was surreal – I can’t count how many times we turned to one another and said, “This is so cool – I can’t believe we’re at the Olympics!” We felt as if we had the energy of the Olympians – too bad we lack the skillJ Maybe if we get some rings when we are back in the States… one of the Olympian gymnasts was 39, after all – it’s never too late, right?!
Our second day in the city, we got to meet Nadia Comaneci and her husband Olympic Gold Medalist Bart Connor in the Chase Visa Lounge. It was wonderful to see how good they both still look at 50+ and to hear about all the philanthropic projects they’ve started and been involved in since winning their medals so many years ago. We visited the Olympic exhibit at the Royal Opera House where we were able to see the medals and torches from all the Olympic Games in modern history dating all the way back to 1896! The medals increased in size dramatically from Beijing to London, which made me happy for the athletes; after all, there is no way my silly Mickey Mouse marathon medal should be larger than an Olympian medal!
We expected our third and last day in the city to be rather mundane. We had tried various methods of finding more even tickets for sale, but they just weren’t readily available. The newscasters kept talking about how empty the event stadiums were, and we had noticed it both at our gymnastics event and watching other events on television since. Why all the empty seats when box offices and websites had nothing more for sale? There weren’t many good answers other than the fact that seats reserved for large sponsors, companies and family and friends of athletes were just not being used. We empathized with other fans trying to get tickets, then resigned ourselves to hanging out in our lounge watching more events on TV. We figured at least we’d have time to go to Morimoto’s dinner in the evening.
Then we had a huge surprise – a Visa representative stopped at our table and asked if we had any plans to go to an event that day. We shook our heads sadly until he realized why he was asking. Visa apparently was one of those sponsors realizing just how many of their reserved seats were going unused, and they were looking for people who might be interested in some extra tickets. Still skeptical, we followed him to another room, quietly debating how much we’d be willing to spend – $30? $50? Imagine our surprise when they asked us to fill out a simple form claiming we would not resell our tickets, and then handed us tickets for the Finals and medal ceremony for Women’s Synchronized Diving for free!! We almost fell over when we saw the face value of the tickets – 295 POUNDS each. Wow, were we in the right place at the right time.
I don’t think we could have been happier that afternoon. We ran around singing, “I’ve got a golden ticket,” the entire way to Olympic Park – excited about our luck, the event, and the fact that we now *would* be allowed in to Olympic Park, where we had been denied entry just two days before. Our seats turned out to be very far away from the diving pool, so I guess that high price was simply because it was a medal ceremony. We were thrilled with the girls and their diving skills although I must admit it was hard to even see them from our seats without watching the replays on the big screen! A super nice aspect of our seats is that we were close to the area where they present the medals, and we hadn’t even seen a medal ceremony on TV in many years. Watching the athletes hug one another, even when they were fierce competitors, and then tear up as they received their medals, was moving beyond words.
We talked to so many people before, during and after our time in London who were “staying away from it all,” afraid the crowds and chaos would be overwhelming and spoil any visit. We found just the opposite. The ticket sales may have been a fiasco, but London came out shining as far as we could see when it came to organization and the events that week. We left with that wonderful feeling of, “Wow.” That visit resulted in a great, great check on that bucket list.