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World Cup fever is getting ready to grip the United States like never before, with millions preparing to clear their summer schedules and park themselves in front of their television with remote control in hand.
But for many, those incessant promotional images of spectacular South African scenery, gaudily painted faces of fans from across the globe and the tricks and flicks of the world's greatest soccer stars have tapped into their adventurous spirit.
FIFA has estimated that up to 160,000 tickets, more than England and Germany combined, have been sold to fans from the U.S. While a journey to the world's biggest sporting festival generally requires months of intensive planning (it's common for supporters to start preparing more than two years in advance), there is good news to be had for those wanting to take a late leap on to the bandwagon.
How can you make the pipe dream of an impromptu trip to the greatest show in soccer a reality? Here's how.
1. Just get over there
The severe price gouging that drove regular airfares up to extortionate levels has calmed down, and flights from the United States to South Africa have returned to a more realistic but still costly level. Whereas return fares were approaching $4000 from New York to Johannesburg just a few months ago, seats can now be found for under $2000.
Supporters who are prepared to miss the USA's first game against England on June 12 will get the best value. Fares on dates after the tournament have begun to drop dramatically.
2. Find a place to sleep
For many visitors, finding a safe, affordable place to stay will be the most important part of the planning. The good news is that with far fewer international travelers than expected, hotels and B&B's have lowered their prices drastically.
Three companies – Cartan Tours, Great Atlantic Travel and Destination Southern Africa – have been selected as official U.S. travel partners and can arrange accommodation bookings at reasonable rates.
3. See the action
For past World Cups, the two-week mark would have been far too late to secure tickets. But this time around, governing body FIFA and the South African organizers underestimated the effects that the global recession would have on the number of traveling fans.
As a result, match tickets for many games are still available for purchase through official channels. USA-England and USA-Slovenia are both sold out, but FIFA's website was still offering tickets for USA-Algeria as of Thursday night.
Even for sold-out games there are legitimate options to allow fans to fulfill their own World Cup dream, as long as they follow a few simple rules.
"Don't negotiate a deal on the street," said Glenn Lehrman, head of communications at StubHub, the world's largest online ticket marketplace. "The risks of buying tickets from street scalpers are many; counterfeit tickets can be prevalent. Once cash is handed over it is gone.
"To be 100 percent sure you'll get your tickets and your money is safe, use a company which guarantees ticket authenticity, secure transactions and on-time delivery or pick-up."
4. Get moving
South Africa's road network is outstanding, and the best way to negotiate the Johannesburg area and the stadiums that surround it is by car. Special World Cup buses will also be a popular alternative, although their presence has annoyed local taxi drivers who feel marginalized by World Cup planners.
For longer journeys, the rail system is affordable, if not nearly as speedy as the hyper-efficient network enjoyed by fans at the 2006 tournament in Germany. For games in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town, domestic flights are the way to go and are served by several low-cost carriers. More seasoned travelers may opt to book just one night on the internet before departing, in order to take advantage of on-the-ground specials once they arrive.
5. Get behind your team
Many American fans will link up with groups like Sam's Army or the American Outlaws, collections of diehard supporters that continue to grow in strength and numbers. Both groups make traditional American sport spectators look like a church gathering, spending the entire 90 minutes screaming, singing and jumping up and down in support of Bob Bradley's team.
"This thing is really taking on a life of its own now," said Mark Spacone, co-founder of Sam's Army. "More and more people want to follow the USA and create an atmosphere like other soccer teams have."
Josh McPhail, a U.S. fan from Reston, Va., will be attending his third straight World Cup and never plans to miss another one. "When I explain it to people I tell them the World Cup is like Super Bowl Sunday – every game," McPhail said. "In the past they didn't always get it."
6. Paint your face
The World Cup is the most colorful spectacle in sports. This year's event promises to have an even richer flavor.
Staged in Africa for the first time, the tournament will tap into the spirit of the vibrant host nation, which has been building up to this for the past six years. So don't be afraid to get swept up in the excitement.
Paint your face, buy a vuvuzela (one of those ear-assaulting South African horns) and make friends from all over the planet.
7. Stay safe
South Africa's sketchy safety record is one factor that may have kept some fans away from the tournament. However, the host nation has invested tens of millions in ensuring tourists are kept safe from harm.
Travelers are well advised to gather as much information as possible. National embassies, FIFA and several World Cup sponsors have published useful guides with details on each of the host cities, plus tips on respectful conduct.
8. Get around
From the beauty of Cape Town's Table Mountain to the awe-inspiring wonder of the Kruger National Park to the historical resonance of Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, South Africa offers a series of unforgettable experiences that should not be missed.
Travel within South Africa is not always seamless, but it is relatively inexpensive. And for those looking to spread their wings further, don't forget that South Africa borders fascinating destinations such as Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Mozambique.
- South Africa