Eight Travel Tips for Bowl Game Travelers

Even before college football wrapped up its regular season, die-hard fans looked ahead to postseason play, in the hopes that their team landed a coveted bowl game berth. While the date and place play a prominent role - New Year's Day provides the most excitement, preferably someplace warm - many people follow their teams to the finish, no matter where that might be.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, anyone?

The challenge of going to a bowl game is its last-minute nature. Although projections are rampant during the season, no one really knows where a team will play until invitations are issued and accepted the first weekend of December. That means fans end up buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms and scrounging for tickets at the last minute, at one of the most expensive times of the year to travel.

Yet when a team has been on the bottom for a while, bowl game tickets go fast, no matter what the cost. The demand from Notre Dame fans for tickets to the BCS National Championship game outside Miami on Jan. 7 has been so fierce that Anthony Travel, which organizes bowl travel for the Fighting Irish as well as nine other schools, instituted a lottery for the chance to buy packages, which are estimated to cost between $1,700 and $2,400 per person, double occupancy. And that's without airfare.

Here are a few tips if you're thinking about going Bowling:

Decide what kind of experience you want
There are all types of ways to enjoy a bowl game, from dancing at black-tie balls where one of your partners is the university president to huddling together with several friends and a keg at a divey motel.

On the high end, tour operator Tauck has a five-day Rose Bowl package that includes several days of Los Angeles sightseeing, a close-up look at the floral floats of the Rose Parade (plus grandstand seats), a New Year's Eve gala at the Beverly Hilton and seats in the corner end zone. The total package with tickets starts at $4,215, not including airfare. The Tournament of Roses also offers its own packages.

Seek advice from alums
Far more common: Packages put together by the university alumni relations or athletics department. While they may not include airfare, these group packages usually bundle hotel costs with tickets and often offer pre- and post-game gatherings and festivities, like a New Year's Eve party or admission to a catered tailgate party before the game.

If you want to go this route, you should go to your alma mater's alumni relations website and sign up for ticket and package notifications – yesterday. Obviously, demand and cost depend on how popular the bowl is. Expect high prices for the five BCS games: the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the National Championship game. You'll pay far less for, say, the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl (Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla.) or Idaho's Potato Bowl (Dec. 15 in Boise).

If you're not an alum of a participating school, make some friends who are. Most universities have alumni clubs in other states and regions, and someone who has access to ticket purchasing is likely among them. It's too late to schmooze alums at public viewing parties (usually held in bars), but you could check the university alumni relations website and find the local club president. Chances are, he or she knows someone in your area who can hook you up.

Have it your way
Making your own arrangements isn't the easiest way to go, but it does offer more control over where you'll sleep, eat and party. I've done the December bowl game dance myself twice – once to see the Northwestern Wildcats play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1996, and a second time when they made it to the Outback Bowl in 2010. Both times, I put together my own trip with friends, buying tickets, flights and hotel rooms – and figuring out what to do on New Year's Eve.

Shop airports
Now is also the time to set up an airfare notification on Kayak, Airfarewatchdog or your favorite flight search engine. Although you aren't likely to find bargains for New Year's Eve travel, you can often save some money by flying into a nearby airport and driving to your destination. In Florida, for example, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa may have better deals than Jacksonville or Miami. Flying midweek often saves you money as well.

Consider a road trip
That's what LSU fan Keith Darce did for his team's appearances in the Cotton Bowl and Peach Bowl (now called the Chick-fil-A Bowl). He drove with friends from New Orleans to both Dallas and Atlanta, arriving in the city the night before and sharing a hotel room. "That leaves more money for food, drinks and game souvenirs," he said.

Track down tickets
If you can't get seats through your school, you can pursue alternate means, such as StubHub or Craigslist. Surprise upsets at the end of the season can work to your advantage, as some overeager alumni might have bought tickets for a bowl berth that never materialized. Also check your team's opponent: If one team has to travel a long way to the bowl, the school might end up with extra inventory that it needs to dump locally.

Of course, the downside to buying these tickets is that you could be seated in the middle of enemy territory.

Stay nearby or outside the city
While some Bowl stadiums are close to city center (such as New Orleans' Superdome, which is within cab and walking distance of downtown), others lie on the outskirts. If you're already using a rental car to get to the game, you might as well book a cheaper hotel away from the downtown. That's what my friend and I did in Tampa for our Outback Bowl experience. We used the blind booking site Hotwire to nab a room at a weirdly located InterContinental for under $100.

Pre-party responsibly
Wandering around a new city without a plan is lame. Scout out the destination in advance and figure out key places to eat and drink. Choose a designated driver and go lightly on the booze: One of my friends once missed the entire first half due to a monster hangover. We've never let her live it down.
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