The kick-off to the planet's biggest sporting event is less than six months away - and Singaporeans are already making travel arrangements and willing to pay top dollar to be a part of the World Cup in Russia.
Demand for tickets to the June 14-July 15 showpiece tournament is immense. The first sales phase through Fifa (fifa.com/worldcup), which ended last month, saw almost 3.5 million applications for about 740,000 tickets.
A similar rush is expected for the second phase, currently under way until April. The final phase will be from April 18 to July 15 for any tickets that are unsold or returned.
While tickets for Russians start from as low as 1,280 roubles (S$29), foreigners will have to pay anywhere between 6,300 roubles (Category 3) for a group match to 66,000 roubles for a Category 1 seat at the final on July 15 at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
SINGAPOREANS HEADED THERE
Marine insurance broker Patricia Poh was thrilled to secure tickets for herself and two friends to three matches in the first phase - before the draw was made on Dec 1.
The 28-year-old, who estimates her two-week trip will cost about S$7,000, said: "This made the draw even more exciting, and it turned out we got some good games."
The Spain supporter will catch the Brazil-Costa Rica (June 22 in St Petersburg) and Denmark-France (June 26 in Moscow) clashes plus a round-of-16 game and paid between US$165 (S$222) and US$185 for each Category 2 ticket.
Booking through the official website was "the way to get tickets at cost price," she noted.
There are more expensive alternatives like packages offered by Zurich-based Match Hospitality (hospitality.fifa.com), the only company authorised by Fifa to sell tickets as part of a hospitality-inclusive bundle. They sell directly and through a network of appointed sales agents confirmed individually by Fifa.
A single-person package for one group-stage match, excluding travel, starts from US$595.
Fanatic Sports, which is Match Hospitality's agent in Singapore, declined to reveal sales figures when contacted by The Sunday Times. Its representative would only say: "Our sports packages include official match tickets, luxurious accommodation and a range of additional bespoke travel services."
It could be a hassle having to pack up and go through the various airports these two weeks, but for such a once in a lifetime experience, it's all worth it.
JEYAVIJAY THILLAIAMPALAM, Brazil supporter, will jump through hoops to catch his beloved team in action for all three Group E matches.
The presence of online ticket resellers like Stubhub and Viagogo also offer options for fans, despite warnings from Fifa that tickets obtained this way "will be automatically rendered void and invalid, and do not entitle the ticket holder to enter the stadium or to any refund or further compensation".
IT professional Justin Foo, 41, paid €992.10 (S$1,581) on Viagogo for a ticket to watch Portugal beat France 1-0 in the Euro 2016 final and intends to use the same site again next year if he fails to obtain tickets through the Fifa website.
"There is a risk for sure, but I feel like such sites are the only choice for fans who cannot get tickets from official channels," he said.
He will be part of the likely hundreds of Singaporeans travelling to Russia. A Fifa spokesman told ST that 1,801 tickets were allocated to Singaporeans in phase one and another 967 tickets have been requested in the ongoing sales period. For the 2014 edition in Brazil, a total of 3,000 tickets were allocated to Singaporeans.
While local travel agencies told ST they could not attribute a spike in interest solely to the World Cup, Dynasty Travel said it has seen a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in sales figures for Russia travel packages from April to September. Chan Brothers Travel said they have seen a 20 per cent jump year-on-year.
SOARING HOTEL PRICES, LENGTHY INTERNAL TRAVEL
An estimated one million tourists are expected in Russia for the month-long quadrennial tournament and this will inevitably cause a massive over-demand for accommodation across the 11 host cities.
James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia, said: "Moscow and St Petersburg are very expensive cities at any time, and we can expect that the hotel prices and other tourist-aimed services and goods will see the customary scandalous hike to take advantage of demand.
Travel tips for Russia
Heading to Russia for the first time to watch the World Cup? Fret not, as The Sunday Times collates some useful travel tips.
After receiving their ticket confirmation e-mail, fans need to apply for a Fan ID (www.fan-id.ru), a free and official identity document.
The ID and a valid ticket are required to be able to enter the World Cup stadiums.
The ID offers benefits and services such as visa-free entry to Russia, certain free inter-host city travel and free use of public transport on match days.
While Russia is no more dangerous than other countries, visitors should avoid remote districts on the city outskirts.
Petty crime, pick-pocketing and mugging (sometimes committed by groups of children) are common, especially around tourist attractions such as Red Square, the Ismailovsky tourist market and the Moscow or St Petersburg Metros.
CARRY ID AROUND
The Russian police have a right to stop pedestrians to check their documents, so carry your passport or its copy with a visa and registration stamp (or your Fan ID) with you at all times.
Alcohol will not be available at stadiums during matches. The sale of alcohol from shops is restricted, typically from 11pm to 8am but regional governments have their own regulations.
PLACES TO VISIT
Russia is rich in culture and natural beauty, with fascinating cities and countryside. Besides Moscow and St Petersburg which are vast cities with great art, architecture and indulgence in abundance, other highlights include Sochi, Kazan, Kaliningrad and Volgograd.
"I expect accommodation, which was already twice to thrice normal prices in Brazil, will be around three to five times higher than normal in Moscow and St Petersburg, but can be a huge multiple in other areas where hotels are usually dirt cheap."
Based on checks on Expedia yesterday, a standard twin room at the three-star Agora Hotel in the western city of Kaliningrad tonight will cost S$35. But the same room would cost an astonishing S$2,909 for June 28, when England play Belgium in their last Group G game.
Another concern for fans would be the sheer size of Russia, which at 17,125,200 sq km, is the largest country in the world by area. Kaliningrad, for example, is located on the Baltic Sea, separated from the Russian mainland by Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.
Brazil supporter Jeyavijay Thillaiampalam, 46, will follow his team for all three Group E games in Rostov-on-Don, St Petersburg and Moscow, meaning he will cover more than 3,100km and spend at least six hours on internal flights.
He said: "It could be a hassle having to pack up and go through the various airports these two weeks, but for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it's all worth it."
Despite the long commute facing visitors, things are not that dire, stressed Alicia Seah, Dynasty Travel director of public relations and communications.
She said: "There are several major airlines in Russia and they have diverse routes services by both full-service and no-frills airlines. Trains in Russia are speedy and have a remarkable record for punctuality."
SPECTRE OF RACISM AND VIOLENCE
Security, particularly in the current climate of terrorism, is also a big worry. The Federal Security Service will be activated although Russian authorities have not released figures. Brazil deployed 150,000 policemen and soldiers for the 2014 edition.
Instances of organised hooliganism and racism in Russia are well-documented.
Russian fans went on the rampage in Marseille both inside and outside of the stadium at Euro 2016 - attacking England fans, resulting in more than 100 injured with two ending up in a coma.
Order administrator Daniel Tan, 25, said he and his group of five, who have bought tickets to the quarter-finals and semi-finals, were aware of the risks but were remaining calm. He added: "We do have safety concerns going into Russia after reading about instances of racism and chaos there.
"But I believe security will be tighter during the World Cup and (Russian President) Vladimir Putin will want to put on a good show to let the world see Russia can be a good host."