Crowds of white, green, red, and blue overflowed from packed bars into the streets of New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood. Strangers clutched each other’s arms in anticipation while balancing on tiptoes with craned necks, all in an attempt to glimpse the nearest TV. On the screens, Italy and France faced-off in the world’s most important sporting event, in the most dramatic ending possible: Penalty kicks in the World Cup final. It was 2006 and Little Italy erupted into pandemonium with their team’s winning goal. People dangled from fire escapes, alcohol sprayed through the air, and car horns blared. I jumped up and down while hugging those surrounding me, chanting “E-Talia! E-Talia! E-Talia!” In that moment, I was Italian.
That cacophony of pure joy left me hooked on traveling for the World Cup. Four years later in 2010, I made the quadrennial pilgrimage to South Africa. In 2014, Brazil. This year–in 2018–I’m heading to Russia. In 2022, I’ll brave the heat of Qatar. And in 2026, I’ll be exploring closer to home, as it was recently announced that the 2026 World Cup will be jointly hosted by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
No matter where the World Cup takes place, it's the perfect impetus to travel somewhere new for anyone interested in international culture, not just football fanatics. While I grew up playing and appreciate the skill and strategy of the sport, my obsession is fueled by the culture of the game, the enthusiasm and raw emotion of its fans, and the shared camaraderie of people from all over the world collectively experiencing the event and exploring a new destination. (Read more about the 2018 World Cup.)
Under the world's spotlight, the host country is on its best behavior. Over one billion people tune-in throughout the month-long tournament. Host cities have also recently completed infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the influx of travelers, and they often offer special promotions to ticket holders. This year, Russia waived the visa requirement and issued special “Fan-IDs,” which were mailed in advance or picked-up in person at various distribution centers. Russia is also offering limited free trains between host cities and free day-of transportation to matches.
While host countries make it easy once you have a ticket, getting a ticket is another story. Months in advance, the first of a series of purchasing opportunities begins with a “Random Selection Draw,” where you’ll select the team you’d like to follow or the games you’d like to attend. The strongest games–Round of 16s, Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Final–often fall over the July 4th holiday, giving us Americans a free vacation day to use. Once you submit, the anxious wait begins. About one month later, if you’re one of the lucky ones selected, you’ll be notified, your credit card will be automatically charged, and you can start the fun of planning.
If you’re not rewarded, don’t fret, there are additional phases. Also, you don’t physically need to be at a game to get the World Cup experience. Throughout the host country, thousands gather at FIFA Fan Fest public viewing parties where huge screens are set up to watch the matches in a festival-like setting with food, drinks, concerts and other cultural events. And even if you can’t make it to the host country, take the opportunity to watch games with international communities in your own city like I did with Little Italy in 2006. Proceed with caution, however, it might lead to a lifelong addiction that takes you around the world.
Susan Kamenar is a travel writer, producer, and digital strategist at National Geographic. Follow her adventures on Instagram @soozyn.