LONDON – It's months before athletes hit the Olympic track, but time is running out for those in another fierce competition: The scramble for a place to stay in London.
Some innkeepers will be charging Ritz rates for Fawlty Towers rooms — and they will get away with it.
A limited hotel supply and unprecedented demand from almost a million tourists, media and businesspeople tied to the London Games means that accommodation in the British capital — never a bargain to start with — is more expensive than ever this summer.
That guarantees a bumper year for London's hotel and rental sectors, but a nightmare for those who have been dragging their feet on making sleeping arrangements.
Already, many central London hotels are fully booked from mid-July to mid-August, and those that still have rooms available now charge anything from double to four times more than their normal rates.
"It's almost too late now to get into central London," said Miles Quest, a spokesman for the British Hospitality Association. "(Visitors) need to look outside the central area, where rooms will clearly be cheaper."
It's too good a business opportunity to miss, and hoteliers aren't the only ones cashing in. Vacation rental agencies and websites have reported a massive boom in business, with many homeowners planning to stay with friends or go abroad so they can rent out their homes.
"There was a massive increase in traffic as soon as 2012 turned — it was overnight. It was really crazy," said Matthew Parker, who is doing a brisk trade on his website Londonrentmyhouse.com, a matchmaking service for enterprising people looking to rent out their homes and visitors seeking a short-term stay.
"The site is taking adverts (ads) everyday, we're into the thousands now and many more to come. Homeowners are really grabbing the idea and running with it," he added.
It's easy to see why. London tourism officials expect about 900,000 Olympics-related visitors — including athletes, their families, staff, journalists, and tourists — to London this summer, all needing a bed. That's on top of the 1.5 million tourists London typically sees every August.
Even with many new hotels springing up all over the capital, there are only about 110,000 hotel rooms in the London area — and almost a third of those have been allocated to Olympic personnel.
Tourism officials have brushed off the shortage, insisting that London has more rooms and a bigger range of sleeping options than any other Olympic host city has been able to offer. They have also been encouraging visitors to research alternatives like hostels, bed-and-breakfast inns and university dorm rooms.
Still, they acknowledge they are not in a position to do anything about what Tessa Jowell, an opposition lawmaker, has called a "scandal of extortionate price rises."
A recent survey by London-based international booking website Hotels.com suggested that the average London hotel room rate has doubled for the Olympic period compared to last year, but it's clear in many cases the jump is much steeper.
At the Travelodge in Stratford, the budget chain's property next to the Olympic Stadium, room prices have shot up from a modest 50 pounds ($80) per night to 274 pounds ($436) in late July.
"The prices aren't going to come down," said Hotels.com president David Roche. It's not that hoteliers are all greedy, he added — some owners are just looking to the Olympics to recover losses amid a sluggish British economy.
"Many hoteliers are looking at the Olympics to save them," he said. "They're wondering when the good times are going to roll again."
Prices in the vacation rental market can be lower, since more and more flats and houses are coming onto the market as more homeowners and landlords realize the potential to make some quick cash.
Rental costs vary wildly: As low as 75 pounds ($120) for a room in someone's flat, to 20,000 pounds (nearly $32,000) a week for a luxury central London townhouse. Many people are asking four times more than the normal rent, Parker said.
There's evidently demand to sustain such high prices.
"I'm booked for the entire Olympic period," said Marina Usher Mazur, who is renting her 3-bedroom second home in Notting Hill to two American families for 6,000 pounds ($9,550) a week. That's more than double her normal rate, but she still received more than 30 responses.
"I had a couple people say, you're crazy. But it went pretty easily," she said. "I was amazed at how many people were interested."
It's not impossible to find budget options, though, as long as visitors are prepared to commute. Kent and Essex, for example, are to the east in the Greater London area, and have good connections to the Olympic Park. Events will be taking part across all corners of the capital, so taking the time to research transport links will help determine which suburb to choose from.
"Many events are held outside east London," Roche said. "If you know where you're going, there's no need to stay in central London."