"Can you get a USA-Italy ticket in April? Yes," says Paz. "[But] you're going to pay two to three times above face value." Group stage tickets range in price from 35 euros to 100 euros.

As with all major sporting events, an increasingly high percentage of tickets go to corporate sponsors, who pass the tickets to their employees, some of whom could care less about attending or simply don't have the time or money to make the trip. Many of these tickets have been turning up online on sites like eBay for months. If you're searching for tickets, keep the following in mind:

-FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, is using RFID (radio frequency identification) microchip technology on tickets in an effort to cut down on the black-market sales, as well as to improve security. Spot checks of IDs will be conducted at the stadiums. Be sure to ask anyone selling tickets how they plan to deal with this. FIFA announced it will create an Internet ticket portal for the legal exchange of tickets at face value only.

-Luxury hotels often go out of their way to set aside tickets for hotel guests. Of course, there are no guarantees, and nothing you find late in the game will be cheap, but if you're determined to go, sometimes cozying up to the hotel staff can be quite helpful.

-Do your homework, ask questions, and get a guarantee. "There's a lot of fraud in travel," Paz warns. "The client or consumer has to be on top of things." How long have they been in business? What kind of guarantee does the company provide? How many specifics can the agents provide? If they guarantee you'll have a room, can they tell you the name of your hotel and the name of the reservation contact there? If not, consider looking elsewhere.

Are last-minute tickets a pipe dream? Yes and no. Your chances are much better if money's not an object. Just exercise caution and some common sense.

GETTING THERE
So you have tickets. Or, you're just deciding to fly over and take it all in. Here's what you need to know:

-Many of the die-hard fans come for the first stage of the tournament to be assured of seeing their teams play and will go home once their teams are eliminated. If you want to just take in the atmosphere and you don't care who's playing, show up after June 23, the end of the first round of play. Those who plan ahead usually do so for the first stage of the tournament, when they know who's playing and where.

-Between Deutsche Bahn, the rail system, and the autobahns, Germany's notoriously speedy highways, transportation is easily and efficiently manageable. Just plan ahead. The travel section of FIFA's World Cup site has route planners and information on all transportation options.

WHERE TO STAY
German cities are expanding, and the tourist infrastructure is top-notch. But lodging will still be tight. Here's how to rest a bit easier:

-Take advantage of FIFA. Specifically, their World Cup Accommodation Services (WCAS). With over 550 hotels and 50,000 rooms available throughout Germany, and negotiated rates that will not be subject to price gouging the closer you get to the tournament, the WCAS is worth a try. The hotel info shows the distances to airports, stadiums, and the city center, in addition to listing the usual amenities. According to Verena von Gehlsen, spokesperson for FIFA WCAS, the negotiated rates are based on June to July 2003 prices and are adjusted two percent per year for inflation. "I think everyone will get a room," von Gehlsen says, adding: "Book early for the best chance to be close to the stadium."

-Staying on the outskirts of, or completely outside, the host cities is a very viable alternative considering the excellent public transportation available throughout Germany. "We've got more rooms in Heidelberg than FIFA does," says Paz, who played youth soccer in what is considered to be one of Germany's most beautiful towns. "We can get to six of the stadiums within three hours or less and it's a cool, neat little town." Although you'll still likely run into crowding, the scene on average should be cheaper and mellower (except when Germany plays, that is).

-Moving from city to city to follow teams and games can morph from exhilarating to exhausting in a skinny minute. Traveling to several cities increases the need for multiple reservations and raises the stress level. Another option is to do what the soccer teams do during the course of the tournament: Pick a home base and travel from there. Some smaller hotels and hostels offer reduced rates if you stay more than, say, five nights.

-There are a number of services offering rooms and apartments throughout Germany. In particular, Soccerphile.com has a comprehensive list of hostels and other places renting rooms, and the ever-popular Craigslist.org includes sites for host cities Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt, where individuals list rooms and apartments for rent.