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In the summer of 2018, we visited the most prestigious racing event on the British calendar, Royal Ascot. The event is synonymous with traditional British pomp, elegant dresses and of course ma'am herself, the Queen. Much like some of the other destinations we have been to over the years, one might expect a day at Royal Ascot to be unobtainable and expensive, however in this guide we want to showcase how you can enjoy this regal event on a commoners budget.
First on the list, of course, is getting the tickets. Royal Ascot always takes place in mid to late June, no doubt to try and get the very best of a typically short British summer. I would advise you purchase your tickets as early as you possibly can, Caitlin and I bought them in early April to avoid disappointment, however, friends of ours purchased theirs in May without any issue. The most inexpensive area of Royal Ascot is called the 'Windsor Enclosure' which will cost you only £37 (roughly $48 USD) per person, which is a far cry from the next cheapest ticket which is over double that! The Windsor Enclosure is kitted out with tables and chairs on the grass, betting stations dotted around all over the place as well as various food and drink outlets.
Your tickets will arrive in the mail (another reason to purchase them nice and early, especially if you are international!) and they are beautifully packaged. Event information, guides and other helpful tidbits come with the tickets, which is a really nice introduction to the whole process.
Elaborate hats, suits with tails, dresses of every colour of the rainbow and of course all kinds of glamour. These are some of the things that spring to mind when I think of the dress code at Royal Ascot. However, each of the enclosures at the event have slightly different rules regarding what you can and can't wear. In the Windsor Enclosure, the dress code is slightly more relaxed, the Royal Ascot website states 'no formal dress code [for the Windsor Enclosure] but racegoers are encouraged to wear formal dress' . I can't remember seeing anyone at the races who wasn't dressed up to some degree. I chose to wear an outfit I already owned, which included a white formal shirt, a red tie, dark blue trousers and a pair of smart brown shoes (notice no jacket!) and Caitlin opted for a cream dress with black accents and a straw hat with black trim to match (below). Heel protectors are a great way to prevent your heels from sinking into the grass, especially during a rainy English summer. Caitlin used these from Solemates.
Dressing up is at least half of the fun of attending Royal Ascot and it really shows by the outfits that racegoers wear. If you aren't used to wearing hats of this kind or fascinators (decorative head pieces) practice at home beforehand! Caitlin's hat pin simply would not stay in properly and she admits she wished she practiced around the house prior!
One thing to keep in mind at Royal Ascot would be to keep your 'class' at all times. Photographers for newspapers at the event are always on the lookout for drunken antics to slap onto the front pages, don't be the one to give them what they want!
What To Bring
Although the prices of food and drinks sold at Royal Ascot were actually cheaper than we had assumed they would be, it's always a great money saving tip to bring your own. Royal Ascot has a strict 'picnic policy' in place regarding what you can and can't bring to the races with you, but the rules are easy to abide by and there are work arounds!
The main rules of the picnic policy are:
It's important to note that if you decide to go to Royal Ascot as a group, either make sure you enter the event at the same time, or your alcoholic drinks are spread evenly across the group. If, for example, one person carries the picnic basket with 4 bottles of wine and their friends are nowhere to be seen, they will be asked to dispose of 3 of the 4 bottles to abide by the policy of one bottle per person.
Feel free to bring any picnic wear you might require such as champagne glasses, knives and forks and paper plates. We brought plastic champagne glasses with us so they wouldn't break en route to the event. Our group also decided to buy £4 meal deals (Sandwich + Drink + Snack) in with us in our cooler box, purchased from WHSmith back at Waterloo train station. We noticed many people brought extra champagne for the train journey! If you decide to do this, just make sure to dispose of excess alcohol before you get to the gates.
We would also advise you bring a few bottles of water with you as well as some sunscreen, sun glasses and a few pens. Britain doesn't often get extremely hot weather, but even on an overcast day such as ours was, there were a few instances of getting a little burnt. You will need one pen at least to fill out your betting slips as well as make notes on your race guide, buying a pen at the races can set you back £4 (daylight robbery!).
How to Get There
The way most people will be arriving into Ascot on the day of the races will be by train from London Waterloo station, which is jam packed on race-day with thousands of immaculately dressed people all in very high spirits. Fortunately the rail network plans for this and as such the trains to and from Ascot are much longer than usual. Note: the racecourse opens at 10:30am during Royal Ascot and the train journey from Waterloo station will take approximately an hour.
As we had stayed in London the night before, and explored Royal Kew Gardens (keeping with the royal theme) we had baggage with us, which of course couldn't be taken into Royal Ascot, as such as decided to check our bags in with the 'Excess Baggage Company' located in Waterloo station itself. As we were coming back the same day and before 11pm we decided to check our bags in for the cheapest option, which was 24 hours. I thoroughly recommend you do this if you aren't able to keep your bags at your hotel. If you arrive to the station early, ask a staff member which platform services Ascot so you can be ready to board as soon as the train doors open and get a seat (together if you are a group!). We purchased off-peak return tickets the month before on thetrainline to get the best deal.
Once on board the train, you'll notice how jovial the atmosphere is, this is because the vast majority of people are already enjoying their champagne on the train (yes, its legal in the UK don't worry!). Don't be surprised when the carriage starts signing and you are offered drinks from people next to you, its all very normal!
Once you arrive at the station, it's impossible to get lost as you just need to follow the stream of well dressed people and you will find yourself at the race course. The walk is about 10-15 minutes from the train station and as we recommended earlier, if you are a wearing heels it might be a good idea to invest in some 'heel protectors' like these ones. It will be more comfortable to walk in and you won't sink into the grass when you get to the Windsor Enclosure. On arrival you will be checked by security for your tickets as well as a bag/hamper inspection to make sure you aren't sneaking in anything you shouldn't.
I would advise you try and arrive as early as possible, especially if you plan to visit on a weekend. We arrived shortly after the 10:30am opening time and we still managed to find a well positioned table. Try and get as close to the race track as you can!
After arriving fairly early, we found a table and opened our hamper and started our lunches. As the races were a few hours away, it was a good opportunity to relax for a while in the warm weather with friends. We then took it in turns (with someone staying at the table with our belongings) to explore the area and get our bearings. Stalls lining the pathway further away from the track sold all manner of merchandise, there were food vendors as well as lots of bars set up for people to enjoy the day in the most British of ways!
The Royal Procession was at 2:00pm on the day we visited and Caitlin decided to go and stand by the railings a good 20 minutes before to ensure she was able to be at the front of the pack to get a picture. This turned out to be a good decision as not a minute later, hundreds of people lined the race track fences for exactly the same reason. At this point, be aware that the Royals are prone to 'super fans' who might ask if they can stand in front of you, just say no, you were there first. As we visited on the opening day of the event, all of the Royals were in attendance. Luckily for us it was Meghan's first time as a Royal and you could tell by her enthusiasm. The Queen incited a roar of applause when she 'blessed' the crowds with her signature wave. If you don't fancy waiting by the fences for the royals to arrive there are multiple big screens next to the course which show everything that is happening. The event is very disabled friendly and staff are on hand to help in anyway they can, there is also a raised platform for people who struggle to stand or walk to still get a great view of the action.
Much of the betting at Royal Ascot is of course on the horse racing, however it's tradition for guests to bet on the colour of the Queen's hat. A friend of ours luckily guessed yellow and won himself a few quid in the process (only to invest it back into the first race of the day).
The races themselves start at 2:30pm and I would strongly suggest buying a race card for the day, that cost around £4.50, which honestly seems a little steep so we decided one would be enough for the four of us. The race card will give you detailed information on race times, horses, owners, riders and many other things. As none of our group are really into betting, most of our choices were made on the horses name or the riders colours (amateurs right?)
You can place your bets at any number of betting stations across the enclosure, there are stands run by local 'bookies' or back towards the food and drink vendors there are high street betting shops. As relative newbies to betting, we decided to place our bets at the commercial betting shops as they had staff members to help us fill out our 'slips' until we knew what we were doing. I found our betting techniques were very different across the personality types, I opted each race to put down only £2 but on high return horses (usually at 200-1) looking for a huge payout. I won nothing the whole day. However, my friends and Caitlin often put down 'to place' which means to finish 1st, 2nd or 3rd which of course returns lower winnings but at a much higher rate. The most important thing as with any gambling is to have fun and decide before you go how much of a loss you expect to make. I recommend placing bets as early as possible so you aren't standing in line at the betting stations. There are 6 races in a day at Royal Ascot and the last race is around 5:30pm.
Royal Ascot was a really fun day out for all of us. Everyone we met were so friendly and the atmosphere was really enjoyable. Many people leave sometime within an hour of the last race, but equally, a lot of people stay on for more drinks and music. We left, as many of us had to work the next day, but no doubt would have stayed for a while otherwise. The trains were as busy on the way back as they were on the way, so check on 'thetrainline' for train times to make sure you aren't stood around at the station too long.
I thoroughly recommend attending Royal Ascot, especially if you are visiting the UK from elsewhere as it's one of the most uniquely British experiences you can take part in. Even for those with no interest in horse racing or betting, its a great excuse to dress up nicely and enjoy a few drinks in the British summertime.