So you've decided to head down to New Orleans to experience the magic of Mardi Gras. We commend you for taking the initiative to cross the epic experience off your bucket list, but we also want to ensure you have the most amazing -- and safe-- trip possible. Whether you're excited about watching the parades, or your goal is simply to rack up as many beads as possible, these tips will help you laissez les bon temps rouler like a local. Let the good times roll.
The most important thing to know about Mardi Gras is that there's a lot going on and it's easy to get lost in the chaos. While Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday, New Orleans is a party city and gears up for the main event weeks in advance. As with any big festival, prices are expected to be inflated. The farther out you can book your flight and hotel, the more affordable it'll be. Check Airbnb and hostels for accommodation options beyond Expedia and other traditional travel sites.
The essence of Mardi Gras is the krewe ("crew"). Various clubs and organizations that put on events, even before you arrive in Nola, figure out which krewe parades are most important for you to see. Some, like parades by the Krewe of Zulu and the Krewe of Rex, start early in the morning; others begin in the afternoon, and just as many start in the evening so you can plan your schedule accordingly. All are worth attending, but each has its own nuances that might make it more your style. Krewes take their floats very seriously, working on their elaborate creations year-round, often at secret "dens" around the city. For any parade, you'll want to arrive early to secure a spot. Driving into the city is highly discouraged as most streets in the French Quarter are closed during 'Gras, making parking a nightmare.
If you want to watch from up above, a number of homes along Bourbon Street rent their balconies for about $150 a person in three to four hour blocks. Pro tip: something else you can rent for a fee? People's bathrooms along the parade route. AirPnP provides toilets sorted by price and cleanliness, proving there really is an app for everything.
Eat and Stay Hydrated
If you don't know that drinking copious amounts of alcohol is woven into the fabric of Mardi Gras, maybe you should stay home (we're only half-kidding; booze is an integral part of the culture). That said, you're going to need to drink lots of water and eat plenty of food in lieu of all the other delicious concoctions you'll be imbibing. Bring your own disposable water bottle to the parade, and make sure to have a filling meal before you start taking shots or slamming Hand Grenades on an empty stomach. We recommend heading Uptown to try the fried chicken and gumbo at Jacques Imo's before grabbing a cocktail next door at the Maple Leaf Bar. And of course, you can never pass up the infamous Cafe Du Monde.
Be Careful Out There
We're not into fear-mongering, but New Orleans can be a very dangerous city. It's also one of the most fun, soulful, and unique places on Earth. In order to mitigate any potential danger and ensure your experience is positive, glue yourself to main thoroughfares and never trek down side streets you aren't 100% sure are safe. Memorize the parade routes in advance (they were updated in 2014), and stay on the routes. People have been robbed at gunpoint -- and worse -- because they absent-mindedly strolled down the wrong block. New Orleans is notorious for having random sketchy areas mixed into otherwise good neighborhoods rather than clearly demarcated zones for people to avoid. That means things can get dicey quickly if you don't pay attention to your surroundings.
Pickpocketing is a common occurrence, so keep an eye -- and hand -- on your belongings in crowded places like the French Quarter (and don't keep anything in your back pockets). Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras feels like a siphon of sweaty bodies, so embark at your own risk. If you need a break from the crowds, simply step inside one of the many shops for a quick breather if you're feeling claustrophobic. Stay vigilant and you'll have a great time. Also, it should go without saying that flashing and debauchery are a huge part of the culture, but keep in mind, we live in the Internet age. Have fun, but don't do anything you wouldn't want to see memorialized in a Snapchat later.