Joy’s first dispatch from Austin is about having fun without spending all of your money.
You have probably just read the title of this piece and laughed out loud. You’re right: there are many ways to empty your checking account at South By Southwest. But with a little creativity, the experience doesn’t have to end with tears and debt. Here is my list of tips on how to attend this festival as inexpensively as possible.
1. Book in advance.
Don’t be that person who gets stuck sleeping on someone’s floor for $50 a night while cursing those who booked better accommodations ahead. Be the person who gets cursed at. One can find really reasonable prices on decent places to stay through AirBnB — I saw a renovated Airstream in a good location, basically a hotel room, offered for $35 a night. But you must do your searching and make your arrangements at least a month in advance, if not in January. Otherwise you will be S.O.L.
Better still, know someone who knows someone in town who will put you up for free. If you don’t know anyone in Austin, go there some time that is not SXSW and start making friends.
2. Make every meal a picnic.
As a general rule, grocery stores are always less expensive than restaurants. Basically every restaurant and food truck in Austin is awesome, but so are the grocery stores. Grab some low-priced gourmet baked goods, a hunk of cheese, and even a bottle of inexpensive wine; believe it or not, the original Whole Foods store on N. Lamar is a great place to get all three for under $20 (less than that if you’re thrifty and/or don’t mind $6 wine). Supplement with items of produce, et voila: a picnic meal that, depending on the number of people you’re feeding, may last all day. Just don’t try to take any liquids into a venue: I lost a can of V8 that way yesterday.
3. Public transportation is your friend.
Some dude's camelbak just squirted water on me on the bus & I initially thought I was being urinated/vomited upon. #sxsw
— paleotrees (@paleotrees) March 13, 2014
My next thought was coffee/beer/vodka shower. More pleasant than body fluids, but still not pleasant.
— paleotrees (@paleotrees) March 13, 2014
Yes, shit does get real on the bus. Especially late at night, and often early in the afternoon if people were laid out cold from the late night before. However, a day pass is only $2, and you can’t beat that anywhere. Parking will cost you much more, and fuck taking a taxi: the streets will be closed where you want to go anyway. Pedi-cab if you must (support local bicyclists), but the best way to get around town is by waiting for a tolerably crowded bus and hoofing it the rest of the distance.
Make sure to remember your sunscreen and drink plenty of the free water offered at most venues.
4. Many shows are free.
If you’re in town to see smaller bands and don’t have a badge, you’re in luck: entry to most showcases will cost you nothing, especially during the day. While you may still end up waiting in line with people you can barely tolerate, the fortunate showgoer won’t even have to cut through that bullshit — time your entrance just right and you’ll simply show your ID, chat with the doorpeople, and get a fashionable hand stamp.
5. Fortune favors the bold.
At SXSW, the rules of social conduct are generally loosened and all kinds of behavior is tolerated. I will never recommend going the total-asshole, burned-bridges route, for reasons of basic human decency, but I am saying — don’t be shy about getting your free swag. All around SXSW, promotion companies give away stuff to those who ask. Drink coozies, t-shirts, tote bags, ear plugs, if you need it somewhere will have it.
For the more wily among us, a whole other garden of delights will open up. Gig posters abound and will be put back up if you take one down. Don’t want to pay $6 for a tiny little drink? Keep your eyes open: someone may have left a perfectly good one just sitting around.
[ed note: And free lord-knows-what-else, too! Stick to the free water!]
Exercise caution, of course, but these are only some examples. Go wild, be free, my friends, and have a safely thrifty SXSW.
6. Loyalty programs = Free stuff.
We’re all chasing that paper, and local businesses are no exception. As such, many locations in Austin show their appreciation for repeat business by hooking their customers up. If you don’t want to carry a hundred punch-cards, the Belly app keeps track of your visits electronically and allows you to redeem rewards after certain point tallies.
My personal favorite friendly R&R location, Halcyon Bar & Cafe at 4th and Lavaca, offers increasingly worthwhile free refreshments for their ascending loyalty tiers. If you stop in for your daily break every afternoon, you’ll have at least a free coffee to your name by the end of the week.
Neither Belly nor Halcyon has paid Paleotrees nor NTSIB for this endorsement. Joy just wants to bring business to a good location, and for people to get their money’s worth out of SXSW at the same time.
On a related note, just stay away from the vintage stores and vendor stalls unless you do have a budget cushion. Those places are great for people-watching, but put out all their best stuff this time of year.