mardi gras beyond words 2

The Big Easy is one of the most expensive destinationsfor U.S. travelers, and prices usually skyrocket by 300% during the Carnival season and Mardi Gras. At “the greatest free show on earth”, the good times roll. But so do your debit and credit cards. So, what’s a would-be reveler to do? Use these budget-savvy tips to let loose and have fun without breaking your bank. 

Make a Plan

Whether you’re visiting The Backstreet Cultural Museum, joining the Shreve Town Walking Parade, or dancing non-stop at Pygmalion Fest, map out your plans. If you’re going to Bacchus and Endymion, two of the biggest parades of the season, grab a spot at least four hours early because the front-row ends up being four or five people deep. And don’t forget that the weather god is the one who actually rules over the Carnival season. Check the weather forecast: there might be icy sleet or sunny heat.

Check for Cancellations

“February 11 is the first major parade that happens. If you come for that instead of the last weekend, it’s not as expensive because more hotels are available. Then you get to experience the rest of New Orleans as well,” says Kelley Troia from Clandestine. If you’re a carnival reveler who hasn’t sealed the deal on accommodations, don’t worry.  While most five-star hotels are booked by December (and require a four-day minimum stay), you can still check for cancellations and be put on a waiting list. Suburban hotels in Metairie, Kenner, or Gretna also are much cheaper. Even if you can’t secure a keycard, there are plenty of RV campsites and homes (or at least bedrooms) available as the countdown to Mardi Gras madness begins. 

Reboot an Old Costume

Costumes are to Carnival as bacon is to eggs. When it comes to getups, the only rule is that there are no rules. “It’s Halloween times ten,” says Andrea Kolasinski Marcinkus, the Dean of Academic Affairs at The Illinois Institute of Art. “The more brightly colored and crazy, the better.” You can slather yourself in fluorescent body paint and cut-outs from cardboard boxes.  Or you can plunge into your closet and dig out Halloween costumes, ugly Christmas sweaters, or bridesmaid’s dress. Then fire up your glue gun, and stick on sequins, feathers, beads, or rhinestones. If you don’t want to suit up, you’ll blend right in wearing layers of purple, green, and gold. 

Hoof it 

Avoid traffic that makes rush hour seem fun and taxis that get nowhere near the action.  Mardi Gras Virgin? Make sure to slip on a pair of comfy, closed-toes shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. And stick a couple of band-aids in your back pocket. Got to go faster? Rent a cruiser, tandem, or mountain bike.  They often come with free helmets, locks, baskets, and lights for night riding. Or better yet, use public transportation. A visiTOUR card costs $5 per day and gives you unlimited rides on all buses and streetcars. You also can instantly pay for your fare on the RTA GoMobile app, without the hassle of counting coins and cash. 

Eat Cheap

From wedding cake-flavored “sno-balls” filled with ice cream to po’boys stuffed with shrimp and French fries, New Orleans has some of America’s best grub. Unfortunately, local restaurants usually jack up their prices during Mardi Gras. Want to enjoy it without leaving your wallet hung over?Check for coupons and hit up inexpensive eateries like Café Beignet, Camellia Grill, 13 Monaghan, or The Joint.

Bring a Go Cup 

In New Orleans, you can walk the streets with open containers of alcohol—and not just during Mardi Gras. If you want to take your Hurricanes, Hand Grenades, and store-bought spirits with you from bar to bar or parade to parade, use a plastic “go cup” (no cans or bottles); they’re available at the door of every bar. But they’re the hardest-to-get and most sought-after parade throws. “At a young age, we’re taught to always grab them, even if it meant scuffling under floats and between marching bands,” says Becca Miller, a social media specialist at Pet Paradise Resort. Beware: “there ain’t no place to pee during Mardi Gras Day,” says Benny Grunch. Some places along parade routes sell $5 wristbands that allow unlimited use of their bathrooms. Though, free restrooms are so hard to find that you’ll actually see porta-potties strapped to the back of pickup trucks.

Last Note

While Mardi Gras has a reputation as a laid-back, anything-goes extravaganza, there are some sure-fire ways to get into (legal) trouble. Outside of the French Quarter, it’s illegal to flash your naughty bits for beads.  It’s also possible to be arrested for hitting the bottle too hard. But “you’ve got to be intoxicated where you’re a danger to yourself or others,”  says Nick Gernon, the commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District. Still, ambulance rides and medical bills are expensive ways to sober up.