Masquerade balls, colorful costumes, parade floats, music, party beads, Bourbon Street balconies, food, drink, and general decadence and debauchery can only mean one thing: It’s time for the ultimate carnival known as Mardi Gras. “Fat Tuesday” in French, Mardi Gras is celebrated all over the world, but in the U.S., the place to truly experience it in authentic, Cajun style is New Orleans — a Louisianan tradition since the 1700s.
Every year, millions of people flock to the French Quarter, helping bars, eateries and hotels rake in tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
If you’re visiting the Big Easy this Mardi Gras, don’t blow your whole budget on eating, drinking and parking. Your hard-earned cash is also at risk of eager pickpockets looking to party on your dime. Stay financially aware with these six money tips, so the good times can roll without you going broke.
6 Tips for Saving Money on Mardi Gras in New Orleans
1. Find lodging off the beaten path
“Don’t come to the city thinking you will get a hotel when you get here,” the blog “Mardi Gras Day” advises. “You’ll be sleeping in your car, which is not recommended, not to mention rather uncomfortable.”
And you can rule out temporary private home rentals, like those on Airbnb. According to Angela Colley of Debt.com, city lawmakers have ruled those out. Instead, if you’re coming to New Orleans on the fly, Colley suggests looking in Metairie, Kenner or Gretna; hotels in these nearby suburbs “are much cheaper and only a 5- or 10-minute drive (or bus ride) away.”
Local hostels are also an option — they can make a lighter impact on your finances if you’re looking to stay for a few days.
2. Fill up on your own food before heading out
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without some local cuisine, but eating out can very quickly decimate your budget. If you landed cheaper digs via tip one, rooms with a kitchen area are perfect for preparing your own meals before hitting the parades and parties.
Alternatively, dine picnic style once you hit the parade. That doesn’t mean you should forego some local gumbo or crawfish — it is Mardi Gras, after all. Colley suggests doing the same as for lodging. “You can save plenty on food just by moving a few blocks from the major tourist areas like the French Quarter,” she writes on Money Crashers. “If you’re looking for a quick, tasty, and reasonably-priced meal, Parkway in Mid-City offers po’ boys for around $10 a pop, and the Joint in the Bywater has excellent BBQ for around $15.”
Don’t forget to consider other low-priced eateries, like the Camellia Grill or the St. James Cheese Company — and, if you must splurge, don’t pass on Cafe Du Monde for some beignets of legend.
3. Choose your parade spot wisely
Main thoroughfares like Bourbon Street and St. Charles Avenue will be the most crowded during Mardi Gras, and like hotels, reserving a balcony can cost you a month’s rent (or more). Thankfully, there are parades traversing all throughout town that are easier and cheaper to catch a glimpse of.
Make it a DIY Mardi Gras: “People bring tents, screen rooms, chairs, coolers, grills and just about everything else needed for comfort for the day,” according to The Associated Press. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to change your parade vantage point: “Watch for ladders. People set them up, sometimes three or four deep along the routes. They traditionally provide seats for small children through a special box that is attached to the top rung.”
One of the best things about New Orleans is that drinking is allowed in public year-round. The trade-off is that the city’s open alcohol policy only permits drinking on the street from plastic “go cups,” which can be great for your parade budget. Simply bring your own beer and liquor and always drink it from this cup.
Buying your alcohol from a store is hands-down more affordable than getting drinks from bars; just be careful to keep your inhibitions in check. New Orleans police are famously lenient for letting parade goers let loose, but too much carousing could get you arrested. (A simple parade directive: Bourbon Street route for adults, St. Charles route for families.)
5. Take public transportation over parking
Here’s the dilemma with driving on Mardi Gras: Gas is expensive, roads are closed, parking restrictions are in place, and lot spaces come at a premium during the holiday. (And that’s not even considering the huge risks and costs of driving after you’ve been drinking.) Public transportation, like buses and streetcars, also come at a cost, albeit cheaper: $1.25 per ride, and, according to Colley, $9 for an unlimited, three-day “Jazzy Pass.” You can also check out the New Orleans Transportation Authority’s website, which has an updated bus riders guide for easy download or printout.
6. Watch your wallet
Drunk or sober, alert or bedazzled, your wallet and personal effects become more vulnerable to theft or loss amid crowds of thousands of other people. Common sense should prevail; leave expensive jewelry, purses and valuables at home, and never in the car.
Additionally, ever keep your wallet in your pickpocket-friendly back pocket, and choose clothing with multiple, secure pockets — one for cash, one for cards, one for ID, etc. Once your source of money is in someone else’s hands, there’s nothing you can do to prevent them from fattening up on Fat Tuesday — at your expense.
Photo credit: Mark Gstohl