A Guide to Surviving SXSW
To quote a song from one of my favorite movies The Lion King, “There is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.” In fact, this will be my 5th year attending SXSW, and I still get serious FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) this time of year.
So whether you are a South By veteran or this is your first trip to the festival, I hope to pass along some wisdom that will help you have a wonderful SXSW 2015 experience!
(credit: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)
What to Wear
The weather in Texas can be pretty unpredictable, so just before you make your way to Austin, be sure to check the weather for any sudden changes that may occur that could impact your fashion choices.
That being said, be prepared for anything. Pack shorts, but also pants. Pack short sleeves, but also bring a jacket. Layers are your best friend! I’d also recommend packing a poncho or small umbrella in case it rains. Austin is a casual, laid-back city, so don’t feel like you need to dress to the 9’s for SXSW every day (you can check out this blog for ideas). Just make comfort your #1 priority, and you’ll be good to go!
Speaking of comfort— and I cannot stress this enough—wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet, walking all over downtown Austin, and the last thing you want is to worry about is not being able to make it to the awesome nighttime events because your feet are on fire. So I would opt for footwear with cushioned support for during the day, maybe bring a pair of heels for night time parties, and leave the rest at home. Make sure you pack more than one pair of shoes to keep your feet happy and also pack plenty of socks. You’ll thank me later.
As you might imagine, finding parking in downtown Austin (especially during SXSW) is not a walk in the park. Traffic during SXSW can be a nightmare, so you want to plan ahead and avoid the headache of driving around the maze of one-way streets through construction zones trying to find an open spot. By mid-afternoon, the parking garages and lots start to fill up downtown, and they charge more than usual during the week of SXSW ($15-$30 a day), but if you don’t mind the cost, it CAN be done.
You can refer to this map of the parking in downtown Austin to see what options are available, including garages, surface lots, and street parking. If you’re looking to park your car close to the festivities, you may consult this guide for real time stats on garage and surface lot availability or use this guide to see which metered parking spots are open and how much their hourly rates are. Keep in mind, most of these meters have a time limit (3-5 hours), so be prepared to send someone to refill the meter if you are planning on staying downtown awhile!
For alternative transportation methods, keep reading!
Getting Around the Festival
Once you have arrived in Austin and you have a somewhat clear idea of what panels, showcases, and parties you want to hit up, it is important to have a plan for how you are going to get around from place to place. The city of Austin has a variety of public transportation options for all you SXSW-ers to choose from, so depending on your budget, how far you need to go, and how fast you need to get there, you can pick the one that’s best for you.
- Pedicabs - Pedicabs can be found around pretty much every corner of downtown Austin, and they are perfect for a quick ride between venues. Rates for pedicabs are determined before embarking based on the distance to the destination, how many people are riding in the cab, etc., so be sure to ask your driver before you take off.
- Bicycles - Austin is a very bike-friendly city, so if you’d rather bike around and see what downtown has to offer, SXCycles may be the program for you. This year, they’ve partnered with Austin B-Cycle to provide a bike sharing program to help SXSW attendees cut through all the traffic of downtown Austin. Just purchase the amount of access time you want in the program, grab a bike from one of 40 stations around downtown, and hop on!
- Lyft - Lyft has been named the official ridesharing partner for this year’s SXSW, and they’re providing coupons for SXSW-goers. First-time Lyft users who sign up with the code ‘SXSW2015’ will get $5 off their first 10 rides within the city of Austin. Lyft is also launching the Lyft Line program in which riders can save money (there’s a $10 price cap) by sharing a Lyft with other users going in the same direction.
- Taxis - This is the mode of transportation I recommend the least during SXSW, as they are hard to locate and the rates can be astronomical. However, if you’re desperate, you can try looking around for one or reaching out to these local companies to find an available cab:
- Shuttles - During the course of the festival, SXSW provides free shuttles to badge holders (although, full disclosure, I had no trouble using them without a badge) that run every 10-15 minutes from 8:00AM (select days and routes) to 2:30AM to help get you from point A to point B. You can check out the map of the SX Shuttle routes here. And, if you are staying at one of these hotels outside of central downtown Austin, SXSW and Transportation Management Systems (TMS) are partnering to offer single-day, 5-day, and 9-day passes to a Hotel Shuttle Service that will pick up festival-goers at their hotels and take them within close walking distance to downtown.
- Other Public Transit - Capital Metro will also have buses (including late night), MetroExpress, and the MetroRail operating during SXSW. You can pay per ride or purchase a pass good for a single day up to 11 days with a Platinum Transit Pass.
There are a lot of people at SXSW, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and make sure you have a buddy system in place for your group. Cell phone service can be hard to come by in such a crowded place, so you should have a plan in place in the event that you become separated from some members of your group to meet up at a certain place at a certain time. Also, keep in mind that cell phone batteries don’t last very long during SXSW, so be sure to pack a charger or extra battery to keep your phone juiced for the whole day, or visit one of AT&T’s charging stations around the Austin Convention Center on East Cesar Chavez Street.
(Credit: Joan Bowlen/Glide Magazine)
Always try to stick with a buddy and look out for each other. There are a lot of free adult beverages consumed at SXSW, and while that can be fun, you should know your limits, pace yourself, and be sure to drink water as often as possible. The Austin Convention Center has public water fountains that you can user, and I highly recommend that you keep a reusable water bottle on your person and refill it often to stay hydrated.
What to Bring
Each year that I attend, I learn about something else that is super useful to have at SXSW. Here’s a list of what I consider must-haves for the best SXSW-experience:
- Reusable water bottle - Said it once and I’ll say it again… STAY HYDRATED!
- Snacks - You might be able to snag some free food throughout the festival, and there are places you can buy food downtown, but make sure you pack your own snacks as well. The lines for some events can be long, and you don’t want to get sick and miss out on the fun, so pack some protein bars, mixed nuts, sandwiches, fruit, etc.
- Spare phone battery/charger - My Mophie™ case was the best investment I’ve ever made for my phone, and they are bringing some cute furry friends to help you keep your phone charged during the festival!
- Cash - For parking, pedicabs, buses, drinks, food trucks, etc. There are also a variety of ATMs located around downtown.
- Band aids - Even the most comfortable shoes can rub after walking around all day.
- Travel size Advil - Nothing ruins your day like a headache you can’t cure, but a travel size canister or ziploc bag of Advil or Ibuprofen can save the day!
- GermX - Just. trust. me.
- A rain poncho or umbrella - Because this is Texas, and the weather changes in a flash.
- Sunscreen - Again—because this is Texas, and the sun can be very unforgiving.
- Sunglasses - You can bring your own, but you’ll most like go home with a million free pairs from people handing them out anyway!
- A fanny pack/backpack - I recommend a fanny pack (I know… but hear me out) because it is an ideal place to store and keep a close eye on your valuables like your phone, charger, money, and ID while you’re walking around the festival. Backpacks are useful for keeping your larger items like reusable water bottle(s), snacks, rain poncho, any swag you score during the festival, etc. I don’t recommend cross-body bags unless it’s a small purse because the weight of your belongings will start to hurt after a few hours and you do not want that.
While you’re at SXSW, it’s important to have a plan, but also don’t be afraid to try something new. Austin is a weird and wonderful place, and if you’re open to it, you might be surprised to find a new band to listen to that you’ve never heard of before or end up at a cool party you didn’t know about until you got there! Enjoy your time here and embrace everything that SXSW has to offer.
Now that you're ready to hit downtown Austin, what are you looking forward to most at this year’s festival?