If you’ve never attended SXSW, the sheer magnitude of the event can be overwhelming. With 2,200 acts and over 100 venues for music alone, the entire festival, which kicks off today and runs through March 20 in Austin, is a choose-your-own adventure. Whether you gravitate toward established names or new discoveries, there’s something for everyone.
After 11 years of attending the festival, we’ve learned a thing or two festivalgoers can utilize for a more enjoyable week. Here is our advice for maximum SXSW happiness.
Prepping for the fest
Badge, wristband, or neither
There are three levels of privilege at SXSW. In most cases, badge holders have priority access, wristbands are second, and RSVP (or cash covers) come third. If you really want to catch someone like Santigold or Ryan Adams, you’ll likely need a badge for those gigs. If you’re going on the cheap, be prepared to line up very early, or opt for discovering smaller acts.
The unofficial day (and night) showcases at SXSW are an amazing benefit to locals who aren’t springing for a badge, but the random timing of showcase announcements and RSVPs can leave you tethered to your computer for weeks. The solution? RSVPster, a website that uses a burner email of your choice to RSVP you to as many public events as possible. Priced at just $30, this may be the best time saver of the festival.
While a number of public lists are available for unofficial day showcases, the old-school text formatting at Showlist Austin is our favorite pocket guide to day shows. Simply check the boxes of the ones you’re interested in, then print out a customized page or two for each day you attend. You’ll be thankful to have it.
Battery case and earplugs
Go to Amazon now, and order an Anker iPhone battery case ($31) and a pair of Etymotic earplugs ($13). You will be desperately sorry if you don’t. While you’re there, grab a $6 pack of rain ponchos. For $50, you’ll protect your hearing, double your battery life, and be prepared for inclement weather.
This is an underrated but critical tip: Go to OpenTable and grab 6:30 pm dinner reservations at one restaurant per night. While other hungry festivalgoers wait in half-hour food trailer lines, you can walk right into El Naranjo, Olamaie, or Emmer & Rye for an air-conditioned, relaxing meal.
At the Austin Convention Center
Don’t sleep on the day stage
SXSW’s day stage at the convention center hosts radio simulcasts, meaning that badge holders have great access to bigger acts (albeit in a random convention hall). This year, you’ll find White Denim, Chvrches, Hinds, Låpsley, and many more.
Did you buy a badge? Are you downtown early? If so, head to Exhibit Hall 5 at the convention center and grab a pass for the evening show you’re most excited about. Doing so allows "line skipper" privileges — critical for headliner shows.
Big show lottos
It seems like at least one arena or stadium band drops in for a surprise show each year. (We’d like Prince to come back, please.) When these shows are announced, ask at the convention center information booths about lottery tickets. To play fair, the festival often takes names for 24 hours and then sends an email to the lucky winners.
Let the big brands pamper you
If you have a Samsung smartphone, you can get tickets to shows by Public Enemy and Lil Wayne from the mobile company's booth (ask for details). If you have a Marriott Rewards card, the hotel will host shows from Mayer Hawthorne and The Avett Brothers that are free for members. YouTube is also hosting a showcase from Future. Stop by these brand booths to get hooked up.
In the field
Daily pack list
Here’s a good starting list to check before leaving the house: gum, cash, credit card, ID/license, phone charger, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, cap, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, Wet Wipes (trust us), and a light jacket.
The official SXSW app is a must. All panels, official day parties, and evening showcases are searchable here. Having a Twitter account and app is also vital for real-time updates on long lines, spots to avoid, and surprise appearances. Other apps that are very useful on the go include The Fader and DoStuff.
For every day party and showcase you plan to attend, circle at least one backup choice in case your preferred event reaches capacity. With large crowds and artist cancelations, events are often in flux, so plan accordingly.
Old-school meet-up points
At least once, you’ll kill your phone battery and lose track of your friends. To combat panic, set a couple of predetermined meal or happy hour gathering spots to reconvene with pals.
Lyft, Uber, and Mazda
Setting up Lyft and Uber accounts is helpful for SXSW — even with small surges, their pricing is usually more affordable than a cab. Mazda is also deploying some free shuttles from the convention center to official SXSW venues — grab these if you spot them.
Breaks and downtime
Food trailer park
The SouthBites food component curates a smart selection of food trucks in the lot on the Southeast corner of Cesar Chavez and Red River streets. This is an easy and quick break for lunch or a snack, but expect a minor price hike. This year’s selections include Burro, Chi’lantro, East Side King, Kerlin BBQ, and Veracruz All-Natural.
Escape the corridor
If Red River and Dirty Sixth are wearing you down, cross Congress Avenue. You’ll find a surprisingly light crowd at Congress and Warehouse District restaurants, so use these as a temporary reprieve. We recommend Second Bar and Kitchen, Swift's Attic, and La Condesa as easy wins.
Pay for a good drink — and tip
This is our favorite tip of the festival. While free well vodka or light lager is a big SXSW draw, you don’t have to down every free drink you're offered. Many venues are happy to sell you the drink you actually want, and some (Mohawk, Parish) even have pretty great whiskey and beer selections. Treat yourself — life’s too short for bad booze. Remember to tip generously, even on free drinks. These bartenders are your neighbors and friends — take good care of 'em.
Hotel lobbies are your friend
Nobody will blink if you park in the Hilton or Driskill lobby to plan your night and recharge your phone for a bit. That said, it is good karma to patronize said hotel by buying a snack or a beverage while you’re there.