Heading down to Austin for South By Southwest (SXSW)?
We are just days away from another SXSW, and perhaps you have grand aspirations but are short on plans, well fear not. As a decade-long attendant of the annual mega-conference, I shall be your guide: from where to stay, how to get around, and what to do once you get there.
Depending on where you’re coming from I would hope that you’ve already booked a flight, but if you haven’t and are scared off by the SXSW ticket prices try flying into Houston or Dallas. Both of these are major hubs, so prices tend to be cheaper. Once there your best bet would be to grab a bus or train into Austin. You can ride the Amtrack from San Antonio or Dallas. You can also hop on a Mega-Bus from Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The Mega-bus is not a bad ride, and it is crazy cheap with fares as low as five bucks one way. If you are feeling fancy, you can hop on Volane a luxury bus line that is decked out like a Kanye tour bus. It’s not cheap, but if you want to travel in style, it’s the way to go.
At this point, I pray for your sake you have a hotel. At the time of writing the current rate for a single king suite, ‘relatively’ near downtown, is more than the cost of your first car, per night. If you want a hotel or Airbnb within walking distance to downtown, the going rate is a kidney and naming rights on your first-born. For serious though housing is the #1 commodity of SXSW so I hope you know a local, or be prepared to spend a lot.
First of all, DON’T RENT A CAR. Traffic and parking are a nightmare in Austin, and SXSW only makes it worse. Also, in case you missed it, Uber or Lyft no longer operate in Austin. After what was essentially a pissing contest between Uber/Lyft and the Austin City Council, everyone got wet, and no one won. The biggest loser being Austin residents and tourists who have to use off-brand replacements that are fine, but way more expensive and less reliable. The top 3 apps that work in Austin are Fare, Fasten, & Ride Austin. They will likely be much more costly than you’re used to, but they do work. Be careful to check pickup locations when requesting rides from downtown during SXSW. Many of the streets are closed off, and there are designated pickup areas. If you request a ride within the restricted area, it will automatically move you to the nearest pickup location. This could cause a delay in you getting your ride or worse the driver canceling on you.
Another option for traveling short distances is Austin B-Cycle a local bike rental service that rents bikes by the hour to traverse downtown. You have to pick up and drop at specific locations within their service area, but you can go anywhere your feet can take you so long as you bike it back. If you sign up early enough, you can use the car sharing service Car2go. This requires a driver’s license check and a membership fee but cars are plentiful, and you can park them anywhere legal within their coverage area for free.
There are also the traditional modes of Taxi and Public transit. Be careful to check for SXSW public transit detours on the Capital Metro website. If you are lucky enough to stay near the Rapid Metro, or Rapid Rail Locations use them. All Austin public buses are well maintained and run on schedule, but the Rapid Rail and Metro are the most reliable and the quickest way to get around if you were staying far away. A weeklong pass will cost you less than 20 bucks to ride as much as you want.
There are also Pedi-Cabs (bicycle people carts) and electric cars for hire in the downtown area. These are good because they can go just about anywhere but they are unregulated, and the drivers tend to jack-up prices for SXSW tourists. So be sure to negotiate a price before you get on board to avoid surprises.
But for all that is holy do not rent a Segway they’re available but just don’t do it. No one looks good on a Segway. No one. If all else fails, most SXSW locations are within walking distance of each other.
Also a word of warning: we all know not to drink and drive. But seriously, at SXSW, DON’T DRINK, AND DRIVE! Just a couple years ago a drunk driver drove through a barricade and killed four people. It was a tragedy that no one wants to see repeated. Since then police have stepped up patrol and are imposing mandatory breathalyzers for suspected drunk drivers. With a $10,000 minimal penalty for getting caught, it’s just not worth it. Don’t jaywalk either, just ask Shia Lebeouf.
What to bring
Texas weather in March is unpredictable. Rain, 90° heat, and cold snaps are not uncommon for SXSW. Sometimes you can have all three climate scenarios happen in just one day, so pack with options. With such unpredictable weather, a couple of Claritin and a bottle of Visine aren’t a bad idea either. Austin is fairly laid back with fashion, so don’t feel the need to overdo it. You will see way more flip-flops than dress shoes. If you are in for the whole conference, remember you will be walking around a lot, so comfort is key. Be sure you have a light and portable conference bag. You won’t believe how much swag you can get in one day and pop back to your hotel might not always be an option. Finally, SXSW is huge networking opportunity so be sure to pack plenty of business cards and make sure any online profiles you have are accurate and up to date.
What to do:
If you are a conference badge holder be sure to register your badge at SXSW.com. Once you register, pick the panels and events you want to attend and add them to your favorites. You will then see those events on in your SXSW.comm schedule. Once you have all your favorites, selected import your schedule to your personal calendar, then you will have all your prospective event’s times and locations all in one place. Directions on how to do this can be found here. Don’t forget to check Twitter on the regular for late breaking #SXSW events. There is always something announced late, a secret screening, or a surprise concert, and social media is the best place to find out what’s going on.
Making a plan is important. You don’t want to wander around aimlessly, but remember, plans are meant to be broken. Prioritize those can’t miss events, but if you do miss something don’t beat yourself up about it. Each year that I head to SXSW, I end up at a party or meeting someone totally by accident. More often than not the happy accidents end up being the highlights of the convention.
Talk to everyone. Even though Austin is full of transplants, it’s still in the south, and people are, for the most part, very friendly. Most of the folks will adopt that southern vibe even if they happen to be from somewhere else. I hear every year from my Northern friends that they always slow down, and chat with people more when they come to SXSW. So don’t be shy. Chat folks up, especially the residents, but your fellow conference goers as well.
Finally, get off the conference track. At least once leave downtown and check out a local attraction. Take a dip in Barton Springs Pool (a natural spring water pool just south of downtown) or trek up to Mount Bonnell (The best view in Austin) It is hard to pull away from the conference, but both of those spots are well worth it.
What to Eat and Drink:
Austin has a huge nightlife and some of the best food in America. Don’t sleep on the food trucks, some of the best food in Austin comes from a trailer. When you arrive in Austin, find your closest HEB (local grocery chain) before you hit your hotel and grab a bottle (possibly two) of Pedialyte, a few bottles of water, snacks for your hotel room, and aspirin if you have not packed it, already. If you plan on drinking, trust me on this, you will thank me later.
Pack or purchase a refillable water bottle and bring it with you every day. It will help keep you hydrated and when you do start drinking you will be in much better shape. With so many sponsored events you can drink for free all day long, so the temptation to over-do it is always out there. Remember drink responsibly.
Don’t head to straight to Starbucks. Austin has some great local coffee joints. And if you hit my favorite Jo’s coffee you can’t snap a pick in front of the essentially Austin I love you so much, sign. This is a perfect picture to snap and send back home to friends and family. I advise hitting Joe’s mid morning between 9 and 10, grab a coffee and a breakfast taco, then head downtown.
Speaking of Tacos, I hope you like them because you’ll have a lot of options. Breakfast, BBQ, Vegan, are just a few you can try. Torchy’s Taco’s and Habaneros on South Congress are my two favorites but ask around. One of the best conversation starters to have with a local is “What’s your favorite BBQ or Taco joint?’ More than likely by the time you head home you’ll have a favorite, too.
In short, my advice is to get weird, make friends, make a plan, and then break it. Oh, and eat tacos, lots of tacos!!
If it’s your first SXSW or your 30th, I hope you have a blast.
Be sure to check online for all our SXSW coverage under the hashtag #BGNSXSW. And if you haven’t already, read our 2017 SXSW preview with all the best acts and events that we are looking forward to this year.
SXSW is March 10th -18th.
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Jacqueline is the Director of Festivals and Conventions for @BlackGirlNerds and a film correspondent for @RottenTomatoes. She is also a Gamer, Cinephile, Theater-kid, internet addict, and lover of all things geek. Follow her on Twitter @ThatJacqueline