Unlike Coachella or Austin City Limits, you don’t have to empty your bank account to sway next to hipsters and hear the edgy bands featured at South by Southwest, the annual festival that has attracted thousands of music junkies to Austin, Texas, for 27 years.
Although the flick and tech fests that are now a part of SXSW have garnered some attention, it’s the original that keeps the crowds coming back, which means prices have skyrocketed over the years. Music badges for this year’s festival—March 17-22—sell for $895 on average, but if you’re on a tighter spring-break-like budget, don’t be discouraged. All you need is a bike, some stealth, a dash of creativity, a taste for undiscovered music and an eye for freebies to see acts like Kanye West, Aloe Blacc and Alabama Shakes—no money down. We can’t do anything about the hipsters though, sorry about that.
Not literally. Hotel rates soar up to $1,000 per night during the festival; even the homely Howard Johnson jumps to $250 nightly. Stay away from the surge-priced hotels and book a homestay via Airbnb or Austin-based HomeAway. You will potentially find some University of Texas students who are renting out their digs while they’re off on spring break.
With music venues spread out over the 270-square-mile city, shows can easily be a mile or more apart. Instead of renting a car, utilize Austin’s nifty bike-share system to get from gig to gig and avoid traffic and high gas prices. Since Austin is such a bike-friendly city, many residents own bicycles, so be sure to ask your host if they have two wheels they’d be willing to include in your stay. If not, find an Austin B-Cycle station and grab a bike for as low as $8 per day.
3. Get an Early Start
During the fest, when the sun goes down, the ticket prices go up and the crowds come out. Between the late-night gigs and the endless after parties, fews wake up for the early morning shows. This means tickets to those events go for lower prices or even for free. Radio stations KUTX and KGSR host morning showcases March 18-21 at the Four Seasons and the W Hotel, respectively. They feature acts that are both timelessly high quality and fresh on the scene, from Trampled by Turtles to Elle King to Spanish Gold. These morning shows cost $5-$10 and sometimes include coffee, breakfast tacos and bloody marys for those of you ready to get the party started.
A badge gets you premier access to all the showcases, panels and keynotes, but that access costs a pretty penny. If you are only going to the fest for the performances, consider purchasing a wristband instead. At $189, the wristband will get you access to any showcases that aren’t limited to badge holders.
There are a number of venues that host free no-wristband-or-badge-required gigs throughout the fest. Jo’s Coffee on South Congress and Waterloo Records on South Lamar get things amped up around noon and present artists like Ryan Bingham and Joey Bada$$. The Omni Hotel hosts “Second Play Stages” which features stripped-down happy-hour performances from official SXSW artists like O’Conqueror and Sam Morrow starting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The Auditorium Shores Stage at Lady Bird Lake is a mellow evening classic where you can spread out a blanket and enjoy big acts like the Flaming Lips and Foster the People while the lights go down on the Austin skyline behind the stage. SXSW keeps a complete list of other free events here.
While the official events featured at SXSW are the main draw, the unofficial ones that occur at bars and clubs around the city are worth checking out. One, because they cost little to no money and two because unofficial is the new cool. Just ask Kanye West who has been known to perform at a few non-SXSW events in the past. Check out the Unofficial SXSW Guide for updates on unofficial SXSW happenings.
is a travel, food and lifestyle writer based in upstate New York.