Mardi Gras in New Orleans deserves its status as the “largest party in the United States.” With its lavish parades, masked balls, and late-night parties, it’s an unforgettable experience for anyone who visits.
But when the good times roll, especially with free-flowing alcohol and great dining, you’ll find yourself loosening your purse strings or opening your wallet more quickly than you expected. If you want to enjoy Mardi Gras on the cheap and leave New Orleans with a dollar or two left in your pocket, you need a game plan.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the larger hotels in New Orleans jack up their rates when Mardi Gras comes around. You’ll save a bundle by checking in at a hotel on the outskirts of the city in one of the suburbs, like Kenner or Metairie, where a short 15-minute cab ride will get you to the parades.
If you’d rather stay closer to the action, avoid major chains in the heart of the French Quarter. Look for smaller boutique inns in other New Orleans neighborhoods, like the Garden District or Central Business District, just a short walk from the Quarter. The smaller, independent hotels typically offer specials during Carnival season to compete with the larger chains.
New Orleans also has a convenient RV park within walking distance of the French Quarter. If you own an RV – or if you can carpool with someone who does – the French Quarter RV Park offers cheaper rates than the hotels.
New Orleans has some of the most famous restaurants in the U.S., and splurging on one or two nice dinners will be well worth the cost for a foodie. But you can save plenty on food just by moving a few blocks from the major tourist areas like the French Quarter. 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.
If you travel down to the Big Easy with your kids in tow, be warned that many of the local eateries do not have children’s menus. Camellia Grill in Uptown has a full kid’s menu and also serves reasonably priced burgers, sandwiches, and breakfast food for adults. You can also find fast food joints like Wendy’s and Popeye’s along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District.
Every parade during Carnival season and the two main parades on Mardi Gras Day are free to the public – but you’re going to end up spending some cash unless you pack a lunch and some snacks. Local vendors sell snacks and sandwiches along the parade routes, and they also try to entice you with boas, masks, glow sticks, and just about anything else bright and shiny.
Most importantly, that song you keep hearing everywhere – you know the one, “Ain’t No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day” – really is true. New Orleans does not provide public bathrooms along the routes, and most of the open businesses charge a fee for using their restrooms. In 2009, KFC charged $5 for the use of their public restroom. If you’re on your own, planning in advance can help you avoid the need to pay. But if you’re traveling with kids, be prepared to fork over the cash.
While New Orleans has its share of metered parking spots, you can park free in many areas. Most visitors don’t know where to look, however, and parking in the wrong spot can get you booted. Rather than risk spending an entire day of your vacation trying to find the boot return center, stick to the parking lots. You’ll have to pay a fee to park in any lot near the parade routes and hotels, but it’s a small price to pay to save the hundreds of dollars you might face in fines and surcharges for parking mistakes.
If you end up in one of the larger hotels, you’ll probably find that they offer parking for guests, but not without a daily fee. Between those fees and the costs at parking lots in and around the French Quarter, you owe it to yourself to drive around a bit and do some comparison shopping. You could save $30 or more a day just by driving a block or two away from Bourbon Street.
Every tourist shop in the city sells an array of beads and other souvenirs. Many tourists spend their first day in New Orleans loading themselves with beads and necklaces at $5 each. Do not be these tourists. You will catch more beads, throws, and doubloons than you know what to do with during the parades – save your money for something else.
If you want to take home some souvenirs, shop in the smaller tourist stores away from the popular ones on Canal and Bourbon Streets. Nearly every place offers the same goods, and you’ll save money by avoiding the big tourist chain stores. Better yet, stop by a Walgreens. The drugstore chain has locations all over New Orleans, and each store has an aisle of inexpensive New Orleans–related merchandise, with cheaper prices for the stuff you saw at the big tourist shops.
New Orleans, like most tourist cities, offers plenty of paid tours, day trips, and carriage rides. While you should get as much sightseeing in as possible, buying tickets for these guided trips will eat away at your once-frugal vacation budget. Create your own tours instead of overspending on horse-drawn carriage rides. (They can cost over $100 for a two-hour trip).
Instead, take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar through the Garden District to check out the stately mansions, or take the Canal Street line to the famous above-ground cemeteries. As of 2011, a ride on the streetcar costs $1.25 per person, and most of the streetcar drivers give their own personal tour along the way. If you want to see the harrowing effects of Hurricane Katrina, skip the expensive bus tour and ask a cab driver to take you through the Lower Ninth Ward. You’ll get a less expensive and more personal experience. If you want to see the French Quarter, do it the free way – on foot. To get a full tour experience, start a conversation with the streetcar driver, cabbie, or even the local sitting next to you. Residents of New Orleans are a fiercely proud and chatty bunch and almost anyone will be happy to tell you about the history of the city.
If you’re visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you’re going to need to open up your budget a little bit. But if you’re prepared, you can avoid sticker shock when you see some of the prices in the heart of the city. Now that you know what to expect, you can enjoy your vacation, indulge a bit, and avoid breaking the bank.
Have you already visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras, JazzFest, or other peak travel times? What prices surprised you the most, and where did you find some extra savings?