They say you can tell how successful Carnival season was by how much trash is left on the streets after Mardi Gras, but I’m betting the true mark of success is how empty your bank account is after the party is over.
As a New Orleans local, I can promise you two things:
- You’ll have such a great time you’ll need a vacation after your vacation.
- You won’t have enough money left over for that second vacation.
When the good times roll, so will your debit and credit cards. New Orleans isn’t cheap — it was the most expensive destination for U.S. travelers during New Year’s Eve — and the place doesn’t get cheaper in the interim weeks.
But you don’t have to leave New Orleans depressed and broke. Here’s how to pull it off…
First, the bad news: Millions of tourists flock to the city during Carnival season, which are the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras day. With more demand than supply, you won’t find a cheap last-minute hotel deal along the parade route. If you want to see floats go past your hotel room window without going bankrupt, you’ll have to book months in advance.
The city also recently passed laws prohibiting most temporary rentals, meaning AirBnB won’t be much of an option. And if you do book one of these private homes and something goes wrong, the city won’t be there to help you.
Now, the good news: You have other options. Hotels in the nearby suburbs like Metairie, Kenner, or Gretna are much cheaper and only a 5- or 10-minute drive (or bus ride) away.
If you don’t mind giving up some luxuries, there are also several decent hostels. For example, The India House Hostel is steps from the streetcar line and has both private and shared rooms starting at $17. Site 61 is right on the bus route and starts at $40 per night.
If you’re not bringing a car into the city, you’ll need to rely on public transit and cabs. Thankfully, the city has regulated cab fares and requires all drivers to have credit card processing machines. Here’s what to expect:
- Rides from the airport — $33 for two passengers, $14 each for three or more.
- Traveling around town — $3.50 flat fee, plus $2.40 per mile and $.25 for every 40 seconds wait time.
You can hail a cab, but you’re better off calling in advance. Keep in mind many major roads are closed two hours before and after parades. There’s also a backlog of calls during Carnival, so call early.
If you don’t mind going slower, you can save a ton by using streetcars and buses to get around — both charge $1.25 a ride and cross the city. You can save even more by buying a discount card, the Jazzy Pass. A three-day pass costs $9 and includes unlimited rides. You can order one online or use a kiosk when you get here.
If you’re driving, pay careful attention to the parking signs posted around the city. While there’s ample street parking, some areas will get your booted or towed and the meter maids are out in full force during Carnival season.
Part of the New Orleans experience is sampling some of the amazing food. Problem is, most tourists end up trapped on a loop of overpriced tourist restaurants with $10 drinks and bad service.
To avoid this, don’t listen to what the hotel concierge suggests and look for something off the beaten path. The local Yelp is very active and helpful. You can also get great suggestions by asking any local you see. Seriously, we live to eat and we’re all very, very chatty.
In fact, here’s a few of my own:
- Avery’s on Tulane – Cheap, filling and amazing po’boys.
- The Joint – Huge portions of the best BBQ in the city.
- Camellia Grill – Dirt cheap and amazing burgers brought to you by an awesome wait staff.
- Cochon Butcher – Around the back from the higher-priced restaurant, and if you’re a meat-lover, this is a must.
- St. James Cheese Company – Part cheese shop, part the best sandwich you’ll ever eat.
Things to do
Between the parades, you’ll have some downtime and will probably look for a touristy activity. Do yourself a favor: Skip any tour company with “Cajun” in the name and go for something city-sponsored or local. Check out:
- Free Tours by Foot – A free (tips are optional) walking tour of the Garden District mansions, cemeteries or French Quarter.
- Save Our Cemeteries Walking Tours – For $20, you’ll get a walking tour and history lesson on the Cities of the Dead. And since this is a charitable organization, proceeds help keep those cemeteries intact.
- The 1850 House – My favorite tourist attraction in the city. For $4 you’ll get a guided tour of an original, fully furnished Creole townhome in the French Quarter.
Every parade is free to attend, but there are plenty of vendors and retailers nearby to help you spend your cash. To keep on a budget and have a great time, follow these golden rules:
- Get there early — The best spots go fast.
- Bring camping chairs and blankets — The city has no problem with these, and you’ll be less likely to want to get up and spend money if you’re comfy.
- Stuff a cooler — Skip the vendor and bring your own. Just remember, while drinking is perfectly legal, glass containers aren’t. Stick with cans and plastic go-cups.
- Bring tote bags — You’ll get loaded down with beads and other throws, so keep a tote bag with you to store your loot.
- Bring small bills — The city does provide porta-potties along the parade route, but if you want a cleaner bathroom experience, you’ll have to pay $1 or more to use one of the bathrooms inside the fast food chains on the parade route.
- Stick together – Cell phone service gets dicey during parades, and you don’t want to have to pay for a cab because your ride left you.
Souvenir shops are everywhere, and they’re all selling at about a 300-percent markup. To save some cash, look outside of the French Quarter. Grocery stores like Winn Dixie and Rouses often have a selection of souvenirs, and you can also find the same stuff you’d buy in the French Quarter at any Rite Aid or Walgreens in the area.
And don’t buy beads. You’ll get more beads from one parade than you could possibly imagine. Don’t spend $5 on them on your way to the route.
Dozens of visits from out-of-state friends have taught me that New Orleans has a bad rap when it comes to crime. While I’d like to say there’s no crime here, this is a major city and crime happens. I can say: It isn’t anywhere as frequent or as bad as you’re imagining. However, to keep safe, stick to these guidelines:
- Don’t get too drunk. If you do get too drunk, don’t wander. Stay in the bar and wait for a cab.
- Use common sense when walking. We have safe neighborhoods, but as in any city, be cautious. Losing your wallet won’t help you stay on budget.
- Keep your belongings on you during a parade. There are five cops for every block of a parade route, but they can’t catch everything. Don’t stuff your camera or wallet in a tote bag or on a chair, because someone might walk off with it.
And remember if someone bets you that he can’t guess where you got your shoes: They’re on your feet.