Navigating the planning, scheduling and budgeting for SXSW, which begins on March 8 in Austin, isn’t easy. Even those who have attended the festival for years feel bouts of frustration. It’s simply impossible to control everything. The festival’s encouragement of discovery means being flexible and having multiple plans is always a good idea. Beyond that, here are our tips to maximize your odds of festival success.
When away from your home or hotel, finding necessary items can be a challenge—convenience stores aren’t prevalent in the main music corridors. Remember to pack the following in your pockets or bag:
- Phone charger
- Spare phone battery
- Hand sanitizer
- Fold-up poncho (in case of rain)
- Hand wipes
- SXSW pocket schedule
- Tip change
Most day shows are open to the public, but many require an RSVP to an entry list. Getting your personal info is partly why marketers pay to sponsor the shows. An ingenious startup called RSVPster has automated the process of replying to all the day shows; you provide an email address and pay them $30, and they do the rest. This may be the single most cost-effective way for non-badgeholders to experience SXSW.
Alternative rideshare and mobility apps:
Most festivalgoers will have Lyft and Uber on their phones, but for maximum flexibility, there are alternatives worth noting. During a period when the major players exited the Austin market, local rideshare company Ride Austin and national startup ZTrip joined the fray. Get these apps and save money and time when getting around. Since last spring, electric scooter share companies Lime and Bird have entered Austin. Download their apps in advance to ride during the fest. But take note: Scooters are temporarily banned on the main club areas around 6th Street and Red River during the festival, so leave the scooter on the fringes to avoid a $500 fine.
In past years, SXSW has announced surprise show entry via lottery to artists as varied as Prince, Jay Z, Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen. The festival did not do this in 2018, but it’s still worth watching for. Watch the official SXSW website and Twitter feed for show announcements, then register at the convention center or on the SXSW GO app for a chance to go.
Hotel and wristband package:
SXSW wristband purchases are geographically restricted to Central Texas residents—unless you purchase a wristband and hotel room package. For those last-minute planners wanting to get in on the fun, this is a great last-minute “in,” as walk-up badges currently cost an eye-popping $1,225. By contrast, you can book a three-night stay at the four-star AT&T Conference Hotel and two music wristbands for about $1,250 total on the wristband site. It’s still not cheap, but not much different than attending Austin City Limits. At press time, these appear to have sold out for 2019, but it can’t hurt to double-check.
Finding bands and parties with the SXSW app, schedules and curators:
SXSW’s official app is fantastic for the evening showcases and the daytime conference portion of the festival programming. That said, a good deal of the fun (and socializing) happens during the day show programming, which is not included. To help with this, print out a day show list from the Showlist Austin website. Though low-tech, the site allows you to print customized lists featuring only the parties in which you are interested. These printouts are invaluable when you’re trying to sort out where to go next between noon and 7 p.m. There’s also a new 99-cent app this year, Keegan’s List, for real-time party tracking and details. If the official app is too overwhelming when making band decisions, stop by Operation Every Band to get some detailed recommendations based on your tastes. Their basic spreadsheet is generously free, and if you’d like an hour by hour schedule, they are available for $10. Finally, NPR usually releases a Top 100 mixtape at NPR Music. as of March 4, the playlist isn’t yet available, but keep an eye out for it.
OpenTable and Resy are your friends. After six hours of day show noise, a nice meal with some air conditioning and pleasant service is an excellent way to recharge. There are dozens of quality dinner options within walking distance of festival venues, so book a 6:30 or 7 p.m. table and take 90 minutes off. You’ll appreciate it more than you know. If you didn’t make a reservation, upscale casual counter service chains near the main corridor include Cava, Modern Market and Flower Child. Easy wins for nicer restaurants in the prime SXSW zone include Second Bar + Kitchen, the backspace, Red Ash, Holy Roller, El Naranjo and Arlo Grey.
Twitter and SX’s light system for real-time intel:
SXSW has so much going on that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Famous rappers drop in at showcases. Fire marshals shut down venues that are above capacity. Last-minute flight cancellations change showcase schedules. Your best bet for keeping up with all of this is a well-curated Twitter list. You can follow ours here, but there are a number of good ones. Check out accounts like @atxconcert, @sxswmafia and @SXSWMF (and their follows) for great real-time info all week. SXSW is also bringing back a web page with red, yellow, and green “traffic lights” for each venue. You can access it here, but in 2018, the information was often lagging to the real time lines, so proceed with caution.
A huge but underpublicized change in badge access occurred in recent years at SXSW. Holders of music badges have “secondary access” (think of it as a wristband) for the film and interactive conferences, and vice-versa. While the marquee film screenings and talks will still likely be off-limits due to capacity, many films, talks and workshops are available. Take some time away from your primary festival and catch a film, a comedian or a tech talk for a change of pace.
At SXSW Music, even the high rollers look a little rough. That’s why charging your phone at the JW Marriott or sipping a coffee in the comfortable, air-conditioned Hilton is unlikely to generate any friction. When you need 15 minutes of downtime, nice hotel lobbies have your back. Buy a coffee or drink, though. The lobby bar at the new Fairmont, Fulton, is also a great drop-in spot for a beer and some air conditioning.
Keynotes and Day Stages:
Don’t just stick to the clubs. Spend a bit of time at the Convention Center. This year’s music keynotes include the Beastie Boys, T-Bone Burnett, and a conversation with Shirley Manson of Garbage and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches. You need to arrive at least 45 minutes early if interested in these talks. The room fills up fast. Another Convention Center semi-secret is the day stage performances. They’re often under-attended simply because some festivalgoers aren’t aware of them. Click here for the 2019 schedule.
The SXXpress pass was a perk missed by many when it debuted a few years back. With a move to an online format this year, we believe many more will catch on. The pass allows you to skip the line (or, for popular shows, be the first one in once a few folks leave) for your favorite showcase each night. Choose these wisely around peak times and you can save 30 or more minutes of waiting in line. Yes, it’s just like Disneyland. Reservations open 24 hours prior to an event’s start time.
FareGround for quick meals:
Over on Congress Avenue, you’ll also find a beautiful food hall, Fareground, within walking distance. You can grab tacos from a trompo at Dai Due, ramen and sushi at ni-kome, burgers and salads from Contigo, and locavore fare at Henbit, along with Italian dishes from Italic. There’s also a robust full bar and plenty of indoor and outdoor communal seating.
Don’t have the free drinks unless it’s a beverage you truly enjoy. Trust us. While some may come just to party, music fans are usually best served by alternating between buying an adult beverage you actually like, then drinking a round of Topo Chico, the Mexican sparkling water beloved by Texans, to stay hydrated. It’s also worth looking for parties sponsored by wine and liquor brands you like.
When you inevitably need caffeine, note that several of Austin’s best coffee joints are near the Convention Center: Caffe Medici and Houndstooth Coffee on Congress Avenue, Merit Coffee in Seaholm, and Wright Bros. Brew and Brew on East 5th Street are four excellent choices.
Follow writer Tom Thornton at Twitter.com/tomthorntontx.