mardi gras

Krewe of Bacchus

Mardis Gras dates back to Medieval times and the famous tradition in New Orleans started back in 1699. The fete is all about living large, from the parties to the parades to the costumes. If you can make it to the Big Easy for Fat Tuesday or the rest of Carnival, that’s reason enough to rejoice.

But here’s the thing: While Mardis Gras is meant to be an all-out celebration ahead of the six-week-long religious fast observed during Lent, you don’t have to blow all your beads to get the full feeling of indulgence and abandon. NOLA Mardis Gras on the cheap can still be bucket-list partying fun when you follow these six tips:

Krewe of Bacchus

1. Target the top hours

Your budget doesn’t really need to extend to a whole week in NOLA to get a true Mardis Gras experience. Instead, make sure you’re there from midnight on Monday to 11:59 a.m. on Fat Tuesday. That way you can save on accommodations and still see all the coolest strutting and enjoy the wildest parties.

2. Hit the parades hard and early

Remember, the parades that draw more than a million people to NOLA for Fat Tuesday don’t cost a penny to view, so concentrate your entertainment “budget” around seeing the shows. Bacchus is a great choice for exquisite floats on the street and intriguing costumes everywhere. To get full enjoyment, consider the waiting time as part of the entertainment. To get a good view in the vast, rowdy crowd, plan to arrive hours early and people watch as part of your free entertainment. And make sure to download free route maps at ahead of time.

3. Bring a bicycle

Seriously. If you can take a bike along you can weave your way into areas where cars aren’t allowed. Mardis Gras definitely means many roads closed to vehicular traffic and parking near the action can be really tough. A bike will save you precious walking time and let you catch more of the free entertainment. Be careful riding in big crowds, though, and for sure bring a sturdy chain to keep your bike locked every minute you’re not on it.

4. Go ahead and jump for the beads

Mardi Gras beads are one of the world’s most awesome freebies. Just make sure you’re prepared. Certainly, you should enjoy jumping up from the parade crowd to catch beads (and stuffed animals, cups and who knows what all.) But to maximize this no-cost fun, plan ahead. Bring a large, sturdy tote or backpack to carry your booty. (Neck fatigue and poor posture really do result from trying to wear too many beads.) Consider making a sign that says you’re from out of town to encourage float riders to toss to you. And even if you’ve been imbibing, be kind and joyous during the melee. If someone gets “your” beads ahead of you, let it go. There’s plenty of bounty for all.

5. Wear something durable and comfortable

If this is your first Mardi Gras, it’s tempting to plan and execute a lavish costume. But you might want to consider something a little less expensive or high maintenance when you’re trying to enjoy NOLA Mardis Gras on the cheap. Elaborate costumes can be uncomfortable, too, and no one will bat an eyelash if you choose to wear athletic shoes and khakis instead. Plus, if your garb helps you be mobile, it’s lots easier to seek out the less expensive street food and entertainment.

6. See if you can get into a formal party for free

You don’t want to be a nuisance, but you can at least take a polite stab at getting into one of the extravagant parties held in huge Southern mansions during Carnival. They’re not all open but if one of the houses has a party vibe and an open gate, just politely walk in and see if you’re welcome. It may be the most pleasant surprise of your travel life that they wave you in.