A beginners guide to celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

So, you booked a flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

Well be the first ones to tell you youre absolutely going to love it. At least, youll enjoy the experience if you take the time to prepare and plan accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras is so much more than just a boozy party on Bourbon Street.

As a four-year Mardi Gras veteran (Roll Wave!) I have a few tips and tricks up my sleeve that will make your Mardi Gras experience one to remember (in a good way). Heres everything youve ever wanted to know abut celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans but were too afraid to ask.

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What Is Mardi Gras?

First and foremost, Mardi Gras is a marathon, not a sprint. Thats pretty much the first thing I was told when I walked onto campus my freshman year of college at Tulane, and it was probably the best advice Ive ever been given. Mardi Gras starts Thursday night and lasts all the way until early Tuesday morning, so youll want to pace yourself. In fact, most people spend actual Mardi Gras at home, sleeping and spending time with friends and family. Plot twist, I know.

This brings me to my next point: What even is Mardi Gras, anyway?

(Photo by Sung Jin Cho/Unsplash)
(Photo by Sung Jin Cho/Unsplash)

Mardi Gras weekend is actually the culmination of Carnival season, which started on Jan. 6 also known as Epiphany, a traditional Christian feast day. Carnival season continues until Mardi Gras, which typically falls in February. During this time, there are parades galore, although its business as usual in the city until Mardi Gras weekend. In fact, I usually tell people to visit New Orleans the week or two before Mardi Gras, since youll still get a taste of all the festivities while still enjoying the rest of the magic the city has to offer.

Mardi Gras quite literally Fat Tuesday as we know it today dates all the way back to 1781. Theres a ton of history involved, and if youre heading down to New Orleans to celebrate, you owe it to yourself to read up on the history and customs surrounding it. After all, theres nothing New Orleanians love more than a good tradition. In 2020, Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, Feb 25.

I know Im going to surprise some of you when I say, Mardi Gras is largely a family event. While it has a reputation for being a weekend of debauchery, most of thats consolidated into the downtown area (read: where the tourists are in the French Quarter). Uptown, on the other hand, is more residential, and there will be plenty of families with young children out to enjoy the festivities.

While there are plenty of parties and debauchery Uptown, the Downtown area definitely has more of a wild vibe. You shouldnt avoid one or the other, it just comes down to your personal preference.

Mardi Gras takes over the entire city. Seriously. New Orleans essentially shuts down. Colleges halt classes, and many shops and restaurants close (those that remain open typically serve a special Mardi Gras menu). A lot of people have the impression Mardi Gras celebrations are confined to Bourbon Street, but thats absolutely not true. You just dont really realize the scale of it until youre there.

(Photo by sandoclr/Getty Images)
(Photo by sandoclr/Getty Images)

The celebrations themselves center on the parades, specifically the krewes. Theyre long-standing, exclusive social clubs that organize the parades, and getting to ride on one of the floats is a huge honor. Some of the most popular ones are Muses, Zulu, Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus and, of course, Rex, the King of Mardi Gras. Youll want to check the map and schedule ahead of time and download the parade tracker app to make sure you know where to stand along the parade route. The krewes will throw beads and, well, throws off of the floats. Have fun and try to catch as many as you can just be aware that some people get, ah, very competitive.

At night, youre going to want to see some live music. While this is a must-do during any other weekend in New Orleans, its especially important during Mardi Gras. Step away from the Hand Grenade on Bourbon Street and head to Frenchmen Street, Tipitinas, One Eyed Jacks, Gasa Gasa, you get the idea. If youre in town for Mardi Gras, you can expect the live performances to be downright legendary.

Related: The first-timers guide to New Orleans: Everything you need to eat, see and do.

What to pack for Mardi Gras

In case you havent figured it out yet, youre going to be spending a lot of time on your feet during Mardi Gras. Its not the occasion to bring out your brand-new, white Air Force Ones or even worse, high heels. Wear sneakers or shoes you feel comfortable getting dirty and standing in all day (and night), and get ready to Mardi Gras Mambo.

Youll definitely want to bring a portable phone charger, as well. If youre doing Mardi Gras right, youre not going to be spending much time in your hotel and, more likely than not, youll end up getting separated from your travel companions at one point, so its important to be proactive and think ahead.

Its also not a bad idea to stock up on snacks. If your experience is anything like mine, youll go from spending hours without eating to eating everything in sight. Having snacks and water on is incredibly important.

You might think youll need to buy beads in advance, or pick them up as soon as you arrive in the Big Easy, but let us be the first ones to tell you please dont. Do not pass go. Buying beads is a surefire way to broadcast, Im a tourist! You get the throws from the krewes during the parades. Whatever you do, though, dont pick the beads up off the ground. Its bad luck.

Last but most certainly not least: You want to pack the weirdest clothes in your closet. Mardi Gras isnt the time to hold back and throw on jeans and a t-shirt. It might even be time to go on a shopping spree. Have fun with it.

Where to stay during Mardi Gras

If its your first Mardi Gras, youre likely going to want to be in the middle of all the action as you should be.

Of course, your best bet will be to stay in the French Quarter or Central Business district. There are a ton of points hotels in the city, although they book up quickly during Mardi Gras.

(Photo by Jonathan D. Goforth/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan D. Goforth/Getty Images)

Because availability is so in flux and rates change daily, youll want to grab a reservation sooner than later if you see something you like. Our top picks are The Ritz-Carlton, Windsor Court, Hilton Riverside,JW Marriott,New Orleans Marriott,W,Aloft,Sheraton,Westin,Le MeridienandTroubadour Tapestry Collection. If youre planning on going next year, keep an eye out and book months in advance if youre able to.

We were able to find some cash availability at the Ritz-Carlton for Mardi Gras in 2020, although its going to cost you a pretty penny: upwards of $1,000 per night, to be exact. The JW Marriott, on the other hand, is a few steps away and only $364 per night on average during Mardi Gras weekend.

If youre more of a Hilton person, the Roosevelt starts around $471 per night in cash and 70,000 points per night. The Troubador is also a solid option, with rates starting at 50,000 points per night.

Related: 10 things you should know before your first Mardi Gras trip.

Where to eat during Mardi Gras

Youre going to be spending a lot of time on the parade route during Mardi Gras, and frankly will end up going to whatever the nearest restaurant is when youre too hungry to stand. Id recommend keeping Pizza Domenica, Superior Seafood, Fat Harrys, St. James Cheese Company, Juans Flying Burrito and Superior Grill on your radar.

If all else fails, Popeyes and Canes will be your best friends. And Caf du Monde, because beignets.

How to get to Mardi Gras

Youre in for a treat when you land in New Orleans, and not just because youre, well, landing in New Orleans. The new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) finally opened in November and its a huge upgrade.

Related: Would you eat at an airport even if you arent flying? New Orleans is betting yes.

Youll find nonstop flights to New Orleans (MSY) from nearly 50 U.S. cities; check Google Flights to find the best pricefrom a city near you. Airlines that fly to MSY include Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United.

If you have theAlaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card,Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Expressor theDelta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, you can use the companion certificate that comes as a perk on your card anniversary. Terms vary per card but youll generally just pay the taxes and fees on your companions fare (or, in the case of Alaska Airlines, from $121; $99 plus the taxes and fees).

If youre a member ofFrontiers Discount Den, look into itsKids Fly FreeandFriends Fly Free programs. And, if youve got aSouthwest Companion Pass, now is a great time to visit New Orleans and just pay taxes and fees for your companions ticket.

Finally, anyone holding a Spirit credit card can access very low-cost award flights, starting at just 2,500 miles one-way. (Heres why you may love flying Spirit.) New Orleans is kind of in the middle of the country, so it shouldnt be too long of a flight form anywhere in the lower 48.

Now get out of here andlaissez les bon temps rouler.

Featured photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.