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A beginner's guide to celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Feb. 17, 2020
11 min read
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So, you booked a flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

We'll be the first ones to tell you you're absolutely going to love it. At least, you'll 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). Here's everything you've 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. That's 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 I've ever been given. Mardi Gras starts Thursday night and lasts all the way until early Tuesday morning, so you'll 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 it's 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 you'll 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. There's a ton of history involved, and if you're heading down to New Orleans to celebrate, you owe it to yourself to read up on the history and customs surrounding it. After all, there's nothing New Orleanians love more than a good tradition. In 2020, Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

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I know I'm 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 that's 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 shouldn't 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 that's absolutely not true. You just don't really realize the scale of it until you're there.

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

The celebrations themselves center on the parades, specifically the "krewes." They're 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. You'll 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, you're going to want to see some live music. While this is a must-do during any other weekend in New Orleans, it's especially important during Mardi Gras. Step away from the Hand Grenade on Bourbon Street and head to Frenchmen Street, Tipitina's, One Eyed Jacks, Gasa Gasa, you get the idea. If you're in town for Mardi Gras, you can expect the live performances to be downright legendary.

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

What to pack for Mardi Gras

In case you haven't figured it out yet, you're going to be spending a lot of time on your feet during Mardi Gras. It's 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.

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

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

You might think you'll 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 don't. Do not pass go. Buying beads is a surefire way to broadcast, "I'm a tourist!" — You get the "throws" from the krewes during the parades. Whatever you do, though, don't pick the beads up off the ground. It's bad luck.

Last but most certainly not least: You want to pack the weirdest clothes in your closet. Mardi Gras isn't 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 it's your first Mardi Gras, you're 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, you'll 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 Meridien and Troubadour Tapestry Collection. If you're planning on going next year, keep an eye out and book months in advance if possible.

Even though Mardi Gras is next week, we were able to find some award availability at The Ritz-Carlton during Mardi Gras, from Thursday, Feb. 20 to Tuesday, Feb. 25: a total of 240,000 Marriott points for a five-night stay, because the fifth night is free. Cash rates are hovering around $520 per night, which is still a pretty solid deal considering Mardi Gras 2020 is just around the corner.

Award nights at the JW Marriott can also still be redeemed. As with The Ritz-Carlton, you'll spend 240,000 points for this period of five nights when you get the fifth night free. But cash rates are much cheaper, just around $340 per night.

The New Orleans Marriott, on the other hand, is showing availability for 160,000 points per night for four nights, plus the fifth night free. We're seeing the same availability at the Le Méridien. If you have the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card or Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card, these could be great ways to put your up to 35,000-point certificate to good use.

If you're more of a Hilton person, the Roosevelt has availability from $386 per night, or 70,000 points per night. The Troubador is also a great Hilton property to consider, although you'll have to be a Diamond member to get exclusive access to the remaining rooms, as everything else is sold out. Rates here start around $471 per night. This is a great time to cash in a Hilton free-night certificate.

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

Where to eat during Mardi Gras

You're 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 you're too hungry to stand. I'd recommend keeping Pizza Domenica, Superior Seafood, Fat Harry's, St. James Cheese Company, Juan's Flying Burrito and Superior Grill on your radar.

If all else fails, Popeye's and Cane's will be your best friends. And Café du Monde, because beignets.

How to get to Mardi Gras

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

Related: Would you eat at an airport even if you aren't flying? New Orleans is betting yes.

You’ll find nonstop flights to New Orleans (MSY) from nearly 50 U.S. cities; check Google Flights to find the best price from 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 the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card or the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, you can use the companion certificate that comes as a perk on your card anniversary. Terms vary per card but you’ll generally just pay the taxes and fees on your companion’s fare (or, in the case of Alaska Airlines, from $121; $99 plus the taxes and fees).

If you’re a member of Frontier’s Discount Den, look into its Kids Fly Free and Friends Fly Free programs. And, if you’ve got a Southwest Companion Pass, now is a great time to visit New Orleans and just pay taxes and fees for your companion’s ticket.

Finally, anyone holding a Spirit credit card can access very low-cost award flights, starting at just 2,500 miles one-way. (Here’s why you may love flying Spirit.) New Orleans is kind of in the middle of the country, so it shouldn’t be too long of a flight form anywhere in the lower 48.

Now get out of here and laissez les bon temps rouler.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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