This is my second time attending the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans (the Houston attendance doesn’t count when they moved the festival for Katrina). Essence is a wonderful experience but can be very costly before you know it. The first time I attended, I booked my hotel at least 7 months in advance. Unfortunately, the closest hotels make you pay up front without any flexibility to change. The average room rate is about $300/night. There are ways to enjoy essence without losing all of your shirt.
This year, I decided to attend at the last minute (less than 30 days). I used to be a frequent traveler so had a large bank of points for hotel and airlines. Now, I have a couple of credit cards that help me with points. I choose to redeem my points during festivals or conferences when rates are at their peak.
I was able to find a hotel about half a mile from the Superdome. Once I saw the lounge line up, I was convinced I had to purchase tickets for the show. I was able to find a hotel for 20k points per night. I could not cancel the hotel or chance losing my points but it was worth it. If I paid, the rate was $300/night. Some people opted for hostels or AirBNB which are usually more reasonable but some distance away.
I also used Southwest Airlines points for half my ticket. I love the flexibility of Southwest that you can use points for a one way ticket and change it if needed with no penalty. You can also cancel the flight and refund your points. On the other half of the ticket, I caught one of the sales. My plane ticket one way was $88, which was what I would spend for Megabus (another low budget alternative).
I did not plan to rent a car but budgeted about $70 to get to and from the airport. About a week before my trip, Southwest emailed me a special for a rental car with an incentive of 1200 southwest points. The rental car for 3 days was going to be $78. I arrived so late on Friday, the economy cars were gone. I was upgraded to a mustang (ok, that is due to favor). Though I would have to add hotel parking ($29/day), I had the flexibility to drive out of CBD whenever I needed.
Another big budget saver is not to drink alcohol. For most people that come to New Orleans, alcohol is on top of the agenda. Yet, it is pricey. I opted out of drinking this weekend and found my daily food budget was saved. The hotel also had free continental breakfast included which I took advantage for 2 of 3 days.
Another big budget item are the show tickets. Excluding favor, I was able to score tickets on Stubhub. They also had a summer coupon for 10% off. I realized that 90% of the people I wanted to see were in the lounge. That means, I would spend most of my time walking around the 2nd floor of the dome as opposed to sitting in my seat. I realized a nose bleed seat would be a perfect idea. I scored a 3 days pass on Stubhub for $144. I trusted Stubhub because if the tickets didn’t work, they either replace them or refund your money.
If parking at the airport, remember to make reservations for parking. I usually take a cab or uber to the airport but sometimes park in off-site parking. Parking is about $7/day as opposed to $25/day for valet at Hobby or Bush (I stack points for their program there too in order to score free parking). This holiday weekend ALL parking was full. Even valet. I was so happy I went with my instinct to pre-book for parking.
In short, I was able to see about 15+ artists, support an amazing brunch for Walker’s Legacy, roam the convention center, eat great food, walk to the superdome, dessert at Sucre all under $500. The early bird does not always get the worm. As hotels get more desperate, they make availability in order to increase their occupancy (yet don’t wait too late or they will gauge you). When you make the decision to attend, understand that all rates are non-refundable. Shop around. Prepare for a great time!