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Survival guide and tips

SXSW 2012

(Credit: James Buchan )
March 08, 2012|By Jessica Galliart

Can you get into shows without the pricey badge? How can I catch a cab? All the hotel rooms are booked--what do I do?

If you're a SXSW newbie or are considering planning ahead for next year, there are a few things you should know before heading down to Austin, Texas, for the annual music fest. RedEye talked to Chicagoans who have made the trek a few times for some tips, advice and background on everything you need to know to survive the week-long adventure.


Gino Pennacchio, Manager of Chicago bands Gemini Club and Hey Champ
Neph Basedow, Music Writer at Houston Press and former Chicagoan
Jim Kopeny, Senior Editor A&E at Chicagoist
Andy Keil, Head 'Stache at Pop 'stache
Veronica Murtagh, Founder and Editor at CreamTeam.TV


Is it better to drive or fly?

I recommend driving.  Flights to and from Austin are too expensive, and having your own car for an entire week is convenient, especially if you don’t have a hotel downtown.  Also, such a long drive (23 hours) makes the whole trip feel like an adventure. –Gino Pennacchio

Between Chicago and Austin? Flying. Check Dallas and Houston airports too, for cheaper fares, if you might know of other fest-goers already driving to/from Austin. Definitely not train-- no good train system in Austin. –Neph Basedow

Flying is the only way to go. Unless you're in a band. In that case rent a bus. Because of course you're rolling in disposable income like that. –Jim Kopeny

The first year I flew but that’s rather expensive, especially last minute. I prefer to drive. Road trips give me time to listen to records that I need to catch up on and having a car makes getting around to the house parties a lot easier and cheaper. –Andy Keil

If you have the time and a group of interested friends a road trip can be fun and save money, but I don't drive and prefer to get there and back in the shortest amount of time so flying is my preferred travel method. –Veronica Murtagh

Any advice for going the road trip route?

The first time we drove down to Austin, it was a nightmare.  We had the very ambitious idea to drive from Chicago to Austin without taking a lengthy break.  Just a straight shot to Austin.  We woke up at 5am on Sunday, and didn’t get into Austin until 3am on Monday.  To say we were happy to arrive at our destination would be a drastic understatement.

I will warn people who are driving, to be careful when driving through Dallas.  None of us had ever driven through it, and it is a confusing process at times.  You need to follow this very specific path on the highway to get through and off to Austin that results in having to make several really quick driving decisions.  We didn’t enjoy it. –Gino Pennacchio

I’ve road tripped to Austin a number of times but I’m generally of the camp that drives straight through instead of seeing the sights. Having multiple drivers is definitely a HUGE plus though as the drive is 16 hours. –Andy Keil


What’s the situation on booking a hotel room downtown?

If anyone is currently looking for a hotel in Austin that’s walking distance from 6th street, good luck.  Hotels in Austin start booking rooms for SXSW in July, 8 months in advance. –Gino Pennacchio

The four years I lived in Chicago, I flew to Texas and stayed with my parents and/or friends during SXSW. During those years, one might think I lucked out with friends and family there, but I secretly always envied my Chicago friends, most of whom booked hotel rooms in far advance. If your company isn't picking up the bill, you pay ungodly amounts, but I think staying downtown during the festival is worth that price for out-of-towners. –Neph Basedow

Reserve a hotel room shortly after the previous year's festival ends. Seriously though, if you don't have a room a few months out then you're not going to be staying anywhere near the downtown area. You'll be staying by the airport. Or in San Antonio. –Jim Kopeny

Finding a place to stay is the most frustrating aspect of SXSW. If you don't plan to buy a badge then staying downtown is probably not going to happen. The hotels downtown are blacked out for badgeholders. –Veronica Murtagh

If a downtown hotel isn’t an option, what’s the best way to go about getting a place to stay?

Nowadays, social media (via trusted friends/networks) is advantageous. Word of mouth, and booking a hotel far, far, as in many months in advance. –Neph Basedow

At this point, Craigslist can be slim pickings and AirBNB can be pretty expensive. I actually found a place to stay last year by asking a question on Quora. If you don’t have friends to stay with or people to throw in on renting a house, stay in a hotel outside of downtown and rely on the shuttle that runs every 15-30 minutes. It runs until the wee hours of the morning and is only like $40. –Andy Keil

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