Summer festival season is officially swinging, enticing music and art lovers to travel near and far in hot pursuit of favorite artists and unforgettable experiences. According to Billboard, 32 million of us attend at least one music fest every year in the U.S., traveling on average 903 miles. It seems we’ll go almost anywhere for the promise of good-time environment and marquee lineup.
Yet, committing to a weekend, sometimes more, for any festival can be overwhelming. Tickets are far from cheap and weather is ever-unpredictable. Crowds and lines are almost guaranteed as part of the experience. So why do we continue to hand over hard-earned dollars in exchange for hefty-priced tickets?
Festivals give us unparalleled opportunity to experience a huge spectrum of artists in a few days’ spree while enjoying a concentration of sights and sounds with friends. We wake in the morning with the sole goal of “fest-ing,” and rest with the dream of doing it all again the following day. Plus, the excitement generated by a major event offers a chance to catch a new destination or city at its peak.
So how can we optimize the experience? Whether your GPS is tracking Chicago for Lollapalooza, Austin for Austin City Limits, New Orleans for Essence Fest, or maybe going international for WOMAD in the UK or Secret Solstice in Iceland, these tips from festivals organizers and veteran attendees will help squeeze the most festive out of every event.
Upgrade Your Day
Most festivals promote VIP packages or extras, but is upgrading worth the cost? Jill Wheeler of Red Mountain Entertainment, producers of Sloss Fest, says two often included perks can drastically enhance the experience: private bathrooms and viewing areas. “VIP usually has Crowd Pleasers (portable bathroom trailers), instead of port-o-lets,” says Wheeler, adding, upgraded access often comes with up-close stage views and no crowds.
As an event programmer and frequent festival-goer, musician Philip Foster understands the appeal of VIP packages, but usually opts for being in the mix. “I go for the music and the other people,” says Foster. “My people aren’t hanging out in the stage-side pool or hot tub.”
Bottom line: The real value of upgraded tickets depends on the experience you seek. Dissect perks individually to determine which make your festival experience better or easier and which are nice, but fluff. Commemorative merch is cool, but doesn’t directly impact the experience, whereas access to exclusive parties and, yep, clean toilets with short lines, those can be weekend-changers.
Dehydration is a headlining buzz kill. Enter the gate with a water game plan. Pinpoint water stations on the site map and know rules for bringing your own bottle, suggests Wheeler. Ideally, pack a refillable bottle and replenish throughout the day.
Festivals and full sun go together like funnel cake and beer, so be sure to pack sweat-proof sunscreen and a hat. Think like a stage manager, let act changes be your signal to overhaul by reapplying SPF and downing water.
Even with clear forecast, have light rain gear handy and wear comfortable shoes that can hack rain and mud. Remember, you may not melt while catching your favorite band in a deluge, but your phone or camera may. Speaking of gear, Foster cautions to check festival policy. “Don’t show up with your $3k camera or digital recorder and mics at a ‘no photography or recording allowed’ event,” he says.
Designate a meet-up spot if separated from friends and keep the same spot all weekend for simplicity. And, photographer and blogger Dave Anderson recommends downloading festival apps and screenshotting set-times, maps, and other important pages.
All-Access to Sweet Dreams
If sleep isn’t a concern for you, skip this section. For the other 97% of us, we seek at least a modicum of comfortable snoozing to be festival-ready the next day.
Check the event website for deals with hotel partners, but run those numbers against aggregators like Kayak and Booking.com to make sure a better deal isn’t around the corner. Wheeler recommends considering transportation options when choosing lodging. Does the hotel offer festival shuttles or does the city offer public transportation? Is Uber or Lyft an option? Does the fest offer bike lock up? If so, grab a bike share and pedal there. Avoid the hassle of driving and parking, when possible.
If camping on site, find out what items are prohibited before packing and consider glamping options. A small upgrade can mean a stocked tent or camper ready and waiting, plus shorter bathroom and shower lines. If bringing your own tent, make sure gear is waterproof. Anderson also recommends finding a spot in the shade and waking early for shorter shower lines. “Bring good earplugs!” reminds Foster. “Bring a sleep mask if you’re a stay-up-late/sleep-in person. And, did I mention earplugs?”
Ticket to Discovery
Everyone has artists they want to see, but don’t let have-to’s rule your experience. Foster calls it ‘practicing non-attachment.’ “Sure, you want to see your favorite acts, but study the schedule and have options highlighted,” he says. “If the act you’re watching isn’t doing it for you, or your mind wanders enough that you find yourself reading email, get up and check out another stage.”
The range of performers laid at your feet is what makes festivals worth the admission price. “Be adventurous and check out artists you’ve never heard of,” recommends Wheeler. Smaller stages are golden for discovering up-and-coming artists, plus offer a break from crowds.
Pace yourself. Find a shady spot to close your eyes and listen to the mingle of music floating by. Fuel up with good eats and cool drinks. And, keep some energy in reserve, often the most memorable performances are post-fest jam sessions around town.
Explore the Host
The best festivals infuse onsite experiences with flavors of the host city by spotlighting local culture and cuisine. Take New Orleans’ Jazz Fest for example. Local performers generate excitement equal to international headliners and top-notch Cajun and Creole cuisine is as much anticipated as music.
Still no matter how much local verve a fest embodies, time spent off site is the ticket. Arrive a day early to get in the zone and experience the local music scene or stay post-fest to recuperate and explore the city at a more relaxed pitch. If booking a hotel with festival discounts, inquiry about lower rates outside event dates. If renting an apartment, ask about discounts for longer stays. Many hosts will gladly drop rates for five+ nights.
When extra time isn’t an option, weave local experiences into your festival day. Wheeler recommends going to locally-owned breakfast or brunch spots each morning and, for Foster, it’s all about late night performances in venues around town.
As for me, running shoes are essential festival gear and my ticket to discovering a city on the quick. Plus, a pre-fest run or walk is ideal for setting the tone and recharging for another day of music and fun.
Main and lead photo by Nan Palmero/Flickr CC BY 2.0
As a kid playing in Alabama’s red dirt, I fantasized about exploring faraway sands. I still chase those dreams every day and aim to nudge fellow dreamers to explore farther, deeper, and more boldly. Read my tales at Intrepid Travel, Mental Floss, Fodor’s, Bustle, and my bi-weekly Travel Secrets column for Paste Magazine. Follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @aGypsyGene