In a letter to a friend in 1859, Mark Twain wrote that an American hasn’t seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In French, Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday. It’s a holiday like Christmas or Easter, but with more parades, balls, live music, and adult beverages. The celebration begins 12 days after Christmas on Jan. 6, and ends on Mardi Gras Day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Visiting this vibrant city during its most famous celebration is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Plan ahead and follow some survival guide tips to make it even better.
If you’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced Mardi Gras, never fear. There are thousands of people just like you who are visiting “The Big Easy” for the first time, too. Parades are free events, so arrive early and expect big crowds. People line up 10-deep along the streets at the more historic parades, but there are several parades throughout the celebration. Some roll all night long. You can download a list of parades and route maps online.
Expect to find some places that don’t accept credit or debit cards. Some restaurants and bars are cash only. And, if you stop and watch or listen to one of the many street performers, it is customary to tip them as well. With so many people sliding or tapping their plastic on machines throughout the city, there’s bound to be some problems. Prepare for the unexpected. Carry both bills and change. Tuck cash inside money belts or in front pockets to keep it safe.
Don’t laugh. At Mardi Gras, fanny packs are an accepted part of Carnival attire. A fanny pack helps you keep essentials on-hand and ready when you need them. Plus, it leaves your hands free for catching beads and other treasures thrown from balconies and parade floats. Wet wipes, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, snacks, tissues, adhesive bandages, and chapstick are must-haves. Consider packing headache meds, antacids, and toilet paper, too. It’s also a good idea to add a card with emergency contact info and phone numbers of friends or family in case you lose your phone.
If there is one absolute fact about New Orleans, it’s that the weather is unpredictable. Temperatures range between 50 and 70 degrees, so dress in light layers. Mardi Gras festivities won't stop for rain—unless the weather turns severe, none of the events are canceled. Pack some rain gear, like a poncho or a waterproof light jacket. Don’t forget to bring along some sunglasses and a hat to protect you from the sun.
Adult beverages flow freely during Mardi Gras with drink specials popping up everywhere, so remember to hydrate your body with some H2O along the way. You’ll likely pay more for bottled water than you will for cocktails so bring your own. Remember that it’s legal to walk the streets and drink alcohol in New Orleans, as long as your beverage is in a plastic cup. City laws prohibit glass bottles in certain areas, no matter what you’re drinking.
Experienced Mardi Gras attendees will remind you to leave your flip-flops, sandals, and other open-toed shoes at home. The “throws,” where Mardi Gras krewes toss trinkets like beads and doubloons to parade-goers, sometimes become chaotic as people aggressively rush to grab a souvenir. An open-toed shoe leaves your feet vulnerable to unintentional stomping. Plus, the streets tend to get messy due to spilled drinks and other stuff. Choose comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
Thousands of people celebrate on the streets during Mardi Gras. Getting separated from friends or family members is a common occurrence. Consider downloading one of the “find my friend” apps. Unfortunately, mobile device coverage can be spotty in large crowds. Choose an easy-to-find spot to meet up in case a separation occurs. If you’ve brought children along, tuck a card into their pocket that includes your contact details, your hotel, the name of the meeting place, and any other important into their pocket. Point out the “lost children” stations situated along the parade routes.
You’ll have no problem spotting portable toilets, mostly along the parade routes. But if you have an aversion to these sometimes less-than-sanitary options, you can purchase a bathroom pass or a parade package for access to nicer facilities. Unless you’re a customer, don’t try and sneak into restaurant and bar restrooms without paying. Ask them about purchasing an all-day pass. Expect higher prices in the French Quarter. Churches, schools, and non-profits offer them as well. Peeing in public is illegal. It accounts for about 90% of the arrests each year.
New Orleans police handle a barrage of bad behaviors, lost children, and other big-crowd issues. Expect a heavy law enforcement presence everywhere. Don’t move barricades or argue with police who instruct you to avoid a specific area. Enjoy yourself and have fun, but know that police will arrest you for obnoxious or dangerous behavior. When midnight strikes at the end of Mardi Gras Day, police will start to clear the streets and may ask you to leave and head back to your hotel.
Let loose, celebrate, and be yourself at Mardi Gras. After all, the New Orleans motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” or “Let the good times roll.” Pack your purple, gold, and green costume or any other colors or styles you choose. Don’t just be a spectator. Jump in and join the fun. To honor the spirit of Mardi Gras, remember to: