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. Mardi Gras is 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 New Orleans during its most famous celebration is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so 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 like you who are visiting “The Big Easy” for the first time, too. Parades are free events, so arrive early and expect big crowds. Large groups of people line up along the streets at the more iconic parades, but there are several parades throughout the celebration that aren't as packed; some even roll all night long. You can download a list of parades and route maps online to browse your best options.
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 listen to one of the many street performers, it is customary to tip them as well. With so many people sliding 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 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 worsens, so 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 it's better to bring your own. As long as your beverage is in a plastic cup, it is legal to drink alcohol in the streets of New Orleans. However, 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 Mardi Gras on the streets. Getting separated from friends or family members is a common occurrence, so you might want to consider downloading one of the “find my friend” apps. Unfortunately, mobile device coverage can be spotty in large crowds. Choosing an easy-to-find spot to meet up will be more effective in case a separation occurs.
You’ll have no problem spotting portable toilets along most parade routes. Still, 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; churches, schools, and non-profits offer them as well. Expect higher prices in the French Quarter. Whatever you choose, make sure you find a facility you can use. Peeing in public is illegal, and it accounts for about 90% of the arrests each year.
During Mardi Gras, 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. Have fun and enjoy yourself, 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: