SXSW is just around the corner! As many of you know, I attended SXSW last year for the first time. After some hemming and hawing, I decided that I would go back again this year. I had a great time and now that I know the layout of the land, I think I will have a better time and more aptly use my time. In an effort to make SXSW better for the first-timer, I thought I would share a few things I wish I knew before I came to Austin and SXSW. I’ve included some other tips that will help you understand how Austin and SXSW Interactive operate.
Where to stay. If you didn’t make the official SXSW hotel list, chances are you won’t get into a hotel. At least not one downtown. And as you’re about to learn, the transportation options outside of downtown are limited. Your best bet is to rent someone else’s home. There are plenty of homes around downtown Austin that are affordable and walkable. Last year, I found my home rental on craigslist (just off of East Cesar Chavez) and it turned out really great. It was close enough to walk, quiet at night and comfortable. This year, I used AirBnB (referral link) and grabbed an apartment near University of Texas at Austin’s campus. I like the added protection AirBnB offers.
Airport taxi. We’ll start out with the first experience most first-timers have: the airport. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the airport, but I did spend a lot of time waiting in line for a taxi. I thought the taxi lines at JFK and LGA were epic. I waited at least an hour for a taxi. The last thing you want to do, after traveling five hours on a plane, is stand in line for a taxi. This year I scheduled a car service for round trip airport service to avoid the taxi line. Your experience in the taxi line may vary though, depending on when you arrive.
Pedicabs are your friends. The reality is that when major events like SXSW or Austin City Limits are not happening, Austin is a fairly calm town. They don’t have a huge demand for taxis. So when major events happen, the taxi companies are working around the clock, but it just isn’t enough to keep up with demand. That means you will wait a long time for a cab, if you ever get one. My first day in Austin, I ventured out to Whole Foods for snacks. I was able to easily get a taxi home, but every day after that, I couldn’t get a cab to save my life. And because the traffic is intense during SXSW, due to the people and road closures, you’re better off going with a pedicab. These drivers know the city and will get you around easily. You can even call a pedicab with Uber (referral link), but don’t rely on Uber (or any other service) to get a cab or black car. I would also recommend getting an account with Car2Go. I didn’t find out about this service until I got to Austin and it was too late to signup at that point, but it is basically a Zipcar-like service that allows you to rent a car. The great thing about Car2Go is that you don’t have to take the car back to where you picked it up. I signed up for an account this year and plan to use it for Whole Foods runs and to get out of Downtown.
Wear comfortable shoes. Despite the pedicabs and Car2Go, the easiest way to get around downtown Austin, is just to walk. Being from NYC, I have no problem walking everywhere. I actually think I walked more in Austin than I do in NYC. In fact, my Fitbit reports that my most active day was one while I was at SXSW. It’s incredibly walkable, even if you’re going from the convention center to University of Texas at Austin’s campus (where the workshops are). But be sure to wear comfortable shoes and stay hydrated. You will quickly find that it will be hard to find a place to sit down, even at the hotels. When you get to sit down, take advantage of it. Which brings me to my next point…
Get there early. Don’t show up to a session when it starts and expect to get a seat or even into the session. As a WASP, I am perpetually early to everything. (If you’re not early, you’re late.) But even I could not get into some sessions. There were hour-long lines for the more popular sessions. This isn’t the case for all the sessions, some are less popular. But chances are, if you’re really excited about a session, expect there to be a line or limited seating. Keynotes are the exception. There is usually enough space for everyone if you get there on time. But if you want a good seat, get their early. So plan ahead and leave enough time to get from where you are to where you want to go. I ended up having to find a backup sessions to go to quite often.
Plan ahead and make backup plans. When you’re planning your schedule (SXSW has a great app for this), pick a couple for each time slot. Select the one you most want to go to, arrive early and try to get in. If you can’t get it, you’ll want to find another session nearby to go to. There are a lot of amazing sessions, but make sure you have alternatives selected in case you can’t get into one.
ATMs. As is the case whenever and wherever you travel, check to see if your bank has a branch or ATMs in your destination. I use Chase and there are a few Chase ATMs in downtown Austin. There are some things you’ll want cash for, so if your bank doesn’t have a presence in Austin, be sure to either bring enough cash with you or find a free ATM.
Restaurants. Austin has some amazing restaurants. And you’ll likely want to try them all. However, many of these restaurants also host private parties for SXSW. So be sure to check ahead of time. There were a couple times I walked past a restaurant I wanted to go to and figured I would go at another time, only to find when I went back they were closed for a private party. If you see a restaurant you want to go to and it’s open, go. Otherwise you will leave Austin without attending a number of their great restaurants.
Texas BBQ. I’m going to get some flack for this. But I don’t understand the hype around Texas BBQ. Sorry. I just don’t think it is that amazing. I’ve gone to all the big Texas BBQ places in Austin (and Dallas) and I just didn’t love it. Don’t get me wrong, it is good. I just don’t think it is worth all the hype. But, if you’ve never had Texas BBQ, it is definitely worth trying out. But go off the beaten path and try some of the lesser known places. Anything downtown will have a huge line.
Parties. The second best part of SXSW is the parties. Every company wants to entertain you. Some of the parties are limited to VIPs, some have a guest list only and some are open to anyone that wants to go. Do as much research as you can beforehand and figure out where you want to go. But don’t over do it. Ultimately it comes down to what you’re at SXSW for. I come for the sessions, new information and to see what new trends there are in the space. If you come for networking and partying, then you will probably know more about the parties than I. Just don’t sacrifice sessions for parties. Afterall, you didn’t pay $1,095 to go to a party.
Enjoy Austin. Austin is a great city and is quite different than the rest of Texas. They have a lot of great restaurants, bars and nightlife. Take some time to explore the city and enjoy the nightlife. The best night I had was at a divey bar on 6th St. where a cover band was playing 90s alternative music. There was hardly anyone from SXSW there, mainly locals.
SXSW is an amazing experience. There is a lot to learn, great chances to network and is a wonderful opportunity to see a part of the U.S. one may not normally go to. Pace yourself and plan ahead and you’ll have a great time. If you’ve attended SXSW before, what are some of the the tips you’d give first-timers?