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SXSW basics: things to know before you go

Leave the drone, take the sunscreen

SXSW 2016 party
Getty Images for Samsung

[This article was originally published in March 2017 and has been updated.]

So you’re headed to SXSW for the first time this year. You’re probably pumped. And you should be. Just know that the festival can be daunting; even seasoned vets can, and do, get overwhelmed from time to time. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Here are some tips for navigating what is now officially called SXSW Conference and Festivals. (It’s also a constant that the festival is always changing, so it wouldn’t hurt you vets to take a glance at what’s new.)

Getting out of the airport

Uber and Lyft have graced Austin’s with the return of their presence, but there are plenty of other transportation options from the airport if they don’t suit your fancy. (And even more once you get to the conference and festivals area, which we’ve thoughtfully laid out for you here.)

As for transportation from the airport itself, there are several options.

Public transportation. Austin’s sole commuter train does not travel to the airport, but there are Capital Metro buses 100—Airport Flyer connecting the airport and downtown, and the 350—Airport Boulevard connects the airport and North Austin.

Chartered vans and buses. Super Shuttle service from the airport to your destination offers both your standard-issue group shuttle and chartered black car and SUV services. You can book a private charter for more than 14 people through Chariot.

Taxis are available at your standard-issue airport taxi stand, located between the airport and the parking garage on the lower level.

Ride-hailing. Lyft is an official SXSW partner; you can get $5 off your first Lyft ride with code SXRIDE18. There’s also local nonprofit Ride|Austin, which collects donations to support other nonprofits in town, and Wingz, which specializes in airport transportation and can be scheduled in advance. Or, you know, Uber.

Car rental. Austin has the usual car-rental chains available at the airport, but travelers can get a discount from Enterprise during SXSW by booking online or by phone (800-261-7331) with rental code L65SXSW (PIN: SXS).

Fun trivia: If you’re a fan of Friday Night Lights, be sure to tip your hat to The Landing Strip, favored strip-club setting of that television series as well as many films. It’s just outside the airport on the way into town.

Tip: Unless you are staying at a downtown hotel with parking or have some other lucky access to a convenient, private place to stow it, don’t drive a car to the conference/festival areas. There are so many better options.

Hanging at the airport: Austin’s airport is a pretty fine place to be if one must be in an airport. Check out the Curbed Austin guide here.

Conferences, festivals, parties, day parties, free parties, oh my

SXSW Conference and Festivals, often referred to as “official” SXSW events, are just the start of the party. There are also private parties, “unofficial” (usually live-music) events and parties—some still call them “day parties”—and miscellaneous “activations” (promotional parties).

The distinction is, rightfully, lost on most locals and those attending the fest without credentials, but there are a couple of things to remember about it:

• You will need a SXSW badge, guest pass, or wristband to get into many official conference and festival doings, although SXSW offers some free events, for which you will need to get a Guest Pass.

• SXSW credentials have also changed and every year seem to offer more opportunities for access across interactive, film, music, gaming, sports, food, social good, and other official events. You can see what your badge or wristband gets you here.

• SXSW credential-holders can jump the lines at movie screenings and music performances with free SXXpress passes—for which you will need to register and pick up on a daily basis.

Tip: If you don’t have credentials, you can buy individual tickets for most film screenings and music performances. While you will almost certainly not get into the biggest, most popular ones, you still have a pretty good chance of seeing many films (especially after their first screenings) and hearing music in smaller clubs by less hyped bands.

• Many unofficial parties, especially those thrown by companies, labels, etc., require an RSVP. RSVPster is probably the best place to figure out which ones those are.

• Some parties are invitation-only (and usually also require an RSVP), but registrants automatically get invitations to many of these.

• “Day parties” are indeed usually daytime events (again, mostly musical, even if they are promoting something else), mostly free, that take place at art galleries, hotels, retail outlets, parking lots, parks, bars, restaurants, or anywhere else someone could get a permit.

There’s no official guide to these unofficial events, but this year some masochistic compulsive created an unofficial guide to them, which you can find at UnofficialSXGuide. It has a list of all the parties and events permitted by the city as well as links to RSVP to the ones that require them. See also: Twitter accounts and hashtags to follow, below.

Leave the drone; take the sunscreen

Austin weather in March is unpredictable. SXSW has seen freezing Arctic blasts, monsoon-like rains, and plenty of bright, hot, humid stretches. Pack for those possibilities (layering options are always good). A rain jacket and shoes that can handle some water are also good ideas.

Aside from the obvious travel/work items (IDs, electronic devices), here are some less obvious things you’ll want to remember (or buy when you get here): extended battery pack and charging cords for all your devices; a backpack or bag with lots of empty space for all the swag you’ll get; shoes (or boots, heh) made for walking; a sturdy, reusable water bottle; sunglasses; sunscreen; earplugs; possibly a sun hat, earplugs; business cards; Emergen-C or your electrolyte-restoration vehicle of choice; and probably some sort of OTC pain relief meds. Did we mention earplugs?

Every year, it breaks our hearts to see pasty visitors happily enjoying the sun, oblivious to the fact that it is turning them lobster red before our eyes. If we haven’t made it obvious enough, it is really easy to get sunburned and dehydrated when walking around for hours in Austin in March. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Stay hydrated (16 oz or so of water an hour seems to be a good formula for doing that without overdoing it and having to spend all your time in line for the bathroom) and protect yourself from the sun at all times.

Drones and weapons are prohibited at all SXSW events, so leave yours at home.

Make a schedule, but don’t feel beholden to it

It’s good to plan (SXSW has an app for official stuff)—definitely make a calendar for your can’t-miss choices—but some of the best times to be had at SXSW come from popping in to see an act you’ve never heard of, a random film, an event or panel outside your usual bailiwick (say food, or social good, or gaming). Wandering into a museum, art gallery, store, restaurant, or food truck court you’ve never heard of can also be rewarding.

Tip: Your schedule should not require you to rush from place to place, so pay attention. Crowds tend to line up early and stay in one place once they’ve gotten to their destination. You should do the same.

Moonlight Towers

They’re a thing (as well as band and a comedy festival). Austin is the only city that has them. They’re pretty nifty. You’re likely to see a few of them around town. Don’t attempt to climb them, no matter how many times you’ve seen Dazed and Confused.

Where to eat

Eater Austin has you covered in every possible way, from the best places to eat and drink in the city to SXSWBites— foodie events, panels, and films—and its own weekend event while five of Texas’ best restaurants will be serving food and drink at the Belmont (reservation—linked above—required).

Follow them!

@sxsw, @FreeAtSXSW, @SXSWPartyList, @Do512, @SXSWParty, @sxswp, @SXSWGaming, @OpenBarATX, @TheFreeNoms, @360SXSW, @ChronSXSW, @SXSpotify, @RSVPster, @sxsweco, @thefader, @austin360, @WhoaCo, @coolinaustin, @SPINsxsw, @Hugh_W_Forrest, @hypem, @jneece, @JanetPierson, @sxswtweet

#SXSW, #SXLines, #SXSWTips

(Fun tip: @SXSWPartyzzzzz is a pretty hilarious parody account.)

Welcome to the funhouse

Austin is usually nothing like it is during SXSW. The club in which you see an indie band might normally be a metal bar (or an empty warehouse, or a church). The magical party you attend might usually be a parking lot. You get the idea.

When SXSW is in full force, approximately 200,000 people are added to the city’s population, and for a week the city exists pretty much to provide those people with as much fun and information as it can cram in.

Don’t get us wrong; there’s still creative work to be enjoyed year round, and almost as much traffic. If you like the place, come back and visit us another time of year, too. You’ll be able to get into almost everything (except Franklin Barbecue), usually without a line.