Don’t wait until January to start planning your trip
Yes, we touched on this in the tip above, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Waiting to make reservations usually isn’t a good idea if you have definitely decided to enjoy Mardi Gras in Houston. You might get lucky, but there is no guarantee. If you like to gamble and don’t want to reserve the minimum night stay required at most hotels, then you can wait and see if those hotels will relax their minimum night stay requirements if they have rooms that need to be filled. But there is no guarantee this will happen. You definitely don’t want to come to New Orleans looking for a room.
Know the new parade rules
Plan Your Transportation
If you are driving in for the day from a suburban hotel, remember that the French Quarter during Mardi Gras weekend is closed to vehicular traffic. Only French Quarter residents and hotel guests with special parking passes can get by the police barricades. Off-site commercial parking lots are expensive and fill up fast, so get there early! Make sure you know how far away your hotel will be, and remember: taxicabs are more difficult to find at this time of year.
It is a good idea to get a map of the city and study the areas you’ll be visiting. New Orleans is a “checkerboard city” – safe neighborhoods can be within blocks of unsafe areas. Your hotel concierge or front desk can help you with route times, traffic and parking.
If you stay in an outlying hotel, don’t depend on them to supply you with transportation to the French Quarter or the parade routes. Although some have shuttles to New Orleans, they are often not in use during Mardi Gras season. Traffic during Carnival is unbelievably congested, and standard routes are often barricaded to redirect the traffic flow.
Even public transportation can be difficult – bus and streetcar routes/schedules often change during Carnival season, so plan ahead and make sure you know when and how to get there and back.
If you want to save yourself some walking, bring a bicycle. Bicycles provide a great means of transportation in areas where cars are not allowed or where parking is too difficult. Just be sure to be cautious when you get into the big crowds, and bring a chain to lock up your bike when you’re not using it.
Do not double-park or park in driveways, on neutral grounds (medians), in front of water hydrants, within 15 feet of curb corners, too far from the curb, or on the parade route within three hours of a parade. Your car will get towed away and/or you’ll receive a fine of Biblical proportions.
Get there early
Parade routes can look empty, but the crowd size can swell fast within an hour or two of the parade, making that front-row spot four or five people deep. For the biggest parades rolling in the evenings on the weekend before Mardi Gras, plan to get there about four hours ahead of time to get yourself a great spot.
For the Sunday night Bacchus Parade, we’re at our spot (drum roll here) at 6:00 a.m. You can find us on St. Charles Avenue near Napoleon Avenue, near the beginning of the parade. We sit wrapped up in a blanket, and enjoy people-watching. That Sunday, several afternoon parades also roll by as the crowds swell for one of the biggest parades of the season – Bacchus. I save the spot until my family shows up, so they can make another area parade taking place in Mid-City. All of this for a parade scheduled to roll at 6:00 p.m.
Don’t be late
If you get there too late, do not move unoccupied chairs or ladders along the parade route to claim a good spot; it isn’t an open space just because you can’t see anybody there. Families tend to congregate at the same place year after year, save their spots, and get to know their parade route neighbors pretty well. Somebody is watching that spot. If you move their chair or ladder, it won’t go unnoticed. Don’t worry, once the parade starts, there’s always a place for everyone.
Respect the police
These guys are overworked during Carnival. They are the world’s best at crowd control, and during Mardi Gras they have to be tolerant of usually-unacceptable behavior. Long shifts, parade duty, drunks, traffic accidents, lost kids, fights, rowdy crowds, nuisance complaints and a myriad of other incidents keep them busy 24 hours a day. If an officer tells you to do something, cooperate.
It’s okay to consume beer openly on the streets as long as it’s in a can or cup, but you can’t drink from glass or bottles. However, there is a drinking age and it is enforced.
Don’t be sassy or contrary. The police on duty have an efficient system for arresting, booking and carting people off to Central Lockup. It keeps them available for street duty, and it keeps the troublemakers out of the way.
Don’t get overly drunk, be obnoxious or behave irrationally in public; it is not amusing to police, and is a very easy way to get arrested. If anyone told you that’s what Mardi Gras is about, they were wrong and they missed out!
Dress in costume
It’s the one season of the year when you can dress up as anything imaginable. There are contests for costumes in every part of the city, and the crowd-watching is as much fun as the parades. Bring an inexpensive camera, one you won’t fuss over or need to protect.
Check the weather forecast
It can be very warm, or it can be very cold. Whether or not you decide to wear a costume, you will be outdoors so plan accordingly. Wear comfortable shoes, sunscreen and layered clothing.
Catch Mardi Gras throws
Enjoy jumping up to catch beads, doubloons, cups, stuffed animals, etc! Yell, “Throw me something, Mister!” at the float riders. Bring a large, sturdy plastic or cloth bag to hold all the treasure you’ll be catching. If you try to put all of your beads around your neck, you’ll have a hard time standing up straight. Be prepared: some people get so overcome with excitement they will occasionally jump in front of you to grab what a rider has thrown to you. Don’t get into a tug-o-war; there are many more floats on the way. Some visitors from far away hold up a sign saying where they are from: our local riders love to see that people from out of town having a good time, and will throw to them to make sure they do.
Don’t reach down to pick up beads, doubloons, etc.
Don’t reach down to pick up beads, doubloons, etc. unless you are very careful. We guarantee your fingers will never be the same. Put your foot on it, and when it’s safe (between floats), you can bend down to pick it up. Everyone who grew up in this area knows how dangerous it can be. Kids just have to have those throws and they’re not thinking about the next float.
Do NOT run into the street
Do not run into the street between floats for a trinket. Floats cannot stop on a dime, and accidents have occurred. Wanna get chased by a cop? Just jump over a barricade, get in a band’s way (or start marching with it), aggravate anyone in the marching units, or hang on a float. You are sure to be arrested.
Be careful near the floats
You may decide to put your child on your shoulders so they can catch special throws from the costumed riders, but be careful. The crowds can swell forward suddenly and unexpectedly, making it easy to get knocked over. Make sure your children do not get too close to the floats when reaching for throws.
Bring the family
The city and suburban parades are for families, too (excluding the French Quarter). You can bring blankets and picnic baskets, and get there early to enjoy the day. As parade time nears, the crowd will gather everywhere, and you’ll have to put up the blanket and ice chest. Don’t be surprised if someone jumps on your stuff to reach a pair of beads.
Plan your meals ahead
Restaurants on the parade route are usually full on the nights of the most popular parades and on Mardi Gras day, so make your plans early with those that accept reservations. If they don’t accept reservations, plan to wait a while to get a table, purchase food from a street vendor, or pack your own snacks and sandwiches. It will be a long day, so plan ahead. Also, bring wet wipes or tissues with you to clean up before and after eating. Your hands will get very dirty, and it won’t be easy to find a sink and soap. Public bathrooms are available, but they are crowded and not usually very clean.
Practice ladder safety
Ladders are a popular way for parents to ensure their kids a good view. Many people have built seats on the top of their ladders so their children can enjoy the parade. If you bring a ladder, it has to be at least six feet from the curb in the event that the ladder is knocked over.
Have a meeting place
Mardi Gras is huge. Thousands of people are on the street, and it is very easy to get separated. Make sure everyone knows where to meet in case anyone gets lost. Give your children notecards with your name, address, hotel phone numbers and a pre-arranged meeting place on them just in case. Instruct your children to go a police officer if they become lost. Don’t rely on mobile devices since service is not always guaranteed in large crowds; plus, phones die.
If you visit the Houston at night during Mardi Gras, hide your wallets well. Even your front pocket isn’t safe. Wear shoes that can get dirty. Don’t wear expensive jewelry, and don’t carry a purse. Make sure you get a bathroom pass or wear your wristband if you’re staying in a Homestead hotel.
With the rise of iPhones and other valuable smartphones, it’s important to be aware of theft. Phones are easily stolen from unsuspecting parade-goers while they walk and text. Keep your phone tucked away when possible.
Watch the parades
The best part of the celebration takes place on the parade route, where you can watch the crowds and the floats pass by. You can also enjoy special packages put together by businesses along the parade route that offer food and a front-row spot for the passing parade.
No risqué behavior elsewhere
The police will politely remind them that they are in a family area, and if they don’t stop, they can be arrested. You should also be careful: it is distracting to kids and some adults. We know a man very well who was hit in the head by a float when he stopped to take a picture of something he probably shouldn’t have!