Girls’ Guide to New Orleans Jazz Fest

Eclectic music and iconic food make this New Orleans festival one of the South’s best parties. Our tips make it even better.
Amy Bickers

I might be biased—I’m a Louisiana-born girl who adores spicy chicken-and-sausage gumbo, drive-through daiquiris, and people who spell the word “go” G-E-A-U-X—but for my money, there is no better bargain and no bigger party than the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 23-25 and April 29-May 2, 2010).

For less than the cost of an average concert ticket ($45 if purchased in advance, $60 at the gate), you see multiple big-name national acts plus local legends. This year’s lineup includes Pearl Jam, Aretha Franklin—hopefully in one of her trademark enormous hats—Van Morrison, Simon & Garfunkel, and Widespread Panic, as well as New Orleans icons Kermit Ruffins and Allen Toussaint. You also eat, hands down, the best festival food in the country for less than $10 a plate. Étouffée, crawfish bread, hot sausage po’boys, boudin, crabmeat-stuffed shrimp. Don’t worry, you’ll work it off as you dance your way around the festival site on the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course.

So dress comfortably, and follow a few of my other tips for a successful day.

How to get there (and back): If you stay in or near the French Quarter, take a taxi—but be ready to pay cash. United Cab Co. only accepts credit cards for a $10 minimum (and you must specify when you call that you want a driver who takes credit).

When you get ready to go home at the end of the day, bypass the long taxi line and catch the bus. (Visit norta.com for details.) It’s cheaper (less than $2). Plus, you’ll be surrounded by festivalgoers still jazzed about the great music and food, so conversation is always interesting.

What to wear: Choose comfortable shoes and clothing you don’t mind getting wet and dirty in case of rain. I always wear a sleeveless shirt to avoid the dreaded farmer’s tan and apply sunscreen throughout the day. Some female visitors are so serious about tan lines that they wear their bathing suits. While I admire their confidence, I am not one of these women, and I don’t want you to be one either. Also, don’t forget sunglasses.

What to carry: Take only the essentials—sunscreen, photo ID, cash, tickets, camera, and a cell phone—in a small, over-the-shoulder travel pouch. Do not get talked into carrying the belongings of your husband/boyfriend/male friends in your everyday purse. If you do this, your back will be singing the blues by day’s end. Bring along a credit card if you want to visit the book tent—and if you’re a book lover, you should. They’ll hold your purchases until you leave at the end of the day. And consider carrying a tiny container of antibacterial hand sanitizer and a small pack of tissues. You never know when the portable toilets will be out of paper.

Plan which acts to see: Get a map as you go in and mark all the acts you want to see and the stage they’ll be on. Some of your favorite acts might overlap—but, if you’re up for it, you can catch the first half of one and then run across the festival grounds for the last half of another. Friend and colleague Erin Shaw Street and I ran from Kings of Leon to Bon Jovi last year, even stopping midway for a photo op with a gentleman in a blue-and-purple suit and hat carrying large feathered fans. (Never pass up a photo op; you can later post all those fun pics on Facebook.)

Don’t get lost: If you plan to stay in one area most of the day with a large group of folks, you might want to bring a flag to fly as a landmark. Do not fly an LSU flag. No one will find you among the sea of other LSU flags. You can raise the flag above the crowd using a collapsible fishing rod or a pole fashioned out of PVC pipe. Personally, I think flying a flag is too much trouble because you can’t hammer the pole into the ground. Some festivalgoers try attaching the pole to a chair, but that means someone has to sit in the chair all day to keep the flag stable. I just take note of nearby flags, pick one to stand near, and use my cell phone to call my friends and tell them where I am. I also believe strongly in the buddy system. Traveling in packs isn’t just for teenage girls anymore.