How to Attend SXSW on a Budget and Maximize the Badge-Free Experience

Ahh, SXSW. It’s the one festival that I can’t seem to commit to when it comes to purchasing a badge. The festival is a wealth of knowledge, fun, and opportunities so never say never! Maybe one day I’ll rip the Band-Aid off and splurge on a badge, but this was not the year. For those of you who are unfamiliar, SXSW is both a festival and a conference focused on the music, film, and interactive industries. Oh, and it’s in one of my favorite cities: Austin, Texas.

How to Attend SXSW on a Budget

What I’m Wearing: Boohoo duster | Forever 21 jumpsuit (similar)

At SXSW, there’s pretty much something for everyone in the creative (or tech) industries. Across the 10-day span, there are a plethora of events that will make the trip worth your while, including:

  • Checking out performances from musicians
  • Attending workshops to enhance your personal or professional development
  • Networking at mixer events with professionals, content creators, and local residents
  • Attending movie screenings typically followed by a Q&A with the cast & crew

How to Attend SXSW Badge-Free

And that’s just to name a few! It usually falls around the same time as Spring Break, which is perfect if you’re in college. Since I work and live in a different city, I will generally pop in for a few days instead of attending the full event. It all sounds amazing, right? It is! But, it can also get very pricey with badges ranging from $800-1300 on average. The festival portion has wristbands for sale that are significantly cheaper (with limited access), but I noticed after having a music wristband last year that it isn’t totally guaranteed you’ll get in if certain badges have priority and the capacity is full.

Bottom line, it’s a badge or nothing for me. And this year, much like my first year, I chose nothing. I’ll pencil in a badge budget one of these years and come back to tell you all about it! For now, I have some tips to share if you’d like to skip the badge and make the most of SXSW on a budget!


How to Attend SXSW without a Badge

The #1 Tip for Maximizing SXSW Without a Badge

My number one tip to help you maximize your SXSW experience without a badge is to do your research and follow the right accounts! There are so many free (and paid) events around the city that are powered by SXSW, in partnership with them, or totally separate and taking advantage of the added foot traffic in Austin! The question is, how do you find all of the events that don’t require a badge? Below are just a few I recommend:

  • SXSW Live – The official SXSW website has a SXSW Live section that gives you an inside look into some of the panels and performances typically reserved for those with a badge or wristband. Take part in SXSW from the comfort of your own home by checking out the live stream sessions!
  • Eventbrite – This one isn’t just for SXSW, but it’s still worth mentioning! Eventbrite is a site (and an app) that helps you find events in your area. It will give you all the event information and let you purchase a ticket straight from the app. For SXSW, you just have to change your location to Austin, Texas and start browsing!

How to Attend SXSW Badge-Free

  • Do512 – Much like Eventbrite, Do512 is an event-searching website but it’s specifically for events in Austin. During SXSW, Do512 will list events from the festival/conference and indicate whether or not it is free and open to the public. Browsing the schedule directly on the SXSW app can get a bit overwhelming, so I like that Do512 streamlines the information and makes it clear which events don’t require a badge.
  • General AssemblyGeneral Assembly is a company that offers full-time classes, part-time classes, single-day events, and workshops across their U.S. campuses. They partner with SXSW to provide condensed versions of their tech, digital marketing, and design classes for free! I attended a web design class at SXSW this year that was extremely informative and probably ranks as my favorite moment from this year’s conference!
  • Your favorite brands! – SXSW may be in Austin, but make no mistake—it’s wildly popular! Tons of your favorite brands head to SXSW as a sponsor, vendor, or host! Create & Cultivate, Wildfox, and Planoly are just a few of the brands in recent years to host their own fun (and free!) pop-ups. Be sure to follow a few of your favorites on social media and/or join their e-mail list so you can find out if and when they’ll make an appearance!

How to Attend SXSW Badge-Free

Tips for Attending SXSW on a Budget

Before wrapping up this post, we have to talk about the things outside of SXSW events that can add up: hotel and transportation. I travel out of town pretty regularly to attend events and concerts. While most of those are in-state, booking the hotel is always my least favorite part of the trip. Even though I enjoy staying in new hotels and finding cute spots, it’s just an added expense to a trip that I would love to decrease considering most of my time is spent outside of the hotel room. That being said, I have a few simple tips to help you cut down the cost of lodging for your SXSW experience:

  • Hotels and Lodging: The bulk of SXSW events take place in Downtown Austin, which also happens to be one of the more expensive areas when it comes to booking hotels. In general, I’ll only stay in a Downtown Austin hotel for quick weekend trips and not for any high-traffic events. Why? The price surge skyrockets to 2-4x the typical rate. SXSW has the most expensive rates, so you can work around this price increase by venturing further north!Hotels located in North Austin and the neighboring city of Round Rock are reasonably priced during SXSW. Of course, you’ll have to drive around 15-20 minutes to get closer to the SXSW venue, but the daily price for parking is significantly less than the uptick with each hotel stay.
  • Airfare: I live in Texas so flying to Austin isn’t something I have to do, but my tip for those of you out-of-state is to book flights on the cheapest days to fly! On average, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to fly because they are right in the middle of the Monday-Thursday “off-peak” travel timeframe.Of course, you also don’t want to wait until the last minute to book your flight. Start planning in advance and pay attention to any promotional fares that pop-up throughout the year–some may align with the SXSW conference!

How to Attend SXSW without a Badge

  • Transportation: It’s funny, I was just reminiscing with my friend about how transportation around Austin has changed since I lived there. When I lived in Austin around 10 years ago, they were very much the “health-conscious” city you know and love today, but there just weren’t as many transportation options available. Like most students, I didn’t have a car. Instead, we walked, rode bikes, carpooled, or took the bus to get around the city.The primary mode of transportation appeared to be bicycling and that has since been replaced by scooters in 2019. Now you can Uber, Lyft, Ride Austin, drive, walk, scoot, and more! Specifically for SXSW, I recommend driving to an events center parking garage with the lowest rate and leaving your car there for the rest of the day. This year, the Austin Convention Center parking was $20 per day while the Palmer Events Center (where the General Assembly workshops were held) only charged $8 per day. When you need to get around throughout the day and have already parked your car, most venues are in walking distance so use your feet! If they get tired, I’d recommend the scooter (though I haven’t tried it yet) or Ride Austin, the city’s local “Uber” service.

How to Attend SXSW on a Budget

All in all, it is totally possible to check out SXSW without purchasing a badge and booking a hotel in the center of Downtown Austin. Truthfully, I would recommend taking advantage of this “trial-style” approach before committing to a SXSW badge. You can get just enough from the badge-free experience to determine whether or not you want to invest in a badge for a future year! Oh, and don’t forget to pack snacks! Austin has a ton of deliciously healthy spots for food, but you get hungry much faster than you’d think while at SXSW. Packing snacks will hold you over and give you the safety net of having food you enjoy rather than solely relying on the free snacks each panel may or may not offer.


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