MARDI GRAS TRAVEL PLANNING
The Why, When, Where, and How of Mardi Gras Travel
In the middle of winter, when cabin fever has taken hold, and we’ve all grown soft with sloth, the idea of getting away for a few days and blowing the dust off our lives by standing in a crowd, yelling and waving for colored trinkets, and generally making a damn fool of ourselves has a certain, “too hell with the work world” appeal to it. And when you realize that it’s possible to take the kids (or not) and indulge your adult curiosity about the culture, cuisine, and history of Mardi Gras, the decision becomes almost too easy.
Wringing the trip for all its worth, and maximizing the fun is a natural tendency for many of us. But it’s not always the best way to enjoy the trip. Because Mardi Gras in any of these eight destinations offers more than enough to keep you busy and entertained without “seeing it all”, I’d encourage you to take the time to do your research beforehand and plan a well-rounded, rather than an all-inclusive, trip.
Naturally, you’ll want to do your part for the “bead economy” by manning the parade routes, but look for some alternate events that get you a bit closer to the action. Look for open balls, costume contests, and other non-marquee events open to the public. Also, put signature local events (like Mardi Gras Indian masking) high on your list. You won’t see them anywhere else, and you’re likely to meet people at these events who will clue you in to other unique local attractions. In short, think about where you’re headed and decide what makes it a unique Mardi Gras destination. Go see, and do, those things.
In the cities that have dedicated Mardi Gras museums, stop there early in your trip to pick up some local lore and bits of local knowledge that you can use to show the locals that you’re in town for more than just a drunken good time. If you show genuine curiosity about them, they’ll repay your interest with even more local knowledge. It’s the gift that keeps giving.
Before you go, make a point of checking Yelp, and other food related websites for information on local eateries. Additionally, take a look at local newspaper discussion forums under the dining and entertainment sections. This is the place where you’ll find locals discussing where to get the best crawfish, jambalaya, po-boys, or the best place to see live local music (and what groups to look for).
The Carnival season runs from January 6th (known in various traditions as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and Theophany) through Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) the day before Ash Wednesday or the start of Lent. Because Easter, and, accordingly, the start of Lent varies a bit each year, there is no set date for Fat Tuesday. But during the time between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday, people celebrate Carnival in a host of ways. Parades, cooking contests, and parties stretch throughout the season. But events become more and more numerous as the season goes on. While the biggest and best parties and parades are in the days just before (and on) Fat Tuesday, if crowds are not your thing, or you want to keep the kids away from the crazy times, it is possible to visit during the early “quiet” times, and still get a feel for the culture, cuisine, history, and fun.
There are eight great cities throughout the United States that do Mardi Gras up big. That said, and before the torrent of hate emails descends, there are hundreds of other communities from Washington state to Florida (or Maine to California) that celebrate Mardi Gras in their own unique and special ways. The eight that we focus on are the ones that are considered to be either the biggest (as defined and generally acknowledged in some specific way), most well known, most “popular”, longest lived, or in some way historically significant. In short, Mardi Gras in these eight cities is something somewhere that you, dear reader, might have heard of, and be interested in seeing.
Here’s What They Each Have To Offer:
1. Galveston, TX - Known for its island style Mardi Gras, sandy beaches, a Mardi Gras Carnival, and an annual world record setting Hokey Pokey dance.
2. Houma, LA - Known for its Mardi Gras on the Bayou, Cajun food, intimate local feel, big crowds, lots of parades, live Cajun Music and dancing
3. Lake Charles, LA - Known for its Mardi Gras costume displays, and excellent Mardi Gras museum, a focal point on the Boudin Trail, located in Southwest Louisiana (SWLA) - considered the heart of Cajun country.
4. Mobile, AL - Known for holding the first “official” Mardi Gras in the U.S., its family-friendly parade watching zones, its fantastic Carnival museum, and for dropping a giant lighted MoonPie off the side of a building.
5. New Orleans, LA - Known for its, crowds, and craziness, Hurricane drinks, The French Quarter, and the Mardi Gras Indians
6. Pensacola, FL - Known for its beachside parades, friendly local atmosphere, and the fun and festive Krewe of Lafitte
7. San Diego, CA - Known for its Gas Lamp Quarter, healthy crowds, crazy antics, costumes, and gaudy displays
8. St. Louis, MO - Known for its Cajun Cook-Off, Soulard Pet Parade, Wiener Dog Derby, lighted Mardi Gras parade, and big friendly midwestern crowds
How To Go To Mardi Gras
Almost all of the major Mardi Gras destinations (with the exception of Houma, Louisiana, and Galveston, Texas) have their own airports. So the best bet for most Mardi Gras trips is to book your airfare directly to that city (New Orleans, Lake Charles, Mobile, Pensacola, New Orleans, San Diego or St. Louis).
Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- The Lake Charles, Louisiana airport is small, so direct flights are pretty rare.
- If you are in the mood for a bayou Mardi Gras, and are headed to Houma, Louisiana, the closest airport is in New Orleans (MSY). Houma is only 45 miles (or an hour drive) from the New Orleans airport.
- If you are in the mood for an island Mardi Gras, one of the Houston airports (IAH, or HOU) is your best bet.
Mardi Gras Airport Codes:
Galveston (fly into Houston), Texas - IAH or HOU
Lake Charles, Louisiana - LCH
Mobile, Alabama - MOB
New Orleans, Louisiana - MSY
Pensacola, Florida - PNS
San Diego, California - SAN
St. Louis, Missouri - STL
There are plenty of lodging choices, in a wide range of price points, at nearly all of the Mardi Gras destinations profiled here at All About Mardi Gras. While you may not be able to get a four-diamond resort accommodation in Houma, LA, you can spend the night in a converted trapper’s cabin in the swamp at Houma's Wildlife Gardens. I assure you that this is something you can’t do in San Diego or St. Louis.
In the big cities that host Mardi Gras celebrations (New Orleans, San Diego, and St. Louis) you may be able to get away with taking a shuttle from the airport to your hotel, and then relying on public transportation and your own two feet from there.
But for all of the other destinations covered here at All About Mardi Gras (and even in most of the big cities), you’ll have more fun, see more, and get where you want to go when you want to be there if you rent your own transportation. You’ll certainly want to drive to, from, and around in the bayou destinations of Houma and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and on Galveston island.
WARNING: For your safety and the safety of others, All About Mardi Gras pleads with you not to drink and drive ever, under any circumstances. It’s illegal, unnecessary, unsafe, foolish, and is guaranteed to ruin your vacation.
Sources (and External Links)
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research which led us to the following sources of information: