SXSW: How to Get in Free and More

→ by Nick Douglas < @nick >
at 9:00am Nov 24, 2009

SXSW’s film and music pedigrees (begun as a music festival in 87, later adding film and “interactive” portions) make it the sexiest geek conference of the year. In four months, the entire city of San Francisco will travel to Austin to hang out with their friends from LA, New York, and that world so horribly nicknamed “flyover country.”

If you’ve been to SXSW before, you’re already halfway through planning your trip. If next year will be your first, this will get you up to speed.

(photo by Lan Bui)

1. Get on a panel

Tickets have already gone up in price, but you can still grab a badge for $475. The price rises again in February. But ideally you can get around the ticket cost altogether by landing on someone’s panel. Browse this giant list of panels to find one you might fit on. The moderators’ home pages are conveniently linked from their panel pages.

Now, most moderators will have loads of people trying to get on their panel. The less sexy the panel you qualify for, the better your chances. But you never know which moderator just doesn’t have as many panelists as they need.

You should also find panels where you could be the dissenting voice. SXSW’s organizers have explicitly told panel moderators that they value a variety of voices. Your chances are even better if you’re anything other than a white male from a major city, since moderators try to find some demographic variety too.

Feel free to apply to several moderators, but if more than one accepts you, decide quickly whether you can do both. SXSW doesn’t really love seeing the same people on multiple panels, so there’s no need to over-extend yourself. Just don’t leave any moderators hanging, because they might complain about it online.

(photo by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid)

2. Pick your hotel

A quick note before we go into hotel choice: If you want to make sure you get a good hotel room, you should buy a conference pass now. That will let you access SXSW’s block of discount hotel reservations. If you get on a panel, SXSW will let you transfer your pass to someone else. But if you’re willing to risk it, you can wait until you get on a panel, and SXSW will offer you their reserve block of panelist rooms.

Okay, so which hotels are worth it? Well, if you’re broke, make your own decision based on SXSW’s list of budget hotels. You can get a cab from the hotel each day, and you’ll only need to make morning and evening trips if you travel light. (Hint: Don’t get the heavy goodie bag. It’s mostly ads and useless trinkets anyway.) Most of the action happens near the conference center, but some parties are a short drive away. A room at La Quinta is just $104 per night.

The best cheap option is the free option: stay with friends. Everyone I know who’s done this was satisfied. Just find a host who’s okay if you come home at 3 AM. Or, of course, end up in someone else’s hotel room every night.

But if you’ve got the cash, it’s luxurious to book a hotel right near the conference center, using this map. The ultimate in comfort and convenience is the Hilton Austin right outside the conference center. You’ll spend more time in your elevator than on the walk over. For old-school class, go to the Driskill on Brazos and East 6th. They have the best staff, and usually there’s a party or two each year in their bar.

This year, I’m trying the Hilton Garden Inn by the highway. It’s still very close but it’s a lot cheaper than the other central options. But by all means, avoid the Doubletree along the highway – it’s just close enough to take a long uncomfortable walk to the conference center, without being very cheap.

(photo by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid)

3. Get your flight

Whatever you do, buy your flight soon. I recommend arriving the evening of the 11th and leaving midday on the 17th. That gives you some extra time to get acquainted with the neighborhood and hang out with other early-comers and late-leavers. So keep an eye on plane fare at Kayak using this LAX-AUS search. Set up a daily alert and you might catch a deal. Aim for direct flights, since bad weather in Dallas frequently delays everyone making a connection.

If this guide is helpful, let us know in the comments so we can tell you more about how to rock SXSW.

(top photo by Mike Rohde)

About the Author: Nick Douglas

My book was so bad it destroyed publishing. What have you done?