A Cheap Foodie's Guide to SXSW - SXSW 2020 Free Stuff!

It's February, and we all know what that means... brace yourselves, SXSW is coming!

For those who are new to the area or have no idea what I'm talking about, SXSW, or South by Southwest, is our biggest festival of the year in Austin, Texas. The festival and conference lasts about two weeks in mid-March. During this time, Austin is overrun with tourists, brands, and most of all PARTIES.

I've lived in Austin for six years, and have attended SXSW in some capacity nearly every year. From working for a brand, to having a full badge, to getting a press pass, and NEVER having much of a budget, I've gotten the full experience. And mostly, it's been a free SXSW experience.

Read on for my suggestions on how to have the best SXSW experience on a budget! Or even FREE!

Pick Your Experience
There are four tracks to SXSW: Education, Interactive, Film, and Music. The majority of the first two are filled with teachers or business people who were sent by their employers, and the other two are filled with people looking to see the best new films or their favorite up-and-coming recording artist.

You can purchase and individual badge, or a platinum that gives you access to everything. What not everyone realizes is that ANY badge will give you secondary access to any of the branded events. So, for example if I have a Music Badge I get first priority for Music events, but I can still get into any Interactive or Film event before it's opened to the general public. Considering the steep cost of the badges, pick the track you're most interested in and don't get Platinum if you're paying your own way.

My REAL tip? DON'T buy ANY badge. There is plenty to do without needing to drop over $1000 on a badge alone (after all, flights to Austin nearly triple during March). Read on for my tips on what you can do for FREE!

Know What's Free
There is more than enough to do during the festival that doesn't require a badge, but each track seems to have its own benefits for what is free. Here's what I've found to be true of the free SXSW experience:

Innovation: Brands take over the city and provide free swag, food, and open bars to those partying during the festival. There's also often tons of local music playing. You can literally keep your food and drink budget to pennies a day if you know how to sniff out the brand parties!

Music and Film: The freebies during these tracks will mostly be free shows and screenings. Most of Austin takes advantage of the influx of people to showcase local music in smaller venues across town. Occasionally you can find free swag or food/drinks, but for the most part the show IS the prize, and the venues want to charge for what they can.

Education: Nothing, really. Sorry. This track seems to be purely business, and since it's the first track in the festival, things haven't really started up yet. There might be included parties, but not much outside the actual festival.

Sometimes you run into your favorite YouTube celebrities!

But how do you FIND the free stuff? People often underestimate how truly overwhelming SXSW can be. Make sure you've downloaded the following apps to make your way around and hit up all the free spaces.

  • The SXSW App: Even if you don't have a badge, you can use the app to sign up for official events that are badgeless. The app lets you build your schedule and reminds you when events are coming up.
  • Do512: If you're not from around here, you may not know about Do512. Basically, it's our go-to resource for all events! Simply download the app, create an account, search "Free SXSW" and RSVP for any events that look interesting.
  • RSVPster https://rsvpster.com/ For a small fee, you can get RSVP'd to all free events and unofficial SXSW parties via this service.
  • Twitter: Follow the following hashtags:  #sxlines #sxdrinks #sxnoms #sxfree #sxswag. This is the BEST way, throughout the fest, to see where the free food, drinks, and swag are, but also where the lines are shortest! Posters will also often tag if a badge is required.

Other Tips and Tricks

Stay Near the Action - As much as you can afford, anyway. Austin's public transport is nowhere near sustainable for us on a normal day, so you'll be relying on peak-pricing Ubers and Lyfts if you don't choose a spot within walking distance. And if you need to stay outside of downtown, factor in time for traffic. Again, it's bad on a normal day, during our biggest event it'll be even worse.

Don't Just Visit on the Weekend - Weekdays are your best bet for the shortest lines and best experience. On the weekend, the crowd doubles with working locals who want to get in on the fun. If you're local, try to take at least a day off to get the full experience before the lines get insane.

Pace Yourself - It's a large festival that spans the entire city, and Austin can get HOT in the Spring. Even outside of downtown, the rest of Austin wants to enjoy the influx of tourists, or the influx of locals wanting to get out of downtown. Especially if you're hopping from free event to free event, you may be covering ten city blocks between each spot. Wear comfortable shoes, bring a backpack for freebies, and try to plot out your schedule so that you don't have to rush long distances in a short timeframe. Oh, and water is your friend. Luckily, if you've forgotten one, it's a popular swag item you can snag pretty easily.

Have a Back Up Plan - Even with a badge, popular events fill up quickly. I once got in line for an Assscat show two hours ahead of time and still didn't get in. SXSW isn't really about just seeing your favorite bands, films, etc. It's about discovering new things. Do your research and have a backup plan in case your favorite event fills up before you get there.

Create a dummy email - Most free things require you selling your soul--err, I mean your email address--as an entry fee. If you don't want to be flooded with marketing emails after the festival, create a specific email just for the event RSVPs. You'll thank me later.

Take Time to Explore - Austin is so much more than just downtown. If you can, take time to get outside of the tall buildings and see the rest of the city! Check out the breweries on Metric, take a Fredericksburg wine tour, jump in Barton Springs or Deep Eddy, explore the Cathedral of Junk, or rent a car and try the world-famous Salt Lick in Dripping Springs!