Floats, costumes, beads, king cake, gumbo, music, parades -- that's New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Last year's party attracted 800,000 people and this year's festivities officially start on January 25, with the height of activity culminating on Fat Tuesday, February 5. Hulk Hogan is named this year's King of Bacchus and Kevin Costner will be Endymion Grand Marshall. Most hotels have a minimum-night stay enforced. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/672-6124; www.neworleanscvb.com) provides a helpful start to your search, with accommodations options broken down by neighborhood. For example, the Best Western St. Christopher (tel. 877/237-8716; www.bestwesternlouisiana.com) in the Central Business district is available at $199 per night (with a three-night minimum) for February 2-4, with complimentary deluxe continental breakfast. Staybridge Suites (tel. 800/238-8000; www.ichotelsgroup.com), on the parade route, has a special rate available for $189 per night (February 1-3, with a three-night minimum), with free wireless access, kitchenettes in the rooms, and free laundry facility -- in case you really make a mess of things.
Elsewhere, in the French Quarter, the Dauphine Orleans (tel. 800/521-7111; www.dauphineorleans.com) is available February 1-5 (four-night minimum) with rates $249-$279 per night and a complimentary continental breakfast, welcome reception and afternoon tea. The St. Ann Marie Antionette Hotel (tel. 800/535-9706; www.frenchquarterhotelsandrestaurants.com/stannmarie/) offers a rate of $195 per night with only a two-night minimum required January 31-February 5. You can receive a free continental breakfast if you stay three nights or more and save an additional 10 percent if you can opt for a full non-refundable payment at the time of booking and you're staying three nights or more.
Additionally, Mardi Gras New Orleans (www.mardigrasneworleans.com) provides information about the history of the event, parade and activity schedules, and links to accommodations packages, along with restaurant and balcony reservations at Michaul's on St. Charles, Cannon's Restaurant and Bourbon Vieux along the parade route, Bourbon Street, and more. Links to places such as Maison Dupuy (tel. 800/535-9177; www.maisondupuy.com) in the French Quarter show availability for a standard king room for $229 for Sunday February 3 through Wednesday February 6.
New Orleans is served by ten airlines, large and small, from Air Tran, Northwest, Southwest, Midwest, and Jet Blue to American, Delta, United, US Airways, and Continental. It is wise to keep checking the web sites for these airlines because fare sales are announced frequently. In the meantime, your best bet might be to try meta search engines like Side Step (www.sidestep.com) or Mobissimo (www.mobissimo.com) or consult with Airfare Watchdog (www.airfarewatchdog.com) for late-breaking fare deals.
Book It (tel. 888/782-9722; www.bookit.com) has a special on a four-diamond hotel priced from $69 -- so hush-hush they're not naming names. But the hotel is located in the French Quarter and the rate is available through September 30. The only blackout periods in the next month are January 11-12, February 15-16. Regularly the rates start at $229. Other properties in New Orleans are offering special rates through Book It, such as the three-star Ambassador Hotel New Orleans in the downtown/arts district, is available from $132 per night during Mardi Gras, a savings of 30 percent when you book three nights or more, for a standard queen room and $139 for a king room. French Quarter Courtyard Hotel is available for $179 per night for Sunday through Tuesday for a standard queen room. The rate also includes free breakfast.
Hotwire (tel. 866/HOTWIRE; www.hotwire.com) is showing availability at a handful of hotels from February 4-6 if you don't mind leaving the hotel identity a mystery until you book. You can, of course, see the general location on a map on Hotwire's site. Prices start as low as $59 if you don't mind staying near the airport, or $113 for what's described as an "upscale hotel" that offers "thoughtful features" and is in downtown or $184.
The Hilton New Orleans Riverside (tel. 800/HILTONS; www.hilton.com) has special Mardi Gras rates available at just $169 per night between February 4-7 and $199 per night for the executive floor. Mardi Gras itself is February 5. You can, however, arrive as early as February 1 and depart as late as February 10; suites are available from $650. The $169 rate is valid for either a room with two double beds or one king bed.
Finally, W New Orleans and W New Orleans French Quarter (tel. 877/W-HOTELS; www.starwoodhotels.com) has a special Louisiana residents can take advantage of that includes two cocktails, Voss water, free parking, and accommodations for two people. The rates start from $299 for the W New Orleans and $399 for the one located in the French Quarter. You must book and stay by February 5.At the W New Orleans, you can "Whisk Away to Mardi Gras," with a package that includes free parking, two cocktails, a signed copy of Arthy Hardy's Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History. Rates start at $359 and are valid for travel January 19 through February 5, with a February 5 booking deadline.
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