Lodging -- During Mardi Gras, accommodations in the city and the nearby suburbs are booked solid, so make your plans well ahead and book a room as early as possible -- a year or more in advance is quite common. Prices are usually much higher during Mardi Gras, and most hotels and guesthouses impose minimum-stay requirements. Some hotels along the parade routes offer packages including bleacher or balcony seats where you can view the action almost hassle-free. They're popular but pricey.
Clothing -- For the parades before Mardi Gras day, dress comfortably and prepare for whatever weather is forecast (which can vary widely). A wig or mask makes it fun, but most don't dress up. Fat Tuesday is a different story. As with anything in New Orleans, you must join in if you want to have the best time. That means a costume and mask, which automatically makes you a participant (and it's more fun). (Tellingly, the Bourbon Street participants usually do not wear costumes. Just skin.) You needn't do anything fancy; scan the thrift stores for something loud and you're good to go. But anything goes, so fly your freak flag if you're so inclined.
If you've come unprepared, there are shops that specialize in Mardi Gras costumes and masks, or try the secondhand stores along Magazine Street and in the Bywater that stock inexpensive costumes from previous years.
Dining -- If you want to eat at a restaurant during Mardi Gras, make reservations as early as possible. And pay attention to parade routes, because if there is one between you and your restaurant, you may not be able to drive or park nearby, or even cross the street, and you can kiss your dinner goodbye. Thus, restaurants often have a high no-show rate during Mardi Gras, so a well-timed drop-in may work to the nonplanner's advantage.
Save the Date -- Mardi Gras falls exactly 47 days before Easter: that's February 21, 2012; February 12, 2013; March 4, 2014; February 17, 2015; and February 9, 2016.
Driving & Parking -- Traffic and navigating during Mardi Gras is horrendous. So our admonition against ever renting a car is even stronger during Mardi Gras. Don't drive. Instead, relax, take a cab, walk, or pedal (and call well in advance for a bike reservation). Parking along parade routes is not allowed 2 hours before and 2 hours after the parade. Parking on the neutral ground (median strip) is illegal (despite what you may see), and chances are good that you'll be towed. Note: Taxis are very busy, and while some streetcars and buses do run during Mardi Gras, they may have radically altered schedules and routes during that time (none run on St. Charles Ave.). Contact the Regional Transit Authority (RTA; tel. 504/248-3900; www.norta.com) for more information.
Facilities -- Restrooms are notoriously scant along the parade routes. Take advantage of the facilities when you come across them, such as at a lunch or bar break. Otherwise it's the ever-popular porta-potty, so bring tissues.
The Day Plan -- It's not necessary to make a plan for the big day, but it might help. It also helps to know that you'll probably adjust the plan, or throw it out altogether, as the day goes on. Go with the flow. Don't get irritated. The fun is everywhere -- but with limited transportation and facilities available (and until you've done it enough to determine a satisfying routine), you'll have to make some choices about what you intend to do. Read the rest of this section, and check the route maps. Then decide if you want to head uptown, downtown, to the Quarter, the Bywater, Claiborne Avenue, or some combination of the above, as your stamina dictates.
Safety -- Many, many cops are out, making the walk from uptown to downtown safer than at other times of year, but not surprisingly, the streets of New Orleans are a haven for pickpockets during Mardi Gras. Take precautions.
Seating -- A limited number of bleachers are erected along the downtown parade route. Most are reserved for private use, but some are sold to the public -- you'll pay dearly for the convenience. Start checking Ticketmaster and www.neworleansparadetickets.com in December. Some enterprising folks buy cheap folding chairs at local drug stores, which typically don't make it home. Many just bring a blanket or tarp (we find that lightweight sarongs fold down well and serve multiple purposes). You might find a spot to use them on the Uptown routes; downtown, you'll probably be standing. The longest parades can last 3-plus hours, so plan in accordance with your staying power.
Kids -- Though it may seem contrarian, you can bring the kids to Mardi Gras if you stick to the Uptown locales (you'll see hundreds of local kids seated atop custom-rigged ladders, the better to catch throws). It's a long day so make sure to bring supplies and diversions for between parades. While there may be some schlepping involved, their delight increases everyone's enjoyment considerably.
What Else to Bring -- The usual dilemma applies: you'll want to stay unencumbered, but well-supplied. Much depends on whether you plan to stay in one place or make tracks. A starter set of beverages and snacks is called for, or a full picnic if you desire (food carts and trucks, and enterprising homeowners-turned-delis are usually available along the routes; many locals set up elaborate barbecue rigs). Toilet tissue and hand sanitizer are good ideas, and don't forget a bag for those beads.
Do Your Homework -- You'll enjoy Mardi Gras more if you've done a little homework before your trip. Contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2020 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130 (tel. 800/672-6124 or 504/566-5011; www.neworleanscvb.com), and ask for current Mardi Gras info.
You'll also want to get your hands on the latest edition of Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide. Order through www.mardigrasguide.com, or pick it up nearly anywhere around town. Schedules and routes occasionally change, and this will have updated information, among much other useful information. Also get their helpful free app, and the real-time parade tracker app from wwl.tv.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.