Widely celebrated for its extraordinary music, eclectic cuisine, and festive spectacles, New Orleans  is perhaps best known for Mardi Gras – a hedonistic, multi-week bash that precedes the Catholic season of Lent and has long been one of the city's most anticipated annual events. For several weeks each year, revelers celebrate the joyous Carnival season with neighborhood parties, decadent balls, and boisterous parades, featuring elaborate floats, marching bands, motorcycle squads, costumed dancers, and oodles of colorful trinkets. Even with this popular holiday quickly approaching, though, it's not too late to plan a trip to the Big Easy for Mardi Gras celebrations held during this month and in February.
For those hoping to experience this year's Mardi Gras madness, here are several tips that might help you maximize your time during the Big Easy's Carnival season:
1. Know Your Timing – Although the Carnival season actually starts on January 6 (Epiphany) and usually ends in February or March, most travelers come to experience Mardi Gras weekend, which extends from the Friday before Fat Tuesday through midnight on Fat Tuesday itself, the day before Lent officially begins. Always dependent on Easter Sunday, the actual date of Mardi Gras fluctuates every year; this year, it will fall on Tuesday, February 12.
2. Fly Direct – While southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast boast several regional airports, you'll likely still save more time and money by flying directly into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport  and taking a $35 cab ride into the city.
3. Choose Smart Accommodations – Although it's definitely possible to find cheaper hotels in suburbs like Metairie or Kenner, doing so might require renting a pricey car and enduring long commutes to reach the city's main festivities. Traffic can be a nightmare during Mardi Gras, so you'll surely save some time and spare yourself any unnecessary stress by staying in a more conveniently located neighborhood, such as the Central Business District (CBD), and relying on inexpensive buses and streetcars to get around.
4. Consider Unique Places to Stay – For intimate bed-and-breakfasts throughout New Orleans, consult organizations like the Professional Innkeepers Association of New Orleans , the Louisiana Bed and Breakfast Association , New Orleans Bed & Breakfast and French Quarter Accommodations , and the Inn The Quarter Reservation Service . For additional possibilities, such as homestays, couch surfing, and vacation rentals, check less official websites like Craigslist , Vacation Rentals by Owner , and HomeAway . During the Mardi Gras season and at other peak travel times, many residents rent out slave quarters or extra rooms; you can find good deals this way, though you should be aware of unscrupulous landlords.
5. Save Money on Hotels and Airfare – As with any ultra-popular event, you should book your hotel rooms, flights, and, if necessary, rental cars as early as possible. To save some money and time, consider using major websites like Priceline.com , which actually offers package deals specifically designed for Mardi Gras. In addition, you can save money by staying outside the French Quarter, such as in the nearby Faubourg Marigny.
6. Research Information About Mardi Gras – Not surprisingly, lodging rates are higher during Mardi Gras than at most other times, save for perhaps Jazz Fest. While websites like FrenchQuarter.com  offer a lot of information regarding hotels, restaurants, shops, and the like (and occasionally feature deals), discounts aren't easy to come by during Mardi Gras; most places, after all, don't need to advertise for customers. For information about Mardi Gras itself, including parade routes, consult websites like Nola.com , www.mardigras.com , www.mardigrasday.com , and www.mardigrasneworleans.com . Also, WWOZ 90.7 FM  offers insider information about scheduled second lines and Mardi Gras Indian events.
7. Use Social Networks – When planning a trip to New Orleans during the peak travel season, it might help to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking websites for last-minute hotel deals, ride-sharing possibilities, and other ways to save time and money during Mardi Gras. Besides sending out alerts to friends and followers, you can check out the status updates or, in many cases, even send direct messages to organizations like the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau , which routinely posts helpful information about upcoming events.
8. Strategize During Peak Travel Weeks – During Mardi Gras's peak travel weeks, you should be prepared for intense crowds, particularly along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. To experience Bourbon's “party end,” between Canal and St. Ann Streets, in a safe manner, arrange a meeting place with your companions and keep an eye on your wallets and/or purses at all times; getting separated and being the victim of pickpockets can happen often in such crowded situations. Then, after your “Bourbon Street Crawl,” you can return to your hotel (or head to the next bar) via less crowded routes, such as Royal Street.
If planning to see a parade, you should arrive at the parade route as early as possible and bring along your own snacks, beverages, and lawn chairs. It's also advisable to choose a spot close to a public restroom, in case there are no Porta-potties available. Plenty of bars and restaurants have reliable facilities, which parade-goers are normally welcome to use after making a small purchase. Since several places are open 24 hours daily, there's no excuse for public urination, which can result in a ticket or an arrest. Also, given the popularity of Mardi Gras season, it's a good idea to make restaurant reservations whenever possible – or opt to dine at odd meal times.
9. Don't Miss the Parades – During the Carnival season, you'll encounter dozens of parades in Uptown, the CBD, Mid-City, and suburbs like Metairie. On Mardi Gras weekend, though, you should plan to see the five major krewes: Endymion  on Saturday, Bacchus  on Sunday, Orpheus  on Monday (Lundi Gras), and, on Fat Tuesday, both Zulu  and Rex .
10. Learn About Mardi Gras History – While in town, stop by Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World , which offers a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the art of designing and constructing vibrant floats and sculptures for the Carnival season. Additionally, if you're curious about the legendary Mardi Gras Indians – who usually emerge in their one-of-a-kind, kaleidoscopic headdresses on Mardi Gras Day – you might appreciate the Backstreet Cultural Museum , which features the world's most comprehensive collection of costumes, films, and photographs from jazz funerals, pleasure clubs, and Carnival-related groups, such as the Indians, the Baby Dolls, and the Skull and Bone Gang.
For more information about the Crescent City, pick up a copy of my Moon New Orleans  guide, or check out my related author Q&A's: one about exploring New Orleans  and the other about discovering authentic New Orleans . Then, come on down and laissez les bons temps rouler!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below, contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com, or connect with me on Facebook  and Twitter .
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Mardi Gras Day on Bourbon Street courtesy of Daniel Martone / Text © 2013 Laura Martone