A broke girl’s guide to….SXSW

It seems like Spring Break in college consists of one of three things – lavish trips to sparkling beaches in the Caribbean, cuddling up to a warm fire at a ski resort, or working 40+ hours at a minimum wage job because you spent too much money eating out instead of finishing your meal prep. The first two options are expensive, flashy and usually end up spamming your instagram feed; the latter is the direct result of the crushing realization that budgets exist for a reason, and rent is due at the beginning of next month. But what if I told you that you could have the best of both worlds when it comes to planning next year’s Spring Break (cue the Hannah Montana). By volunteering at SXSW in Austin, TX, you can have a fantastic week filled with parties, drinks and concerts while saving money at the same time! It took me a week to recover, but here are some tips on how to finesse your way to a frugal and fun Spring Break at SXSW:

Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer

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If you can afford to drop a few thousand dollars on a badge and accommodations during the week of SXSW, you go girl, and I wish I could be you. However, for those minimum-wage-earning hustlers out there, volunteering is the absolute best way to experience SXSW because it’s completely free! For giving just 48 hours of your time to volunteer on one of SXSW’s many crews, you are able to earn a badge (interactive, film or music) that gets you the same access as everyone who spent the big bucks. And I know what you’re thinking – 48 hours?? But fear not, volunteering is not as bad as you would think. In addition to earning a free badge, each shift comes with a food pass that is valid 4 hours before and 12 hours after your shift. The meals are provided through local Austin favorites, including Burger Bar (yum!), and can be enjoyed on the hour break that you also receive every shift you work. Aside from all of these incredible perks, one of the best things that comes from volunteering is the community of volunteers that you meet along the way. Many volunteers have been doing SXSW for years and have a wealth of knowledge about the ins and outs of free and fun events that you otherwise wouldn’t come across.

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Once you’ve decided to volunteer, there are a few tricks to maximizing your experience at SXSW. At the volunteer call prior to the start of SXSW, make sure to choose a crew (or crews) that align with your interests and skills. The crews that I served were information and lounges, both of which I really enjoyed because they offered the opportunity to work in both the Austin Convention Center (ACC) and the surrounding hotels affiliated with the festival, which offered a lot of different opportunities to meet new people and experience all facets of SXSW. Another suggestion is to group all of your hours at the beginning of the week so you have the rest of the week to relax and enjoy the festivities. Pulling doubles (12 hour shifts) isn’t as bad as it sounds if you’re willing to wake up early. Shift leaders and crew managers are generally very accommodating and don’t mind if you grab some coffee (which you can definitely find for free) on the way to your shift. This year I did 3 double shifts in a row the first weekend of SXSW, and it was definitely worth it when I was done with volunteering on Tuesday afternoon (I may or may not have thrown my volunteering shirt away on the way out the door).

Plan Ahead with Social Media

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The weeks leading up to and during SXSW, social media will be your best friend. Not only do different companies promote their events and parties through social media like Twitter and Facebook, social media is a great way to connect with other attendees to see what events are worth your while in real time. Social media is also crucial when it comes to RSVPing for certain non-SXSW affiliated parties. Companies often offer special links that require you to register for their events. Because of this, I recommend starting to plan early – look on Facebook and star different events as “interested” so that you can get notifications closer to the actual date. As the week of SXSW unfolds, you’ll be able to determine which parties are going to be the most suitable for your interests based on the response from social media, and talking to other people attending the conference. Following different companies on twitter and looking through different SXSW hashtags is another easy way to gain access to events that are not necessarily listed in the SXSW schedule. In the event of last minute changes or emergencies (they’re more common than you would think) social media is a great tool to stay up to date with the latest official statements from various companies and SXSW itself. Twitter especially is a great way to stay informed during such a large festival. There are even companies who specialize in helping you make your SXSW experience as dope as possible. 

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Trade Expo Extravaganza

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The Trade Expo, held in the ACC, is one of the best kept secrets of SXSW and was one of my personal highlights of the week. This unassuming wealth of freebies is a great incentive to spend an afternoon snacking, drinking and exploring through the newest innovations in tech and other industries. Just a few steps into the exhibition hall and you are greeted with what seems like endless rows of booths teeming with opportunities to network (and cop some free merch of course). Organized by category, the booths offer glimpses into the newest technologies, companies and services that are emerging globally. Perusing through all of the tables resulted in a literal backpack full of free goodies, and needless to say my laptop cover has completely run out of space to add more stickers. Accompanying the more common free items like stickers, pins and pens, the Trade Expo had some major giveaways like $25 gift certificates to local coffee shops (which I received for literally waiting 5 minutes in a line to spin a wheel), and entire mini pie from a local travel company, and a whole gift bag of goodies including chocolate, and handmade goods from the Peruvian table. The Trade Expo spans for multiple days over the course of the week and is the best one-stop-shop to collect the best free stuff that SXSW has to offer.

Be Friendly and Ask!

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The best way to find free stuff and opportunities to party at SXSW is to simply be friendly and ask for what you want! There were so many instances during the week that simply asking for a beer or an access code was all it took to get it. People at SXSW, and especially companies, are there for the sole reason of promoting their brand, product, etc. and jump at an opportunity to spend a few minutes explaining their pitch to you in exchange for some free swag. My final piece of advice for navigating SXSW the broke girl way is to always say yes to everything. When people offer you food or drinks? Yes! When people invite you to a party? Yes! And will you be volunteering for SXSW again next year? YES!

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