How to do SXSW for free

Ultimate SXSW Guide + How to do it for Free in 2020

This article has links to products and services we love, which we may make commission from.

SXSW is an incredible ten-day programme of film, music and interactive shows which takes place every March in sunny Austin, Texas. The conference is attended by media and tech businesses, artists and party-goers who are looking to discover new talent, often for free.

We (Gemma and Craig) have attended three South by South West festivals (2015, 2016, 2019) and even got hitched at Lou Neff Point straight after it in 2016. Craig ditched me and went solo in 2018.

In 2019, we opted for premium badges so we can now compare how to do SXSW for free against doing it like the industry types. Here’s your ultimate guide to SXSW with tips on bagging gratis food, booze, entry to SXSW free parties. As always, we discuss how much South by costs, what to pack and tips on how to get the best out of the fest.

What is SXSW?

SXSW or South by Southwest is an annual multi-media festival and conference which takes place every March in Austin, Texas for just under two weeks. The 10-day event is split into three sections, interactive, film and music.

You can expect the following:

  • International movies playing in a variety of cinemas.
  • Panel members speaking at the Austin Convention Center.
  • Startups showing off their new products at the SX Trade Show.
  • Bands performing in hotels, churches, clubs and even vans.

What makes SXSW special is that the festival takes over the whole city. No space is safe. Many locals actually escape the city.

Band in Van East 6th Austin Texas SXSW
Participants can either pay for a badge, wristband, or, with a bit of effort, see gigs and events for free.

You can purchase badges for each theme or go platinum for primary access to all three. If you choose just the interactive or film or music badge you gain secondary priority access to the other two.

When is South by Southwest 2020?

Although the festival is still currently taking over the city of Austin, the 2020 dates and early bird passes have been announced. The show kicks off on March 9th and runs on until 22nd.

EDU takes place 9th-12th, then Interactive portion takes over on the 13th until the 21st. Film overlaps on the 13th-21st. Finally, music will fill the streets officially from the 16th-22nd.

Purchase your early bird South by Southwest 2020 tickets here.

When was South by Southwest 2019?

SXSW events ran from March 4th until March 17th 2019. SXSW Edu kicked off the show on the 4th-7th, SXSW Interactive started on 8th-15th, SXSW Film ran from 8th-16th and SXSW Music, the last portion of the fortnight, ran from 12th-17th.

How to do SXSW for free Austin

South by Southwest Line Up 2020

You might be surprised to hear this but the lineup for SX isn’t fully announced until the weekend before it starts.

The first wave of acts/panelists are announced from August/September but it is pretty much a guessing game until March and even then some artists have to pull out because of funding. We’ll explain how to create your own SX itinerary below.

Although Austin is the live music capital of the world, it’s not just about the music. Sessions include the topics of gender, health, business, marketing, self-help, etc. Sessions mainly take place in the Austin Convention Center.

Previous artists and speakers have included big names like Chvrches (2019) and CEO of Tesler/SpaceX (2018). However, SXSW is not about the known, it’s about the discovery of new talent from every genre.

SXSW 2019 Highlights

Here are some of our top music acts/events from 2019. We were lucky enough to see some gigs twice.

  • Jonathan Bree – eery band think The Village/Handmaid’s Tale with an awesome sound (saw twice).
  • The Ninth Wave – Scottish band, Depeche Mode vibe played the British Music Embassy.
  • Nordista Freeze – wow, energy from Nashville! Caught on the rooftop of Handlebar.
  • APRE – indie pop, happy band from London (saw twice, once stripped back at Holy Roller).
  • Majestic Casual party – excellent lineup at the Rainey Street party).
  • Good Omens Garden Party – this was a phenomenal two-day party with drink, food, music and puppies. Free to all!

SXSW Badges Explained

SXSW was created to support artists and industry meet and discuss future partnerships. Those who are serious about networking should invest in the SXSW badge.

Badges give you access to all shows, talks, events and gigs in your chosen area (or access all areas for the platinum badge), you may still need to wait in line but not to the extent of those who enjoy SXSW by stalking the free events.

Even as badge holders, we’ve missed out of sessions and films because we missed the window to request a SXXpress Pass. You do this through the SXSW Go app. It looks as if you have to request around 9 am the day before the event.

Another perk we’ve enjoyed as badge holders is the free daily drink at the Registrant Lounge. Here we’ve met interesting locals and visitors from a range of backgrounds including blockchain companies to gaming marketeers.

Here’s the difference between the four badges –

How To Do SXSW For Free [music, food and booze]

It’s universally known that you can visit Austin during SXSW just to take advantage of the free music shows, eats and drinks. Venues and gigs are sponsored by private companies and with sponsorship comes free shizzle!

Here’s how to get the best out of your free South by Southwest break (you will need a holiday after it).

Twitter

Planning for SXSW starts months before the big event. Start stalking the bands and artists your love on social media to keep an eye on who is attending. You should also pay attention to SXSW Twitter accounts as well as venues in Austin.

During the festival, the following official and unofficial accounts will tell you where to get food, what the lines are like and where the surprise gigs are taking place. You might want to create a separate Twitter account to keep track of events.

@SXSW
@SXSWNews
@SXUnofficial ‏
@Do512 <— also an app
@Atxconcert
@SXSWMF <— Craig’s favourite

@Thefreenoms

During SX follow the hashtag #SXSW20 and hit the ‘latest’ tab for the most up to date news.

The Rules

Our experience of 2019 was very different from that of 2015 and 2016. In the past, RSVPing was a must as stewards checked for the app tickets at the door.

Things have changed, as long as you wait in line and the venue isn’t at full capacity you’ll get in.

Again, keep an eye on those Twitter accounts to see where lines are doable, you need to be flexible at SXSW.

In 2019, there were heaps of ‘no badge, no problem’ signs, especially on Rainey Street. You will have to pay for your own drink at these ‘no badge’ events unless it is a sponsored party you’ve RSVPed to.

No Badges Sign SXSW Rainey Street Austin

Waiting in Line

Waiting in line is just part of the SX bloodline. Even badge holders need to stand in line at times, albeit in the primary one. We waited for a good few hours, drinking our tins from the gas station, to try and catch Years and Years one evening.

We failed to get anywhere near the front. However, one of the best things about SX is that although full one day, you’ll get to see the artist the next at another venue.

We missed Har Mar Superstar on 6th but caught him in a tiny intimate venue the next day. He was basically dancing on top of us, naked.

SXSW free parties

Wristbands For Free Shows

Don’t expect free food and drink at every party. The free, like actual free, days will be the BIG parties held at the notable venues:

  • Stubb’s BBQ (free breakfast tacos and beer aka in bed by 8 pm).
  • Fader Fort – this is the first year we’ve managed to get a RSVP! Sign up for the newsletter and apply nearer SXSW 2020.
  • Good Omen’s Garden Party – pop up venue, three free drinks and two food tokens.

For Stubb’s BBQ you wait in line on guest list opening day to collect the passes then line to get in. Once the free beverages run out there are no more so get in early.

RSVPster Review

RSVPster acts as your mass RSVP agent for free parties. Create a new email address specifically for the free party RSVPs (you will be inundated with RSVPs) and let the company respond on your behalf. Download the tickets to the parties you wish to attend and ignore the others.

This service saved our unorganised asses so many times.

While queueing for Charles Bradley, I went for a nosey to see what the front of line situation was. I panicked when saw the door stewards checking people’s phones. Our friend, Pete, told us to relax, we already had invites through RSVPster.

It doesn’t work for all parties though, you have to check the entry requirements for everyone separately. Although 2018 experience indicated RSVP tickets are no longer necessary, Craig still purchased RSVPster just to be safe. I’m intrigued to assess its use next year.

SXSW Apps

The Do512 app is useful but difficult to use. The best way to get around it is the search for the act you wish to see and pull up the venues that they are playing at then investigate which party that would be. Twitter is definitely the best app at your disposal and taxis apps will be required to get into the city and out.

SXSW Go is the official SX app. As badge holders, it has been useful for scheduling events and attempting to request SXXpress passes for popular events. Craig didn’t feel this app was much use as a non-badge attendee.

A charged phone is essential, pack your battery pack too.

SXSW free gigs

SXSW Venues

There are hundreds of venues at SX and the will literally pop up anywhere. Some of the most popular ones for free parties include

  • Cheer up Charlies – 900 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Gus Dapperton, Men I Trust, Gang of Youths).
  • Container Bar – 90 Rainey St, Austin, TX 78701 (The Marias, a bar made out of… containers. Saw Charles Bradley here in 2015).
  • Rainey Street – rammed full of sponsored parties that change every day (Dreamer Boy at Bangers ’19).
  • Hotel Vegas – 1502 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (5 different rooms, day goers can stay until evening without getting thrown out).
  • Mohawk Austin – 912 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Broken Social Scene ’19. We actually went to a Junior Boys gig here on the night of our wedding elopement).

Accommodation in Austin SXSW

Hotels and hostels prices hurt in Austin around SXSW. Be prepared to pay around three times the amount you would normally pay for a popular North American city and if you get in quick don’t be complacent.

We’ve now stayed with HI Hostel Austin twice in a private room. It is in the perfect location, 30-minute stroll along the water to the city.

Airbnb in Austin

Straight after our first SXSW stint, we checked into an airstream through Airbnb and in 2016 after being ditched by Drifter Jacks Hostel we booked an Airbnb miles away from the city resulting in a taxi every day but that’s the reality of accommodation options during SX.

Straight after the festival prices drop, we stayed in a cute garden hut house at Barnton Springs and chilled by the swimming pool.

New to Airbnb? Sign up here and save money, we’ll get credit too. Thank you.

Getting Around Austin

Uber, Lyft and Ride Austin all operate as taxis in Austin. Ride Austin is a nonprofit company fighting against Uber and Lyft operating in Austin and carries the slogan Keep Austin Local. It operates on an app basis like Lyft and Uber.

New to Austin is the electronic scooter system. Uber (Jump), Lyft and Bird all have scooters dotted around the city. You need the app and a credit card to activate the scooter.

I’m quite an anxious driver but using the scooters with ease. The traffic is very understanding (surprisingly). You can’t use the scooters on the sidewalks or down by the river. Stick to the cycle lanes when there are some.

Austin B-Cycle programme allows bike rental for up to 24 hours.

SXSW For Free Roundup

Don’t be put off by the queues, SXSW is an electric 10-day event bringing together the best of music, film and interactive to one of the U.S’s hottest cities. Regardless if you are a badge goer or a free gig stalker I highly recommend adding SXSW to your bucket list for 2020.

Oh, and take your ID – you have to prove who you are (and that you are over 21) at every door.

Save to your Austin board

How to do SXSW for free

Are you going SXSW?
Let us know in the comments below

Gemma and Craig are full-time workers with a life-long travel habit. Flirting with 30 and let loose on the world! Gemma writes, Craig looks good in the photos.

Comments 30

  1. My daughter attended this one … she is an online marketing guru for her company. She loved it there. I tried to get her to let me come along, but she said she’d be too busy to spend any time with me! LOL

    1. Post
      Author
  2. This event has grown into a megalith over the years. The digital media component is, quite honestly, the only part of it which I am even remotely familiar. Your ingenious strategies could be adapted for almost any multi-day event, though, so very helpful! I liked how you reminded people that actual performances don’t comprise the entire show – plenty to see and do in the queues! A fun look at SXSW, thanks.

    1. Post
      Author
  3. This sounds fun! I never knew music festivals could be so complicated and cool at the same time! While I don’t see me and the kids attending for a few more years yet ( they are still at the “stars on ice” type of concert stage) it sounds like a great way to travel in conjunction with your hobby!

    1. Post
      Author
  4. It reminds me of visiting Galway, Ireland during the horse races. There are so many interesting things happening in the streets and music pouring from every building and even people in the streets. Waiting in lines was never a problem there either. That’s part of the fun, right? We met two guys that I stayed friends with more than 10 years later.

    1. Post
      Author

      I didn’t even know that existed in Galway! Sounds like fun. Looking forward to meeting up with friends we made last year again and some Austinites we’ve met on the road in the past few months!

  5. Excellent information! I love festivals and SXSW has always been very high on my bucket list. I had no idea the event was so connected. You have saved me future hours of research and frustration in planning to attend this festival. I look forward to attending in the future with my charged phone and backup battery 🙂

    1. Post
      Author
  6. HI! I was never into festivals, but this one sounds like fun. Interesting that it also includes the digital side. Thanks for the detailed description on how to get involved!

    1. Post
      Author
  7. Thanks so much for sharing these tips! I’ve always wanted to go to SXSW but it seemed so expensive, so I put it on the back burner. I think I’ll have to take another look for next year though now! Looks like such a fun time!!

    1. Post
      Author

      I’m going to write an article about accommodation soon as we’ve had a ‘mare of late. You can’t book to early as everyone cancels on you once they realise it’s SX and they can make their millions in that week. Stay tuned!

    1. Post
      Author
  8. Wow! This looks like a blast! We are DEFINITELY planning to attend next year. We’re not sure if we are going to bother getting REAL passes or if we’re just going to sniff around and find stuff. We do know that we will be vlogging/blogging the whole experience. Thanks for this super post!

    1. Post
      Author

      We’ve done it for ‘free’ for two years now [Craig – three] so we’re biting the bullet and buying passes!

  9. Great guide for the newbie! I’ve been once and 2019 will be my second time and definitely starting to research in Jan. Perhaps we’ll meet up there in March!

    1. Post
      Author

      I am starting to get excited about it! It’s so full on but a lot of fun. We’ll be the couple in tartan, look out for us 😉

  10. We are heading to SXSW this year for the first time as part of our Honeymoon! We’ve both wanted to go for ages and I’m taking all the tips I can 🙂 I’ve set us a dedicated twitter already @rolloroseSXSW and I’m going to use our wedding email address and sign up for RSVPster – on that point do you know if we can use the same email address for two RSVPster passes?
    I’m going to give the SXSW spotify a listen so I have some idea of the smaller bands we would like to see live.
    Any other tips for 2 pasty Scots would be greatly appreciated 🙂
    Thanks, Alison xx

    1. Post
      Author

      Rock on! You are going to have a ball. I would set up a completely separate email address (you’ll need one each) because the emails come thick and fast and you use them to sign up for parties (although Craig says he used it less last in comparison to 2015, still a safe bet). Are you on Instagram? What’s your handle if so?

      1. I’m so excited, trying to get organised seems like such an epic task! My instagram is @mrs.rosie.rollo but I’ve started a new one for following bands/labels and documenting the trip which is @rollorosesxsw and a twitter account to match 🙂

        1. Post
          Author
  11. Unfortunately the Blackheart has closed down since SXSW 2018. They may reopen the space for a temporary venue in March but it won’t be the same space we all loved.

    1. Post
      Author

      Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear this. Great bar and venue space. I’ll update my guides, many thanks for letting me know.

  12. Thanks for sharing this ultimate hack to visit this amazing event for free, i think every music and business enthusiast should visit this event for sure this year. Only few days are left in event so plan for it accordingly.

    1. Post
      Author
  13. We just so happen to be in town during the SXSW fest! We have never been to Austin and bought tickets to a concert. Did not know about this and soooo excited we lucked into being here during. We have no tickets so will be checking things out by chance and luck I suppose. Thanks so much for the tips!

    1. Post
      Author

      I’m just updating the guide to say if you see Two Scots in tartan, that’s us. Come to say hi!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *