How to Save Money at Summer Music Festivals

How to Save Money at Summer Music Festivals
How to Save Money at Summer Music Festivals

Summer music festivals can offer a fun way to hear the country's best bands while making friends with thousands of fellow fans. But between tickets, travel, food and accommodations, festivals aren't cheap, and with gas prices high and budgets tight, it can be hard to take your show on the road.

We asked the directors and promoters of some of the summer's top music events for their favorite penny-pinching suggestions for festival-goers. With the combination of their vast experience and your own ingenuity, this could be the perfect summer for you to follow the music.

Plan Ahead ... and Share the Ride

Ted Hagaman, executive director of North Carolina's Merlefest, noted that planning ahead can help festival-goers save a lot of money -- as does choosing the right event for you and your crew. For example, Merlefest offers free admission to all children aged 12 or under who are accompanied by a paying adult, which makes his event a fun attraction for the whole family. This year, Hagaman notes, local schools took full advantage of the promotion, bringing "3,200 children, all of whom we admitted free."

FloydFest director Erika Johnson also noted that family-friendly festivals can be a good bargain, both financially and in terms of your enjoyment: "Find a festival where they'll be well-entertained and not simply wanting to pick your pocket out of boredom." For that matter, she argued, smaller festivals can also be a bargain: "Bonnaroo's ticket prices are in excess of $200, and there's no possible way to see all that music anyway. Look for a lineup that offers some exciting headliners, as well as some lesser-known bands that you might discover you like." After all, she asked, "Why do what everyone else is doing anyway?"

All Good Festival's media director, David Weissman, suggested carpooling to save on gas, while the Electric Zoo's Betty Kang pointed out that public transportation is "usually the cheapest option and it's good for the planet. Never mind the rising gas prices."

Amy Ravit Korin, social media director for Chicago's North Coast Music Festival noted that, in addition to public transportation, patrons can also bike to her event: "North Coast even offers free bicycle parking."

Kelly M., a veteran participant in the unique cultural event that is Burning Man, noted that "sharing food and transport with a group is definitely the way to do it." On the other hand, if you don't have a group to go with, she suggested using a tour company to simplify the trip. Green Tortoise, for example, offers all-inclusive Burning Man packages for as little as $400.

You're There for the Music, Not the Hotel

Festivals often draw tens of thousands of visitors to areas that aren't well-equipped to house them. Veteran festival-goer Chris Burgoyne favors budget hotels, and plans ahead to book them: "I just need a bed where I can crash after a long day of music. I don't pay for comfort and luxury on a festival trip."

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North Coast's Korin said that her festival also contracts with Chicago area hotels to offer deep discounts to festival goers: Those special rates are available through North Coast's website.

Burgoyne also suggests camping: "It is usually much cheaper than a hotel, and can be quite a fun experience. If you want to save on camping supplies, most universities have outdoor clubs where you can rent good equipment cheaply."

Summer Camp Music Festival organizer Michael Armintrout echoed this, suggesting that visitors "bring all your own camping supplies .... While you can purchase almost any camping supply you might need from the festival's General Store, the cost-conscious patron usually comes over-prepared."

For that matter, camping itself can be a hidden cost. As FloydFest's Johnson pointed out, many music festivals charge extra to camp on site. "Seek out the music festivals where camping is included in the festival ticket price, rather than a separate ticket item," she suggests to bargain hunters.

Bring Your Own Provisions

Most festivals sport an impressive variety of food options, but with purveyors paying premium prices for booth rentals, buying lunch can get expensive. Most festival planners advised packing at least one meal per day, and some noted that in-festival camping facilities make it easy to cook your own food on site. Summer Camp's Armintrout pointed out that his facility allows visitors to bring small grills. Still, there's no substitute for convenience -- and a good supply of non-perishables: A fan of the All Good Festival suggested that festival goers "try not to buy food that requires ice, since you spend a lot of money keeping things cold in the summer."

Even more important than food is water, and bottled water can be expensive when purchased on-site. Most organizers advised that visitors bring your own bottles and refill them there. FloydFest's Johnson noted that, "All festivals have potable water that will keep you hydrated," but boasted that her event offers "icing on the proverbial cake ... free filtered mountain water."

Some festival-goers offered other tips for hydrating. A fan of the All Good Festival suggested that audience members "freeze water bottles before you pack the cooler," while organizer Dave Weissman proposed that visitors bring a stainless steel water bottle or Camelbak canteen to refill at their venue's water stations.

Of course, food and water aren't the only provisions festival patrons need, and Burgoyne noted that "vendors inflict huge markups on their somewhat captive audiences." His simple suggestion: "Save money by buying what you need ahead of time." His list of necessities included suntan lotion, a good rainproof shell or jacket, and a folding chair.

"Cost usually comes from having to buy your supplies, which are really important," adds Burning Man participant Kelly M. "Aside from wacky outfits, you need to bring all your water and food and gear for a week of camping on a dried up lake bed with drastic temp changes and a lot of dust storms." However, she also argued that the Burning Man community is uniquely generous, and that "the easiest way to save money is to go naked and don't take your wallet."

Buy Your Tickets Early

Most festival planners pointed out that buying tickets early is a great way to save. As an example, patrons who bought tickets for the Summer Camp Music Festival three months before the show shaved 52% off a three-day ticket. All Good's Weissman explained why early birds save so much money: "One of the main reasons for discounts is so we can better organize and plan for the facilities we need for the event." He noted that these include "security, ice, water, port-o-johns and other supplies that are dependent on the quantity of attendees."

Weissman also emphasized that the discounts are a way of encouraging repeat business: "The ticket sales earlier in the cycle help the festival reward repeat patrons and those most passionate about supporting the event with a lower cost entry option."

Merlefest's Hagaman echoed this, pointing out that his festival offers a 10% early-bird discount: "We already have a good idea of the numbers that will be coming, but our discount gives loyal customers a reward for buying early."

North Coast also offered a 53% discount to early ticket buyers, but its most impressive sales were through Groupon. The festival partnered with the site to offer 3,750 tickets for 53% off. Social media director Korin pointed out that the tickets set a record for the site, selling out in "just over nine hours." Korin also partnered with other social media sites to offer discounts and giveaways. For that matter, she also tweeted logistical updates and behind-the-scenes commentary to the concert's Twitter feed.

For audience members who want a great deal but don't want to stay for the whole event, many festivals offer single-day admission. This tends to be more expensive per day than full-event tickets: at Merlefest, for example, one-day admission ranges between $35 and $55, while full festival tickets cost $155 at the door; for an audience member who planned to attend all four days, the total day-ticket price would be $180. Then again, with 13 stages and more than 90 acts, even the inflated day rate can be a great deal. FloydFest's Johnson noted that "the average per-band cost at FloydFest comes in at a ridiculously low $1.35!"

Volunteering: Your Free All-Access Pass

Summer Camp's Armintrout offered one more interesting strategy for cutting costs: "The No. 1 way to save money at a festival is to volunteer and come to the festival for free."

Burgoyne agreed. "Most festivals work employ volunteers to staff up for what is usually a once-a-year operation," he said. "Volunteers usually get in free in exchange for a fairly light schedule of work ripping tickets or emptying trash or whatever the fest needs." In addition to the free pass, he pointed out that volunteering has other benefits: "You might get a T-shirt, you'll get backstage, and you'll meet people, which will make the experience better."

The websites for most festivals have links for volunteering. Those that don't often have customer service contacts who can give you information about it. After all, the best summer music festival is the one that you don't have to pay for.

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