2019 Essence Festival - The Guide for Newbies

Every year, the Essence Festival aka Essence Fest brings in over 500,000+ people to the city of New Orleans the first weekend in July. After the 2017 smash hit movie, “Girls Trip,” the Essence Festival saw more newbies than ever before in 2018; over 550,000 attendees (the most in Essence Fest history)!

This year, Essence Fest is celebrating its 25th anniversary from Thursday, July 4th to Sunday, July 7th and it’s sure to be even bigger and better than ever! If you’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced the Essence festival, I’ve created this guide to help you make the most of your 4th of July weekend in the Big Easy! I’ll answer some of the most common questions that I had when preparing to attend Essence Fest for the first time!

TRAVELING TO THE ESSENCE FESTIVAL

Q: What’s the best day to arrive and leave the Essence Festival?

A: The most popular travel date combinations are either the Thursday to Monday (July 4-8th) or Friday to Monday (July 5th-July 8th). You will pay a pretty penny for a plane ticket, train, or bus ticket to New Orleans during Essence Fest.  If you have a flexible schedule, extending your stay by one or two days prior and/or one or two days later than the popular travel dates, then you will find prices are drastically cheaper.

The real action (the convention center seminars, the Superdome concerts and the majority of the day, evening and concert after parties) don't start till Friday, so if you can’t get there till Friday, you will not miss much.

Q: Should I rent a car for the Essence Festival?

A: Don’t even think about! If you are arriving in New Orleans via plane, train or bus, you do not need a car to get around New Orleans, which happens to be one of the most walkable cities in the United States. You can practically walk, or take the streetcar or grab an Uber/Lyft/Taxi to almost anywhere in downtown New Orleans.

If you choose to rent a car in New Orleans, you will run into one of three issues: 1) Finding an affordable place to park 2) Finding a place to park that is safe (meaning that you won’t get a parking ticket, booted, or towed) 3) You will be sitting in traffic for 20+ minutes to go anywhere during Essence Fest.

The New Orleans Police Department blocks off streets around main streets such as Canal Street and Poydras Street to control the flow of traffic, thus driving during Essence Fest weekend is more of a hassle than you want to deal with!

If you’re planning to drive to New Orleans, you will want to park your car at your AirBNB, hotel, or even think about parking your car at the airport or finding an affordable parking lot and pay the daily parking fee.

In all honestly, you will want to walk (If it’s not too hot) or Uber/Lyft/Taxi your way around N.O or take the New Orleans Streetcar system, if you are staying near a streetcar line.

Q: Where can I park in downtown New Orleans during the Essence Festival?

A: I have never had a car in New Orleans, however I’ve been told that there are a few hidden gems:

1) Unipark Garage (145 Roosevelt Way)

2) park at the Harrah's Casino and for an extended amount of time and have your ticket validated for parking there.

3) EZ Park (310 Carondelet Street);

4) Download either the ParkMobile App or the Premium Parking App or the Parking Panda App.

Between these four suggestions you can save some money by not paying the hotel $40+ a day to park on their property. 

Q: Is the Essence Festival really sold out this year?

A: This question is asked EVERY single year. One of the biggest secrets of Essence Festival weekend is that travel agents are allowed to hold a lot of hotel rooms, in which they flip and sell to consumers for a profit. Typically, the hotels in New Orleans have an early April deadline to sell these rooms or a non-refundable deposit is then instituted for the number of rooms someone is holding onto that they don’t need. So, there is typically a dumping of rooms the first week of April, so people don’t have to pay that nonrefundable deposit.

For future reference, the first week of April might be your next best chance and also the first week of May as some hotels have a second non-refundable deposit deadline around that time. As of today, 5/31/19, there are still concert tickets and (super expensive) hotel rooms available.

ACCOMMODATIONS WHILE AT ESSENCE

Q: Should I book a hotel room or should I book an AirBNB for the Essence Festival?

A: That’s going to be a matter of personal preference and depend on the limit of your overall budget. Hotel rooms during Essence Festival are very expensive (roommates are suggested) but they are typically located in convenient locations in downtown New Orleans. An AirBNB is typically going to be cheaper than a hotel room, but you should analyze the exact location of the AirBNB to make sure it is worth the travel back and forth to downtown. You want to be no less than 10 minutes from downtown for the optimal Essence Festival experience, otherwise you are going to waste a lot of time stuck in New Orleans traffic. 

Q: Is it better to book my travel through a travel agent or do it myself?

A: If you can find a travel agent with a solid history of delivering what they promised and can find someone you trust to vouch for that travel agent, then do your own homework and book your travel through an agent. However, one of the biggest myths of the Essence Festival weekend is that you can't book your own Essence Festival travel, which is untrue. It will take some time and dedication...but it can be accomplished.

Why would you want someone else to have total control over your flight, hotel and concert ticket selections? We all know plans can change and emergencies can happen...and you might need to adjust your travel. Start with popular websites www.google.com/flights or www.skyscanner.com for flights. Then use www.roomkey.com (which is an aggregate website) to search for rooms and it will take you directly to the hotel's website when it is time to book. Beware of booking through third-party websites for Essence Festival because these are often the rooms that get cancelled when a hotel happens to overbook and everyone shows up in New Orleans looking for a room. It is better to book directly with the hotel of your choice. 

Finally, grab your concert tickets directly from the official retailer and that is www.ticketmaster.com. Beware of buying tickets from scalpers off the streets of New Orleans...because there is a chance those tickets could be fake and you will not be allowed into the Mercedes Benz Superdome.

Q: What area is the best to find a hotel during Essence Festival?

A: If you want to be in walking distance to some parts of the Essence Festival, a hotel room in the French Quarter, the Central Business District or the Warehouse District is the best option. If you are a Marriott Rewards member or a Hilton Honors member or a World of Hyatt member, you'll be happy because those hotel chains have the most hotels in downtown New Orleans. Prices for rooms will vary based on location and demand. Although online booking might be more convenient, pick up the phone and call the hotel's corporate reservation line.  

Q: Which hotel is the best one to stay at during the Essence Festival?

A: There are going to be several different answers to this question. So, answer your own question based on which part of the Essence Festival (the daytime activities at the Convention, the night time concerts at the Superdome or the parties throughout the downtown area) matter to you the most. Pick your hotel based on which part of the Essence Festival you care about the most. You’re going to pay a premium cost regardless…so you might as well make the choice that satisfies your No. 1 concern for even going to New Orleans this year.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO WHILE AT ESSENCE

Q: What can I do during the day at Essence Fest?

A: There is an Essence Fest daytime experience at the Convention Center that is free and open to all. The convention center is where you want to be during the day! There are no words to describe how much there is to see and do at the daytime experience. Free performances, celebrity interviews, giveaways, movie screenings, as well as the ability to shop with countless vendors and tons of food stations. I personally, spend my days at the Convention Center because there is no shortage of AC or things to do!

There are also several pop-up shops, events, sponsor lounges, and more throughout downtown New Orleans that are free (or low cost) and available to the public. The best way to find these is by searching Instagram, Eventbrite, and Facebook events.

CONCERTS AT THE MERCEDES-BENZ SUPERDOME

Q: When does the Essence Festival typically announce the concert lineup?

A: This varies per year. Concert tickets typically go on sale for the 3-night passes in November or December and Essence usually announces at least one headliner by December...but some years the first wave of lineup announcements has stretched all the way to the spring. After the first wave of concert announcements, there is usually one more wave around April or May. From that point on, Essence may add one or two more artists between June and July. Follow all of Essence's social media channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and stay alert to any changes. 

Q: What type of Essence Festival concert tickets should I get?

A: How much do you want to spend? If you are cheap, then your answer is the nosebleed seats in the “Terrance Level or 500/600” level of the Mercedes Benz Superdome. If you don’t mind spending some cash, then a floor seat might be perfect for you.

If you are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes look into a “Plaza Level or 100 level” or a “Loge Level or 200/300.” Your seat selection is probably one of the biggest decisions of the Essence Festival Weekend, as explained in our more detailed Mercedes Benz Superdome story. Get your tickets in advance at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000.

If you can't make up your mind about concert tickets, you can wait till you get to New Orleans and attempt to buy a ticket from Essence Magazine inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center at the Ticketmaster booth during the daytime or venture over to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome box office on the night of the concert and buy a ticket there. The best seats might not be available if you wait until you get the New Orleans and the concert nights could sell out if the lineup is hot!

Q: When do single night tickets go on sale for the Essence Festival concerts?

A:  The exact date varies year to year...but you can safely plan for April or May. Essence will send out countless reminders to buy the 3-night concert ticket on its social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and Essence will promote it on its website before the release of the single night tickets. The 3-night concert pass will be your cheapest option if you plan to attend all three nights of the concerts. When the single night tickets are released, they will cost more per night than if you were to buy all three nights separately. Also, when the single night tickets are released your ability to buy the 3-night concert pass at a discounted rate ends. The benefit of buying the 3-night concert pass in advance is that you will have the same seat each night of the concerts and you’ll get it at the lowest cost. In case you didn’t know, Essence Festival single night concert tickets are already on sale now!

Q: What does a 3-night concert ticket purchase or a single-night concert ticket purchase get me?

A: If you bought the 3-day pass that means you have the same seat (in the football stadium part of the building) each night for the Friday-to-Sunday concerts. If you decide to not go one night or even two nights, you can sell your ticket to another Essence Festival attendee because there is always someone looking for a last minute concert ticket. Your ticket each night is your one-time entry into the Superdome.

Your ticket purchase gives you access to the standing-room only Superlounge acts and it is also your reserved seat for the mainstage acts. The Superlounge are a first-come, first-served area of the Superdome on the "Loge or 200/300" level of the building. Each Superlounge has a different sponsor and there will be signs indicating which performers are in each Superlounge.

Food is available for purchase inside of the Superdome and each Superlounge offers different food vendors as well.

Q: When will the exact times of the Essence Festival concert performers be posted?

A: That’s typically late June or early July. Essence will have printed schedules of the concerts at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and programs are typically available as you enter the Mercedes Benz Superdome each night. The Friday-to-Sunday concerts usually start on time around 7 p.m. each night with just one person performing on the main stage. Starting around 7:15 p.m. each night, the acts in all four Superlounges will start performing. When the concerts are in full swing, you'll have a maximum of five performers (mainstage & four Superlounges) performing at the same time throughout the Superdome. The only performers that don’t have to compete with the Superlounge acts will be the "headliner" or the closing performer on the mainstage on each night. The "headliner" of the night typically does not go on the mainstage before 10:30 p.m. and the concerts can end as late as 2 a.m.

EATING WHILE AT THE ESSENCE FESTIVAL

Q: What are the best restaurants in New Orleans to check out during the Essence Festival?

A:  New Orleans is known for it vast variety of restaurants serving up Cajun and creole classics all over the city. We all have different taste buds, so the answer you get for the “Best” of anything will vary depending on opinions. I recommend utilizing Yelp and creating a list of restaurants to check out as all of them will likely be packed during the Essence Festival weekend.

There are tons of pop-up shops and events, so you’re favorite chef or restaurant may be in NOLA.

Be prepared to wait and be sure to keep track of the time!

WHAT TO WEAR AT THE ESSENCE FESTIVAL

Q: What should I pack and/or wear for the Essence Festival?

A:  New Orleans is in the South and if you know anything about the humidity and heat during July, then you know it’s going to be HOT! The recommended dress code is a perfect mixture colorful, comfy, & cute. You’ll want to make sure that you wear items that are vibrant for all of the selfies and impromptu photo shoots, but comfy enough to keep you cool and without aching feet! Oh and definitely don’t forget the sunscreen!

Stay tuned for more Essence prep posts…I’ll post an Essence Fest Packing Guide soon!