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Are you heading for one of the thousands of summer festivals this year? If so, you're not alone: Millions of others will attend one or more of the many thousand options. Those festivals range from blockbuster to miniature. In either case, however, you'll want to keep your costs as low as feasible. Here's my take on planning an economical festival trip.
Where to Go
If you haven't already decided, you have a bewildering array of options, which you can approach in either of two ways:
If you've already decided where you want to go, check that area for whatever festivals it may provide. Start by contacting (online, by phone, or mail) the destination area's main visitor promotion agencies—a convention and visitors bureau, state or local tourist office, chamber of commerce, and such. Also, send for a copy of the main city's Sunday newspaper. And, of course, if you're visiting friends or relatives, ask them for suggestions.
If you're targeting a specific activity or focus, start with one of the national festival directories. Wikipedia lists hundreds of local festivals in 23 separate categories ranging from "alternative" to "transportation." Within that spectrum, the largest category by far is "music," but culture, food, and theater also have dozens of entries. Festival Finder posts a similar (but not duplicative) list of 25 festival categories, all of which are music subcategories. But don't stop there; neither list includes many festivals I know. For other ideas, find a copy of any magazines that deal with your field of interest, and Google for other ideas.
Most festivals of any size these days have websites where you can buy tickets online, and you can usually buy by mail or phone through the festival's box office. To keep costs down, check for reduced-price pre-season "preview" prices, senior discounts, late-season reductions, last-minute specials, and such. Also, consider "cheap seats" that might be pretty good. At the Santa Fe Opera, for example, a seat in the front row loge costs $155 but you can get a seat six rows behind for $37. At some festivals, ticketholders unable to attend a current or future performance may hang around the box office selling tickets at list or even cut prices—I see that most days at my hometown's blockbuster Shakespeare festival. You might also find "can't use" tickets on Craigslist; I see some opera tickets available on the Santa Fe Craigslist. Surprisingly, I find that the big national ticket sellers such as StubHub, Ticketmaster, and Webtickets don't have much to do with summer festivals.
If you're considering a big festival in a small community, you can expect local hotels and B&Bs to hike their rates for the festival season. Generally, the closer to the festival's venue, the more you pay. Here in Ashland, for example, the hotels within walking distance of the theater complex typically charge up to twice as much as comparable hotels at the other end of town or in nearby communities.
Some hotels in festival areas sell hotel/ticket packages, but I find surprisingly few for many of the big festivals I know. By all means, check your festival's brochure and home website to see if it posts any air/hotel/ticket or hotel/ticket packages. As far as I can tell, however, very few festivals do much of this kind of packaging.
If you're flying to a destination, a big online ticket agency may be able to put together an air/hotel bundle that costs less than air and hotel separately. Expedia, for example, knocked $102 of the combined airfare and hotel prices for a trip from Boston to Medford with a hotel in Ashland. I suspect that you could do even better with festivals in larger cities
But don't be too chintzy. It's easy to overplay the "save money" hand. When you make a big deal out of getting there, maybe a front-row seat is worth it. Keep costs down, but also enjoy!