Edinburgh Festival(s)

After a number of years of visiting Edinburgh in August to take in bits of the various festivals (notably the Festival Fringe!) and work with groups producing shows as part of the festival, 2012 was the year I decided to take the head-first plunge and become a bigger part of it all.  So I spent 5 weeks this year working on the box office team for one of the biggest venues on the Fringe with the encompassing goal of totally immersing myself in this city and in the festival for its duration at least once in my life!

For those who are not familiar with what is generally referred to as the Edinburgh Festival, this is in fact not just one, but up to 24 different festivals taking place in and around the city in August every year.  The city is quite literally transformed to the point that you almost wouldn’t recognise it if you’ve visited at any other time of the year.  Crowds can be enormous so if that’s a problem for you then it may be wise to avoid the city in August, but doing so will mean you miss out on a truly amazing spectacular, the likes of which you’ll not experience anywhere else in the world.  The Edinburgh Festival now claims to be the biggest arts festival anywhere in the world and it’s easy to believe when you’re in the middle of it as there are performers and artists from every corner of the globe who flock to the city each year in August to showcase their talents, and even bigger crowds from around the world who come to see them.  However, finding the best shows you should make a deadline for, and what shows are best avoided is another, rather more arduous task!

When I was selling tickets this year, and helping people choose what to see, it was not unusual for me, to hear the word ‘overwhelming’ being used to describe the choice of shows.  Between 1-27th August 2012, there were 42,096 performances of 2,695 shows in 279 venues so there’s little wonder some patrons were overwhelmed!  The brochure for the Fringe is normally published in the spring each year, but you should watch the website (www.edfringe.com) for details of when the programme is announced.

Just turning up in Edinburgh without any advance planning to take in the Fringe and Edinburgh’s other festivals in August, is how visitors end up feeling so overwhelmed so here are my top tips for making the Festival work!

1)            Where to stay…

You will definitely need to consider this very carefully and well in advance, as much of the city’s accommodation sells out months in advance.  You should be considering this as early as a year in advance, and no later than about January/February and booking no later than mid-March if you want anything near a decent choice of places to stay.  Also, you’ll need to have a decent budget, even for cheap accommodation as accommodation providers put their prices up in August as they know they will still be able to fill the space due to the high volume of foot fall in the city at this time of year.

Hotels can be inappropriately expensive so unless you have a ‘sky’s-the-limit’ budget, I’d generally not bother even considering hotels.  B&Bs are much the same, and there aren’t too many of them in or near the city centre anyway, and my best recommendation is that you find somewhere to stay which means you can walk to the centre within a few minutes rather than rely on transportation as time is of the essence when experiencing the festival – its unimaginable that you’ll leave feeling like you’ve seen everything you wanted to!

Hostels are great as there are many in the city centre but I often feel that their prices are a bit much during the festival as they can often be very noisy.  You should bear in mind however, that given all the activities on offer, you’re unlikely going to spend much time in your accommodation as Edinburgh is definitely not a chill-out destination in August, so make a beeline for somewhere which provides your basic needs rather than something too fancy.

Self-catering property is definitely one of the best options but I recommend that you really only go for this if there is a small group of you so that you can keep the price down a bit.  There’s tons to choose from and a basic internet search will bring up a wide range of choices so there’s no point in me recommending somewhere specific to look as some fairly easy research will offer you what you’re looking for.

For individual travellers, my best recommendation is that you find someone you know who to travel to Edinburgh with, or be prepared to share a room in a hostel… not the best choice I know, but the wisest if you need to keep your costs down as you’re only alternatives are going to be pretty expensive.

Finding accommodation is often the most difficult part of the Edinburgh Festival experience so you definitely can’t plan this early enough!

2)            What shows/acts to see – plan, but don’t overplan!

You should definitely get the Fringe brochure as early as possible.  To do this you can sign up for the mailing list at www.edfringe.com.  However, depending on what kind of performance genre you’re in to you should also consider getting the brochures for other festivals.  I can highly recommend the Edinburgh International Festival, and also the Free Fringe, but there are plenty of festivals to choose from and you’ll find a list of them here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Festival#The_festivals.

Some people will tell you to book for shows as far in advance as possible… or at least that seems to be the general advice… I say ‘not’!  Taking an hour or two to browse the brochures is essential to make it feel like you have an idea of what’s going on, but this is generally where I start to feel overwhelmed – don’t let that put you off!  Picking out a few things in the brochure(s) which you think look like they might appeal to you is the way I find best to start but don’t book it all straight away as you should wait and see how it all fits into the time you have, and also what the reviewers are saying about individual shows.

The major venues (which generally get the majority of highest rated shows) are Assembly, Underbelly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, and Just the Tonic – between them they produce a separate brochure under the banner of Edinburgh Comedy Festival (www.edcomfest.com).  Getting this brochure or browsing it online will help the planning experience feel a little less overwhelming.  Although you should also check other major venue providers such as The Space, The Laughing Horse, The Stand, BBC Potterow, C Venues, and Universal Arts.

The trick which I’ve found to have made my Edinburgh Festival visits so successful over the past 3 years has been the smartphone apps.  Edfringe produce a great app which lists all of the Fringe shows, plus it allows you to generate a list of favourite shows, and a Fringe diary to which you can add your shows with their time & date so you can organize your time more easily, and there’s also a booking facility for all Fringe shows within the app.  However, my favourite app is called iFringe – this has links to all the reviews as they’re published and as each review receives a 1-5 star rating, you can start to get an idea of which shows are generally considered the best.  However, I’ve been to a few highly rated shows before which have turned out to be rubbish (!) but in general, going with the advice of the reviewers has really made sure I’ve had some major festival successes! (Both of the smartphone apps mentioned here are available on the iphone through the itunes App Store – please check with your individual provider if you use a different smartphone).

As far as booking in advance is concerned, I’d really recommend that you only need book something before the festival starts if one particular performance is especially important to you.  There are relatively few shows which sell out entirely before the festival starts, but once it does start there are some shows and acts which sell out very quickly so your experience of individual companies, shows and acts can be highly valuable here.  I’ve often booked for stuff in advance which I thought would be amazing and would sell out, and got there to find that I’m one of a very small audience (some shows only get 2 people in the audience!), and that the show was pretty dire anyway!… but you have to be prepared to accept these kind of experiences at this Festival – if you don’t see the bad stuff, what standard do you have to rate the good stuff!

Just listening to what people are saying about shows is good too – it’s not difficult to catch up on this while you’re in a box office queue, or if you’re lining up to go and see a show.  Go with your instinct based on what you hear about shows in the street, and what people tell you.

With all this in mind, it’s important to know that headline acts generally sell out by the end of the first week of the festival, and any award nominees are normally announced just before the beginning of the last week after which their remaining performances will sell out within a day or two.  So make sure you’ve booked for anything by this point if there’s something you haven’t seen which is important to you.

3)            Good shoes and wet weather!

Edinburgh is notorious for bad weather in August.  Without question, you should take a waterproof jacket with a hood with you, may be an umbrella, and possibly some waterproof trousers.  There was one rather exhilarating experience I had of wandering around the city for a whole day and evening one year, going from one show to the next in the pouring rain with only an umbrella and I ended up sitting rather uncomfortably in each show in my waterlogged jeans, but even though I had a great time, it definitely taught me that having waterproof trousers are a good idea!  Many people wander around in single-use, plastic ponchos – they always look so miserable too though, so I don’t rate these as the best option!

You are going to be walking a lot!… I’ve heard so many people at the festival grumbling about how much walking they’ve done, but if you prepare yourself for this and accept it as a part of the whole experience that goes some way to easing the pain!  Edinburgh is not an enormous city by European standards and you can actually walk from one side of the centre to the other in about 30 minutes, but during the festival the crowds are so big that this can take a lot longer, plus you should plan your walking time very carefully if you have specific shows you’re seeing because the standard policy across the festival is that latecomers may not be admitted, and if you’ve booked tickets already they will not be refunded or exchanged if you are late.

4)            Ticket prices and discounts

The first two days of the festival are preview performances and almost all shows offer 2 for 1 discounts on tickets, so this is the time to see shows which you’re either not sure about (because they’re cheaper if you’re in an even numbered group), or which are expensive and which you’re prepared to book far in advance for.

In general, ticket prices range upwards of about £6, with the most expensive shows being around £20 (although there are very few of these), and the average price is around £10.  When I’m giving personal advice about the festival I tend to advise setting yourself a budget for tickets, and when that budget has run out, you should have seen all the major shows which were important to you if you’ve planned things carefully.

There’s also the Half Price Hut at the bottom of The Mound, but it’s hit and miss if tickets sent to the Hut by the different venues for certain shows so you just have to turn up and see what they’re offering.

There also used to be an iphone app and website called Theatre Ninjas, but it didn’t seem to be working this year.  It may work again in the future so it’s worth a mention – they list shows where you can go to the box office and give a password and get a free ticket!… I used it extensively in 2011 and had a great time with it so watch out for it in the future.

Lastly, you should always be prepared to stop and talk to anyone who is offering you a flyer while you’re walking around town… it’s not unusual that they’ll try to sell you their show by offering you a discount!

There’s a whole array of advice online about how to make the Edinburgh Festival work best for you but in the end I think it’s more important that you have the experience and don’t think about it too much!… the more I’ve been to this amazing festival, the more I’ve realized that over-planning for it is not necessary.  Once accommodation is sorted you’ve overcome the most difficult task and the rest is all about soaking up the atmosphere.  Establishing a budget is helpful but £100-200 is more than enough to see plenty of shows over the course of 1 week, then you just need to budget for food beyond that and there are plenty of decent, cheap eateries in the city (look out for a blog from me about this in the future!).

This has been by means of a summary of my experiences with the Edinburgh Festival over the past few years, but next year I’ll write more specific blogs on how to tackle various things associated with the festival such as accommodation, food, and getting tickets.  For now, just plan to make sure you don’t miss this amazing festival at least once in your lifetime by starting to plan now to visit in 2013!