Planning Ahead for the Edinburgh Fringe (a.k.a. Edinburgh Festival Fringe)

Fringe festival banner on Royal Mile

Sometimes talking about the Ed Fringe (full title: Edinburgh Festival Fringe) makes you sound like a character from a Vietnam War film. “You don’t know… you weren’t there… it was carnage,” is just one response likely to wind up festival newbies. Yet I cannot emphasise enough how annoyingly important it is not to walk into this event blindfolded, either metaphorically or literally (ouch). Of course you’ll enjoy blustering around and trying to work out which performances sound like your thing, but you won’t be having so much fun when you’re greeted with the crushing sense of disappointment delivered by an ever-increasing box office queue or, worse, a huge list of sold out shows when you reach the front of said queue.

Don’t get me wrong, compromises are great, and there’s loads to see spontaneously for free or via the Half Price Hut, but in order to really make the most of things you do have to be a bit of a geek. These are my top tactical tips to ensure you get the most out of one of the world’s best-loved arts festivals.

Conceptual text art 'No Miracles'
This artwork (from the National Galleries of Scotland) should be prescribed to hopeful punters trying to book sell-out shows.

Earmark your must-see comedians and be tactical

If there’s any one comedian you really must see, sign up to their mailing list or newsletter to be amongst the first to know when their show dates are announced, should they decide to play this year. It’s no good turning up at the Box Office in August with the expectation of buying tickets on the day (my rookie mistake in Year One of attending), and to add to the complications you’ll also be up against thousands of bloodthirsty culture vultures in the months before the Fringe. Check the official website or the app and book as soon as you’re able to.

When you’re faced with disappointment – perhaps you’ve already booked your trip for mid-August but your top comedian is only performing two dates at the end of the month – it’s worth remembering that the Fringe is used as a testing ground for stadium gigs. That means your favourite funny person may be about to take the same show on the road in the autumn, so you could get a chance to see them closer to home if you sit tight.

Performers lay down on the ground along the Mile, Edinburgh
Using the floor as your bed for the night is not a viable festival option.

Book your hotel now to get the best choice

With the population of Edinburgh swelling to double its normal rate during the Fringe, it’s safe to say that choosing your accommodation should be ticked off sooner rather than later to avoid being left with slim pickings. Rates will be inflated, of course, but there are some reasonable bargains if you know where to look.

Don’t be tempted to book a cheaper out-of-town option if you’re a hardcore Fringegoer – you’ll spend all your time walking the city streets and there’s no point having your base so far away from the action. Because my budget doesn’t stretch to the gorgeous and very central Hotel Missoni, I normally stay at the Travelodge in St. Mary’s Street, which is just round the corner from Cowgate and also about a 30 second walk from the Royal Mile. It’s a short distance to both Princes Street and Grassmarket for a retail therapy fix in between shows.

Assembly Hall and Princes Street in summer
Take the train and you’ll arrive right here (well, just along and left a bit) in Princes Street Gardens.

Think about transport options

Newly opened city tramway aside, Edinburgh is a city built for walking, so you won’t need to think much about transport once you get there (though those with mobility issues can find useful advice here). What you will need to plan is how you’re going to reach Auld Reekie in the first place – by train, coach or plane? Prices and journey times can vary wildly depending on which mode you choose, and a badly timed delay can cut half a day from your overall Fringe time, which is really frustrating.

I’ve resorted to a combination of flights and train travel ever since, booking my train ticket three months in advance to get an early discount.  Edinburgh Waverley Station is beside Prince’s Street Gardens, delivering passengers right into the heart of the action; the airport is a bus ride away, but airport buses do run frequently. As an alternative, I know people who have caught a coach up from London, but this did take about 10 hours each way, and wouldn’t be an option for festival-goers short on patience, or indeed annual leave.

Launch of festival programme 2011
Time for some programme reading during the 2011 Fringe. Credit:

Get excited about the programme

Not that I’m remotely counting down the days or anything, but the big release is on 5th June *resumes calendar check and sighs*. You can pre-order a copy of the programme and get it posted out to you, which will set you back £3.75, or you might want to take your chances and pick up a copy from various arts-centric shops and venues. There’s a full list of programme stockists on the website, covering the whole of the UK, and including many branches of Waterstones.

Another way to grab your events listings Bible is to become a Friend of the Fringe, starting at £25 a year, with perks including a free programme and an exclusive booking line and box office. In addition, you can redeem a 2for1 ticket offer on selected shows. Obviously the higher status you become as a Friend, the more perks you receive and the more you pay, so it depends how involved you want to be.

So, will this be the year you discover the Fringe?