Edinburgh Fringe planning tips
Get the best from the fest with my handy guide to how to plan your gig-going
‘Debbie’s Work of Obsession’ – that is how my husband rudely labelled the top of my DIY Edinburgh Fringe timetable the other year. Still, I didn’t hear him complaining when we got to see 15 shows in three days without even getting up early. (It would have been 17 if it hadn’t been for a couple of pesky venue changes – not that I’m still bitter).
Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world and it’s held in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. I’m a huge Fringe fan and go every year so I thought I’d share with you my tips for getting the best from the Fest. You don’t want to end up like the friend-of-a-friend I heard dragged her poor kids from show to show one year to find them all sold out.
Maximise your time
You’re paying top dollar for digs in Edinburgh when the festival is on so don’t waste your time hanging out in the pub (unless, like many, it doubles as a Fringe venue). You get best value by cramming in several shows a day and with a bit of planning that needn’t be a slog. OK I’m pulling on my tartan anorak now to tell you what I do….
1) Get circling:
Get the Fringe guide early (from edfringe.com or large branches of Waterstones) and – this is the fun part – get biro marking. I do this in short bursts over several weeks, down the beach, the pub, on trains, over lunch… Mark some must–sees and some maybes.
2) Make a shortlist diary:
In a Word doc or something more whizzy, make a grid divided into one hour time slots. Stick your must-sees plus as many of the maybes as you’re still keen on at second glance into the relevant time slots (most will be repeated every day).
Include the show name, brochure page number and the venue name, number and grid reference (this relates to the map in the back of the Fringe brochure). I also like to include a few words to remind me what the show is about and mark it based on how much of a must-see it is for me. This gives you the smorgasbord from which to plan your days once you arrive, or before if you you want to guarantee tickets.
3) Cluster gigs:
On the day, or the night before, earlier if you like, make a plan. Shows usually last an hour, so, using your diary, on a daily basis you can comfortably pick say a 12.00, a 14.00 a 16.00 and a 18.30 then one or two in the evening, or begin and end earlier if you’ve children with you. Start with your must-sees and anything you’ve pre-booked, then, using the grid references and the Fringe venues map, see which others on your shortlist for the day are relatively close by and choose these, checking you’ve allowed enough time to get between venues. I average five shows a day but you can do fewer.
Should something screw up (like the year I joined a queue for a free version of the hugely popular Austentatious improv show only to find it had filled up 45 mins earlier) you should be able to quickly pull a nearby alternative off your list.
4) Book some shows ahead
Be warned, Pleasance Courtyard, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, and Assembly Rooms (particularly the first two) are the big, popular venues where tickets sell out early (even for unknowns as lazier fest-goers just hang out there and take pot luck). This is especially true for for days with a two-for-one offer on. If you have children with you, or don’t like unpredictability, book more shows in advance.
You can use your credit card to collect your pre-booked tickets from handy machines at Edinburgh airport or Waverley Railway Station when you arrive, which saves queuing at various box offices around the city but note, machines and box offices at each of the major venues (mentioned above) can book and print shows for the other major venues. There’s also a central Fringe box office.
See big shows on weekdays
Gigs are cheaper Mon-Thurs so I try to see the pricier gigs on weekdays (you’ve also got more chance of getting a ticket).
It’s two for one on many shows on the first Monday and Tuesday of the Fringe. Thereafter you can try the Virgin Money Half Price Hut for on the day discounts (use the Fringe App to see what’s on offer).
Fringe Friends Membership is great value. For £35 you are entitled to 15 two-for-one tickets for participating shows. A lot of the bigger shows are included and with around £12 an average ticket price I reckon it pays for itself after three shows. I saved £134 over a week using the membership (and would have saved even more with it if I wasn’t already visiting over the two-for-one days mentioned above).
Cut booking fees
It’s generally 80p a ticket if you’re booking online but this is capped at £4.80 per transaction, so it pays to book more than six tickets (i.e. three pairs of tickets) at once. Buying direct from the box office of the show venue also avoids fees.
Get big name value
Fringe shows are nearly always hour slots. While plays will be written to that length, see your favourite comedian outside of the festival and you’ll often get more stand-up for your money. Check on their website if they’re touring near you later in the year before you commit – it could give you better value and mean you don’t waste valuable Fringe time on something you can see easily on your doorstep.
See the Free Fringe
The Free Fringe is now so huge, it’s possible to spend your whole festival break without buying a single ticket. While it’s undoubtedly a place for try-outs, stand-ups trying to build a fan base and shows from amateurs who have a one-off story to tell, there are plenty of gems. Two of my favourite shows the other year – a new stand-up and a storytelling, soul singing burlesque act were ‘free’. Even established names do free gigs alongside paid ones; they might be trying out new material, dabbling in an area in which they’re lesser known, or simply being altruistic.
Oh and remember the ‘Free’ Fringe isn’t supposed to be actually free; it’s basically indoor busking and only the hardest-hearted would exit past a performer holding a bucket without showing some cash appreciation.
…but double-check free fringe venues
These occasionally move after the brochure has been printed, which is frustrating, so best check on the web on the day.
WHAT TO SEE
Follow the buzz
Keep your ear to the ground for what’s going down well. You can glean valuable word-of-mouth recommendations from other festival-goers over breakfast or in the queue for a gig. Every year there’s a buzz around a few acts, some more surprising than others. Had I not been recommended it I never would have bothered with Wot No Fish? a show with one man, some Tupperware boxes of Jewish snacks and an overhead projector. The bittersweet tale he wove showing the cartoons of family life his uncle had sketched on his weekly wage packets for decades had me in tears and remains one of my all-time Fringe favourites.
…but don’t be a slave to reviews
If I’ve a big ticket gig in mind I might be swayed by its star rating in a national newspaper but 99% of the time I know the kind of thing I like and I trust my own judgement. Besides, hundreds of acts never even get reviewed and some five-star reviews will be from amateur publications. I find the best way to build an itinerary is to get tickets for a few safe bets and sprinkle the rest of my days with more wild cards.
Mix it up
My husband and I see a lot of comedy year-round so a few years back he made it a rule that even though the festival is particularly known for stand-up we have to see a wider variety of acts. Now we throw in plenty of theatre, music, spoken word and more and it’s works very well. If you’re really into pot luck, use the GPS-linked festival app to browse what’s on near your location at any given time (a sort of cultural Tinder!)
Got children with you? There are heaps of kids’ shows on of course, but for hanging out in between, try the Kidzone at Pleasance Courtyard with art pods, toys and, on certain days, magicians and the like; the free craft room in City Art Centre; and the lovely National Museum of Scotland which includes natural history, science, fashion and err Dolly the cloned sheep – now stuffed and revolving on a plinth. There’s also a free Museum of Childhood.
Avoid the Royal Mile
‘Murder Mile’, as it’s nicknamed during the festival, is the main drag where hundreds of acts and excitable drama students busk and thrust flyers at you. It might be fun once during your visit but wading through could add 20 mins to your walk to your next gig.
Pre-plan food, layer up, stockpile change
I’m notorious for planning with my stomach but you don’t want your tummy rumbling through some poignant one-person show. If you’ve got a tight flit between shows in the middle of the day get a sandwich before the first to eat in the queue for the next. You’ll also want to layer up for Edinburgh’s unpredictable weather and Fringe venues that veer between big and air conditioned to (more often) small, hot and airless.
For free shows you’ll need some donation money handy so you’re not faced with an awkward 20p or £20 moment. Likewise, if you’re using the buses they only accept the exact fare (£4 for a day ticket).
Catch up post-fringe
You won’t be able to see everything you’ve shortlisted, so check which shows you missed are touring and you can catch later in the year (Chortle.co.uk is a good source for comedy gig news). Look out too for local post-fringe festivals, where you are likely to catch a clutch of ex-Edinburgh acts. Come next May onwards look out for bargain warm-up gigs before the next Fringe.
If you’re planning for NEXT year, check out my feature on when to book accommodation, how to save cash and the best time to hit the festival here.