GETTING THERE: You may still just be able to grab a last-minute airfare to New Orleans for less than $400. At press time, Orbitz showed a $363 round-trip flight on Northwest leaving Sunday from BWI, and Sidestep.com listed $368 on Delta out of BWI. Amtrak's Southern Crescent (about a day-long trip) starts at $312. Info: 800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com.
STAYING THERE: At press time, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau's Web site (see below) showed Mardi Gras weekend rooms still available starting at $179 a night around the French Quarter (for example, the Saint Ann/Marie Antoinette Hotel on Conti), and starting at $149 a night in the Garden District and Uptown (parade central) -- for example, the Prytania Park Hotel on Prytania. The most exciting recent development in New Orleans's crowded hotel scene is the new Ritz-Carlton complex on Canal Street (Where else would you find a Ritz-Carlton across from a strip club and wig shop?). They've converted the huge Maison Blanc department store into three excellent hotels: the Ritz-Carlton (800-241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com), New Orleans's only five-diamond hotel, with its only five-diamond restaurant, Victor's; the boutique Maison Orleans (504-670-2900, www.maisonorleans.com) ; and the surprisingly affordable four-diamond Iberville Suites (504-523-2400, www.ibervillesuites.com). Internet rates for the Iberville Suites go as low as $105 from June to August and during December, or $139 for much of the rest of the year, with the exception of Mardi Gras and other big events. The properties are managed by the same staff, and all guests have access to the lush Ritz facilities, including the spa. At the Ritz's locally popular French Quarter Bar, don't miss the etouffee and trumpeter/crooner Jeremy Davenport.
EATING: If you can't find great food in New Orleans, you're too drunk to eat. Sure things in the Quarter include gumbo and superb turnip greens at the Gumbo Shop (630 St. Peter St.), jambalaya at Petunia's (817 St. Louis St.) and the fried shrimp and oyster po-boy at the Royal Cafe (700 Royal).
MARDI GRAS: Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World (800-362-8213, www.mardigrasworld.com; $13.75) is where most of the big floats are designed, built and stored. It's worth a visit any time of the year. Take the free ferry from the river end of Canal Street across to Algiers and catch the shuttle bus to the float studios. To see the floats in action, almost 50 parades are slated for today through Mardi Gras. Most of the major ones roll down St. Charles and onto Canal, but a number are held in other neighborhoods. For schedules, maps and webcam views, log onto www.mardigras.com.
INFO: New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com.