#FrugalCongressLife Survival Guide: Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I, the author of this guide and current sole proprietor of this blog, am a member of the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress Social Media Promotional Team, otherwise known as the “BSBC Social Butterflies”. However, the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress has been one of my top five favorite congresses for two years prior to me joining the team in October 2018, and the bulk of this article was written in the summer and early fall of 2018 before I joined the team. Although I admittedly have some inherent biases from being on the promo team, this was a congress I could get behind 100% before being on the team, and what you read in this article IS my objective advice. All advice is presented as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

The time has come to cover another entry in the hallowed list of my top five favorite congresses in the USA – the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress!  In 2016, local promoters and DJs Raj More and Dola Ige took over the operations of this congress from its previous management, and have since been growing it into a world-class salsa and bachata festival for the ages.

The Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress takes place at the Hilton Baltimore, a massive, sprawling, gorgeous multi-level modern conference hotel located at 401 Pratt Street right in the heart of downtown Baltimore near the Inner Harbor. The venue is more than capable of handling this large-scale dance festival, and includes clean, modern rooms and such amenities as the region’s only Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop, a heated pool, a fitness center, and stunning views of Oriole Park at Camden Yards from the suites as well as a select handful of standard rooms. 

The 2020 Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress, also the 10th edition of the congress, takes place from April 9th-April 12th, 2020. Over 500 attendees from all over the country are expected if previous years are any indication.

Visit http://www.baltimorecongress.com for up-to-date information, schedules, and a link to book your hotel room!

Your days at the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress will be filled with workshops from some of the best salsa and bachata instructors doing it right now, and your nights will be filled with performances, live concerts, and some of the most consistently outstanding and memorable social dancing you will have the entire year in expansive salsa, bachata, and kizomba/zouk ballrooms.  This congress is one of my favorites and I can’t recommend it enough!  Today’s blog entry is your guide to doing this truly superlative congress as frugally as possible!

But first…

A NOTE ABOUT BALTIMORE CITY IN GENERAL:

Being careful where you go is important in Baltimore. While the area of Baltimore City around the event hotel is a touristy area and very safe, neighborhood safety varies further away from the hotel and some neighborhoods can be high-crime.

I am not saying this to fearmonger or to try and discourage anyone from going to this congress – it is one of the best congresses on the east coast and well worth going to – but I have to keep it 100 for the safety of my readers, especially those who may be coming to Baltimore for the first time and may not know which neighborhoods are safe or not.

Again, the area around the hotel is very safe and you need not worry there.

Since I know some dancers are adventurous and like to explore, for those who want to explore other parts of Baltimore City, neighborhoods I recommend are the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Ridgeley’s Delight, and Federal Hill.

With that note out of the way, on to the guide…

PASS:

You know what to do by now. Buy early, use discount codes, volunteer.

We will post all early bird full and VIP passes and price changes to this congress on our Facebook and Twitter pages, as always.

TRAVEL:

Baltimore and all surrounding areas are supported by Citymapper as of the time of this writing, so the app’s combined DC/Baltimore package can be used to easily navigate transit in Baltimore and DC including real-time schedules and multiple routes.

FLYING:

If flying to the congress, your best option is good old Spirit, which flies directly into Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI). BWI is located about 18 minutes from the Hilton Baltimore by UBER/Lyft or 30-40 minutes by light rail.

Important: the Hilton Baltimore on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore, which is the congress hotel, is not to be confused with the Hilton Baltimore BWI Airport, a smaller hotel located near the airport. Two entirely different hotels. If you go to the Hilton Baltimore BWI and ask where the congress registration desk is, all you will get is a blank stare most likely.

If you take a non-Spirit airline, make sure you fly into BWI, as DCA and IAD are both too far away from the congress to be practical. If you must fly into IAD or DCA, take Metro to Union Station and take the bus, MARC train, or Amtrak to BWI from there. Our DCBX guide has more detailed info on navigating Metro.

Heads up – no form of UBER Pool or Shared Lyft are available in Baltimore at the time of this writing (September 2018 for this particular section, but I wrote large parts of this post this past summer). Your absolute cheapest rideshare options in Baltimore at this time are UberX or regular Lyft, which can get expensive, so figuring out the bus and light rail systems is, as always, your best frugal idea.  Of course, UberX and Lyft can be split with fellow congress attendees with some coordination and planning.

UBER or Lyft from BWI to the Hilton Baltimore is about $20 one way.

Light RailLink Directions to the Hilton Baltimore from BWI Airport:

The light rail leaves BWI from the southeastern side of the airport in between the entrance/exit for Spirit/Delta (BONUS FOR THE MAXIMALLY FRUGAL) and the entrance exit for CES Airport/British Airways/Condor. To get to the light rail, as well as the shuttles to long-term parking, you’ll have to go downstairs to the lower level of the airport.

Get on the light rail north toward Hunt Valley | Timonium Fairgrounds and take it 11 stops to the Pratt Street Light Rail Station.  From there, walk three minutes west on Pratt Street and the hotel will be on your left.

This will be a 37 minute trip one way at a cost of $1.80.

To return to BWI, walk back to the Light Rail station and get on the southbound light rail toward BWI Airport, and ride 11 stops back to the BWI Airport Stop next to the Spirit/Delta entrance.

This will be a 42 minute trip one way at a cost of $1.80.

For more info on the light rail including fares and schedules: https://mta.maryland.gov/light-rail

DRIVING:

I do not recommend driving directly to this particular congress as it is located in downtown Baltimore and parking is expensive and spottily available.

If you are driving to the congress, I recommend parking in BWI’s long-term or daily parking ($8-12 per day) and taking UBER/Lyft or the light rail to the hotel.

BWI’s long-term parking lots ($8 per day) are two large open-air surface parking lots (Long Term A and Long Term B) located on the far outskirts of the airport. These lots, run by SP+ Parking, feature 10,000 parking spaces between them, and the availability of spaces in each lot is tracked in real-time on the above-linked site. The lots are not walking distance from the airport, but a shuttle picks up reliably every 5-10 minutes from various spots around the lot 24 hours per day. These unstaffed lots are somewhat desolate and isolated, so use caution if alone there at night.

Fast Park & Relax is a 24/7 staffed slightly-higher-end open-air alternative to SP+’s surface parking also located a short shuttle ride from the airport. This lot starts at $8.40 per day and features the ability to reserve spots in advance and other amenities not found at the SP+ lot, but some reviews complain of inconsistent shuttle pickups, so keep that in mind.

If you prefer, BWI’s daily parking garage ($12 per day) is a less isolated covered parking garage with more activity much closer to the airport – although still not walking distance, and a fast and reliable shuttle to the terminal is offered here as well.

As a reminder, all shuttles to the parking lots and garages depart from the downstairs level of the airport.

The parking garage next to the hotel costs $30 per night, but there have been discounted rates for attendees of past congresses; it will be announced if this is possible again this year.

BUS/TRAIN:

Both the Amtrak Northeast Regional and the MARC Penn Line go directly to Baltimore Penn Station and the directions from Penn Station to the Hilton (see below) can be followed from there.  If you prefer, Amtrak and MARC both go to BWI, and the above light rail directions can be followed from there.

Bolt Bus stops at 1578 Maryland Avenue, about two blocks west of Penn Station, and Baltimore City’s 51 bus (see below) picks up from there as well.

Directions from Penn Station to the Hilton Baltimore:

– Walk south on Charles Street and make a right on Oliver Street

– Walk over to Maryland Avenue to the 51 bus stop at Maryland Ave and Oliver Street (SB 2172) [this is half a block south of where BoltBus drops off so if you took BoltBus walk south on Maryland Avenue to the 51 stop]

– Take the 51 Downtown 10 stops to Hopkins Place and Pratt Street

– Walk west on Pratt Street for two and a half blocks and the hotel will be on your left.

This is about a 26 minute trip one way and costs $1.80.

Directions from the Hilton Baltimore to Penn Station:

– Exit the side facing Pratt Street

– Walk about a block and a half east on Pratt Street to the Pratt Street Light Rail Station

– Get on the Light Rail northbound toward Hunt Vally | Timonium Foregrounds | Penn Station

– Ride 5 stops to the Mount Royal & Lt Rail Station

– Walk southeast on Mount Royal Avenue, swing a left on Mount Oliver Street, and walk east two blocks to Charles Street

– Make a left on Charles Street to return to Penn Station

This is about a 27 minute trip one way and costs $1.80.

More info on the 51 bus including fares and schedules here: https://mta.maryland.gov/share-bus-overview?bus_service=Local+Bus&route=Route+51

Penn Station is also an 8 minute UBER/Lyft ride away from the hotel.

The area around Penn Station is pretty safe, but use your best judgement.  If you’re going 100% public transit, the light rail route from BWI is probably your absolute safest option if you have a choice.

As excellent as Megabus normally is, taking it to the Baltimore Congress is not recommended, as Megabus stops in White Marsh, which is a considerable distance northeast of downtown Baltimore, which will add considerable time and expense to your trip.

Depending on where you’re coming from it may be more efficient if Megabus is your best or only option to go to Union Station in DC, take the MARC to Baltimore Penn Station or BWI and follow the relevant directions to the Hilton from there.  It will honestly take just as much time as trying to get from White Marsh to downtown Baltimore using exclusively public transportation.  UBER/Lyft from WM to downtown Baltimore will be stupidly expensive, especially in light of Pool/Shared not being an option.

We do not generally recommend Greyhound as a travel option, but if you can catch them on a day when they are actually reliable, they stop near the stadiums, a 5 minute UBER/Lyft ride from the hotel. In our opinion, you use them at your own risk.

OTHER LOCAL PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION:

General information about the Washington DC Metro system can be found at http://www.wmata.com, and a map of the system can be found here. The Metro trains and buses require a SmarTrip card; info about how to purchase one can be found here.

There are two different specific public transportation options local to the DC Metro area that will take anyone in this area, as well as any travelers who find themselves in this area (because they flew into DCA or IAD or whatever other reason) to BWI for a very low price, and the above directions from BWI to the hotel can be followed from there.

For residents of Montgomery County, MD, the MTA 201 bus will take you from the Shady Grove metro station (northwestern end of the red line), the Gaithersburg Park & Ride, or the Georgia Avenue Park & Ride in Aspen Hill to BWI for $5 one way. This trip will take a little over an hour. The 201 accepts debit and credit cards for the current trip’s one-way fares only or cash in exact change (no change given if you overpay). This is also a good practical option for anyone who flew into DCA or IAD and can catch it from the Shady Grove metro station.

For residents of Prince George’s County MD, including the College Park/University of Maryland area, the WMATA B30 bus goes from the Greenbelt Metro station at the northern end of the green line to BWI for $7.50 one way (exact change required). This bus isn’t really practical for anyone outside of PG County, however, as it is located further away from either of the DC airports than the 201 stops above.

Additionally, the B30 does not run on Saturday or Sunday, so anyone leaving for PG County on Sunday evening will have to take the 201 back to Shady Grove, then return to PG County via the red line and the green line, which will take close to three hours total.

LODGING:

Your best and safest option is to stay at the event hotel or, if the event hotel sells out (as it did in 2018 and 2019) before you can get a room, the nearby overflow hotel.

As with most congresses, but to even more of a degree with this one due to the varying nature of neighborhood safety in Baltimore, your best option is to stay onsite.

The Baltimore Congress team offers a room block at the event hotel at a heavily discounted rate for both one-king and two-double rooms.  This is almost guaranteed the best deal you will find on this hotel or any other four-star hotel in the immediate vicinity; rooms at the event hotel normally go for close to $200 per night outside of this room block.

Of course, a roomshare of up to four people can bring the cost per room as low as $35 per night once taxes are figured in.

Be advised that you need a room key to access certain elevators, especially when going to upper floors, so staying in the hotel is recommended for that reason as well.

The hotel has sold out consistently every year I have gone so booking your room as early as possible is recommended. A nearby overflow hotel will be announced when the event hotel inevitably sells out for 2020.

If you are going to insist on staying at any other offsite location, which I do not recommend, do extensive research beforehand on the neighborhood you are staying in and make sure it is a safe neighborhood.

FOOD:

For the grocery shoppers, I recommend doing your food shopping before the congress if you can. If you are driving from points north there’s a Walmart in Aberdeen, MD (645 S Philadelphia Blvd) or if you are coming from points south there’s one in Laurel, MD (3549 Russett Green E). There are also three Walmarts located near BWI airport in the Glen Burnie/Linthicum Heights area, at 3601 Washington Blvd, Arbutus, MD, 406 George Clauss Blvd, Severn MD and 6721 Chesapeake Center Drive, Glen Burnie, MD.

If you can’t get your shopping in beforehand for any reason, Price Rite of Baltimore, located on 1205 W Pratt Street near the B&O Railroad Museum (9 minute UBER/Lyft one way), is your best bet, and is in a safe part of Baltimore.

The aforementioned Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf is the most convenient option for your coffee fix, but be warned that they close at 4:00pm on Friday and Saturday and 6:00pm on Sunday. On the upside, they now take debit and credit cards after being cash-only in previous years (per attendee reports).

The closest Starbucks is located about a 5 minute walk east (one way) at 1 W Pratt Street in the nearby Baltimore Convention Center, and Heavenly Manna Coffee House is located across the street.

Walk a little further east and you will find two more Starbucks shops, both across the street from one another at 100 and 200 East Pratt Street respectively.  According to comedian Lewis Black, two Starbucks coffee shops across the street from one another is the End Of The Universe, so we can put the End Of The Universe down as one more cool spectacle to see in downtown Baltimore.

Alternately, Peace & A Cup Of Joe, a cozy local independent coffeehouse, is located about a 8-10 minute walk west (one way) in the Ridgley’s Delight area of Baltimore at 713 W. Pratt Street.

As far as places to eat out go, there’s Jimmy John’s, Subway, and Chipotle near the hotel, and you can also find a Shake Shack, Cheesecake Factory, Hooters, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Hard Rock Cafe, Fogo de Chao, Johnny Rockets, and Phillip’s Seafood near The End Of The Universe at the Inner Harbor as well. A CVS is located near Shake Shack for your emergency supply needs.

Another noteworthy spot near the harbor is Sajhoma Restaurant, a cozy Dominican restaurant located on Fleet Street in Fells Point. If you get a ticket for the Baltimore Congress’ infamous party bus (sold separately from all passes), a stop here for food and dancing will be part of the trip.

All locations mentioned are safe areas of Baltimore.

Closer to the hotel, there’s always the hotel’s in-house dining option, an upscale American restaurant called The Diamond Tavern.

Of course, I can’t discuss food at the Baltimore Salsa Bachata Congress without mentioning their flagship taco artist, the Mexican On The Run food truck, which can be found parked outside the hotel’s ground floor down the escalator from the registration desk between 10pm and 3am on Friday and Saturday night. This is a top-notch food option, especially late at night, but it tends to sell out by 1am or thereabouts, so jump on it early in the night. Hopefully the truck’s operators continue bringing a larger and larger supply every year, because their food is quite good, and it will be a popular option.

That’s all for this survival guide, holla in the comments if you have anything else and I’ll see you at BSBC!

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