What My Fyre Festival Debacle Taught Me About Money

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I’m a Fyre Festival survivor. Actually, scratch that: I was one of the boneheads who got suckered in. When my friends and I booked our “geodesic domes,” we knew this trip was going to be a gamble, but the disaster some of us flew into was so far below our already-lowered expectations that I’m still processing what happened. I’m still paying for it, too.

Nothing hooks a millennial like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and Fyre gave some good bait. I’m sure you’ve seen the Instagrams: top models sunbathing on yachts, whipping around on jet-skis, swimming and taking selfies with island pigs (a major selling point for me, personally). Our package of eight tickets cost us $4,000, which included the festival tickets, lodging for three nights/four days, the roundtrip charter flights from Miami to The Exumas, and food.

That $500 wasn’t chump change, at least not for me — while the jokes about Ja Rule stranding the 1% on an island were funny, this was a trip I needed to save up and budget for. (And I cringe to think of the folks who spent thousands more for the same “luxury” experience.) And we also needed to arrange our own transportation to Miami. But, overall, it sounded too good to be true — the first of many red flags. 

A Disaster of a “Festival”

We envisioned ourselves dancing the days and nights away on Coco Plum Beach to the sounds of Pusha-T, Desiigner, Migos, Matoma, Blink 182, Major Lazer and Disclosure — to name a few. I don’t think any of them made it though, unless they were staying at Sandals. They must have received the memo before we did. 

If you’ve read any of the stories, you know that the reality fell far short of the promise. For starters, our “geodesic domes” — which you had to locate using GPS coordinates — promised sweeping views of the ocean in eco-friendly settings. Our dome (which turned out to be more like an industrial-sized IKEA bag) didn’t have ocean views, but it was wet. On the first night, my girlfriends and I slept on soggy mattresses — thanks to the storm that hit the night before — sans pillows and blankets. We found extra towels at a nearby vacant concierge and used them for warmth.

We also slept with one eye open: Since there was no organization to the domes, we had lost and drunken souls wandering in and out of ours all night. We couldn’t hear the ocean either, but the winds that whipped the dome’s flaps up and down made it sound like someone was crinkling a plastic bag in your ear.

Our dining experience was to be curated by Starr Catering Group, the team behind the likes of Upland, Morimoto and the Clocktower. Instead, we were graciously fed by the local Bahamian kitchen staff, who made everyone barbecue chicken, a fish option, and, yes, the deli and cheese-on-cheese sandwiches that went viral on social media (my girlfriend Madison ate two). 

I have a newfound appreciation for oranges and beer, because that’s what sustained me for 24 hours. There were no food vendors, not enough people handing out water, and plenty of alcohol to buy with our preloaded Fyre Bands (more on that in a moment). In fact, having a bar available is the one promise they delivered on: $14 Casamigos margaritas in mini plastic Dixie cups to drown away our sorrows for feeling duped.

Lessons Learned

If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m still as salty as the rim on my margarita, but I’ve since sobered up. Here are five financial lessons I escaped with:

Account for Travel Emergencies in Your Emergency Fund, Too.

Conventional personal finance wisdom says to have three to six months of income and living expenses saved for the unexpected — even $2,000 is a good goal. But I never considered travel emergencies as a part of my emergency cushion. I’ve always had a more practical definition of “the unexpected,” like losing a job, getting a new pair of glasses, or a car repair. My definition didn’t include fleeing an island, finding new housing, and salvaging a weekend that went horribly wrong.

I’m now in favor of either having a separate emergency fund for travel, or at least having a cushion with extra padding to account for travel emergencies. I’m currently out at least $800 more than I originally budgeted for (which was roughly $1,200 total). Once I build my savings back, I’m going to have an additional $500 or more saved for every trip I plan moving forward.

Credit-Averse Millennials, Get Over It.

If you’re one of the 67 percent of millennials who doesn’t own a credit card, then I strongly encourage you to get over it and get one. Our credit cards saved us in more ways than one. Not only is having a credit card good for building your credit score, but using one comes with more freedom and protection than using a debit card, especially in emergency situations. For starters, you’re not dipping into your actual cash; while we’ve been taught to only spend what we have (a fine lesson!), it’s actually safer to use a credit card, which comes with less liability if anything fraudulent were to happen in a bind.

Then you can pay it off with your emergency fund, in full, when the next billing cycle hits. 

When Traveling, Cash Is Still King.

The biggest money mistake I made was only bringing $20 in cash. (Sorry, mom.) In my defense — just over a week before we took off — we were informed that the festival would be 100 percent cashless and that we were going to have digitally-enabled wristbands as our “secure payment methods.” Vendors wouldn’t accept credit cards, either. Food was included, but not alcohol and excursions. Therefore, they encouraged us to pre-load our bands with “at least $300-$500 per day” and that any unused funds would be credited back to our accounts.

(Another example of the benefits of credit cards: I still haven’t received the $300 I put on my band, but I have a better chance of getting it back on the credit card I used.)

Even still, I should’ve known better. You should always travel with an appropriate amount of cash, especially to a foreign country. Even better, get the local currency, as well. The Exumas isn’t as commercialized as Nassau, so when we were scrounging for food on Friday, people who had cash prevailed. 

Sometimes Throwing Money at the Problem Is the Only Solution.

We woke up Friday morning to the news of the festival being canceled. The question then became: how are we going to get out of here? Rumors were swirling that there wasn’t enough money to fund flights back to Miami and a lot of the festival-goers were already fighting for cabs back to the airport to test their luck. (Remember, Fyre was in charge of arranging our flights back.) We started heading in that direction, too, but we also started thinking of alternative options: Interisland flights, chartering a boat, maybe seeing if we could figure out which yacht Ja Rule was on.

I give major props to my group for acting fast, with a special shout-out to my friends Brandon and Hank, who can befriend anyone in under five minutes. They sought advice from their cab driver, Wendy, who came up big for us: In less than an hour, she called her contact at the airport and got our entire group on an interisland flight to Nassau; she even helped us book a car to pick us up and take us to the Airbnb another friend had booked. We got off the island within hours. That wasn’t the case for the majority of festival-goers, who were stuck in the airport for hours on end.

Be Aware of Social Influences on Your Purchasing Decisions.

I generally pride myself on knowing that the majority of what we see on social media is curated, contrived, and glamorized. So I truly hit a personal low here. Fyre’s social media marketing worked, and I paid the price for the perceived reality. This experience has taught me to be a more skeptical consumer when it comes to buying what I see on my feed. Looking back, the decision was impulsive, and there were plenty of red flags leading up to the weekend that should’ve dissuaded me from going. In the end, my impulsiveness cost me $2,000 — and I didn’t even get to swim with the pigs.