Final Four 2016: Travel Guide for College Basketball Greatness in Houston

Things to Know When Going to This Year's Final Four in Houston

••• 2015 National Championship Game. Lance King / Getty Images Sport

The Final Four is an event on every sports fan’s bucket list and the event rolls into NRG Stadium in Houston for 2016. The Final Four was last here in 2011 and reviews of the event were generally positive. It may seem odd that March Madness concludes in April, but there’s nothing odd about the excitement that surrounds the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Maybe it’s the office pools or maybe it’s enjoying basketball in a more pure form than the NBA, but March Madness captures the nation for a full three weeks.

It all comes to a head on Saturday, April 2nd as the four surviving schools advance to the Final Four. That one shining moment sees one lucky team lift the trophy in the final on Monday, April 4th. The first Saturday of April sets up to be a great way to enjoy the beginning of the end of March Madness and the final on Monday will be the cherry on top of the sundae.

Tickets

You likely won’t make the trip to Houston without securing some tickets in advance. The primary market probably won’t be that friendly to you. The NCAA releases tickets to the public through a lottery system that starts almost a year before the event. You have over a 50% chance of successfully winning tickets when you hear back in August, but the only seats that are offered through the process are the Upper Level of the football stadium. The price of the offering is less than $200 for a ticket to both the National Semifinals and the National Championship Game, so at least it’s affordable.

If you actually want to be able to see the game you’re going to as opposed to watching the game on the center-hung scoreboard of NRG Stadium, you can buy primary tickets as part of a hospitality package through Ticketmaster. Some seats are sold with the Fan Hospitality Package, which includes a pregame party with some food and a cash bar.

Others come as part of a VIP Hospitality package that includes open bar, food, entertainment, and appearances from former NCAA legends. Costs range from $784 to $5010, but at least that six grand gets you a seat in the lower level. You can also buy full the same package with hotel rooms included via PrimeSport. You have the ability to choose your price level and hotel, but you’ll be paying a lot there too. First come, first serve for the offer happens in October of the previous year.

Participating schools in the Final Four have the best access to tickets. Each university receives an allocation of tickets to distribute to their fan bases. Season ticket holders and boosters get the first swing, but the tickets are much more reasonably priced. Corporate partners of the NCAA also get their shot at tickets, but good luck getting your hands on those.

If you decide to hit the secondary market, you’ll be best off heading to PrimeSport. It’s the official secondary ticket reseller for the NCAA Tournament and you’ll insure that the tickets you’re receiving aren’t counterfeit. Most, if not all, of the tickets are paperless tickets because the NCAA issued the paperless tickets to the seller. They have to stay on the system until closer to the event date, so the risk of forgery is minimal.

Other secondary ticket sites like Stubhub or a ticket aggregator like SeatGeek or TiqIQ offer tickets to be shipped via UPS, but you won’t get those until the week before the event. You need to be extra careful after what happened at the Super Bowl with brokers selling tickets they weren’t in possession of.

One final word on buying Final Four tickets: don’t buy tickets to both sessions. Buy tickets to Saturday and wait until after the games are over to buy tickets for the National Championship Game. Fans of the losing teams from Saturday will be selling their tickets since their teams are not playing on Monday. The market will be flooded with supply and prices will drop.

Getting There

Houston International Airport has approximately 650 flights coming in daily from approximately 200 destinations worldwide.

Making it to Houston on an airplane should be reasonably easy for you to do, but prices won’t be cheap. It makes the most sense to book your flight more than a month in advance if you’re less concerned about watching a specific school play. (And if you are looking to see a specific school, just use the ability to change your ticket for $200 or $250, depending on the airline, to use the money you spent for another trip.) Prices will increase dramatically within two weeks of the Final Four with prices possibly reaching four digits in the week leading up to that highly enjoyable Saturday. If you decide to wait, you’ll be better off flying into Austin, San Antonio or possibly even Dallas and driving from there. Prices will be much less than flying into Houston directly. The easiest way to look for flight is with travel aggregator Hipmunk unless you specifically know what airline you want to travel on.

Those in the south should consider driving to the event. As mentioned above, a lot of bigger Midwestern cities are within driving distance. Austin and San Antonio are both under a three-hour drive from Houston, while Dallas is about three and a half hours away. Amtrak offers train service between Houston and San Antonio, but it takes almost five hours, so you’re better off driving.  You can grab a bus with companies like Greyhound or Megabus from the other major cities in Texas.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of hotels in Houston, but unfortunately finding reasonably priced hotel rooms isn’t as easy as getting to town. There’s a reason hotel prices as part of the hospitality package mentioned above will cost you. Whatever isn’t grabbed up by the NCAA for the universities and corporate partners Is tied down in the hospitality packages. There generally won’t be too many affordable hotels available by the time you start thinking about going to the Final Four.

The two areas to look for hotels are Downtown or Uptown, otherwise known as the Galleria area. You won’t want to stay near NRG Stadium because there isn’t much around there in terms of food and nightlife. You’ll likely be driving regardless of where you’re coming from, so stay where the action is. The price generally starts at around $250 a night in those areas, so you might have to look elsewhere if that’s not in your budget. There are cheaper alternatives outside of the main areas for under $200 a night. The best bet to book your hotel room is a travel aggregator like Hipmunk. Alternatively you can look into renting an apartment or house with AirBNBHomeAway, or VRBO. I’d probably lean towards an apartment or house rental for this one because you can lock down a good neighborhood for a better price.

At the Game

You won’t go hungry at NRG Stadium as the home to the Houston Texans has plenty of quality food options.

Locals truly enjoy Bernie’s Burger Bus in food truck form, so it’s no surprise the burgers served up outside of Section 115 draw rave reviews. You have to enjoy some Tex-Mex when in this area, so take down the pork or fish tacos at Berryhill Baja Grill by Section 135. Hopefully you won’t need a nap after taking down the baked potato topped with chopped brisket, cheese, and sour cream at Demeris BBQ, which has four locations in the 300 level.

 

Everything’s bigger in Texas, so it should be no surprise that there’s a mighty big sandwich in the form of Grady’s Carvery’s “No Bull Texans Chicken Stack.” It’s a sandwich of smoked chicken topped with candied bacon, cranberry mayo, arugula, and Texas jack cheese on a jalapeno roll. Genghis Grill has locations by Section 132 and 510 to offer you a Dragon Steak Bowl, which is basically what it sounds like. You’ll enjoy marinated steak tips with Dragon seasoning, sweet chili sauce, green bell peppers, carrots, and onions.

You have to respect a chef with a James Beard award, which is why you’ll want to try the PB&J wings and tater tots at Chris Sheperd’s Hay Merchant near Section 101. The meatball shawarmas and craft beer go a long way too. That’s not the only craft beer around as NRG Stadium has recently added extra craft beers to go with the national trend. 8th Wonder Brewery is Dome Faux’m Cream Ale these days, which is a local favorite.

Out in Houston

As Houston is a driving city, there isn’t as much focus on the pregame and postgame scene for bars and restaurants near NRG Stadium. There aren't many good options near NRG Stadium, but a couple places stand out. There are many good options for Tex-Mex in Houston and the local chain Pappasito's Cantina has many locations including one near NRG Stadium.

Molina's Cantina also isn't too far away and you should be ordering their "Mexico City Dinner" or their off-menu chili con carne. The Galleria area isn't too far away from NRG Stadium and may be where you're resting your head for the weekend. Roegels Barbecue Co and The Brisket House are local favorites nearby for brisket. Blakes BBQ and Burgers offers one of the best burgers in Houston and is only a little further west. Gatlin's BBQ is the best known barbecue join in Houston and it's worth the journey further north than you'd normally go on a trip because of their trio of smoked ribs. You should also try the off-menu "Kitchen Sink" sandwich with brisket, sausage, dirty rice, grilled onions, jalapenos, cheddar, and barbecue sauce on a bun.

There's a lof of action in the Midtown area of Houston.

There’s a little of Spain in the menu at Oporto Fooding House & Wine, but it’s heavily Portuguese influenced with great shrimp and octopus salami. If that octopus salami wets your seafood appetite, then there’s no better place in town to visit than Reef, which was rated as one of the best seafood restaurant in America a few years ago by Bon Appetite magazine. Lankford’s Grocery & Market may be a little far away to walk, but their burger is one of the best in town.  Sparrow Bar + Cookshop provides standard new American fare for those looking for simplicity. Weights + Measures is an interesting amalgamation of cocktails, simple food, and baked goods rolled all up into one. The best burger in this neighborhood can be found at Holley's even though it's framed as a seafood restaurant. The bourbon ketchup kicks things up a notch. El Real Tex-Mex is slightly outside of Midtown, but its' worth it for the cheese enchiladas covered in chili con carne. For drinks, 3rd Floor provides city views with good happy hour specials and a wide range of cocktails. Love and Squalor, the back lounge at the aforementioned Weights + Measures, also provides good cocktails.

If you're down closer to the Toyota Center in downtown, there's another Papasitos Cantina location along with Guadalajara for your Tex-Mex needs. Andalucia is a really good Spanish food option, and you’ll thoroughly enjoy their sangria with your tapas. You may not realize that Vietnamese food is a big thing in the Houston dining scene, but it is, and Café TH turns out plenty of classics that keep people coming back. The Grove is a more upscale option if you’re looking for fine dining before the game. And of course, a good steak might be on your mind since you’re in Texas, so Vic & Anthony’s can help you out there. Jackson Street BBQ is the best barbecue in the downtown area as they master the holy trinity of barbecue: ribs, smoked brisket, and German-style sausage. As for drinks, those who enjoy bourbon will be best served making a trip to Reserve 101 because of their great selection. Lucky’s Pub offers over 250 beers if you’re looking for somewhere simple to drink. And, of course, we can’t get through this without mentioning Tejas Grill & Sports Bar, the best of the sports bar variety in the area.