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Convention Attention: Money Matters

My first year attending conventions, I attended only one. The next year, three. For 2014, there are at least four or five I’d like to attend. I’ve started registering, booking hotel rooms, and requesting time off from work. And then it hit me: My new hobby of going to Conventions? No way around it — this new hobby ain’t cheap.

There’s plenty of planning that goes into attending a convention (Whose autograph line will you go to first? Are you going to get up early on Sunday morning to see the stage fighting demo? Which Doctor Who t-shirt and which Firefly t-shirt will you wear? What time are you going to leave and how long will it take to get there?), but taking some time to think about your budget will give you peace of mind and help the weekend be a little easier on your bank account.

The easy part is that budgeting for a convention weekend isn’t any different from budgeting and planning for any other weekend getaway. You’ve got to figure out how you’re getting there, where you’re staying, where you’re eating, and how much money you have for shopping. And just like any weekend vacation, there are plenty of ways to plan ahead and save some money. Everyone’s situation will of course be different, but the following tips have worked for me, so maybe a few of them will help you out. (If you are a seasoned traveler and have other tips, please share them in the comments.)

Convention Registration

This one is as easy as registering early. You can get a badge at the door at most conventions, but it will cost you less if you register early. Registering early also helps you spread out the costs a little. WorldCon and World Fantasy also typically offer a payment plan. You might even be able to trade grunt work for a badge. Inquire with the Convention about volunteering, as many will offer a discounted badge in trade for time spent volunteering. Volunteering tasks can involve anything from helping in the ConSuite to working the registration desk to setting up and tearing down display tables to making sure celebrity guests are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, and everything in between.

Getting There

The biggest question here is, are you flying or driving?

If you’re driving, see if any of your local friends are going and carpool, with everyone pitching in to pay for gas. Also look around for gas station gift card options. Some grocery store chains give you extra loyalty points for buying gas station gift cards. It won’t lower the price of the gas, but might lower the price of your groceries. Do you have a “rewards points” credit card? Trade in some of those points for gas station gift cards.

If you’re flying, the same rule applies as for convention registration: book your tickets early. It goes without saying to shop around for the best deal for a flight, and there are plenty of websites that specialize as ticket price clearinghouses. For a bit of backwards engineering, do some window shopping for flights out of your nearest airport. What cities have the cheap flights? Are there any conventions in those cities you’d like to attend? A $120 flight to Chicago sure makes AnimeMidWest next summer look appealing. You’ll also need to decide if you are renting a car. If the convention hotel is near the airport, there may be an airport shuttle you can take, or a cheap taxi ride, or inquire with the convention to see if they are running their own casual shuttle service, which means you won’t need a car.

Where to Stay

Chances are, the convention has arranged for a group rate for hotel rooms at the convention hotel. Sometimes these prices are reasonable, sometimes they are still a little pricey, especially if the hotel has a lot of amenities. If you don’t mind driving a few minutes, check hotels nearby for better prices. Yes, it’s very convenient to stay at the convention hotel, but if you are on a budget, it might be worth if for you to stay down the street. There is of course, also the option of sharing a hotel room with 8 of your closest friends and splitting the cost, but I did that enough times during my college years to know that I don’t recommend it.

Where and What to Eat

The hotel will probably have a bar and or a restaurant. There will be a ConSuite with soda and coffee to veggie trays and pizza and other tasty treats. There will probably be restaurants nearby. But what if that’s not what you want to eat? What if you have allergies or dietary restrictions or your kids are picky eaters? There is nothing stopping you from bringing your own food. Personally I’m a huge fan of trail mix, peanut butter, oranges, and granola bars. A small cooler on hand means I can also bring yogurt, cut veggies, and maybe some cheese. If you want to have a nice meal at the convention, by all means do so, but understand that eating every meal at a restaurant adds up painfully fast, especially when the bartender at the hotel bar so cheerfully asks if you’d like your meal charged to your room.

What to Buy

I’ve left the most dangerous item for last. The Convention is going to have a killer dealer room. Even if it’s just a so-so dealer room, when you walk in, you will want to buy everything, because everyone there is so nice and friendly, and oh look, it’s a first edition of your favorite author’s first novel, and a hand-made C-3PO messenger bag, and a Miskatonic University coffee mug, and a steampunk pocketwatch, and the newest volumes of that Hugo Award winning graphic novel that you’ve been meaning to read. Do whatever you have to do to stay to your budget, including planning ahead what you want to buy (certain book titles, for instance), bringing only cash to the dealer room, leaving your credit/debit card in your hotel room, etc. This is the same mindset as eating out vs bringing your own food. Don’t forbid yourself from going to the dealer room, and if you see something you want, buy it. The goal is here is if you budgeted to spend $60 in the dealer room, don’t accidentally spent $300. See something you really want but it’s beyond what you planned to spend? Ask the vendor for their business card, perhaps you can purchase it from their website or physical store later.

Budgeting doesn’t make you a spendthrift or a cheapskate. But it might just add one more Convention weekend to your year.

Now that we’ve got that awkward conversation out-of-the-way, here are some upcoming conventions for early 2014.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.

13 Comments on Convention Attention: Money Matters

  1. This was fun. With Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 3 coming up in Kansas City in May I’m already socking away money for art. I was able to purchase a small original work this past year and would like to do so again this year. With many of the most amazing artists who create the great work that is on the SFF book covers we admire and/or who do the concept work for the films we go see it is hard to not want to buy EVERYTHING.

    I do recommend doing a lot of online research for restaurants within reasonable walking distance from the con. Con food generally isn’t the best and is waaay too expensive. Many places have online menus so you can plan ahead and gauge costs that way. If you have room in your luggage/carry-on to pack your own snacks to keep yourself from being tempted to purchase outlandishly priced con food, mores the better.

    Most do have con-priced hotel specials but it also isn’t a bad idea to check out the public transportation and the prices at places a bit farther way. Could be a big cost savings there, or if you know someone even reasonably well at the place the con is that might want to pick you up and drop you off, you can go farther outside the radius of the con to save more hotel costs.

    • Yes! that’s something I totally forgot to talk about! Put a little bit of money away each month, and by the time the Con comes around, you’ll have a nice little cash stash for buying special items, like artwork.

      restaurants within walking distance a huge plus too. That way, if you’re a little tipsy (drinking? at a con? it would never happen), you can just walk back to your hotel room. 😉

  2. When I first started going to cons in 1976, my budget was $20 that I had found on the ground. My father drove me (and managed to get the van stuck in a parking lot). I later went to see actors and saved $200 for photos from dealer’s room. With that, I only managed about one con a year.

    Now I do about four a year. I like to pick one that’s out of the area so I don’t always get the same panelists. One of the things I’ve done is get hotel rewards cards. I don’t stay in hotels often enough to be able to use the points to get rooms, but it often offers other benefits. I got a really cheap upgrade to a room that included a balcony and a dining room where I could get free breakfasts.

    I’m no longer spending money on photos or getting autographs. It’s the workshops I want to see. Books are a serious temptation, though I screen anthologies by seeing if there are any women storytellers. I also buy t-shirts, but usually only two or three.

    • great story about your first Convention! Even if you just stay at a hotel a few times a year, the free membership cards are always worth it. The hotel company wants to encourage you to use their brand more, so they’ll offer you cheap or free upgrades.

      Yeah, I have to be really, really careful around the book dealers in the dealer room. that’s where ALL my money tends to go.

  3. We are going to a convention in Monterey, CA next spring. Mystery conventions are MUCH more expensive than SF-F cons, with registration usually in the $200 to $300 range. That’s a big bite out of the budget! Then four days of hotel, plus meals and books are a huge temptation… Yikes.

  4. Awesome post!

    Where food is concerned, sometimes it’s worth it, if you can, to spring for a room that has a mini-fitchen and to bring some of your own groceries. The room cost is a bit higher (depending on the kind of hotel you stay at, of course), but it evens out when you can make your own meals and don’t have to buy restaurant food while you’re there.

    Also a great trick if you happen to stay in a hotel that includes a breakfast buffet, often it’s really easy to grab some extra fruit or a yogurt cup or something to snack on later without having to pay extra. I had to rely on that when I travelled for work and my workplace was stupid enough to not set up a meal budget in my new location the way they said they would. I got free breakfast, then grabbed an extra bagel, banana, peanut butter packets, and a tea bag. Easy to fit in my pocket, and there was a quick small lunch or a good snack for later.

    One of these days, I’ll end up putting this stuff into practice by actually going to a con instead of work travel or other vacations. :p

    • I’m on the road for work this morning and I just did exactly that. Grabbed some extra yogurts and an apple and some other snacks from the breakfast area, put them in the mini fridge in the room. I have a meal budget for travel, but I like to snack at weird times, so having food in the room is helpful. a mini kitchen is wonderful, but you can do some amazing things with a mini fridge and a small microwave!

  5. The first year I went to ComicCon, in 1989, I drove. It was 1.5 hour each way, 3 hours on the freeway per day x three days. The next time, two years later, I stayed in a cheap motel about 20 minutes away. Much better but I still had to negotiate the downtown traffic and felt isolated once I got to my room. The next time I stayed in the hotel right next to the Convention Center. It was more expensive, but I didn’t need the car (I rode with a friend from the comic shop near my house) and could be there at any hour and walk to lots of places to eat and do stuff. It was by far worth the higher room cost.

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