Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Cheapskate’s Guide to SF/F cons: A Guest Post

Today's guest post by Effie Seiberg goes through some handy tips on travelling to conventions on a tight budget. It would be easy to extrapolate some of these tips into general travel on a budget, too. Part of why I put out a call for this topic is that beginning in January I'll be full-time freelance, and paradoxically, this means I'll need to go to more conventions in a professional capacity. But. You know. With less income. So thanks again to Effie for all of her tips, and I'll be seeing you around at as many conventions as I can manage in 2014.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so in January I did the exact thing people tell you not to do: I quit the “real world” for a year to write. Writing full time is fantastic, but with no income coming in (and a professional need to go to cons) I had to be very strategic about which I went to, and how. The fear of starving and dying is a great one to promote some frugality, but I still managed to go to FogCon, BayCon, Westercon, WorldCon, and ConVolution. So, here are some tips on keeping the costs way down but still getting your con on. 1) Prioritize.
There are a million awesome cons, and you’ll need to balance how awesome they are with their costs. The most expensive parts are usually the plane tickets and the hotels, so if there are any close to you where one or both of those don’t apply, start there! I’m lucky enough to live nearish to where several local cons were held. I also added WorldCon as my one expensive con, just because it’s so big, has amazing people there, and has the Hugo awards.

2) Keep down the travel costs.
I live in San Francisco, where I’m lucky enough to have several local cons around me. FogCon was in Walnut Creek (an hour away), BayCon in San Jose (an hour away with no traffic, three years away with traffic), WesterCon in Sacramento (90 minutes away with no traffic, until the end of time with traffic), and ConVolution in Burlingame (20 minutes away).
Driving: If you can drive or take public transit to your con, it’s probably going to be cheaper than flying. Cons frequently have parking validation for whichever hotel they’re in. At ConVolution, a daily $33 parking pass turned into a daily $10 parking pass. Carpooling with other local buddies is good to split gas and parking costs.
Flying: Airfare: If you must fly, set up a fare alert for your route in advance on a site like airfarewatchdog.com, and wait a bit. It’ll tell you how the price of those tickets might be changing day by day, so you have an idea of what the cheapest flights really are. You can also use a site like hipmunk.com to find cheap seats, but bear in mind that they don’t include some of the smaller, discount airlines like JetBlue or Southwest, so you’ll need to look those up separately.
Flying: Everything else: Airports are great ways to squeeze you of your hard-earned dimes. Bring a solid snack to help avoid the temptation of the tiny $7 bag of M&Ms, and pack everything into a carry-on to avoid baggage fees. You can do a whole week’s worth of stuff in a single carry-on, and I say this as a gal who likes her hair products. It takes a bit of tetris-ing, but it can be done.   
3) Keep down the lodging costs.
This is the second large cost of any con, and is often the biggest. If you’re relatively close by, drive back and forth and avoid it altogether. Yes, it’s a pain to drive 90 minutes home when you’ve already gone to several parties, but you’ve just saved $170 by doing so. If you must use a hotel room, you have several options.
Find it cheap: the con will have a discounted rate at the preferred hotel. That’s great, but there may be even better deals nearby. For WorldCon, the con hotel was about 30% more expensive than the hotel I found, and my hotel was closer to the conference center where everything was held. Look on sites like hipmunk.com and expedia.com to see what’s around. You can also try airbnb.com for cheap rooms, but they’ll usually be a bit farther away from where the action is.
Split the costs: roomies are great! If you have a friend from a writing group, a fan board, a costuming club, or whatever, share a room to split the cost. As a bonus, you’ll have someone to talk to late at night.
Crashing in a room: your mileage may vary on this one. As a female I’m disinclined to do this unless I know the people very very well. But that said, if you do know people who have a room and don’t mind you crashing there, you can usually get a cot from the main desk (at Westercon it was $15/night) which you can roll into the room. If there isn’t room for one, you can DIY it by asking for a lot of extra pillows and blankets, and build up your own little nest in a corner. You’ll get weird looks at about the 5th extra pillow, but it’s worth it. Lay a line of pillows down to make a makeshift mattress, then a blanket on them to roughly keep them together, and then you plus a blanket and another pillow go on top of that.
3) Frugal food.
At a con, you’re running from place to place with barely any time to get anywhere, so scouting out a cheap place to eat isn’t always an option. Hotels know this, and charge exorbitant amounts for what is often really bad food (thanks, $6 coffee swill that’s been sitting in the bottom of the coffeemaker all night).
Bring your own: Yeah, I’m the person with granola bars and fruit in my bag. They don’t take up a lot of room, and you can quell your munchies quickly. If you’ve driven, you have a whole trunkful of space to put food to bring with. Nuts and granola bars have protein to keep you sated, fruits and veggies have fiber to fill you up, and most of them don’t need refrigeration. (Protip: do not leave your fruits in a very hot car all day. Apples might survive, but softer fruits like cherries will ferment and stink. I tell you this from experience.) Bring some cookies and such to share, too!
The con suite: The Secret Masters of Fandom at one point decided that cons should give out food, and hooray for them. Con suites usually have light snacks like fruits and veggies and cheeses and chips, plus coffee. They ask that you don’t just use the suite for your three squares a day, but you can wander in and grab what you need. Especially free coffee. Did I mention the coffee?
But everyone’s going to a restaurant: Yeah, sometimes this is what’s going to need to happen. If your favorite author invites you to join and you get starry-eyed at the mere mention of their name, you’re going. You can either go nuts and suck up the cost, or you can fill up on other food prior (your own, the con suite) and just order something light. You’ll still get to go, and a single appetizer won’t set you nearly as far back.
Drinks: This may be the hardest one on the list. You can of course bring your own, but then you’re that sad person drinking alone in their room. Most parties will just give you alcohol, so start with those and get your drink on. If you’re going to barcon (you know, where people have their own little con at the bar), you can always order a ginger ale instead, which is far cheaper. Especially since you still have your buzz from the parties.
4) The Dealer’s Room, the Art Show
Oh dear god, the dealer’s room. Where merchants specifically attuned to your needs and interests bring out their wares and spread them in front of you appealingly. And then the art show, where you find everything your walls have been missing. A few good ways to keep to your budget:
The "Little Luggage" Technique: Only buy what you can fit in your existing, tiny luggage. And you’re already squashing a fair amount of stuff into just a carry-on.
The "Cash Only" Technique: Set a budget in advance, and put it in cash in your wallet. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. No plastic.
The "Gifts Only" Technique: If you can justify it as a gift for someone, great. Nothing for you though. Those are too easy to justify. The enormous broadsword is awesome, but would your brother really appreciate it enough for you to spend the cash? Nah, he’s not that cultured.
5) Happy Tech
I don’t know about you, but I need my devices happy and healthy for a good con experience. I take my laptop for taking notes, my phone for following what’s going on on Twitter, and a veritable rat’s nest of cables.

Connectivity: The rule is that the nicer the hotel, the more they’ll charge for wifi. Different hotels will give you differing amounts of connectivity, but most will have free wifi in the lobby. Hang out there when you can, when you need your internet time. If you have an unlocked phone, or a plan with tethering, you can make internet happen through your phone instead (this is what I tend to use). Do be aware that if you’re going through your phone, you may need to pay attention to how much data you’re using. You don’t want to hit your limit and get throttled. And finally, you can avoid all of this if you go phone-only for everything and not even bother with a laptop or tablet. Unless you’re in a black hole or the bowels of the San Antonio Conference Center, a few bars will do the trick.
Power: Not exactly a frugal trick, but keeping your devices charged keeps them usable, which sometimes tells you when someone has an extra case of beer/cupcakes/whatever that they need help getting rid of. Bring a power strip, and you’ll be everyone’s new best friend.

So there you go. You can get pretty cheap with cons and still get to go to a bunch while avoiding the whole “starving and dying” thing. Have fun!

Effie Seiberg lives in San Francisco near a sculpture of a pirate bunny with a skull in its mouth. She's a graduate of the 2013 Taos Toolbox writing workshop and is shopping around her first novel, a comic fantasy which is a snarky romp through chaos theory, with an ostrich. In a previous life, she worked in Silicon Valley tech. In a previous previous life, she was a lab rat with machinations to take over the world. Things change.
You can follow Effie on twitter at twitter.com/effies or on G+ at google.com/+EffieSeiberg, or just check out effieseiberg.com if you don’t feel like committing to continued interaction.

5 comments:

  1. One additional point about food: If you can honestly call yourself a professional writer, you're going to want to be on panels. (Other people, like me, get on panels for other reasons.) As a panelist, you have the freedom of the Green Room. And at most cons -- this does vary -- the Green Room will provide three squares a day. Not necessarily great food (although I've had excellent food in Green Rooms), but totally adequate to meet your nutritional needs.

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    1. Green rooms and con suites are often useful for this sort of thing, but it completely depends on the convention. Also, if you have to have a child with you, liquor laws may be such that you can't get into the green room at certain times, too. (Ask me how I know. ;))

      In any case, thanks for the extra idea here, Bill. I do ask you to be careful about saying that being on panels is a requirement for being professional writer, though. If you write and you get paid, you're a pro. That's all there is to it. Panels just aren't going to be for everyone!

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  2. Some really great ideas!

    I tend to splurge more than I should when it comes to Cons... : (

    Some ppl save by only attending the days they are most interested in, rather than all three or four days; or by skipping the parts they are not keen on (like banquets, etc).

    The other thing is "planning ahead" - since many Cons offer cheaper entry with more advanced sales. Some people I know have saved money by doing a bit o' volunteering, too.


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    1. Thanks, Arley! Great additions!

      That's my problem, too, though I end up splurging on food more than stuff. It's SO HARD for me to say no to drinks and dinner invitations even when I should be eating on the cheap.

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  3. Beverly,
    I took your piece as inspiration to look back at the way "cheap skate" fans solved these issues over thirty years ago - http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2014/05/oh-life-changed-observations-traveling-cons-cheaply/ and yes, things sure have changed!

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