Spring is here, and with it, the beginning of comic book convention season. This past weekend, the annual Emerald City Comic-Con was held in Seattle, a convention I have long wanted to attend (I have several friends in the area and several more who travel in for it, and from all reports it’s a pretty great event.) Coming up in April is WonderCon in Anaheim and then in May there’s the Big Wow Comic Fest in San Jose, which I intend to be at again. All of which leads up to the big one, Nerd Mecca, Comic-Con International in San Diego.
I’ve been attending the San Diego Comic-Con sporadically since 1981 (when it had 5000 attendees), and have been there every year since 1997. Now that comics have gone mainstream (or at least comic book characters have; comics themselves have not matched the popularity of the same characters in other media), Comic-Con has seen a dramatic increase in attendance and interest. It’s also expanded far beyond the boundaries of comics and related material; it’s now the destination for any and all entertainment and pop culture, from Angry Birds to 2 Broke Girls. As the San Diego Con has gone mainstream, other conventions have popped up across the country, some of them becoming quite large and popular. Over time, we’ve learned a few things about how to do it without going broke. Whether you’re attending KatsuCon, WonderCon, HeroesCon, Emerald City, C2E2, Big Wow, or another convention, there are ways to save money at it, which you can then spend on comics, toys and t-shirts. Here are a few tips for the upcoming convention season.
Some of these tips are specific to San Diego Comic-Con; some of them may not apply to the convention in your area, due to differences in geography, amenities or weather, among other factors. Even so, there may be something helpful here for you.
1. Set a budget.
When you enter the exhibit hall, you will find yourself facing a huge room full of people who want to sell you things. Movies, limited-edition prints, t-shirts, toys, collectibles, original art, signed photos, comic books, and lord-knows-what else. If you have poor impulse control as far as spending goes, it’s a really good idea to not bring in more money than you want to spend. Keep your souvenir money separate from your food, lodging and transport money.
2. Convention food is absurd.
It’s really easy to forget about lunch until you’re standing in line somewhere and realize that (a) you’re starving and (b) your only option is that pretzel cart over there. It’s much better to just pull a PBJ, an apple, some string cheese and a bottle of water out of your backpack and save $10. As soon as you check in at the hotel, go find the nearest grocery store, assuming your room has a mini-fridge. (If not, a large ice chest will do for any perishables, but you can also just get stuff that doesn’t need refrigeration.) Stock up on breakfast and lunch foods and snacks and brown bag it at the Con. You could make friends with an exhibitor and maybe they will let you stash your lunch in their booth, but a more reasonable option is to take advantage of the bag check service that most larger Cons offer. Let’s face it, $5 for a hot dog and $4 for a Coke is just dumb, especially when you can have a tastier and more nutritious option for a lot less.
And of course you’re going to follow the “5-3-1 Rule” while you’re there, right? (5-3-1: make sure you get 5 hours of sleep, 3 meals and 1 shower every day at the Con. Please keep the shower as priority one; the food and sleep is for your health and well-being, but the shower is for everyone else’s.)
A lot of exhibitors will put out a bowl of candy as an incentive to lure you into their booth. Do not try to make a meal out of these offerings; you’re not at Costco, and there just aren’t enough candy dishes to make it practical.
San Diego tip: Most of the old hands at SDCC know that the Ralphs grocery store up on Market Street is where to go for food, and the store does land-office business this week. In recent years, they’ve begun setting up shop under canopies outside so people can buy the necessities (soda, sandwiches, chips, etc) without even going inside the store. They also sell decent sushi if that’s your thing.
3. If there’s public transit, use it.
Most conventions are in decent-sized cities, and two things are true of most of them: there’s some form of public transport, and parking near the convention is expensive. In San Diego, parking lots are at least $10-20 per day; parking at any of the adjacent hotels will run you at least $25 a day, and in some cases as much as $40. No big deal if you can expense it, but that adds up to a big bite out of your Con budget if you’re not going for business purposes. Many hotels offer free shuttle service from the airport, but if yours doesn’t, you can still blow past the car rental desk if you plan ahead. Before going to the con, check your favorite geeky message boards and Facebook pages to see if any of your friends are coming into town or already live there, and make arrangements to share a ride from the airport to wherever you’re staying. (if you don’t know any geeky message boards, why exactly are you going to a comic convention?)
San Diego tip: Practically everything you’re going to want to do during the Con will be in the Gaslamp District; all the parties, meetups, screenings, and other events are right there. There is a trolley stop right in front of the convention center; buying a daily trolley pass is a lot cheaper than paying to park your car anywhere near downtown. A daily pass runs about $6.
If you’re coming in from Los Angeles, take the Amtrak down and leave your car at home. Traffic is paralyzed in the area anyway. If you’re flying in from far away, don’t bother to rent a car. You can take a bus or cab to a trolley station, or simply look around the airport; there are no doubt dozens of other Con attendees in the vicinity, and one of them may be happy to split the cost of a cab. Just look for a superhero t-shirt and you’ll probably strike gold.
4. You don’t need to stay downtown.
Most conventions that I’ve been to, even some pretty big ones, are pretty localized; they don’t take over the whole area the way SDCC does, and the hotels don’t jack up their rates the way they do in San Diego. Even so, you may find that staying even a few blocks away from the convention center will give you a lower rate. Look for one on the transit line. If you or someone you know has a time-share with a location in the convention city, put in a reservation for convention week. Check sites like AirBnB or Couchsurfing or the Craigslist for the city you’re going; you might find a cheap alternative to a downtown hotel.
San Diego tip: The hotels within walking distance to the Convention (and most of the more outlying ones) are going to charge insane rates for this week, anywhere from 4 to 10 times their regular rates. Crappy little motels are going to ask for (and get) over $200 per night. The rates are more reasonable the further out you go, and since the trolleys run from almost the Mexico border to Santee, you have a lot of options. We’ve stayed at motels near SDSU, in Chula Vista, in Mission Valley, National City and in Little Italy, and the trolley got us there and back.
5. Camping is an option.
If you have an RV, you can usually arrange to park somewhere close to the convention center. If it’s summer, there may be campground somewhere outside the city (in which case you may need a car after all). Many KOA campgrounds have nice cabins that make for a nice alternative to a hotel room.
San Diego tip: You can stay in your RV or a tent at Campland by the Bay, the Sweetwater Reservoir or the Chula Vista KOA, but all of them are now filling up several months in advance. All of them are some distance from a trolley line, so you’ll need a car to get from there to the nearest trolley stop, but most of the outlying stops have free parking.
6. Eat dinner away from the Con.
A couple of trolley stops away, you can find wonderful and reasonably priced restaurants that aren’t completely overrun by guys in Spider-Man t-shirts. Check Yelp, Urban Spoon, or your favorite dining site.
San Diego tip: Little Italy in particular has some great dining. For dinner close to the con, the restaurants at nearby Seaport Village are pretty good.
7. Eat on somebody else’s dime
There are often parties and social events in the evenings at comic conventions, usually divided between fans, retailers, exhibitors and industry people. Try to get invited to them instead of going out of pocket. They always have some sort of food, or at least appetizers or snacks. Networking is the name of the game.
8. Donate blood.
Many conventions have a blood drive now.Sign up and donate a pint, and then you get cookies and juice; stuff ’em down and ask for more. Free lunch! You also often get a bag of swag. Too bad you can only do it once per Con.
San Diego tip: The annual Robert A.Heinlein Memorial Blood Drive is a longstanding tradition at the Con. The signup booth is usually upstairs in the Sails area, with the actual donation facility being a couple of blocks away.
9. Get in for free.
You can usually sign up as a volunteer at the con; if you agree to put in a certain number of hours working as a gofer-lackey-underling-henchman-minion, you get a free pass. Check the convention website, as those slots sometimes fill up fast. And make sure you fulfill your obligations or you won’t get to do it next time.The cool thing is you may find yourself schlepping for somebody famous.
Another option: if you happen to have any basic writing skills and can do a little networking, it’s not too difficult to get signed on as a “stringer” (freelance reporter) for one or more comic fan websites. Even if they don’t pay you, they can score you a press pass. If you’re planning to try this, your best bet is to have a blog of your own to establish your credentials, and contact the sites in advance, so that when they start handing out the press badges, you’re in line to get one.
If you keep an ear to the ground you may also find retailers who will need a “helper monkey” to work their booth, and they are happy to swap a badge (and sometimes even some money) for your strong back and eager attitude. Back when the conventions were a nerdy boy’s club, there were a lot of opportunities for “booth babes” – pretty girls in short skirts to attract men and sell merchandise. As the conventions get bigger and attract more women, the prevalence of booth bunnies seems to be declining, but if you’re female, good looking, and don’t mind exploiting it, keep an eye on Craigslist for vendors who want you and your snug tank-top to decorate their space.
This last tip is applicable only to San Diego, though it may apply to other conventions in the not-too-distant future…
10. Don’t go to the Con
No, I’m not telling you to stay home; I’m suggesting you go to Nerdi Gras, the plethora of geeky events and venues that fill several blocks around the convention. As I explained over at GeekDad, the events surrounding the Comic-Con are rapidly threatening to eclipse it; there is so much to do around Comic-Con now (much of which does not require a Convention pass) that it’s possible to have a completely enjoyable convention experience, complete with celebrity sightings, collectibles and comic books, without ever actually entering the convention center or ponying up the astronomical cost of a pass.
Now that I’ve possibly saved you some money, here’s a request: if you’re not a comics fan and you’re going to the convention to see the celebrities and the previews of movie and TV stuff, would you do me a favor and pick up a few comics while you’re there? Talk to somebody at one of the booths; tell them the kind of movies, TV, books and other media you like, and they can probably tell you about a comic book you might also like. All those multi-million-dollar blockbuster movies we’re watching started out as comic books, but so did The Walking Dead, Road to Perdition, Men in Black, A History of Violence, Ghost World, The Rocketeer, American Splendor and a lot of other movies you liked. Give ’em a chance.