Back when I worked in an office environment, I attended two or three professional conferences per year. I often presented at these events and, for the most part, they were very enjoyable excursions and incredibly worthwhile for building professional relationships and learning about new things in your field. In fact, the professional conferences themselves are among the things that I miss most from those years, as they contain many of my best memories.
For most of my adult life, I’ve also attended one or two conventions per year pertaining to my personal interests. I usually go with a group of friends to these events and sometimes I’ve even gone with my family. I highly recommend going to conventions related to your personal interests as it is a thoroughly enjoyable time.
However, one thing that both of these experiences has taught me is that conferences and conventions can be really, really expensive. There are many, many costs that come into play, from simply registering for the meeting to paying for lodging and transportation and food. They can end up being an giant drain on your finances.
As a result of these combined experiences, I’ve learned quite a lot about convention and conference travel (they’re very similar in many ways) and how to minimize the costs involved with such trips. Here are 12 strategies I use to keep costs low when I’m traveling to a big event.
(Note that I’m using the words “conference” and “convention” largely interchangeably in this article, as most of the advice applies to both.)
Save Throughout the Year
Conventions can be expensive. You often have to pay an admission fee, pay for individual special events, pay for travel and lodging, pay for food… and then there’s the dealer hall, which at many conventions equates to a giant store dedicated to an interest you’re passionate about. The costs add up quick.
The best strategy for going to conventions is to make it a line item in your monthly budget and save a little bit throughout the year. For example, you might decide that a convention trip will end up costing you a little over $1,000, so you’ll choose to budget $100 a month for that convention.
For savings goals like these, I tend to find the most success when I automate them. I like the feature that Capital One 360 offers, in that they allow you to set up a new savings account with just a few clicks that you can “nickname” anything you want and then set up an automatic savings plan to dump money in there with just a few more clicks. I use it for little savings goals like this all the time so that I don’t really have to think about saving. It just happens automatically.
The best part is that when it comes time to actually go to such a convention, you already have the cash in hand to pay for everything – the hotel, the food, and even some items from the dealer hall – without pinching your actual checking account.
Go with a Group – Ideally with Friends
Obviously, trips like this are more fun when you go with friends, but going with friends also reduces the cost substantially.
For starters, if you’re driving together, you’re chopping up the cost of travel. Throw four people in the car and everyone is saving 75% of their travel costs. In the past, I’ve had as many as six people in the vehicle for a several-hour drive to a convention, which cut costs drastically for everyone.
A similar phenomenon happens when it comes to convention lodging. A single person in a hotel room can be expensive, but if you put two or even four people in that hotel room, it gets cheaper very quickly as you’re saving 50% to 75% on that room (provided you get the same room you’d get when you were going alone).
Not only that, friends add greatly to the whole convention experience. It’s so enjoyable to be excited together on the way, share daily thoughts at the end of each day in the hotel room, do some activities together throughout the convention, and debrief and decompress together on the way home.
Plan Ahead and Register Early
Most conferences and conventions offer an “early bird” registration package that reduces the costs of registering and often has other perks, such as access to a closed housing block. It’s well worth it to register early simply due to those savings.
Of course, registering early requires you to plan ahead big time. You have to decide to attend the convention months in advance, but that has a bit of an advantage too. If you’re registering so early, you have plenty of time to start saving for the convention.
This does require some real planning ahead. You have to plan to attend that convention several months before it occurs. For me, the best strategy for this is to identify a convention I might want to attend and then follow it until “early bird” passes become available for the subsequent year.
Not only that, planning ahead several months in advance makes it easier to take time off of work for a convention. For me, this kind of advance planning allows me to “bank” writing much like I save money. I can build up some articles so that I don’t have to write at all during the conference and can focus on enjoying myself.
Set a Spending Budget and Enforce It with Cash
One of the biggest weaknesses for me personally at any convention is the dealer hall. It’s like a giant store full of temptations related to something I’m already passionate about, making it really easy to spend more than I planned on spending.
My strategy for this is to never, ever go into any convention dealer hall with a credit card. I leave that elsewhere (usually hidden in the hotel room). The only thing I take into the dealer hall is cash, and I usually only take part of my convention “spending money” into the dealer hall with me on each trip.
This achieves several things at once. First of all, it forces me to stay on budget. I plan ahead how much I can spend and I physically limit myself to that by using cash. Second, it gives me redundancy against losing my wallet, as I don’t have all of my spending resources in one place. Third, by splitting up my “spending money,” it gives me time and opportunity to find deals rather than just spending everything at once.
This approach lets me get the most out of a convention experience without completely destroying my budget.
Start a Checklist Long Before You Go
One of the most painful expenses that can happen on a trip is when you don’t pack appropriately and forget something important. Not only are you wasting money going to Target to buy underwear (or something like that), you’re also wasting time that you could be doing something fun.
My solution for this is to maintain a packing checklist. I keep one for all trips as a “template,” but I make a fresh copy for any special trip that I’m going on as I’ll often need to pack different stuff for particular conventions.
I do this in Evernote. I have one “template” note that contains my default list – clothing, toiletries, Synthroid, and so on – and when I start planning for a new trip, I just copy that “template” list and start modifying it for the specifics of the new trip, including convention specific things.
I usually start this a month or two before I leave, just so I can jot down things as I think of them. By the time I’m actually packing, I feel really confident that I can trust that list and if I follow that checklist as I put stuff into my bag (or bags), I’m going to have everything I need.
Add a Bit of Redundancy to Your Packing
This is a great strategy for traveling by airplane that my old supervisor taught me, and it really bailed me out on one trip.
His advice was simple: Pack your carry on as though your main bag won’t show up for two days. He would roll up a spare change of clothes or two and pack them tightly in his carry-on, along with small samples of toiletries and any vital items that he would need during the first day or two of the trip.
Based on his advice, I started doing this as well and, lo and behold, the airline lost my luggage on a trip to San Diego several months later. Thankfully, I had everything I needed in my carry-on to survive and my bag did turn up the next day.
Without a well-packed carry-on, I would have had to make a stop at a department store for supplies, which would have been frustrating to say the least and also unnecessarily expensive. Being smart with a carry-on made it all easy.
Get a Fridge in Your Room (If Free) or Bring a Cooler
If you’re staying in a hotel room – and it’s likely that you are – try to get one with a refrigerator in it, especially if it comes at no additional cost.
This feature varies incredibly widely from hotel chain to hotel chain. Some hotels have refrigerators in all rooms as a standard feature. Other hotels have a limited number that are available upon request. Others will charge you an additional fee for a refrigerator. Still others don’t even have them at all or have only a few that are usable for medical needs.
A refrigerator is a feature well worth looking for and asking for. It may or may not be worth a small additional fee depending on the rest of your planning, but if you can get one for free, get one. You’ll be glad you did.
Stop at the Grocery Store
Whenever I go to a convention, one of my first stops if at all possible is at a local grocery store. I’ll usually go somewhere near the convention site to an ordinary grocery store and stock up on some basic staples.
I typically buy fruits and granola bars to serve as breakfasts, a loaf of bread for other meals, and sandwich items such as peanut butter and jelly. If I have a refrigerator – and this is where it really comes in handy – I’ll buy plenty of sandwich items for all kinds of sandwiches. I’ll also usually buy a sandwich container or two (or else pack one with me).
In the morning, I’ll eat some fruit and a granola bar for breakfast while prepping a sandwich for lunch. If the convention is at the hotel, I’ll usually leave the sandwich in the refrigerator and return at lunchtime to grab it; if it’s off site, I’ll make a sandwich that can last (like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and just carry it with me.
Doing this can make two of the three meals in a day very cheap, and can even make the third meal quite cheap. It is far less expensive than eating at a restaurant for every meal.
In addition to this, if you plan on drinking during the conference or convention, stop at a liquor store instead of hitting the hotel bar. Hotel bars, especially during convention periods, are incredibly expensive. I’ve had to pay $10 for a single draft beer before in a hotel bar during a busy conference. A much better strategy is to stop at a liquor store before you even arrive at the site and buy your beer or other alcoholic beverages there, then bring them on site with you. I’ve often convinced people to come to my room, “selling” them beers out of my hotel fridge for far less than the bar costs (or even giving them away to old friends), and still saved a ton of money.
Pack a Water Bottle
Convention beverages aren’t cheap and there can sometimes be very limited access to things like water fountains in order to drive people to the beverage vendors. This, too, can really add up.
I avoid this by packing a water bottle on the trip. I’ll fill it up in the morning and then refill it whenever I have access to a water fountain. If I want a flavored sweet beverage, I’ll bring along a simple concentrated flavoring in a small container that I can carry with me.
I usually have my backpack with me when I walk around at conventions, so I just slide my water bottle into a side pocket for easy carrying.
If this keeps me from buying just two $3 beverages each day during a four day convention, I’m saving $24. That’s very much worth my while.
Another big advantage of carrying around a water bottle is your voice. For me, conventions are a time where I talk a lot more than I normally do. I carry on tons of conversations with people and that means that, in the later days of a convention or conference, my voice starts to fade away.
My best solution for that is Fisherman’s Friend, a particular brand of throat lozenge that does the trick for me when my throat starts feeling sore and my voice starts slipping away.
However, Fisherman’s Friend has a pretty rough side effect – it dries you out. I always feel incredibly thirsty after taking a lozenge and without a handy water bottle it would be even more tempting to just buy an expensive beverage. A water bottle keeps that extra impulse in check.
Maximize the Value of Free Snacks and Meals
Many conventions and conferences offer free meals and snacks as part of the program. They’re sometimes included as part of the cost of the convention; at other times, they’re sponsored by a particular vendor.
Take advantage of these things. Examine the schedule of the convention ahead of time and see if there are meals or snacks provided. If there are, make sure to enjoy them.
I’ve been to conventions where they have tables with endless beverages available, piles of bagels and other such foods, and even full free buffets. Those things are essentially free to you, so you’d have to be pretty wasteful to pass them up.
Volunteering is a spectacular strategy for saving money at a convention. Many conventions and conferences offer a steep discount and other perks for simply agreeing to volunteer for a certain period, taking on tasks like leading small sessions, handing out badges, and so on.
In the past, I have volunteered for a number of different conferences and conventions under many different sets of terms. Some conventions gave me a free badge for a certain number of hours spent volunteering. Others have paid for my lodging or given me items for that effort. The rate is usually a bit above minimum wage for the time invested. However, there are usually many off-the-books perks, such as free snacks and beverages and other opportunities.
The work is usually not very hard, too, and it gives you ample opportunity to see lots of things around the convention while you’re on duty. I usually bump into people that I know while on duty as well, which gives me an opportunity to say hello. I sometimes meet people who have very, very similar interests to my own and have sometimes even agreed to meet up with those people later.
I find volunteering at conventions to be incredibly rewarding. It often adds up to a cheaper convention cost, a number of freebies, and time spent doing things I don’t mind doing in exchange for a few hours during the con.
Keep a Pocket Notebook
I’ve extolled the virtues of a pocket notebook many times, but it really, really comes in handy during a conference or convention.
For starters, a typical convention is simply loaded with pieces of information that you’ll probably want to recall later. You’ll see products, websites, Twitter handles, people’s contact information, and so on. Many people might want to use their phone for this, but a pocket notebook allows for such freeform entry that I simply prefer it for almost anything, plus the battery never runs out! I can often fill up a whole pocket notebook during a two or three day convention.
Another advantage of a pocket notebook is in delaying gratification. As I mentioned earlier, a typical convention is so full of temptations that I have to be careful with my spending money and use strategies to avoid dropping cash. When I spy something I want but I’m not sure I really want to spend my limited amount of money on it, instead of pulling out my cash, I’ll simply write down what the item is and look into it at a later date.
My pocket notebook keeps me from spending money and helps me to record tons of vital information during a convention. I simply won’t leave home without one.
Going to conventions and conferences has been a constant part of my adult life. I attend at least one a year and sometimes more than that!
Conferences and conventions can be expensive, though, but with some simple planning and foresight, you can minimize and even avoid a lot of those expenses. Doing so can turn a convention from a huge expense that clouds the enjoyment of the big event to an experience that’s pure fun and doesn’t damage the pocketbook.