I’ve been seeking a good topic for a new part to this series for awhile (see parts one, two and three), and a discussion on Facebook finally yielded the idea I’ve been looking for. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before; I even touched on in briefly in part one: how to go to a convention when you really can’t afford to go to a convention. The first option is actually quite obvious: go to free conventions.* Some free conventions, such as MomoCon (which is among the largest free conventions in North America), are fairly large and could reasonably charge money (and they are indeed accepting donations in exchange for certain extra benefits, such as badge mailing and early admission to dealer halls). Others are free because no one would go to them otherwise. The latter sort are good for demoing new cosplays and working out kinks with how they do in a crowd or under certain weather conditions, if nothing else.
But let’s face it: good, free conventions are few and far between, and all of your friends are going to Dragon*Con. So how do you get into these four-day nerdfests that charge $120 at the door without giving up eating for the next month? If you want access to everything–panels, events, contests–you’ll have to plan ahead. There are usually two ways that you can get convention memberships for cheap or for free if you’re willing to plan ahead and maybe do a little work. One way is to purchase your membership early. Nearly every convention charges more and more for memberships the closer you get to the event date. If you know that you’ll be going, even a year in advance, you can often save 50 to 90 percent (depending on the convention) of the at-the-door price by purchasing your membership early.
Join the staff
The second way to get in on the cheap is to volunteer. Most conventions will deeply discount or waive the membership fee if you’ll agree to work a certain number of hours at the convention. Most convention websites will have volunteer information such as who to contact and when staff meetings are. Depending on the length and size of the convention, volunteer requirements can range from 8 hours to 25 hours over the course of the convention, and often come with a couple of additional perks, like admission to an after-party or extra snacks throughout the convention. It’s best to look into volunteering three to six months before the convention. However, it is occasionally possible to join a convention’s staff just a few weeks before or even at the convention, though I don’t really have experience with the latter. (If anyone has any pointers on joining a convention’s staff at the convention, please post in the comments.) You may have better luck getting a volunteer position at the last minute if you have advanced first aid/CPR training, you’re an EMT, you have background in law enforcement, or are proficient in running or supporting technical equipment.
On a side note, I have also heard stories about people being good enough social engineers (or actual experts in some relevant nerdy field) to get in on a complimentary guest badge. If you aren’t one of the se2600 guys and you’ve pulled this off, please leave a comment with your story.
Though let’s say that you’re a last-minute kind of person (and I won’t judge you…I am, too), you don’t have any special training, and no Jedi mind tricks can seem to overcome a head staffer’s insistence that there are no open positions for you. Let’s also say that you’re totally broke. You can still join the party, but in a diminished capacity. Most conventions will allow non-badgeholders to be in “public” areas such as atriums, hallways, sidewalks, courtyards and any other space that isn’t a dealer/exhibitor space or an enclosed event or panel room. This means you still have access to what is, in my opinion, the best part of conventions–the people-watching. You can still walk around taking pictures of costumes and taking in the sights and sounds (and smells) of the biggest and nerdiest party in town. If you still really want to cosplay, you can. (I have.) You also don’t need a badge to get into any room parties that you might be invited to.
I’ve done this on a number of occasions, particularly with Anime Weekend Atlanta, which isn’t enough of my cup of tea to warrant spending money I don’t really have, and I don’t usually want to hang out there all weekend because I’m still too exhausted from Dragon*Con. Where going badgeless really worked out best for me, though, was at ACEN. My decision to go was very last-minute, as a friend had extra space both in her car and in her hotel, and wanted some company on the drive from Atlanta to Chicago. Upon examining the convention programming, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything that required a badge, so I decided to go badgeless and just take pictures and socialize. I don’t think I could have had much more fun if I’d bought a badge. Also, as it turns out, the person who was giving the one panel I would have been interested in was staying in my room!
While it is certainly not sanctioned, it is possible to attend some smaller panels (read: ones in small rooms without celebrities or lines outside the door beforehand) without a badge. Many conventions don’t check for badges at smaller events. Likewise, while it is a violation of most conventions’ “Terms of Service,” the practice of borrowing and loaning badges for entry into specific events or into exhibit halls is also not uncommon. So I’ll say that while you can do those things (and indeed I have gone badgeless and done both of these things at conventions in the past), they are usually against the rules and you assume the risk of having your membership revoked (if you’re a loaner) or being kicked out if you get caught.
Other ways to save
If you still absolutely must have a badge, multi-day conventions usually offer pro-rated badges that are good for just certain days. Some conventions will sell these in advance, others only sell them at the door. Check out the convention’s programming schedule to determine which day(s) have the most programming you’re interested in. You can just attend on that day, or you can go badgeless on the other days. It’s up to you what you’re comfortable with doing.
If you already have a badge, either because you’re on staff or bought in advance, there are still ways you can save money as well. If you’re staying in a hotel, splitting the cost of the room with friends can significantly bring down the price. (With 6 people in a double room for 3 nights at Dragon*Con, it works out to around $90 per person, depending on the hotel.) Likewise, bringing some of your own food can reduce the amount of money you spend trying to keep yourself fed. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself staying in an Embassy Suites (like I did at ACEN) and have a fridge and a microwave at your disposal. If you’re not so lucky, your hotel room will only have a coffee maker (which is pretty much the case at every other convention I’ve gotten a hotel for), and you’ll need to bring a cooler if you’ve got anything perishable. Many hotels have a limited number of mini-refrigerators available for placement in rooms, but in my experience it’s nearly impossible to get one unless you can convince them you need it to refrigerate medication or breastmilk.
If you’re not staying in a hotel, taking public transit to the convention (if possible) or carpooling will save you a ton on parking. Most secure parking lots near conventions will charge a minimum of $20 a day for parking. For a 3- or 4-day convention, that can really add up. You can find less secure parking for as low as $5 a day in some places, but you may run the risk of your car being broken into, vandalized or stolen, depending on the location. Also, most of these parking lots don’t offer in-and-out privileges, meaning that if you need to go somewhere, you’ll have to shell out another $5, $10 or $20 when you get back. Taking transit may limit where you can go and when you have to leave at night, but in most places, it is much cheaper than paying for parking. Carpooling allows you to split the cost of parking with other people.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to save money at conventions. If you have any other money-saving suggestions for broke convention-goers, please post them in the comments!
*Some free conventions in the U.S. include YasumiCon (Miami, FL), FAN:dom Florida (Pensacola, FL), Kaji-con (Valdosta, GA), Animarathon (Bowling Green, OH) and Uchi-Con (Chicago, IL). I have never been to any of these, but these are a few that I was able to turn up by looking through the list of conventions at AnimeCons.com and from a few suggestions from friends. While I was looking, I did notice a number of conventions with admission prices well under $50 (some even well under $20), as well. There are most certainly more free ones than I’ve listed, and it seems that most free conventions are held at universities or run by student groups, so if you have an anime, gaming or science fiction-related student group near you, it might be worth asking them if they know of any free conventions!