How To Penny-pinch a Worldcon
How To Penny-pinch a Worldcon
i - Why this page was created
Firstly, this page is for anyone anywhere who wants to save cash at a Worldcon, or any convention really. It is written about Worldcons but most of what applies to a Worldcon also applies to a regular convention. Anyway, my name is Grant and I am a member of SFSA (Science Fiction South Africa). Fans traveling to Worldcons from South Africa have a torrid time of things. This is because most Worldcons are held in countries with far stronger currencies, making them fearfully expensive. As an expatriate South African (I live in Portland, Oregon, USA) who has worked in many different places, I had learned much in my travels, and I put it all down on paper. I then presented this article to the people on the SMOFS list Secret Masters Of Fandom asking for opinions. I quickly realized that many people find Worldcons an expensive exercise. These shared opinions and personal experiences helped me to add meat to the article, which was then printed in Probe, the official magazine of SFSA. Then an American friend reminded me that not only South Africans have cash problems and they asked me to post a generic non-South African form of the article to the web, and so here it is - revised, updated and available for everyone and anyone to use freely.
Please note that the name, “Secret Masters of Fandom,” is a joke. These folks are not any kind of secret society, and 'Master' is used in the sense of having mastered knowledge, not having mastery over fandom. They are simply a collection of people involved in the running of Science Fiction and Fantasy clubs and conventions.
ii - Disclaimer
Please use this advice at your own discretion. As with all advice on web pages, please be aware that it is subjective and cannot be guaranteed in any way. Neither myself nor the members of the SMOFS list accept any liability for any problems you encounter while following this advice. No collection of advice is ever complete so I would also advise that you seek additional advice from more experienced fans and the committee (or designated staff member) of the convention you will hold your party at. Additionally, please be aware that certain things, while they might save money, can be considered distasteful, immoral and might even be illegal. Please be sure that you follow the law and your conscience, because I mention things here, for the sake of completeness, that I don't necessarily agree with myself.
iii - Copyright
You may not distribute this text for profit. Otherwise, please feel free to use this and distribute it in any damn way you choose, provided that you accept all liability and consequences (particularly the abducted by aliens part). And hey... this is a wiki, so feel free to edit this article and add your own tips.
So you are thinking about going to a Worldcon? Good! It's unforgettable! But you worry about the cost right? Well here are some tips on how to stretch your cash.
This page is for anyone anywhere who wants to save cash at a Worldcon, or any convention really. It is written about Worldcons but most of what applies to a Worldcon also applies to a regular convention. If you want to know more about Worldcons, then check out the explanations on trusty Wikipedia, or on any standing Worldcon's page, for example the 2012 Worldcon - Chicon in Chicago.
The cost of a Worldcon can seem overwhelming. If you can, save for it in a separate bank account so that you can build up some interest without being tempted to spend the cash. Saving is better than credit as you accumulate interest instead of paying it. Start saving as soon as possible so that you have more time to accumulate funds. Many Worldcon attendees use this method to put a steady amount away monthly according to a plan based on estimated costs. Three to five year plans are not uncommon. Even a small amount can really add up over time. One fan I know saved for a Worldcon for five years!
Buying Worldcon membership
Worldcon memberships are cheapest just after the bid is won (two years ahead). Buy your membership ASAP because they go up in price several times before the actual Worldcon. Currently most start out around $100 and end up being well over $200. That's a big difference, in any currency. Prices can be found on the official Worldcon website and should include notification of the next price increase. You can mostly save even more money by presupporting and voting for Worldcon bids and some other convention bids.
Believe me, whatever price you end up paying will be a bargain for a Worldcon, in any currency. All Worldcons are five action-packed days with hundreds of program items. For example, Noreascon 4 in 2004 had more than 1,000 program items, the most I know of. It will likely be the best money you ever spent. Two things keep Worldcon membership rates so low, lower than most professional one day conventions. First, all Worldcons (and many local cons) are run entirely by unpaid volunteers. Second, no guest is paid appearance money, though guests of honour have all their expenses paid. This means that the hundreds of artists, writing pros and industry professionals attending, are all doing the Worldcon for its own sake.
Also Worldcon memberships are completely transferable! What this means is that if you buy your membership the maximum two years in advance and your finances take a dive, then you can still sell your membership to someone else. There are always people looking to buy cheaper memberships. Many people sell memberships for the same amount of their original purchase, though others are quite happy to sell theirs for a profit. With the regular price increases, either way you will still be able to sell your membership for less than the going rate.
Remember that for memberships that you buy in this way you may need to factor in the bank costs of currency exchange. Worldcons are held mainly in the USA, but regularly are held abroad too, with recent examples including Japan, Scotland, Australia and Canada. Sometimes it is possible to get around this using credit cards, or by buying your Worldcon membership from a convention in your area (if the Worldcon is represented there).
An often heard gripe about the above regards Hugo voting, something you are entitled to do once you are a member. It is possible to buy your membership two years in advance and then, just before the Worldcon, you can vote for the Hugos before selling your membership for a profit (new member will not have voting rights). This may change in the future.
The reverse is also true and some folks like to wait until the eleventh hour before purchasing memberships from those who can no longer make it. There are hundreds of people who semi-automatically join each successive Worldcon at the lowest rates, who later can no longer attend. They then try to recoup the money they paid by selling their membership. Usually they aren't demanding any more than what they paid for the membership. This could be an option for those of you who are late in purchasing a Worldcon membership. Please remember that this is not a reliable method of obtaining a membership.
Places to buy/sell memberships exist on the web wherever that Worldcon -- or broader fandom -- can be found. Some Worldcons also make use of social media forums/boards/etc on Facebook, LiveJournal and other venues, sometimes even bulletin boards/email lists on their own web sites, where you can sell/ask for a membership. They usually make it easy for you to find.
Flying is often the most practical way to get to a convention, but often it is possible to drive and this is usually your cheapest option. Just remember to factor in any gas (petrol) costs, wear and tear and possibly any in-transit hotel costs. Also remember that many hotels charge for parking and some even charge an additional fee every time you use in-out privileges. Look out for alternate parking options nearby, like municipal parking and such. Another option is to park at a park-and-ride facility, or even at cheap airport parking (see http://www.airportparkingreservations.com for help), where a train/shuttle can get you to your hotel. Some I know have parked at cheap airport parking, taking their shuttle to the airport and the hotel shuttle or public transport from there.
When booking your airfare don't be afraid to shop around. These days most use web services like Expedia, Orbitz, CheapTickets, CheapFlights, Travelocity, Hotwire that check a rage of airlines to help you find the cheapest price. Even better, use a service like KAYAK that checks many of those sites and aggregates the results for you, giving you even more options. Also consider making low bids on Priceline.com if you don't mind some awkward travel times. Book well in advance as prices often go up nearer to the flight time.
If there are enough of you then another option could be to book as a group through a travel agent or airline, as sometimes this can result in discounts. Just be sure that the discounts save you more than you would save booking on the web, so get quotes first.
Always join sky-miles programs for flights and consider a credit card and other services that help you to rack up sky miles. There is no better flight for a penny-pincher, than a free flight and even if this flight is not free, one down the line could be. Some also use credit cards liked to sky miles programs to rack up even more miles just by following their existing spending habits.
Also consider bus services like Greyhound and train services. They're usually much cheaper, but they often take far longer. Another option is looking for carpools from your area by making use of social media linked to the Worldcon.
For accommodation, share hotel rooms with other fans. A room with two double beds can sleep four. In fact I have heard stories of fans taking the mattresses off the bases and sleeping eight (sleeping bags), even nine if you use free floor area. Obviously some subterfuge is required to hide this from the hotel. This is not something I have done or would ever do, and I personally don't recommend this. All that snoring and mess in the bathroom? Also, what do you do if one of you runs up a big phone bill without being honest about it? No thank you. It's too complicated for me. Suites with extra beds and sleeper couches can sleep six to eight comfortably and might be a far better option.
Worldcons usually get good rates so you might not find a cheaper non-Worldcon hotel nearby, but again you can use services like KAYAK, Hotels.com or some of those listed under Travel above. Do the leg-work well in advance so that you can find the hotel's own website and contact them directly for information on how near to the Worldcon you will be (preferably within walking distance) before you actually make the booking.
Remember that the quoted hotel rate is rarely the full amount because all sorts of little taxes can apply, like city tax (varies), tourist tax (usually called something else), airport tax (based on location), and so on. Some hotels also have escalating costs based on the number of occupants. Ask the hotel for all of their tax rates and all other costs. Sometimes this can be as much as $40 (yes wow!). Additionally, should you rent a car, be aware that many hotels charge for parking so get their parking rate or mandatory valet parking rate up front and consider nearby public parking options as an alternative. Also bear in mind that the hotel will likely quote you a different price to the ones on websites (even their own), but mostly web prices are cheaper.
Consider accommodation options on public transport routes but only if the inconvenience and cost savings are worth it to you. Most fans prefer to be within short walking distance to the Worldcon. Don't forget to factor in transportation costs (bus, train, cab, etc). When calculating prices also consider external factors like free continental breakfasts, pullout couch beds, in-room fridges, coffee-makers, microwaves, and other things that might increase the hotel's value to you by helping you eat cheaper.
Consider other accommodation options as well, hostels, Bed and Breakfasts and the like. Also remember that youth hostels are often misnamed as many accept people of all ages. Sometimes you can even get in at a YMCA/YWCA.
Try to keep unavoidable transportation costs to a minimum, preferably have none at all. When getting to the venue airport try to have already found out what the cheapest way from the airport to the hotel is. Sharing a cab with other fans is an option, as are shuttle services. The hotel you will stay at should be able to help here. Some have free shuttles to the airport, or at least to a major center where public transport can be used. Most hotels can be reached via email which also keeps costs down. Some naughty fans have been known to sneak onto the free airport shuttles of other nearby hotels.
Book as far in advance as you can as sometimes hotels fill up really fast, particularly the party hotel/s and the cheapest hotel/s. Just be sure that you find out about any penalty clauses for cancellation. I have yet to have a problem with this but others have. Ask the hotel. Also find out if they charge anything at reservation time or if they put a hold on your credit card for a certain amount. This is unusual, but does happen and can be quite inconvenient if you are caught unawares.
Never phone home from the hotel! It's usually too expensive. Also check ahead of time about any roaming charges on your cell phone plan. Unless you already have a good one, get a phone card, and shop around for a cheap (but reliable) one. Ask fans in the area for help on this if need be. Some USA hotels still charge up to a dollar for free calls (local, 1-800 and such) which can really rack up quickly. Find out what is free and what will be charged for (and how much). It is usually cheaper to use a phone card at a public phone, though you might have to measure price-difference against personal privacy. Remember - read all notices about phone billing in the room before dialing from your room. Most hotels have a membership plan that is free and easy to join. It is usually a great idea to join these plans anyway as you can earn free nights for later. Occasionally these plans also include free local calls so be sure to check, but still use a phone card to call home.
To return to joining the membership plan of the hotel. I advise that you never spend a night in a hotel that you are not a member of their "rewards" program. Apart from earning free nights, you can rack up sky-miles, get nicer rooms, get free breakfasts, get free newspapers, quick checkout, sky-miles and more.
Consider staying with family or friends if you are lucky enough to have any in the area. This can save you a bundle but will likely be an inconvenient location. You could also go on the web to hunt for fans or expatriates who might be willing to put up a fellow fan. Locals might be interested in an exchange, i.e. they might stay with you on a return trip to your city. Contacting locals can be done through the Worldcon website. Remember to consider any transportation costs, though your host is also a likely source of free rides.
If you do have to/want to travel to nearby sights, then check out Greyhound (and similar) bus services and sometimes even the railways (Amtrak etc). These methods are most often the cheapest, though sometimes it can be cheaper to rent a car (use the web services like KAYAK mentioned above to hunt for bargains) with several people sharing the cost. Don't be afraid to shop around. Also, if you like to take chances, you can post a notice for a requested ride on the voodoo boards at the Worldcon. You might get lucky. Also be open to certain tour buses as some are reasonably priced and you get a guide. Some of these will give you a one or two day pass as well, and can also double as transportation. Also, keep an eye open for specials or group trips that the con might have arranged.
Food and Drink
To save money on food there are numerous options. It is possible to go all the way through a Worldcon without ever paying for food. North American Worldcons (and some others) tend to have a ConSuite where snacks are served. These snacks often include fruit, cold meats, crackers, bagels, bread and even sandwiches. All of these foods are free. There is also a Fan Lounge that is similar but usually has less food.
Then you sometimes have Worldcon bidders that hold breakfasts (often only ending at midday) in order to entice members. In the evenings there are hordes of parties that all have snacks but occasionally also good food. This is particularly true if there are two cities in a bidding war for the next Worldcon as they do often attempt to outshine each other.
Now I know that fans are a proud lot and this might feel too much like scrounging for food. To "earn" this food you can do volunteer work for the Worldcon or even for a particular bid that has good food. You can do volunteer work where you do an evening shift which does not interfere with the panels during the day. Ushering is a great volunteer task that is in the evening (plus you get great seats).
If you volunteer to do more and get on to the Worldcon staff then another source of free food opens up, the Staff Lounge. Certain staff areas also get food brought to them. Don't over-volunteer though, as you will want to enjoy the Worldcon. If you do enough volunteer time then you could be refunded the cost of your membership but the amount of hours might not be worth the lost Worldcon events after traveling halfway around the world. Helping with setup and tear-down is a way around this, if you have really-cheap/free accommodation.
Try to get a "real meal" as often as you can. A diet of snack food is a game for the young and strong of constitution (not even them really). Also it must be said that the ConSuite, parties, etc are not meant to be a fannish soup-kitchen.
You also might find, as you socialize with other fans, that someone might spot you a meal. I saw a case where a fan was asked to join another fan at a nearby restaurant, but declined because of a tight budget. The other fan immediately offered to pay for their meal. I had a similar experience of my own, caused by a misunderstanding. I declined the offer, but it was made. This is typical of Fandom and is not any kind of begging. Swallow your pride. Maybe one day you will get the chance to return the favour, or help someone else. In fact, there is a long standing tradition in fandom of "passing it forward". You might not ever repay the person who helped you, but within the community as a whole the books will balance. This is because few, usually none, ever abuse this, and neither should you or I.
If you do purchase food then check out several local places for pricing. Fast food is often the cheapest but sometimes restaurants have bottomless soup bowls (plus bread) that are nutritious and cheap. More commonly you can find restaurants with a salad bar where said salad bar might include soup and a few more substantial items. If you are eating out (non-fast-food), and your schedule permits, eat your big meal at lunch time. Most restaurants have cheaper lunch-time prices. Chinese restaurants are often very cheap (cheaper than fast food!) for a very large meal at lunch. Chinese buffets can be a great source of a huge meal, as can cheap buffets of any kind.
Also consider buying basic foodstuffs and preparing food yourself. For example you might buy bread and peanut butter for an energy-filled snack, or cheap cold meats, sugar snap peas, carrots, etc for something healthier.
Sometimes hotel rooms include fridges and/or microwaves which can broaden your food choices. For example you could purchase a box of cereal, a plastic cheapie bowl and keep milk in the fridge. Also cheese, butter, etc are useful. Sometimes a fridge or microwave can be requested from the hotel, sometimes free and sometimes there will be an additional charge. It is also possible to keep milk chilled in an ice bin (most hotels supply a small one) using the ice that the hotel provides, though this can be too much hassle with changing ice at least twice a day. If this is an option you plan to use then remember this when choosing your hotel as one with a fridge, microwave, etc could be preferable. For milk, you can probably also find "room-temperature" milk or milk substitutes like rice milk which do not require refrigeration.
Also If your room has a coffee-maker then you can use it to heat plain hot water for instant soup, noodle cups and similar instant meals. I advise that you rewash the coffee pot and you remove the filter section as these two can result in coffee-flavoured water. Out of consideration for future guests, it is also nice if you clean the coffee pot before you check out.
Additionally, yogurt, cheese, and other items that normally need refrigeration can be purchased in single-portion sizes - so at dinner time you can go into a supermarket, buy dinner, and then eat it immediately.
For conventions in colder climates, it is possible to keep foods requiring refrigeration outside on the balcony or other safe outside place - though this is not without risk.
Often you can keep several items inside the fridge that houses the honour-bar (if one exists). However check this with the hotel first as more and more hotels with honour-bar type refrigerators are making it increasingly difficult to use it to store your own things. For example, at the 2002 Worldcon, the Fairmont's honor bar had motion detectors that charged you for "touching" the things inside the bar. The Hyatt on the other hand was fine and had enough spare space for milk, cheese and butter.
Remember that in most countries supermarkets are a good source of cheap prepared food. Sometimes there is cheap hot food too. You might even find a cheap polystyrene cooler chest which can be used with free hotel ice (in plastic bags) to preserve food. Fresh foods like fruit, broccoli, carrots etc are a great raw food option when you can't cook. There are often several stores within walking distance of a Worldcon.
Take a small amount of plastic cutlery with you, which you can wash and reuse. It's always useful. Just pack it in your checked luggage and not in your carry-on luggage (post 9-11 paranoia). As to drinks - water is usually safe and free!
If the Worldcon is in another county then you also have to worry about exchange rates. Generally you will have to use the local currency when making purchases. Getting your hands on this currency and changing it back when you leave, involves buying and selling the currency. In both cases the bank takes a cut, and different banks have different rates and take different sized cuts.
You should check with your bank, but mostly use of ATM cards is your best bet for getting local cash, if you are on an international network. Your bank can tell you about this too. Apparently you get just about the best exchange rate possible this way. Credit cards also sometimes give you a great rate, but in both cases you have to watch out for high bank charges. It is recommended that one should check with one's bank seeking the best available rate options. It is possible to have two visa/MasterCard credit cards that both have different bank fees. A little legwork could save you a bundle.
For example, one credit card could charge the exchange rate plus 1%, while another charges the exchange rate plus 3%. Similarly, ask specifically about ATM usage charges in the host country, and again different banks will have different fees.
For some here in the USA, banks recommend getting a cash advance with a debit card, which works much like a credit card. Your bank might say something different.
Also, you might want to call your card issuers and tell them in advance that you'll be in the Worldcon area on such and such dates. This way, they won't cancel or put a hold on your card due to it suddenly having foreign/remote transactions popping up on it, so that they think it's possible your card's been stolen or compromised.
Generally I am advised to not exchange money at the airport, unless it's with a fellow traveler who just happens to want to do the opposite exchange to you (no cuts here). Airports are filled will pricey bureau de change booths, but you pay for the convenience.
Having said all of that, generally your credit cards do seem to give you your best exchange rate on purchases and ATM cards give you the best rates on cash advances. But once more - check this with all of your banks.