Your First Con – The Basics

Going to your first convention can be daunting. You may not know quite how to start, what to expect, or how to deal with common situations. I cover many of the basics here to help make sure your first con isn’t your last.

Choosing a Con | Planning the Trip | What To Pack
Rules of the Con | Plan Your Schedule
Con Crud | Lines | Food

Choosing a Con

Start Small & Local

  • Easier and cheaper, especially if you don’t need to spend the night.
  • Smaller cons are less intimidating. Big cons have a LOT of people attending. 30,000+ for a known name anime con, 60,000-80,000 for a PAX, and over 100,000 for some comic cons. Work your way up to that.
  • Better chance of friends joining you.
  • Cons aren’t for everyone, even if you’re into the fandom. Best to find out on a less expensive trip.

Fandom Specific vs General Cons

  • Some cons and so called comic cons cater to a wide variety of fandoms. Larger cons can provide plenty of content for specific genres. Smaller cons may end up being more of an one day show that is neat to see but doesn’t quite embrace your preferred fandom.
  • Fandom specific cons (anime, gaming, Doctor Who, Star Trek, etc) focus and theme on that fandom. You can immerse yourself in the fandom for a few days. There will still be some cross over with other genres. But if you aren’t interested in the primary fandom you won’t find much you like.

Planning the Trip

Budget
All planning starts with a budget. Figuring out how much the trip will cost will allow you to save and keep your personal finances in order. Cons are fun, but being financially stable is SO much better.

Below are not only aspects of the trip which need their own planning, but which make up the bulk of your expenses. As you go through them estimate your costs and record them. From that figure out your trip total and where you can spend less.

Transportation – Flight, train, bus, gas, etc.

  • Flying is usually faster (account for time to/from and in the airport), but more expensive for a group.
  • Driving ~8 hours with more than one person is usually the most cost efficient.
  • Driving where you need to stop and spend the night at a hotel isn’t cost efficient.
  • Trains are a good, lower cost option, if you can get a direct line.
  • Buses are cheap but time consuming and less comfortable.

Hotel

  • Find a room in the con hotel right next door.
  • Then see if you can find something cheaper within half a mile. Compare the cost difference to the convenience.
  • Share the room to save even more.

Con Badge

  • Popular cons sell out, figure out costs in advance so you know whether to buy or not when they open registration.
  • If traveling far go for the full weekend.

Pet Sitter/Boarding

  • For more than one animal a pet sitter coming by 1-2 times a day is usually cheaper than boarding.
  • Friends, family, and roommates are even cheaper, but don’t abuse anyone’s generosity.

Local Ground Transportation – Parking, public transit, Uber/Lyft/taxi

  • Many downtown hotels in big cities charge for parking. A lot down the block may be cheaper.
  • Get a hotel within walking distance of the con and food.

Food

  • This is where you’ll have the most control on spending. But the less you budget the more restrictive your options.
  • $10-15/day with cheap groceries only
  • $20-30/day fast food only (not recommended)
  • $40-50/day eating out

Spending

  • Difficult to project, unless you have particular items you want to buy.
  • Best to figure out what discretionary funds you’ll have available.
  • Stick with your established limits. If you don’t trust yourself consider using cash and only bring what you can afford to spend.
  • Unless an item you find is rare/unique it may be available online at a similar price. That gives you time to consider a big purchase.
  • Don’t sweat the little things, especially if you budgeted well and have a contingency fund.

Contingency Fund

  • Extra money set aside for unforeseeable expenses.
  • Do 10-20% of total budget.
  • Optional, but advisable. Without it one issue can derail your trip or personal finances. And unlike travel insurance if you don’t use the money it is still yours!

Saving
Once you have a budget divide it by the number of months between now and the trip. That’s how much per month you need to save. If that doesn’t work with your monthly budget then consider waiting until next year with more time to save. No con is worth incurring debt. There will always be another con.

Setup a repeating transfer from checking  to savings after each paycheck. You should be able to set this up with your bank online for free. When it comes time to pay the bills for the trip transfer that money from savings to checking.

Some costs will come up before the trip. Plane tickets and con registration are due at time of sale. Food and local transportation are due during the trip. The hotel and pet sitter get paid at the end. Keep this in mind while saving and make sure you have enough when you need it.

Friends
If you want to invite friends to join you feel free. I’ve found it is best to know about what the total cost is going to be and to share that when I invite them. The cost might make some of them say no, but better that than they flake on you last minute. That could increase your costs without warning.


What To Pack

Weather
Check the local weather a week out, and again the day before you leave.

For winter cons consider wearing layers over a big, heavy coat. You can shed layers and put them in your bag. Some cons do have a coat check service, but that’s another line to wait in.

Packing List
Check out my con packing list to help get started with your own. It includes a list of the essentials and nice to have items, as well as details and suggestions. Feel free to download the PDF for future reference and to share.

Con Packing List

Your Con Carry

What you carry with you into a con each day can have a big impact on your experience and comfort. It is easy to overpack, weighing you down all day.

  • Take only what you need, not what you might need.
  • The tighter your budget, the more you may need to carry.
  • Groups should not use a single “pack mule.” Everyone carries their own stuff.
  • Pre-load your bag before you leave home.
    • Empty it completely first.
    • Does it all fit?
    • Is it comfortable to wear loaded?
    • Is everything easily accessible?
    • Is there room for your coat/outdoor wear?

Essentials – No Bag

  • Phone
  • Wallet
  • Con Badge

Just what you carry day-to-day, plus your badge. Your phone is your camera and you buy whatever food and water you need. Simple and light, and you can get through any security faster without a bag to check.

This is ideal for one day visits to con. If you plan to do a bit of shopping then you may want to bring an empty backpack.

Recommended – Bag

  • Nintendo 3DS, Switch, or other portable games
  • Power bank and cables to recharge phone/game system on the go
  • Notepad & pen
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Pain relievers, other medication

Nice to have items that can improve your con experience. Bag is mostly empty and not too heavy.

Consider these items for a weekend long con, especially the larger ones. Games help with long lines, a power bank keeps your phone and device going, and the rest are for health and comfort.

Optional – Bag

  • Water bottle
  • Snacks/lunch
  • Sharpie for autographs
  • Dice, pencil, and character for RPG games
  • High fidelity earplugs for concerts

More quality of life items, but at an ever increasing weight cost.

Consider these type of items before committing to carry them. Having your own food and water is convenient and cheap, but it adds a lot of weight.

Avoid

  • DSLR/big cameras. Unless you need high quality photos for a website or job just use your phone.
  • Tablets/laptops
  • Wall/solar chargers, get a power bank.
  • Boxed games. If it won’t fit in your pocket leave it in your hotel room.

Backpack vs Shoulder Bag

I recommend backpacks over shoulder bags. They are more comfortable for all day carry, especially with a heavy load. Their big down side is no easy access. You’ll need to stop to get something out. If you need that easy access and are going to carry a light load then a shoulder bag can work. Alternate shoulders throughout the day.

You shouldn’t need to buy something just for a con, whatever you have already can work. If you need to buy a new bag look for something light, but with organization options and flexibility. Work bag with laptop during the week, airplane carry on and con bag during the weekend.

Banned Items
Large cons and some small cons have a security checkpoint at the entrance. Don’t take anything you couldn’t normally get past airport security.

  • No firearms or knives
  • No dangerous objects
  • No drugs

Cosplayers should check out the con’s cosplay weapons policy.


Rules of the Con

Each on has their own rules and it is a good idea to review them. If you plan to cosplay with a weapon you definitely need to check their policies on that. Otherwise these “rules” are common to most cons and will get you by.

The Rules of PAX Are Universal

  1. No drugs
  2. Don’t steal
  3. Don’t hit/kick people
  4. No cheating
  5. Don’t harass anyone
  6. Don’t mess with things that aren’t yours

Wheaton’s Law

“Don’t be a dick!”
– Wil Wheaton, PAX Prime 2007 Keynote Address

5-2-1 Rule
Each and every day of the con you should get at least:

  • 5 hours of sleep
  • 2 meals
  • 1 shower

Respect Con Staff
They are there to make your experience better. Please do what they ask and show them you appreciate their efforts.

Respect Cosplayers

  • They are fans doing what they love. They are also people and should be treated as such.
  • You may hear “cosplay is not consent.” That is a call against sexual harassment of cosplayers. Don’t be a part of it and don’t let your friends be a part, either.
  • If you want a picture just ask, they’ll probably be fine with it.
    • If they say no don’t take it personally, they have con stuff to do, too.
    • If they are eating/resting leave them be.
    • Don’t block a hallway taking pictures, step aside or use a designated space.
    • You can ask for a pose, but be reasonable and respectful.
    • Take 2-3 pics to ensure you get a good one.
    • It is good form to show them the photo.
  • Compliment their work, not their looks.

Plan Your Schedule

Go over the con schedule in advance. Set your priorities and allow time for lines and getting between rooms. In a larger con you may not be able to do back-to-back panels. Have a Plan A and Plan B for most time slots.

Know what you want to do first each day. Lines can form early and you’ll want to make sure you get to where you want to be.

It is okay to bail on a panel if you aren’t enjoying it or it isn’t what you were expecting.

Save things like the expo hall, dealer’s room, and free play areas for when you don’t have anything else to see. They also make good Plan B’s if you can’t make it into a panel. I know a big expo hall is a draw, but my best experiences at a con were usually in a panel room or a random encounter.


Con Crud

Con crud is a cold, flu, or other non-threatening (but nonetheless quite annoying) illness which strikes during or immediately after the con. It can dampen the memory of an otherwise great weekend. It is a big factor behind the 5-2-1 rule. Read more about con crud and ways to keep healthy during and after your weekend here.


Lines

All cons have lines and nobody likes a line. With smaller cons they aren’t much of a problem. At big cons they can take up half of your time if you aren’t careful. With a bit of advance planning you can survive the lines, maybe even make the experience tolerable. Check out tips to cut your time and how to beat the boredom here.


Food

Food options at cons vary by location and size. You usually have three zones of food.

At the Convention Center

  • Concession stands and cafes inside the convention center. Food trucks in the parking lot.
  • You can get lunch for $10 usually.
  • Don’t have to go far to eat.
  • More lines, limited selection, meh quality (except food trucks), and no designated seating.
  • Eat early or late to reduce wait time. Or send someone for food while in line elsewhere.

Around the Block

  • Fast food next door or across the street. If lucky a food court within a block or two.
  • Around the same price as inside the convention center.
  • More options, gets you outside for a bit, and tables/chairs.
  • You’ll spend more time getting lunch and food quality may not be any better.
  • Eat early or late, you won’t be the only attendee doing this.

Neighborhood Restaurants

  • Sit down restaurant, go somewhere local, within a reasonable walking distance.
  • More expensive and takes more time, but gives you a nice break from the con to recharge.
  • Ask for recommendations from the con’s online community, hotel staff, or any locals you meet.
  • Make sure you don’t have any con events scheduled for a couple of hours.