The Cheapskate’s Guide To SF/F Cons

(This post originally appeared at

Today’s guest post by Effie Seiberg goes through some handy tips on travelling to conventions on a tight budget. It would be easy to extrapolate some of these tips into general travel on a budget, too. Part of why I put out a call for this topic is that beginning in January I’ll be full-time freelance, and paradoxically, this means I’ll need to go to more conventions in a professional capacity. But. You know. With less income. So thanks again to Effie for all of her tips, and I’ll be seeing you around at as many conventions as I can manage in 2014.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so in January I did the exact thing people tell you not to do: I quit the “real world” for a year to write. Writing full time is fantastic, but with no income coming in (and a professional need to go to cons) I had to be very strategic about which I went to, and how. The fear of starving and dying is a great one to promote some frugality, but I still managed to go to FogCon, BayCon, Westercon, WorldCon, and ConVolution. So, here are some tips on keeping the costs way down but still getting your con on.

1) Prioritize.

There are a million awesome cons, and you’ll need to balance how awesome they are with their costs. The most expensive parts are usually the plane tickets and the hotels, so if there are any close to you where one or both of those don’t apply, start there! I’m lucky enough to live nearish to where several local cons were held. I also added WorldCon as my one expensive con, just because it’s so big, has amazing people there, and has the Hugo awards.


2) Keep down the travel costs.

I live in San Francisco, where I’m lucky enough to have several local cons around me. FogCon was in Walnut Creek (an hour away), BayCon in San Jose (an hour away with no traffic, three years away with traffic), WesterCon in Sacramento (90 minutes away with no traffic, until the end of time with traffic), and ConVolution in Burlingame (20 minutes away).

  • Driving: If you can drive or take public transit to your con, it’s probably going to be cheaper than flying. Cons frequently have parking validation for whichever hotel they’re in. At ConVolution, a daily $33 parking pass turned into a daily $10 parking pass. Carpooling with other local buddies is good to split gas and parking costs.
  • Flying: Airfare: If you must fly, set up a fare alert for your route in advance on a site like, and wait a bit. It’ll tell you how the price of those tickets might be changing day by day, so you have an idea of what the cheapest flights really are. You can also use a site like to find cheap seats, but bear in mind that they don’t include some of the smaller, discount airlines like JetBlue or Southwest, so you’ll need to look those up separately.
  • Flying: Everything else: Airports are great ways to squeeze you of your hard-earned dimes. Bring a solid snack to help avoid the temptation of the tiny $7 bag of M&Ms, and pack everything into a carry-on to avoid baggage fees. You can do a whole week’s worth of stuff in a single carry-on, and I say this as a gal who likes her hair products. It takes a bit of tetris-ing, but it can be done.


3) Keep down the lodging costs.

This is the second large cost of any con, and is often the biggest. If you’re relatively close by, drive back and forth and avoid it altogether. Yes, it’s a pain to drive 90 minutes home when you’ve already gone to several parties, but you’ve just saved $170 by doing so. If you must use a hotel room, you have several options.

  • Find it cheap: the con will have a discounted rate at the preferred hotel. That’s great, but there may be even better deals nearby. For WorldCon, the con hotel was about 30% more expensive than the hotel I found, and my hotel was closer to the conference center where everything was held. Look on sites like and to see what’s around. You can also try for cheap rooms, but they’ll usually be a bit farther away from where the action is.
  • Split the costs: roomies are great! If you have a friend from a writing group, a fan board, a costuming club, or whatever, share a room to split the cost. As a bonus, you’ll have someone to talk to late at night.
  • Crashing in a room: your mileage may vary on this one. As a female I’m disinclined to do this unless I know the people very very well. But that said, if you do know people who have a room and don’t mind you crashing there, you can usually get a cot from the main desk (at Westercon it was $15/night) which you can roll into the room. If there isn’t room for one, you can DIY it by asking for a lot of extra pillows and blankets, and build up your own little nest in a corner. You’ll get weird looks at about the 5th extra pillow, but it’s worth it. Lay a line of pillows down to make a makeshift mattress, then a blanket on them to roughly keep them together, and then you plus a blanket and another pillow go on top of that.


3) Frugal food.

At a con, you’re running from place to place with barely any time to get anywhere, so scouting out a cheap place to eat isn’t always an option. Hotels know this, and charge exorbitant amounts for what is often really bad food (thanks, $6 coffee swill that’s been sitting in the bottom of the coffeemaker all night).

  • Bring your own: Yeah, I’m the person with granola bars and fruit in my bag. They don’t take up a lot of room, and you can quell your munchies quickly. If you’ve driven, you have a whole trunkful of space to put food to bring with. Nuts and granola bars have protein to keep you sated, fruits and veggies have fiber to fill you up, and most of them don’t need refrigeration. (Protip: do not leave your fruits in a very hot car all day. Apples might survive, but softer fruits like cherries will ferment and stink. I tell you this from experience.) Bring some cookies and such to share, too!
  • The con suite: The Secret Masters of Fandom at one point decided that cons should give out food, and hooray for them. Con suites usually have light snacks like fruits and veggies and cheeses and chips, plus coffee. They ask that you don’t just use the suite for your three squares a day, but you can wander in and grab what you need. Especially free coffee. Did I mention the coffee?
  • But everyone’s going to a restaurant: Yeah, sometimes this is what’s going to need to happen. If your favorite author invites you to join and you get starry-eyed at the mere mention of their name, you’re going. You can either go nuts and suck up the cost, or you can fill up on other food prior (your own, the con suite) and just order something light. You’ll still get to go, and a single appetizer won’t set you nearly as far back.
  • Drinks: This may be the hardest one on the list. You can of course bring your own, but then you’re that sad person drinking alone in their room. Most parties will just give you alcohol, so start with those and get your drink on. If you’re going to barcon (you know, where people have their own little con at the bar), you can always order a ginger ale instead, which is far cheaper. Especially since you still have your buzz from the parties.


4) The Dealer’s Room, the Art Show

Oh dear god, the dealer’s room. Where merchants specifically attuned to your needs and interests bring out their wares and spread them in front of you appealingly. And then the art show, where you find everything your walls have been missing. A few good ways to keep to your budget:

  • The “Little Luggage” Technique: Only buy what you can fit in your existing, tiny luggage. And you’re already squashing a fair amount of stuff into just a carry-on.
  • The “Cash Only” Technique: Set a budget in advance, and put it in cash in your wallet. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. No plastic.
  • The “Gifts Only” Technique: If you can justify it as a gift for someone, great. Nothing for you though. Those are too easy to justify. The enormous broadsword is awesome, but would your brother really appreciate it enough for you to spend the cash? Nah, he’s not that cultured.


5) Happy Tech

I don’t know about you, but I need my devices happy and healthy for a good con experience. I take my laptop for taking notes, my phone for following what’s going on on Twitter, and a veritable rat’s nest of cables.

  • Connectivity: The rule is that the nicer the hotel, the more they’ll charge for wifi. Different hotels will give you differing amounts of connectivity, but most will have free wifi in the lobby. Hang out there when you can, when you need your internet time. If you have an unlocked phone, or a plan with tethering, you can make internet happen through your phone instead (this is what I tend to use). Do be aware that if you’re going through your phone, you may need to pay attention to how much data you’re using. You don’t want to hit your limit and get throttled. And finally, you can avoid all of this if you go phone-only for everything and not even bother with a laptop or tablet. Unless you’re in a black hole or the bowels of the San Antonio Conference Center, a few bars will do the trick.
  • Power: Not exactly a frugal trick, but keeping your devices charged keeps them usable, which sometimes tells you when someone has an extra case of beer/cupcakes/whatever that they need help getting rid of. Bring a power strip, and you’ll be everyone’s new best friend.

So there you go. You can get pretty cheap with cons and still get to go to a bunch while avoiding the whole “starving and dying” thing. Have fun!

Books On How To Write Are BUNK

We were all there, once. You know you want to be a writer, but you’re still young, not sure how to go about it. As you’re thinking, you wonder “Hey, maybe [my favorite author] has a book on how to write! Surely that will teach me everything I need to know!”

So you find that book – assuming [favorite author] has written one. Or you find some advice online from that author on what worked for them. You find it totally uninspiring, but instead of giving up, you persevere. “Someone out there MUST be able to teach me everything I need to know!”

You go through book after book. Some of them have points that make sense, but the rest seems like gibberish. Others make you wish you’d never read them, or make you wonder how the author ever gets anything done at all. By the time you’ve gone through five or six books and websites, you’re more confused than you were when you started.

There are two major types of these books, but the focus of this post is on one of them specifically.

Type I: Famous author spills all. There are probably dozens of books that fall into this category. Stephen King’s On Writing is probably the best-known one, and the one most talked about. This book did nothing for me, personally, but I know lots of people who have gleaned some wisdom from it. Other authors who have contributed to this type include Orson Scott Card, Ursula LeGuin, and many more. Usually there may be a gem or two in these books, but for the most part, it’s just a spelling out of the author’s personal process. I’ll get into why this is bunk shortly.

Type II: The self-published instruction manual on How To Write and Get Published written by John (or Jane) Q. Nobody, who seems to have no other work published in their name. If I have to explain why this is a problem, well…

The one we’ll focus on here is Type I. Books of Type I are confusing, because a person reading one of these books tends to think that by reading it, they will somehow gain all of the knowledge and skill of the famous author who wrote it. The problem is that everyone’s creative process is so intrinsic to their personality, so intensely personal, that many of the tips on How To Write either won’t resonate or might just fall completely flat.

One author’s personal process may have similarities with another, but much like our fingerprints and DNA patterns, no two are exactlyalike. (Even identical twins carry some unique mutations.) Thinking that you can write like Stephen King because you’ve read On Writingis kind of like thinking you can swim a world-record time by watching Olympic swimming competitions. (Ha, clever and current!)

Now, there are books out there which examine the structure and composition of storytelling, and I’m exempting those. Structure and analysis of the elements of stories is something which can be learned, unlike methods. Writing methods are unique, which is why you don’t feel like a better writer after you’ve read On Writing (well, after the initial rush wears off, anyway). Even so, sometimes those books examining the mechanics of storytelling still tend toward talking about methodology… for example, Holly Lisle’s courses (which I’ve gotten a LOT out of and so have many others) state unequivocally at one point that outlining too thoroughly will cause your muse to commit suicide; a black-and-white pronouncement of something which I personally know is not unequivocally true.

If you feel lost after examining writing advice on methodologies, you’re not alone. No one can tell you what your writing methods are, what your creative process looks like. You may find hints that speak to you, diamonds hidden in the rough that show you something about yourself by virtue of observation, but you will not find someone who thinks exactly the way you do.

Your writing methods can only be discovered through your own writing. Try different things. Take advice from many places, experiment until you find something that works for you.

In the meantime, find some of those books on story structure and the analysis of the elements of storytelling, and study them thoroughly. Those are books you can really get something out of.