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A Con Survival Guide for San Diego Comic-Con and Beyond

San Diego Comic-Con logo.

It’s summertime and the con-ing is … the exact opposite of easy. Conventions are a lot of fun, but they can be a lot of stress, as well—especially the huge ones. With the big mama of all conventions, San Diego Comic-Con, looming next week, the con angst is rising! For those of you who won’t be at SDCC in person, The Mary Sue will be on the ground at the con keeping you updated!

But if you’re planning to join the crowds in San Diego, or at another con soon, we’re here to share some important con tips that everyone, from first timers to veterans, can use!

Make a Plan

Though it’s fun to just throw yourself into the madness, there’s often so much going on at a con that, if you don’t plan ahead, you might end up missing out on a lot. Go over the schedule in the days and weeks before the con and highlight the events and panels you want to see. Many cons, including San Diego Comic-Con, use online services like Sched that allow you to create your own schedule online ahead of the convention. Lots of cons also have apps that you can load with your schedule and set to give you updates.

Be warned, though: Reception and wifi at many convention centers is spotty and slow, so if you really want to be safe, make sure you have your schedule in hard copy, and don’t forget to make a note of where your events are and study the convention map! In San Diego, you can’t expect to get from a signing in the exhibit hall to a panel in the Indigo Ballroom in five minutes.

At a huge convention, the odds are that there will be multiple panels and signings and parties happening at the same time, so you’ll have to pick an prioritize what you want to see and do. When making these choices, factor in things like how long you’ll need to wait to get into something, or if it will be rebroadcast, streamed, or recorded so you can view it later. It could be easier to a pick a small panel that you know you’ll make it into over a panel with a big line that you’ll be able to see as a DVD extra in a few months.

Make room in your schedule for everything, including snack time and rest, as well as picking up souvenirs and con exclusives. Weigh (literally) how much you want to be carrying around by the end of the day when considering your shopping. I always try to get merch at the end of the day or con, so I don’t end up hauling stuff around all day, as it can accumulate quickly and get heavy. If you don’t want to miss out on something you want to buy, ask if you can pay now and pick it up from the vendor later. Most booths are staffed by helpful, kind people who want your business, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Pack Smart

All the stuff you’ll want to buy and bring to a con can get heavy. You’ll need a good bag with lots of room. At a lot of cons, you can snag a promotional bag, but that’s never for sure, and they can get be flimsy and break. I’d highly recommend a backpack or your biggest purse (though a backpack will be more comfortable). But don’t overload at the start of the day, or you’ll end up like me a few years ago with some serious back pain by nightfall. Leave room for all the things you’ll pick up throughout the day, and if you don’t think you’ll need something, leave it at the hotel. That said, here’s a few things you should pack:

  • A portable phone charger. Cons are hell on phone batteries, so pack your best and charge it up the night before.
  •  Sunblock. I’ve endured many terrible sunburns waiting in line outside at cons, so heed this warning and be spared the same fate.
  • Hand sanitizer. Con crud is real, friends. Get on the defensive with all those germs.
  • Snacks. Convention center food is expensive and not terribly good, and you never know when your next real meal might be, so snacks are essential. I recommend high protein, filling, well-balanced snacks that won’t melt in your bags. Granola bars are great, as is trail mix, dried fruit, or jerky. Candy, cheese, and fresh fruit are not recommended, because they will be gross within an hour.
  • Mini first aid kit with bandaids and pain killers. You will walk a lot at a big con like SDCC, which means you’ll have blisters and sore feet/legs. Be ready with some ibuprofen and bandages for those blisters. It’s also worth reminding people who menstruate to bring extra period supplies. If you don’t need them, some other poor soul might. Always pack extra medication, as well, just in case.
  • Hygiene supplies. This can be in your bag or back at the hotel, but I recommend having some extra deodorant and maybe even dry shampoo on hand. Things get sweaty and stinky very fast at cons, and it will benefit you and those around you to freshen up. Maybe pack some breath mints, too.
  • Layers. I know I just said it gets hot and sweaty, but all that heat can mean AC at full, freezing blast inside a convention center or panel room. I bring a light overshirt or jacket in case it gets too chilly.
  • More than one pair of shoes. No matter how comfy, wearing the same pair of shoes for three or four days in a row while you’re constantly walking leads to pain and sadness. Believe me, I wore the same pair of boots for four days at SDCC my first year, and I was limping by day four. Insoles are a great idea, heels are not.
  • Water. Always be hydrating.

Budget

It’s amazing how fast money can go flying out of your pockets at cons. There’s so much great art and merchandise to buy, photo ops to get, and autographs to collect, and it adds up fast. My best tip for not sending yourself into financial ruin is to pick an amount you are okay spending on everything (food included) and bring that money with you in cash. It’s easier to keep track of how much you have left, and once you’re done with that, you’re done. This way, you can avoid getting a really scary credit card bill a month later.

If you’re on a budget, prioritize. Can you buy that Funko Pop for cheaper at hot topic? Do you really need the limited edition DVD? For me personally, if I’m trying to save money and have to chose between photo ops and autographs, I always go for autographs because you get a bit more of a meaningful interaction, and they’re generally cheaper (and the lines are sometimes shorter).

Make Friends and Be Kind

In general, people I’ve met in lines, at street crossings, and in panels at cons have been incredibly nice, interesting people, many of whom I’m still friends with. Especially when you’re waiting in a long line, making a buddy can be a great way to pass the time.

Don’t be shy! You’re already there because you love the same things, so strike up a conversation! These are the people who might give you the best tips or know about some under-the-radar event that you would otherwise never know about. Especially if you’re a lone con-goer, it’s a great way to make the most of the experience.

Finally, be kind and be patient. We all get tired and frustrated in stressful, crowded places, but everyone at a con is there to nerd out and have fun, just like you. We can all make it a great experience if we treat everyone else with the same respect and compassion we’d all like to be treated with.

Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.

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