Editor’s note: Each year, Tom Spurgeon presents a voluminous list of tips on attending Comic-Con International on his website, comicsreporter.com. Tom’s list this year has 180 suggestions; we’ve asked him to prepare an edited version for Toucan. As with all of our columnists—regular and guests—the opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Comic-Con International. But here’s a long-time attendee—and comics professional, not to mention a multi-Eisner Award winner—offering his take on attending the big show. Click here to read Part 2!
San Diego's Comic-Con International has blossomed into a travel-destination phenomenon. One long weekend in July, a convention center and its immediate surroundings are transformed into the focal point of the pop culture universe. What follows is a top 40 of strategies, travel tips, and outright coping mechanisms as collected by one 20-year veteran of the show with the help of dozens of his friends. I hope there's something here that helps you out, and I hope to see you at Comic-Con.
Before every other consideration comes taking care of your personal safety. Never lose sight of keeping yourself and those around you free from harm and discomfort. Comic-Con itself is a wonderful place, and San Diego is one of North America's finest and most genteel cities. It's still a convention in the heart of a major metropolis, with all this entails. Never forget that. Do anything the local police officers around you suggest is best, and that includes security within the convention itself. They're there to help. Keep your wits about you. Don't do anything you wouldn't do at home.
Double-check your airline's website for their luggage fees. This can be a killer for Comic-Con because you may be taking stuff there to do business, or taking stuff home having done some collection-related buying. Even if it's bad news, it's better to be prepared than to find out you've hit a bag limit and have no cash available to you.
Everyone reading this with a chance of attending this year's Comic-Con likely has badges secured. The very next thing you need to do is figure out where you're staying. The later it gets, the more difficult this becomes. Reach out to friends who may need a roommate. Check the Comic-Con's hotel page once a day for openings or rooms newly available: such openings aren’t as common as they used to be, but they still happen. One strategy I've used is to get a series of one-day reservations rather than a four-day one, even using different hotels. You may have more deposits to pay, but it's a great way to experience hotels that might not be open for a lengthier stay. Fridays and Saturdays are the toughest to find, so snap those up.
Fewer Comic-Con hotels than ever offer airport shuttle service. That means a cab, which can cost $15-$20 each way. Arriving by rail may also require a short ride in a cab, depending on where you're staying in proximity to the train station. If you have a car, lucky you! But parking at your hotel may cost up to $25 a day (check your hotel’s website). Plan for these expenses. That way, if you're able to convince the person in the taxi line at the airport to share a ride with you, or if your hotel is close enough to the train station to walk, those savings fall to you.
It doesn’t happen frequently, but it is not unheard of for a Comic-Con hotel to book more rooms than it can handle. As a result, a few guests may have to be sent to another location—almost always further away! It is perfectly legal for a hotel to do so. Having this happen to you isn't the end of the world, but it's certainly another travel hassle. Get your room secured as close to the check-in time as you’re able, (usually mid-afternoon), and you reduce your chances of being the odd guest out. If you have any special requests, like a room on a higher floor, it's also easier for a hotel to accommodate you if you're on time.
Most hotels have a rewards program. Not only might you eventually earn a free night if you’re at the same hotel at several Comic-Cons, joining a hotel's program can qualify you for perks. You may have a different line at the front desk when checking in, for instance—a godsend on a busy weekend. You may get a slightly better room or a choice of a higher floor. If you're in the points program and something goes awry, you may have better access to a manager. Being in the points program also gives hotels a natural way to make things up to you with a few strokes of a computer keyboard.
If you're staying in a hotel, find its website online and glean as much information as you can about the rooms, the restaurants, its pool, its gym—anything it has to offer. Then find the street address and search the immediate environs. It sounds silly, but spending 15 minutes in advance finding out what your hotel has in-house and what's within easy walking distance can save you a ton of time on Comic-Con weekend, and may even suggest a fun thing to do while you're in San Diego that's not convention-related.
Don’t be shy about eating in. Many professionals and con-goers who have been attending the show for decades now that take multiple meals back in their room. It's a great way to save some money, and also find a quiet moment in all the convention craziness. The Ralphs at G Street and First Avenue has been a key location for con-goers for years and ably serves the Broadway hotels and those closest to the Convention Center—it’s even on the shuttle route. [In the past few years, two other grocery stores have opened downtown, although they’re not as close to the Convention Center as Ralphs: There’s an Albertson’s at 14th and Market St., and the East Village Grocery Outlet at 10th and Market, plus a Smart and Final on G Street and 15th. Most drug stores (CVS, Rite Aid) carry food items. Smaller specialty stores like Krisp at 1076 Seventh Avenue, north of Broadway, have natural foods and are worth seeking out, even if it takes a little bit of a walk.]
There are cash machines at the Convention Center, but not a lot of them and there’s always a line. Fill your wallet before you go to the show. There are ATMs in most of the major hotels, near the bank buildings along Broadway, and in various public locations. A lot of booths will accept credit cards, but not all of them. If you're at the show and the ATM line is long, do the mental math and consider a walk to a nearby hotel.
If you’re driving to the Convention Center from an outlying hotel or on a day trip, parking can be tough. Go early in the day—by noon, parking near the show requires a minor miracle. That said, I had an easy time a few years ago parking my car in the public garages in the Gaslamp Quarter; they filled up briskly, but there was definitely space available each morning. Hit the garages and parking lots further east for a better chance at an open space. [Check the Comic-Con website for pre-sale parking in some of those locations. Some spots may still be available.]
Double-check to see if where you’re parking is actually all-day or for a limited number of hours but claims to be "all day." Some of the open-air lots only take you into the late afternoon, a bummer if you want to stay at Comic-Con until evening. Also, there’s a scam in parking garages where people with doctored T-shirts or made-up badges will solicit money from people parking cars—if there’s an automated system, always use that.
Convention days can be very, very long. Unless you're committed to a line for one of the special events, and maybe even if you are, make sure you have a morning meal. Check your hotel, stop by the grocery store, Google-search a downtown location, but get something in your belly. The downtown wait-to-be-seated locations can be extremely busy, so don't count on getting in and out if you go to one of those locations. Another thing about breakfast is that it's rare down time for a lot of comics pros and entertainment industry members. It's a growing business meeting opportunity, as well—people have fewer obligations for that meal than they have for lunch and dinner. Try the hotels right next to the Convention Center if you have the extra money in your budget and you want to impress someone. They usually take reservations.
The main floor at Comic-Con is bigger than Richie Rich's living room. It's Batcave big. It's Death Star big. The oldest piece of convention advice is to wear comfortable shoes, but the expansion of the show has made this a necessity. In fact, I suggest dressing as comfortably from head to toe as modesty and your plans for the show allow.
I don’t wear a watch or carry a phone, but I take both to Comic-Con. There are no clocks on the walls, and it’s a big place where you tend to lose people. Practice your texting—it's a great way to stay in contact with your friends, and doesn't require you to find space alone and away from others. And don’t forget batteries and chargers for all your electronic devices! Even though you have that phone, remember to set a meeting place and time in case your battery dies.
If Twitter isn't already a part of your life, consider signing up just to have better access to tweeted information about Comic-Con. Make a list with Comic-Con related sources, any stars or professionals you like that are going to be there, any local institutions that have come up on your searches. Twitter is where people will announce last-minute signings, make it known when there's a sale, and give other convention-goers an idea of what they're seeing and why it's important.
The other great, recurrent skill in the con-goer's toolbox is research. Research in this day and age means bookmarking websites of use and then making use of them. My suggestion is at some point between now and the show, start a folder and put everything related to the con into it. [Editor’s note: The Comic-Con website is your first stop for official information, and the first place you’ll find things like the complete program schedule (about 2 weeks before the event). Toucan, the official Comic-Con blog, will also be revealing show information before anyone else.]
So you have the things you want to do and you know when your favorite panels are going to happen and who is signing where and all the things you want to do that the con has to offer. A good rule is to plan one thing for each AM and each PM for every day of the show and nothing else. If you end up with extra time, you can spend that on a bonus event, or crowd-watching, or extra shopping, or going somewhere outside of the big show. The major exception here is the TV and movie panels in the larger rooms, which may require a more significant, full day or more commitment.
If it's convenient, take a long-sleeve shirt with you the first day. Finding the right temperature to harbor 130,000 people is a task that would be daunting for a massive spaceship; it's just as tough in a big convention center. You can practically count on Comic-Con being a tiny bit overheated some years and slightly cool others.
If you're going to shop at Comic-Con and know what you're looking for, make a list with the prices you'll accept before buying each item. It's hard to comparison shop in a room with that many people. Finding the absolute best price may not be worth the hassle.
To meet the people you don't know, talk to the people you do know. If you're a cartoonist who wants to meet an editor, ask your fellow cartoonists to introduce you. If you're a writer who wants to meet an artist, get any writers you know to introduce you to artists they know. If you're a fan, talk to your fellow fans. People generally love to introduce people they know to other people they know, and it's amazing how few people ask. And what if you don't know anybody? Get to know them. Take advantage of all formal meet-and-greets and business opportunities such as portfolio reviews advertised in the convention programming. Don't be pushy, but most people at the show appreciate a friendly, engaged conversation if they have the time to give you one. Some of my closest allies in my industry are people I met at random times during previous Comic-Cons; everyone you meet is a potential contact.
Comic-Con photos by Kevin Green and Johnakin Randolph © 2013 SDCC