I’m still recovering from my first DragonCon and have already started thinking about next year. While most people are blogging recaps and reliving an amazing nerdy experience, I’ve decided to take a different route and focus on recapping my DragonCon experience by imparting the knowledge I picked up to next year’s incoming DragonCon virgins. Why? I did my best to find out certain information before I went and if it was out there on the internet, I simply couldn’t track it down. No matter how much I read, researched, and planned, nothing prepared me for the actual convention. Hopefully, the advice here will make all the difference for you. So sit back, grab a cup of coffee, and relax. You’ll need to save up the energy.

The Basics

Tickets

The number one rule is buy your tickets early. Last year I bought my tickets mid-June; there’s nothing wrong with it, really, but the earlier you buy, the less you spend. As of the time I’m writing this blog, the tickets for 2013 are on sale for $65. They will approximately double by the time the con rolls around with various price ranges along the way. The good thing about the people who run the convention is they do try to let you know ahead of time when they’re going to go up in price, so you can get them before they do.

My guess is, if you’re here, you’ve already bought your ticket or are thinking about buying your ticket. If you’re part of the second group… why are you just thinking? Stop thinking and go! You won’t regret it. Really. And the best thing about deciding early is the time to plan; you can save up money, research, and spend an entire year letting the anticipation build. It’s so, so worth it.

Hotel

Most people recommend you get a host hotel. I’m going to go a bit further and say you need a host hotel. Last year, I didn’t get one. Here’s why I wish I did:

First, transportation issues drove me crazy. The hotel I was at did offer a shuttle to the convention which was nice. The problem was it didn’t run often enough. In the middle of the day there was a long stretch when there wasn’t a shuttle at all and at night there was no way to get back to the hotel. I could manage to stay out a little later since my hotel did provide a shuttle from the airport, and I just had to take the MARTA train to the airport from the con, but I still had to call it an “early night” which, quite frankly, sucked. Most of the exciting stuff happened late at night, and I feel like I missed out on hanging with the stars and the real social aspect of the con.

Next, and this ties into the first, I wasn’t able to take naps. “NAPS?!,” you interabang, “WHY ARE NAPS NECESSARY?! WHAT IS THIS?! GRADE SCHOOL?!” No. I’m not a nap person, in general, but for DragonCon I make an exception, for one simple reason: you will exhaust yourself. By the time you navigate the crowds, stand in line for hours for panels, shuffle like a zombie between five hotels, track down food, wander through the vendor rooms, and gaze about in wonder, you’ll need some time to rest and recuperate. If you’re in a host hotel you can get to your room in 10 – 20 minutes top (unless you get into a traffic jam in the sky walks, something I had no personal experience with, thank God.); if you’re not in a host hotel, by the time you navigate to your hotel, get to your room, and decompress, you realize there’s only two more shuttles left and they’re both coming from the con not going to it. That means it’ll take you an hour to navigate your way back to the con… and is it really worth it for a couple of more hours of programming? Usually you decide no, and you miss out on the night life only getting in around 4 – 5 hours of the 24 hour programming unless you’re willing to pay roughly $30 for a cab back to your hotel. No. That’s not an exaggerated price.

With a host hotel most of that stress is gone. It may take you a while to navigate the crowds and wait for an elevator up to your room, but it’s quicker than trying to get to your offsite hotel. You can wind down, relax for half an hour to an hour, and rejoin the festivities whenever you want. There is no waiting for a shuttle, no being stuck on MARTA’S schedule, no weighing the possibility of running into Felicia Day at the MMO party versus the cost of a cab back to your hotel. You’re there. You’re living in the moment.

Further, with a host hotel, you can travel lighter. Last year, I packed everything I could need in a bag and tried to lug it with me through crowds. Yeah, I’ll likely still carry a lot, due to my boy scout mentality, but I won’t have to carry entire change of outfits like I did last year due to cosplay. The weight of my bag plus standing in line was a bad, bad thing. With a host hotel, if you need to get out of your costume, you can manage it in a few minutes; if you’re not in a host hotel between transportation and timing issues, you could be screwed.

Last, as someone who has to spring for a room refrigerator for insulin anyway, let me just say the cost of a refrigerator a night at some of the host hotels seems ridiculous, but when you weigh it against the cost of hotel/con food and the hassle of having to stand in line or navigate your way to the food court, then it starts to look a lot nicer. No. Really. Last year, I went all out and packed full on bento lunches, knowing that I was going to have to carry everything I needed for the day with me not being in a host hotel. This year, I still plan on bringing food with me for the room, things like ramen, lunch meat, bread, etc, are essential for a quick, cheap meal. Not only will you save money in the long run, but also time. Those lines are unwieldy, my friends. Unwieldy. Nothing but actually being there can prepare you for it.

The one thing that may prevent you from getting a host hotel this early is cost. If that’s a big, big factor, then you should check out hotels in the area that are fairly close. I have friends of friends who highly recommend The W. It’s close, runs a free shuttle to anywhere in a certain mile radius that includes the entire convention, and is less expensive than the host hotels. If you’re looking for some place different, I’d recommend googling the area and using google maps to determine how close it is. If it’s more than a 10 – 15 minute walk away from the Marriott Atlanta Marquis (the central hub of the convention), it’s too far away.

Transportation

The last thing you need to consider when planning for the con is how you’re going to get there. Each mode of transportation has its pros and cons. Flying can be more expensive, and you have to deal with TSA. If you’re not cosplaying, though, it may be the best option. Driving has the pro of being cheaper, depending on where you live, but the con of being much, much more frustrating. Atlanta traffic on labor day weekend is insane, not to mention if you did take my advice and get a host hotel, the cost of parking is ridiculous. This year, I’m trying to decide between flying or taking a train or bus. There is no way you could pay me to drive again. You know it’s bad when not only the driver but the three passengers have road rage.

In addition to transportation you do need to think about when you want to arrive and leave. Because of the short notice of my trip last year, I ended up not arriving until Friday; it would have been much better to arrive on Thursday. My advice for departure is to leave Monday in the early afternoon. Plan on getting out of your room around 1 or 2 (if you can request a late checkout) and leaving town shortly after that.

Panels

One of the big reasons we come to cons are the panels. We’re there to hear famous people talk about the things we love, to learn something new, or to geek out about our favorite show with other fans. A lot of people blow off fan panels, and I would say I’m not sure if that’s a great idea. I went to a fan panel last year on Primeval that was part of the BritTrack, and it was great! You definitely do have to be careful about fan panels, because sometimes people use them as excuses to get into the con free, but they can be fun, informative, and well put together. The advantage to them is they tend to have shorter (or no) lines and smaller crowds.

In addition to fan panels there are the big name panels with stars. These are the panels where you have to stand in lines that wrap around the building. Now, I will say one thing about the people who run DragonCon: they know their audience. You can usually tell about how many people will show up to the panel by the size of the room it’s in. If it’s in the X-Track and in a ballroom, expect a long, long line. They try to make it fair by not allowing the line to form until exactly an hour before the panel starts, but you still want to get there a little earlier to increase your chances of being able to stand inside of an air-conditioned building while waiting. Some of the people running the lines are a bit… ahem… rude… about the rules, and there were instances that made me want to not be the nice person I usually am, but for the most part, people are just trying to make sure everyone has fun.

Interactive panels and live podcasts can be found, too, as well as your normal, lecture-style informative panel. Panels are a bit like college. Choose a variety and see what you like, but definitely pick a topic you’re passionate about and give yourself options!

Shopping

Even if you aren’t a big shopper, you will want to check out the vendor rooms, but definitely know what you’re looking for and what your spending limit is before you go… especially if you have a tendency to impulse buy. The plethora of awesome geeky, nerdy, fan paraphernalia is mind-blowing and temptation looms in every booth. Most of the prices seem to be reasonable for what you find and I honestly did not feel like anyone was taking advantage of the crowd to hike up prices. In fact, most vendors seemed to be offering a discount compared to their website prices or were offering specials and deals.

Last year, there was a problem with some vendors getting cell signal to process debit and credit card transactions, and there were problems with things double posting to accounts for some people. Working in the banking industry, I know that happens a lot and getting reimbursed is not a big deal. All banks have to have a way for you to resolve problems like that; just call customer service. Still, I recommend cash. Why? It makes you more aware of your spending limit; it’s all too easy to hand over a card and charge whatever; cash prevents you from doing that. I mean, buying a $400 UltraSabre seems like a good idea in the moment but do you really have the money? Also, if there is a major problem with processing, you can still buy things and everyone takes cash.

The best times to shop are early in the day between 10 and noon, before the crowds really show up or later in the evening as the crowd starts to thin between 5 and 7 when the dealer rooms are close to shutting down. Monday morning was also a great time to hit the vendor rooms; a lot of attendees were packing up or had already left on early morning flights, so the crowd was smaller. Vendors were offering discounts on things they just didn’t want to have to take back home.

Walk of Fame

The Walk of Fame is THE room for getting autographs from movie and TV personalities. Most of the guests do charge fees for the autograph so if you think you want some, bring cash. You definitely want to set aside some time to hit the place up, but I can’t give you any ideas about when to do so. Try to find out ahead of time when the celebs you want to see will be signing that way you can block off the time. If you’re looking for autographs from artists and authors most of those are free and last year were in another area I didn’t get a chance to visit. Again, the trick is to find out when the people you want will be signing ahead of time.

What to Bring

For most people, questions about what to bring can be answered by figuring out why you’re going. Are you going as a fan? Are you going as a cosplayer? Are you going as an author or artist? Figure out your motivation, and then decide what to pack. No matter what you take, make sure it’s weather, age, and weight appropriate. Don’t use the convention as an excuse to dress like a slut. It’s just not cool, and it could ruin networking opportunities. It’s difficult to take someone seriously when you watch their wardrobe malfunction as they walk down stairs.

With that in mind, there are some things EVERYONE will find themselves needing and wanting.

  1. A Backpack
    The DragonCon Survival Guide recommended a backpack or a messenger bag. I did the messenger bag last year, and I have to say: never again. For the amount of time you’ll be lugging it, you need a good, low-profile, low-weight backpack that will hold what you want (with room for more if you plan on hitting the vendor room), and that will evenly distribute the weight across your body. A messenger bag will throw you off-balance, put you out of alignment, and in a crowd get jostled more than a backpack. Seriously, the backpack is the way to go.
  2. Digital Camera
    I thought I could survive with just my phone. I was wrong. When your phone is constantly seeking signal because you’re on the bottom levels of a metal tower, battery power goes quickly. Plus, it takes time for you to get ready to take the picture. With a digital camera it’s always in the right mode, and the batteries are independent of your schedule keeper, alarm, and general life saver.
  3. Back-up Batteries/Chargers
    These are a MUST. It’s doubtful you’ll be able to find an outlet when you need one, so I’d definitely recommend extra fully charged batteries if you can have them or emergency charge boosters, if not. Your devices will run low, because no matter how much you used them on a daily basis, nothing will prepare you for how much you will use them at DragonCon. Nothing.
  4. Water Bottle
    You must bring hydration with you. Not only will it save you money in the long run, but it will also prevent you from passing out unexpectedly. Last year, it was hot. It was hot outside; it was hot inside. It was ridiculous. Not only is it the con at the end of the summer, but there are literally thousands of people crammed together in lines, and the doors to the hotels rarely (if ever) actually shut. The convention and the hotels are pretty good about providing water in various locations, but if you bring your own bottle you can fill it rather than just taking a single cup that will barely quench your thirst. Look for something lightweight, easy to pack, that holds a decent amount of water. If you’re not carrying a backpack, one of the people I went with last year brought a camel pack and it came in handy; I’m looking into these as a possible alternative to traditional water bottles next year.
  5. Food/Snacks
    You will find yourself inexplicably hungry while standing in line for a panel. You will suddenly realize you haven’t eaten in six hours and that doing so might be a good thing. Because of that, carrying things like trail mix, juice boxes, gummy snacks, meal/granola bars, or crackers is a good idea. One or two things in your bag will re-energize you and won’t take up a ton of room; I tend to carry more out of habit due to my diabetes. Keep in mind,  even if you are NOT diabetic, you can pass out due to exhaustion and blood sugar problems, especially combined with dehydration, heat, and stress. Do yourself a favor, and don’t be that person.
  6. Medicine
    Most people with a medical problem know this, but always make sure you carry your medicine (or a list of your medicines) with you. You never know when you might need it. Those of you without a maintenance condition should still think about carrying a pain reliever – at the very least. Forgetting to eat, dehydration, no sleep… the least you’ll suffer from is a headache. Just stop complaining and put a travel size bottle of Aleve in your backpack. You’ll thank yourself later.

Cosplay

DragonCon takes its cosplay seriously. There were a TON of people in costume and the temptation to join in is great. If it’s your first convention, you may not want to, for the sheer intimidation factor. Me? I’m not easily intimidated, and I’m glad I did cosplay. There are some things you definitely want to consider before just willy nilly deciding on costumes.

Do think about the weather and plan accordingly. As you’re planning your costume, it’s going to be difficult to know what the weather will be like, but have alternatives. In the blistering heat, you may not want to dress all in black and have one of the pieces of your costume be a hoodie. Alternatively, if it’s pouring rain, you don’t want to be stuck without a jacket, either. Options are key. They’re also key for things like your poor tired feet in hooker heels. Don’t plan on wearing a costume all day, every day, unless that is the ONLY reason you’re going. If you are a hardcore cosplayer and that is your thing, then go for it. Otherwise, take normal clothes and don’t beat yourself up when you have to peel out of your costume. Along the same line, don’t wear the SAME costume every day. People will remember you and start to talk.

Do plan on making time to stop and have your picture taken. It may not happen frequently, but then again it might. You never know. So plan accordingly and allow yourself extra time to get to panels. Do plan group costumes, even if your “group” is only a pair. It’s definitely more fun when there’s someone with you to experience it. Don’t be that person who’s oblivious that their costume looks like shit OR that their bits are being shown off in the wrong ways in their costume. It’s just convention suicide. Do remember to have fun with it, because that’s what this is all about! Do plan some time just to walk around in costume without having to go to a panel or shop. It’s bound to be more fun if you don’t have to rush and run.

Next year I’m planning on one or maybe two costumes top, and I definitely won’t be wearing them all day. The advantage to having a host hotel will be that I can do a quick change a la Superman and not miss a ton of the con!

Final Words of Wisdom

The final bit of advice when preparing for DragonCon is not to stress. Yes, I’m an obsessive planning type, but in the end, I can just roll with the punches. Download the app. Follow the twitter feeds. Check in frequently for updates and news. Allow your plans and schedule to change. If you can’t make a panel, shrug it off and go to an alternative. If you find you’re about to drop on your feet, take a break, and skip out on the Walk of Fame that day. If your costume isn’t the best in the room, lift your chin and wear yours with pride anyway. Be flexible, have fun, and remember: there’s always next year!

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