A Survival Guide to Conference Travel
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Attending Conferences is one of the main ways that academics get their ideas out there. If you’re lucky, your school or business will reimburse the money that you spend to go to conferences, but you still have to put the money upfront first. Sometimes, they will only reimburse up to a certain amount and the rest has to come out of your pocket. I have picked up a few tricks and suggestions in my years of conferencing that may help others plan a great conference trip, without succumbing to the pitfalls.
Plan ahead – Though I realize this isn’t always possible, if you know in advance what you want to do, then plan ahead as much as you can. Research the location, figure travel documents, check ticket prices, accommodation options, food availability, etc. The more time you have to plan, the better prepared you will be, plus you may find deals if you plan earlier, or find someone to share the expense.
Experiment with travel plans BEFORE booking – NEVER book the first option or what you are told to book. If you are paying for things always ALWAYS look to see if there is a creative solution to your travel. Is it cheaper to book a trip as two round trips? A series of one way tickets? Are certain airports cheaper to fly through than others? Is there hostel accommodations nearby? Is it cheaper if you book a few days early? If you are being reimbursed for your travel, then your business will appreciate you trying to make it as cost effective as possible. It can be easier that you think, use sites like kayak.com or expedia and with a little bit of goofing around you can end up doing things like spending 7 weeks circumnavigating the globe for less than $800.00 a month.
Set your schedule – Once you are certain you can get a good price on flights, and accommodation, look to the conference schedule and organize a personal schedule. Consider what talks you want to see, what networking and tourist events you want to join, and do your best to stick to it. I know it can be difficult to see all the things you want to see at a conference, especially a large one, and that is why you should be considering this before you get there, to make the most out of your trip. Further, when I say “set your schedule” I also mean a prioritized schedule. Be prepared for talks to be cancelled and schedule changes that you will have no control over that will require adapting the schedule, make sure you know the “must see” and the “would like to see” for your talks. That way you can honestly say you got the most out of the schedule you created initially.
Always build in flexible time – Make sure you have some flexible time where you can do what you like, grab a coffee, food, or nap during this time. The two times this is most important is during travel and around social/networking events. During travel, make sure to book plenty of time to get to your destination without rushing. Even if this means you arrive to the conference a day early, at least you are not in a panic to get there, and it makes it much easier to deal with uncontrollable mishaps. During the conference, the best time to be flexible is around breaks, lunch and social/networking events. When it comes to networking, I like to think about things in this manner – a talk on someone’s research is only good to you if you can create a personal or professional connection to that content, and the best place to do that is during breaks or social/networking events, as it gives you a little extra time to socialize after if you have a productive conversation going on or to track down a presenter and ask them more questions. Further, it gives you a chance to energize before these events and its those little bumps of energy that gives the impression that you are enthusiastic, and motivated.
Make a Budget – If you have money or don’t, create a budget. If you don’t track the money you spend at a conference, you will spend WAY more than you intended. If the conference is in another country, research the currency they use**. Figure out if you can use your bank card or credit cards in the country. If you have a bank or credit card, figure out if there are fees for different currencies (Almost all banks have a foreign exchange or “FX” fee). These methods are the safest, as credit and debit cards can be cancelled, they have fraud/identity theft protection and new cards can be express mailed to you, but sometimes you need cash and should bring some (see note on cash below). Keep all your receipts and take care to keep an eye on your spending. Foreign cash sometimes gets spent faster because we don’t connect to the value of the currency to its economic system, as we are so used to our own economic system. For major expenses (hotel costs, car rental, in country flights, etc.) plan to pay them in advance, as it’s easier to deal with ahead of time. However, use caution when paying in advance, as if you get scammed it can cost you. Using third party payment systems like credit cards or PayPal to book these expenses and then paying on site with is an effective strategy, as this guarantees that you get the service you asked for and if you don’t you can cancel the payment.
**Note on Cash – If you bring cash, research the currency and figure out basic costs, like how much it costs for food, a meal at a restaurant, lodgings, cell phone sim card, etc. This will give you a reasonable estimate of what you need to bring for cash. From there figure out how to buy the currency. Some countries will only allow you to exchange the currency inside the country (meaning you have to buy it when you get there and can’t sell it outside the country), and others allow purchase through your regular bank. Check the exchange rate at your bank and the rates in the country, it can sometimes be cheaper to buy currency in advance from a bank instead of on site at an airport, Keep in mind your bank may not carry the currency you need, and will have to order it, or if they do have it, ask what year the notes are from, as they can sometimes have expired money that is worthless in the other country. This all means one thing – plan currencies early. When actually travelling, don’t keep it all in the same place. Spread it around your person and baggage so that if something is stolen, you don’t lose all your cash. If you are going to exchange cash on site, note that some exchange places take credit cards and some don’t, so it is advisable to bring some cash in a universally recognized currency like US dollars (USD) British Pounds (GBP) or Euros (EUR). If you are bringing USD, GBP or EUR with you, bring large bills, like 50’s or 100’s as many currency exchange booths charge more to convert small bills. Also do your best to spend any change you get, most foreign exchange businesses will not exchange coin, only paper money.
Plan your baggage – The seasoned conference travellers I know can always manage to do their entire conference in just their carry-on bags. Almost all major airlines give you two items you can carry on to a place, a carry on bag and a personal item. Make sure the bag you use for carry on meets the maximum accepted guidelines for carry-on, as it will be the means to make sure you have enough of all your basics with you even if your luggage is lost. Make sure that your personal item is the maximum size available to you. Commonly, airlines allow a poster shipping tube as a personal item, so if you insist on printing your poster and taking it with you, then you will need to fit everything in your carry on. If you do bring a checked bag, please follow this concept – DO NOT put anything in your checked luggage that you need, or you can not replace.
Think of your carry on and personal item as a conference survival kit. There should be enough stuff in there to carry you through the entire conference without your checked luggage, and you may have to be merciless about what you leave behind. You’d be amazed at exactly how little you need to get by, and there are two points of advice I am going to give on this that will save your skin: 1) Bring less things and more cash, 2) If you don’t need it, don’t pack it; If you do need it, take two.
Some things will be physically limited by the airport security so make sure to research in advance and recheck often if the country you are going to has different rules on what you can bring onboard a plane. For example, even though you are allowed to bring nail clippers with you through a US airport security, they will be confiscated and thrown away going through a Malaysian airport security.
Make sure that you follow the airport 3-1-1 rule for liquids, gels and aerosols: such items can be up to 3oz./100ml and all of your liquids/gels/aerosols must fit in a 1 liter/ 1quart sized clear sealable plastic bag. Protip – these items don’t necessarily have to be in their original containers, so if you have a magic shampoo that you can’t live without, transfer it to 100ml bottles and use it sparingly.