How to Attend Tech Events on a Budget
You want to attend that cool tech conference – but your pocketbook says No? Here are several ways to make it easier for you to get the training and networking you need… on the cheap.
Conferences and convention registration ranges from free into the thousands. Even if you attend an affordable event on your own dime, you still have to factor in travel, lodging, food, and miscellaneous expenses. If you are strapped for cash, these helpful tricks can let you reap the benefits of attending events without breaking your piggy bank.
When it comes to registering for an event, procrastination rarely pays off because you miss the “Early Bird” discounts. For example, LinuxCon North America is in late August, but if you registered by April 29, 2012, you would have saved $200. The Black Hat USA 2012 early bird rate was $1,495 if you registered by February 1, a substantial savings over the current registration rate of $2,195. The Android Developer Conference is scheduled for December 2012, but attendees save $700 by registering by July 13.
Most events offer registration discounts for full-time students. Students can get into LinuxCon next month for only $100, which is a $500 savings. Full-time students attending O'Reilly's Open Source conference (OSCON) save 65%.
In addition to helping out starving students, some events also show professors a little love. Black Hat USA 2012 offers a $600 discount for full-time students and full-time university professors. Full-time academic instructors can save 50% off of OSCON registration, and other academic staff can save 25%.
Don’t be shy. Saras Saraswathi, a postdoctoral research associate at Battelle Center for Mathematical Medicine, says that if she doesn't see a discount advertised on an event website, she contacts the organizers directly. “For a conference in Singapore and in Spain, although they had not offered any discount or travel awards, I had written to them and asked if they can offer any help,” she says. “They reduced the registration fee by $400 on both occasions.”
Saraswathi also recommends becoming a member of membership-based organizations, such as IEEE, to get discounted event registration rates. “The membership fee might be as low as $50,” she points out. “This money could come back to you in the form of online courses, books, and travel awards,” she says.
If several of your friends or colleagues plan to attend the same event, check out options for a group discount. Often these discounts are listed on the event site, but if they are not, contact the event organizers directly to see what kind of deal you can arrange. Government employees, retired attendees, event alumni, and non-profit organization employees should also check for discounts on the event site or contact event organizers.
In this economy, attending industry events is still important, and perhaps even more important than it has ever been. Events are a great way to learn and pick up new skills, and networking with other attendees and presenters could help you land your next job if your company goes through a round of layoffs. Already laid off or unemployed? Look for hardship discounts on event websites or contact event organizers to see what kind of discount you can negotiate.
If all else fails, ask for help online. In 2007, four Oregon State University students wanted to attend a Linux conference down-under, so they created a website called Please send us to linux.conf.au to help raise the funds. They managed to raise $10,000 to attend the event in Australia.
Grants and Contests
USENIX, the organization I work for, offers student discounts and grants, which even help cover travel and lodging expenses. “A lot of conferences do give travel grants,” Saraswathi says. “I got travel grants for almost all the conferences I attended.”
Diversity grants are increasingly common. The Anita Borg Institute offers the Anita Borg Systers Pass-It-On (PIO) Awards, which range from $500 to $1,000 and can be used for educational fees and materials. PyCon Australia and Google Australia partnered to create a diversity grant that awards up to $AUD500 of travel, accommodation, and registration costs for women living outside of the Southern Tasmania region.
Sometimes events have contests to help promote the conference. The 2012 Southern California Linux Expo, for example, included a t-shirt design contest. The winning designer, Brian Beck, won a trip to the conference in Los Angeles, expo admission, and accommodations.
Event speakers almost always get in for free and might even score a free hotel room in addition to food and drinks, but event volunteers aren't treated too shabbily, either. “I applied to volunteer at the User Experience Professionals' Association (UXPA) international conference in Las Vegas,” says Lowell Reade, a graduate from Harvey Mudd College. “The cost of registration, even at the student rate, was quite high, so I saw volunteering as an excellent opportunity not only to save money but to be more visible and to have closer contact with presenters and organizers.”
Reade says the application was straightforward. Plus, because it was an international conference, volunteers came from all over the world and spoke several languages. “We still had to pay for our own housing,” Reade explains, “but most meals were provided. This particular conference also included pre- and post-conference tutorials, which were an additional cost on top of registration. If we were assigned to volunteer at one of those tutorials, we did not have to pay. That was probably one of the best perks.” Reade says that volunteers did have to pay for their expenses up front and then get reimbursed by the organizers.
Saras Saraswathi has volunteered at several ISMB computational biology conferences. Saraswathi says that in addition to saving $500 on the registration fee, volunteers also enjoyed free refreshments. “These volunteering positions are in demand,” Saraswathi adds. “If you do get this chance, make it a point to talk to the persons in charge of picking you. Show that you are enthusiastic about the job so that they remember you and will pick you again next year. They like people who are helpful and cheerful and do not look like volunteers just for the sake of the registration fee.”
SuperComputing offers free registration, housing, and most meals for student volunteers. Some support for transportation expenses is also provided for international students and for underrepresented groups.
Housing and Travel
Often I don't stay at the hotels recommended by the events I attend, even when my company covers expenses. Not only can you save money by shopping around for a cheaper hotel, you can find good deals on fun boutique hotels or other hotels within walking distance from the event. When I attend OSCON in Portland this month, I'm staying in a rental house with a friend and several of her connections. The group room rate at the conference hotel is $163 a night plus taxes and fees. Compare that to the $50 a night I will spend on my room, which includes a communal kitchen and a hot tub and is located near a grocery store, mass transit, and the conference.
Also look into room sharing. I've shared rooms with several friends and colleagues over the years, which can help you save a bundle. Some events even have a system for helping attendees find suitable roommates. I've also saved money when I travel by crashing with friends and colleagues who live in the area. If you are up for an adventure and ready to meet new people, check out CouchSurfing.org, a free online service that matches travelers up with hosts.
Obviously you would shop around for the best airfare (you don’t need my advice for that), but maybe driving is an option for you, particularly if several friends or colleagues ride together. Earlier this year, a business trip fell on the same week my teenager was off for spring break, so we made a vacation out of my trip by staying with friends on the way to and from my event. I used the money that was budgeted for my conference airfare to gas up my car instead, which allowed my daughter and me to have an inexpensive road trip and saved me the expense of childcare or buying an extra plane ticket.
Trains are also something to consider. In addition to a train trip (sometimes) saving you money, it can also give you time to relax and see the countryside on the way to your destination. On an international business trip last year, I saved our company a small fortune by taking a train from Munich to Budapest. The trip only took a few hours longer and let me avoid the hassle of an airport. I also found an online deal that made my first-class train ticket less expensive than riding in coach.
Food can cost a fortune when you travel, which is extra irritating when the food is not that good, either. If you are lucky, the event you attend provides a continental breakfast, catered lunch, and snack breaks. Otherwise, consider hitting a grocery store before you settle into your room. At a minimum, I keep protein bars, nuts, bottles of water, fresh fruit, and packets of oatmeal in my room. If your room doesn't include a mini-fridge, check with the hotel to see whether they have one available.
Leaving the convention center during lunch is a great way to stretch your legs, see the city, and find affordable, healthy food options. I'll take a $6 deli sandwich on a park bench any day over a heavy hotel lunch. If you decide to eat at the hotel, check the a la carte menu for lighter lunch options or split a meal with a friend so you don't throw away half of your over-priced food.
Conferences often have evening social gatherings or vendor-sponsored parties. Even if you aren't into the party scene, these social events are a great way to enjoy some fabulous free food while you network. Your friends and colleagues will be happy to take your free drink tickets if you'd rather dine and dash back to your room for a quiet evening or to stroll through the conference city and take in the sights. I skipped the evening social events at the most recent conference I attended and went for relaxing runs with a friend and then enjoyed light, affordable dinners in Boston. Not only did I see more of the city on this trip, I also got to catch up with a friend and eat healthier food options. The fresh air, exercise, and smarter eating made me feel much better than I've felt at past events.
Finding ways to save money when attending conferences is a brag-worthy feat, so be sure to share your tips with your friends and colleagues. Conferences and conventions can't exist without attendees, and you might be surprised at how eager they are to help you attend. If you are unemployed or in a cash crunch, don't let your financial situation keep you from attending the event you have your eye on. The discounts, grants, contests, volunteer opportunities, and fellow cash-strapped attendees are out there, as long as you are willing to do a bit of footwork and networking to find them.
Have you found other ways to stretch your conference budget? Share them with us all in the comments.
About the author
Rikki Endsley is the Community Manager for USENIX and a freelance journalist. In the past, Rikki worked as the Managing Editor of Sys Admin magazine and Associate Publisher of Linux Pro Magazine and ADMIN magazine. Follow Rikki on Twitter: @rikkiends.