Packing for a Convention

I take trains or planes to 3 to 5 conventions per year, traveling across time zones and multiple states to get to them all with as little weight and difficulty as possible. I attend many of these conventions because I work in administration–including organization, management, marketing, and promotion–and I attend others as a presenter or just for fun.

I want to share advice for how to best pack luggage to make the most of your convention for your professional and leisure purposes, as well as to keep down weight, prices, and airplane and train hassle. Based on my 10 years experience presenting, managing, promoting, and organizing at annual conventions, I can advise how to prepare for your traveling experience!

This advice is directed to people traveling alone to attend conventions as speakers or attendees. While this advice may be helpful to vendors, the amount of materials to transport will require additional considerations, including whether it is more productive to have materials shipped in advance to be received at the convention’s location or a nearby office and mailing store. Please share in the comments below or tweet @dereksmcgrath additional travel advice, especially for how to travel with children and families.

An earlier version of this post appeared at the Japanese, Anime, and Manga Studies Association. While this post still applies to fan conventions, its revisions are directed to those attending academic conventions. 

Estimated prices are below–and while these costs can add up, you’ll use many of these items in your everyday life, especially mobile device chargers, or are optional or unnecessary for some people (headphones, video game systems, etc).


Have a lightweight rolling carry-on item ($30-$100) and a small personal item, such as a tote bag (free at any conventions), for additional storage. Many airports and trains let you carry a personal item with you, so long as it can fit under your seat or the seat in front of you. Therefore, make the personal item a tote bag to put in items that did not fit in your carry-on item, or which you will pack back into carry-on or checked luggage anyway during your return flight.

Make sure the carry-on luggage–not the tote bag–has a secured pocket where you can quickly place and remove any items you have to remove from your pockets, including your keys and wallet, and where the pocket will not open on its own by accident. You can’t afford to hold up the security line, so be pragmatic and predictive.

And when going through airport security, make sure you get your shoes, jacket or sweater, and belt off and into the bins quickly, and that all electronics that must be removed are easy to pull out of carry-on luggage and the tote bag to be placed carefully into their bins. Pre-check-in options are also available for many people to sign up. Read instructions for security check-in so that you are ready and can adjust for time.

Condense materials by going electronic whenever possible. Camera, books, games, research, tickets, contact information, storage, note-taking, emails, mobile hotspot for wireless Internet–all can fit on a smartphone. Invest in a smartphone ($100-$300) with wi-fi access at the data plan ($25 per year to $50 per month) that best suits you. It is rare for a convention or a hotel to have free wi-fi, but it is worth having that option on your phone.

Use your mobile device to promote yourself: write daily on social media, not to over-share personal information but to show your accomplishments and interests as pertain to your research and profession. Having the smartphone with you lets you do comparison shopping when that book or video game you see seems more expensive than it should be. Get free cloud storage through Google Drive and Photos and Dropbox to automatically backup your photographs. Use the camera to document the condition of the room upon check-in, if necessary to request a non-damaged room or to have proof that any damage existed before your check in and should not be charged to your account.

Bring headphones ($5-$20), especially noise-cancelling headphones ($300) for noisy travel and hotels. Be sure to put on some of your favorite songs and podcasts onto your mobile device.

Have rechargeable batteries ($12-$15 for AA/AAA charger, $4 for 8 AAA, $20 for 8 AA). Many airlines have rules that limit you to only enough batteries to fit into your total number of devices plus one set of spares for each–so review airline rules before having too many batteries adding weight to your luggage.

Bring a lightweight computer ($300-$1000), such as a netbook, laptop, or tablet, to write on the go, especially if you’re still working on your presentation at the last minute. Have a reliable keyboard on the device, and make sure the device is small enough for the airplane or train tray: some seats lean so steeply that one shift by the passenger seated in front of you can slam down on your device and smash its screen. If necessary, replace your device’s battery ($100) and charger ($30-$80) so they are in good condition.

Have all necessary cables and adapters for presentations. If you’re presenting, you can expect a projector, a VGA cable, and a screen: don’t expect the organizers to have converters from Apple or HDMI to VGA. Ask whether your presentation room will have speakers and audio cables. Do not expect wireless to reach your room: use your smartphone as a mobile hotspot, and have all materials downloaded onto your device. And copy all that downloaded presentation and its materials to a USB stick in case you must run the presentation from a computer already set up for presentations.

Carry your posters in a tube ($10-$20). If you are presenting a poster, these cylinders can keep out wrinkles, water, and other damage, depending on the tube’s quality. They also let you carry home important papers and artwork that you acquire at the convention.

If possible, bring a large piece of luggage ($25-$80) for bringing back items. The luggage cannot be empty, so put in a few items that don’t need to be in your carry-on during the outgoing trip, such as a spare set of shoes, toiletries, and your poster tube.

Bring a towel and your toiletries with you. Some towels in some hotels are disgusting, and even if you don’t use it, you can place it over your pillow, which may also be cross. Nearby businesses and the hotel may be expensive for toiletries or lack what you like. Bring an appropriate toothbrush and travel toothpaste, as suits your health needs. Buy travel containers ($5 for 3 containers and 1 hairspray container) for hairspray, shampoo, sunscreen, and any other items.

Have medical items with you, along with necessary paperwork, including a list of area doctors and hospitals. Check with your doctor and the airplane or train company to confirm what you may bring, in which quantities, and what paperwork you require to prove it is prescribed to you. The list of doctors and hospitals may seem like over-doing it, but for emergencies it is better to know those nearest to you before any emergency. If you have insurance, check which doctors, hospitals, and ambulance services are on your plan, and program doctors’ and hospitals’ numbers into your phone.

Bring other health items as necessary, including cough drops, tissues, and eyedrops, in quantities permitted by the airline or train and stored as instructed by company and governmental requirements.

Prepare for difficult sleeping. If you expect the hotel’s location will be too different from your usually sleeping arrangements because of noise and light, bring earplugs ($8 for 50 pairs), an eyemask ($6), and an electronic device that can play a free white noise app. If you grind your teeth, get your mouthguard ready now before your travel.

Bring enough clothes for all days of the convention–plus for two more days. In case of damage to your attire, have additional apparel–including both outerwear and underwear. Bring casual clothes, comfortable shoes, sleepwear, and at least one professional outfit, including shoes. If you have limited space, use the clothing as packing material for wrapping fragile items.

Pack for the weather. Always have an umbrella. Even hot climates can have freezing rooms: always bring a sweater, which you can use to wrap up fragile items in your luggage. Have sunscreen in hot or cold weather. Have gloves and winter head-covering in your carry-on when necessary.

Bring compact, highly nutritious food. High-protein bars such as Clif can be purchased at $1 each on sale. Take the bars out of the box to save room and to fit the snacks in the luggage where they can fit. Be aware these snacks can squish easily in heat and under heavy weight, so you may not be able to be picky about your dining choices to save on money and get the nutrients and calories you need.

It’s also valuable to search the convention for fast, less expensive dining options such as restaurants and groceries. Fast food will be quick but more expensive and mostly less nutritious, even as it will satisfy much of your hunger and likely your desires. Whenever possible, opt for pharmacies and groceries instead, especially if you already have rewards accounts with those shops and coupons. Some locations may have farmer’s markets, although less expensive prices are more time-consuming to discover. Check whether your hotel room has a fridge for storing juices and a freezer and microwave for preparing larger frozen meals.

Have your identification, money, cash cards, medical paperwork, health insurance cards, hotel reservation, travel reservation, and convention ticket and badge on you securely. Airport wallets, with Velcro or zippers, may be helpful to hold all such content and can be attached to your belt, worn around your neck, or stored in a secured, rarely accessed pocket of your carry-on luggage.

While more businesses accept QR codes on mobile devices for flights and conventions, also have a printed copy of these materials. Review rules for airports, hotels, and conventions about which identification they require: a driver’s license or passport is usually sufficient, whereas student ID is not always accepted. Make sure your identification has the same name listed as your reservation and registration. Keep track of your credit card limit and bank account holdings so not to overdraw on any account. When you check in, hotels often put a hold onto your card equal to one night or to the total night, so to cover room service and additional charges to your room: put a credit card on file, because the hold on your bank card will take money out of your bank account that you won’t get back until after you check out. 

Bring business cards. Academic conferences depend on networking, and if you are seeking to build a business or profession–cosplay, journalism, illustration, sales–at a convention, you need a business card. For press and industry badges at some conventions, a business card is mandatory. Office and mail stores can print business cards at relatively low prices based on your own design. Purchase blank business card sheets ($9 for 250 cards) to print in any ink or toner printer that can fit 8.5 x 11 letter paper. If designing your own card, keep it simple with just one detail that will make it stand out: have your name, an email address (preferably a free Gmail account dedicated just to this purpose so to protect your privacy), and a clear, professional description of your position or the group for which you work or are affiliated. It is preferable to keep the back of your business card’s design blank so you or the recipient can write additional information, such as where you met, what you were discussing, or, only if you are comfortable, a phone number.

Bring reading material, especially ebooks. If you’re working until the last minute on a presentation and know you won’t have Internet during all parts of your travel, put the reading material onto your mobile device. E-books sellers often have sales in academic books, comics, and more: check sales aggregate sites such as Kinja as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Humble Bundle, and Google Play. Your library, especially university libraries, also may have free ebooks available to download as PDFs to upload via USB onto your e-reader or to email to yourself.

Keep all your USB devices charged with a multi-port charger ($10-$25), an external battery ($10-$25), and a surge protector power strip ($10). There are so few outlets when sharing a hotel room or convention space–so don’t be the jerk in these situations: a multi-port charger and power strip let people share the space. The multi-port charger lets you charge all mobile devices–phones, e-readers, even your Nintendo DS systems–simultaneously without slowing down the charge time for any one device. Balance weight against maximum charge: light-weight batteries can charge a device only so many times, while heavier batteries let you re-charge all of your devices repeatedly throughout the day.

(Optional) Invest in a Nintendo DS ($50-$200). Multiple attendees at conventions, even academic ones, have portable game systems with them to pass time. The Nintendo DS is my preferred device, especially the larger New 3DS XL for amiibo use and because 3DS systems can also play Japanese DS games. You’ll likely want to buy extra styluses, as the first one may stop staying in place inside the device’s storage compartment after the first year, and the price per stylus is usually cheap (although the package may have more than you need) and a carrying case ($12), which can store an extra stylus and up to 8 games. Depending where you look at shops, online, during sales, and at conventions, you can find discounted copies of your favorite games. But if you are worried about carrying rare games around or the weight of them, leave the games at home and download them. Humble Bundle, Amazon, and other web sites often have sales on downloaded games. While an expensive investment–especially, if like me, you need to get yours repaired–the DS rewards you for attending conventions: your video game system will share information with other devices to unlock new features in pre-loaded games such as Mii Plaza, and the distance you travel can earn you up to 10 Play Coins per day to open special features on your games. You also can avoid paying for a dedicated charger by purchasing a USB cable ($5) to connect to a multi-port charger or external battery.

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