Event Travel: The Con, the Non-Con, and the Ex-Con

BHTP_DistressedLogo_Circle_PMSBy Jim McLauchlin

Destination travel is the catch-all to end all catch-alls. After all, who doesn’t go somewhere to go somewhere?

For more and more travelers every year, the pot o’ gold at the end of their travel rainbow is a multi-day lifestyle event. The two biggest events – and please don’t use the C-word (“convention”) to describe them – are Coachella, the increasingly mainstream alt-music fest, and Austin’s SXSW, the former alt-music fest turned TED-a-thon for the marketing-to-millennials crowd.

Over the last couple of years, the Big Two have been joined by a third: San Diego’s Comic-Con (pictured above).

Get those thoughts of flabby guys in Batman suits out of your head right now; they’re not healthy. Comic-Con has outgrown its name and its venue. It’s for anyone who likes a good wallow in pop culture, and the current number of anyones stands at 150,000 and rising.

That number might be low, because once you add in exhibitors, Vin Diesel’s publicist, artists, Vin Diesel’s makeup guy, hot-dog vendors, Vin Diesel’s hair stylist (really, why?), convention staff, Vin Diesel’s executive assistant, and booth babes handing out gewgaws, you’re looking at 200,000 people descending on the San Diego Convention Center for the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of standing in interminable lines in order to score a Dragonball Z mousepad.

All these events are fun, but they can also be a grind. Here are a few tips to help you survive, have a great time, and maximize your event experience. We’ll focus on Comic-Con since Coachella and SXSW are springtime events, but what goes for one goes for all. Spoiler alert: Some of these tips involve staying away from the event. No, really! Just read:

1) Take the train or alternate transportation. It’s $40 to ride Amtrak’s Texas Eagle from Dallas to Austin. Train/busing it to Indio, Calif., home of Coachella, costs $31, or you can hop the shuttle from LAX straight to Coachella. And if you’re coming to Comic-Con via Los Angeles or Orange County, please take Amtrak. The 5 freeway through North County (all of San Diego County north of the city) is a mess. Add in six figures’ worth of nerds and nerd vendors and the 5 can become a 100-mile traffic jam. Amtrak shoots straight down to San Diego’s Union Station and lets you off eight blocks from the convention center. You can catch a coach out of L.A. Union Station for $37, and it saves twice that in aggravation and parking fees. If you’re flying into these events, consider flying into a more distant metropolitan airport (like Dallas or LAX) and then finishing your trip on alternate transportation. You’ll save double: No headaches and parking fees at the event, and potentially lower fares flying into a high-volume metro airport. (You’ll probably save more than enough to buy AirCare.)

2) Get out of the venue. It sounds counterintuitive, because you came to the event to GO to the event, but the Wall of Sound that is 200,000 people clustered in a giant echo chamber can wear you to a nub. Austin has world-class food trucks. Indio is the center of a fascinating faux-Arabian date culture – and we’re not talking matchmaking dates. As for SD, here’s a pro tip: The Bayfront Hilton is still an undiscovered gem (for now). It’s directly behind the convention center and has multiple bars. Rob Roy over here, please, waitress!

3) Understand that you will be disappointed, but only to the extent you allow yourself to be disappointed. At SXSW or Comic-Con, you could spend two days in line waiting for a panel and not get in. Coachella is different, but the heartbreak’s the same. If your heart is set on seeing that one artist or getting that one exclusive toy, you’re playing a mug’s game. Embrace the generalized experience. Walk around. Soak up some culture, pop and otherwise. See what strikes your fancy and then jump on it. If you come in with a strict agenda, the event gods will dash your hopes on the rocks and then laugh at you, ‘cause that’s what the event gods do. Take it as it comes, and your disappointment will be mitigated.

4) For the love of all that’s holy, don’t eat at the venue. Austin is Austin. If you can’t find a good meal outside of the main event venues, you’re an exhibitionist. In San Diego, Lou and Mickey’s, across the street from the convention center, is a killer steakhouse and raw bar. Too expensive? Great cheap pizza is yours at Mona Lisa, a six-minute drive as the Google Maps flies. Put it this way: If I see you eating a convention-center hot dog or giant pretzel, I will personally present you with your own character costume.

5) Take a day off. This is the bigger version of 2) above, but realize where you are. Austin is beautiful. San Diego is beautiful. Indio is beautiful. Visit the San Diego Zoo or Balboa Park. Chill at Lake Travis. Take a road trip to Palm Springs or New Braunfels. Break it up: Wednesday and Thursday at the event, then recharge with some real life on Friday. You still have plenty of time to not see Angelina Jolie or The Black Keys on Saturday and Sunday.

 You can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin.