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A Survival Guide to Conference Travel

Travis Nielsen is the founder and CEO of Azurigen Management and Consulting Solutions Inc. A STEM project management firm that specializes in linking conservation based science to business and government. He is a published scientist specializing in Marine Biology with 10 years experience in STEM, and 10 years of experience in management and leadership. He has been responsible for projects with budgets up to $500,000, working with multiple stakeholders, large public engagement mandates, and with staffs up to 100 people in locations all across the globe.


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.

What to pack is more complicated and varies from person to person. However, there are a few things that are universal, no matter who you are. I will discuss these in more detail in a different article.

Once you have your bags, carry-on, personal item, and checked bags figured out. Make sure to leave a little room for souvenirs and things you pick up along the way. My personal rule on souvenirs is either small, paper, or textile. Such things are usually flat, rollable or foldable making them much easier to pack than sculptures or other things. Also, be very careful with anything made of plants, wood or animal products, as it is possible that these products could be illegal in your home country or a country you are travelling through, and it could get you in trouble when you return home.

Relax – Always try to relax and let go of any travel anxiety. This is usually easier with a little pre-trip planning. Planes break down, things get delayed, people can’t control the weather, and shit just happens. If you are willing to go with the flow, it makes it a whole lot easier. Once you get to the conference, keep a similar mindset, as the same things will happen. Talks will get delayed, people will do things that bother you, and some things will be completely outside the control of the organizers, being able to let go will do wonders.  A minor caveat – just because you are relaxed doesn’t mean you should let people push you around. There is a difference between the weather shutting down a flight and an airline overbooking a flight and demanding people get off a flight.

Be kind at all times – Airport staff, security people, conference organizers, catering staff and everyone else in between are people just like you trying to do their best. These staff have usually endured a whole pile of frustration and abuse at the hands of other people who have no respect for the difficulty of these jobs. Show them some kindness: be polite and show some sympathy for their plight and you will not regret it. They may not be able to give you the first class treatment, but they will do a lot more for you than those other abusive plebeians. Again the caveat: be nice, but if they start being rude or aggressive, don’t let them push you around. There is a thousand ways to deal with this, but that is also a complicated issue. Look for an article on this at a later time.

EAT ALL THE FREE FOOD! – Unless you have a condition, disease, or allergy that prevents you from doing so, from the time you start travelling, to the time you get home, eat every last free thing you can safely get. Don’t be afraid to keep a zip lock on you to take stuff if there is extra either. Most of the time, the “free” stuff is actually stuff you have already paid for in the cost of your flights, conference registration, hotel fees, etc. In addition to cutting down on the amount you pay for food, and potential food waste, you should take on calories when you can, as mealtimes tend to be much more erratic during conferences and travel. Moreover, hydrate yourself well, as this can really help deal with a lot of issues. Remember we can go a lot longer without food than we can without water.

Stay Clean – A nice shower can be the difference between feeling dead or feeling energized when running on little sleep and low food. Many large airports offer showers for long distance travellers or for people that have access to business class lounges (which sometimes have an admission fee so you can use them without a business or first class ticket, call your airline to find out). Feeling clean and well groomed can be the boost that one needs after a 14 hour flight to keep you going.

NAP- take naps, even if it’s just closing your eyes and lying in a chair for a 30 minutes here and there. Take time to rest. The most insidious thing about travel and conferences is they are usually high energy, fun things we want to go to. The enthusiasm and positivity around us is so high we don’t realize how much energy it takes to keep going. Sleeping as well as you can and taking regular naps is another little energy boost to keep you moving and energized.

Don’t Overdo It – Now that I have released the secret to how to keep your energies up, the next step is knowing how to pace yourself. When it comes to eating, drinking, cleanliness, socializing, networking and carrying on, there will always be a feeling of fun, excitement, and the desire to do one more thing. Know your limitations, and stop before it all breaks down. Find a pace that works for you, and keep at it. Finding this pace isn’t easy, it requires some experimentation –  trust me, you will fail a few times figuring it out, this is okay. However, at the end of the day, being able to keep your pace will result in being able to do more rather than less.

Say goodbye – though I suppose this falls under the “be kind” section. If you make new friends at a conference, or any real potential networking contacts, do your absolute best to personally say goodbye to them before leaving. This is a quick finishing touch that will make people remember you at the next conference.

 Follow up – For the most part, conferences are a whole pile of energy that fizzles and dies quickly after the conference is done. DON’T LET THAT HAPPEN! Some of the best contacts you will develop will be from conference networking and many will have something to offer your career if you keep up with them. Do your best to add the people you befriended to your social media networks, exchange business cards with them and add/follow/email them after the conference. Tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them and ask them to keep you in mind for potential jobs/contracts/collaborations. You have roughly one week to do this, as after the second week, people get back into their normal lives that you are quickly forgotten.

Hopefully this little list of tips, tricks and ramblings will help you along the way to have a great conference experience. Please look for more articles regarding conference travel in the future!

See you at the poster session bar!