San Diego Comic Con Beginner's Guide



Getting ready - 4 weeks before the con

If you don’t have an SDCC badge but you’re reading this for some reason, you can still try to score a ticket by entering the various contests. Obviously this works best if you’re a local and don’t have to worry about hotel, but if you’re lucky enough to win one of these contests, you’re also lucky enough to scrounge up a hotel room. And if you do manage to both win a contest and find a room downtown, consider getting yourself a Powerball ticket when you’re here in San Diego.

Speaking of hotel, hopefully by now you have your hotel accounted for. Although traffic can be a bit unpredictable during rush hour, staying out in MV isn’t as bad as it sounds. Remember that there’s free 24 hour shuttles up to Mission Valley for the duration of the con. There’s also Airbnb. But be careful if you find a bargain that seems too good to be true - there have been various stories of how the owner cancelled after finding out they could have made a lot more money. If you are in LA, you may be considering commuting. Doing that for one day isn't too bad, but doing that for multiple days can be quite rough - and remember that parking during the con isn't cheap either. Some people commute to a trolley station or commute to Mission Valley and take the trolley or shuttle. That's another reasonable option.

You won’t be able to do all your research in the last week or two before the con officially begins. The media blitz is going to be continuous, so start following up on news about the con. In fact, some events have already been announced and sold out. Some helpful sites are the SDCC Unofficial Blog and Outside Comic Con. Both of them also have twitter accounts that continuously broadcast news and updates. New events are going to be continuously announced, so try to remain flexible. Of course, if you see something you really like and it’s popular, you’ll want to lock up tickets right away. Comic Con will force you to make some choices. Just remember, no one will be able to do everything at the con, so even if you don’t get the tickets you wanted, rest assured there will be plenty of other things to do.

If you’re a fan of any small press or comic artists, start checking their web sites to see if they’ll be making an appearance at SDCC.

Make sure to request time off from your job if you haven’t already.

There is a lot of walking and standing around waiting during the con. You could easily walk a couple of miles a day, and that’s if you just stay in the convention center. Once you include all the off site events you could be looking at double that amount. If you’re a desk jockey like me, you might want to put in some time to do a little training.

Planning your panels and events, and paying for it all - 2 weeks before the con

Finances

You definitely want to make sure you have enough money to last through the trip. A lot of the small incidentals can add up.

Hotel - If you’re a local, lucky you! In exchange for not having to pay for hotel, you will have hordes of fans descend on your city for a weekend. For the rest of us, if you want to try to reduce the cost a bit, you can try to convince some friends to split the room with you. Even if they don’t have badges, there will be plenty of events to check out downtown. You can also go online and try to find another attendee to bunk with you. Use your smarts when doing this, and stay safe!

Transportation - If you're flying here, remember you'll need transport from the airport to your hotel, whether that’s taxi or shuttle. If you’re in the greater south California area, you can also consider taking the train down here, but make sure you preorder both your arrival and return ticket. The trains can and do get filled up around con time. If you’re driving here, don’t forget the cost of parking.

Once you’re down here, you probably will not need a car. Generally, traffic around the convention center will be miserable. Also remember the comic con shuttle is free! The map is available at the SDCC website, and it will get you to a lot of places around downtown and to the hotels outside of downtown as well.

Food - food prices can vary widely here. If you’re content with basic food like sandwiches for lunch and dinner, you’ll be able to get by on the cheap. There are also plenty of relatively inexpensive restaurants as long as you’re willing to go out of your way a bit. In other words, if you're on a budget, avoid the four blocks of Fifth Avenue leading up to the convention center.

A note on tipping

In case you are coming from outside the country, tipping - and I mean the money kind, not the kind of tips I’m giving you now - is customary for a lot of services here. Expect to tip for shuttle or taxi... hotel room service... the hotel bellhop... restaurant waiters... you get the idea.

Speaking of tips, I suggest keeping plenty of 1$ bills on you at all times. They will come in handy in a lot of places. Also, I like to keep some part of my money back in my hotel room instead of carrying it on me, for two reasons: first, if I should lose my wallet or something, at least I still have some cash, and second, it keeps me from overspending during the first couple of days of the con.

Toys, knickknacks, and other goodies

Unlike most other modern cons, official San Diego Comic Con events are still mostly free. The official autographs in Sails Pavilion are typically lottery. Some celebrities will have their own autograph sessions on the show floor - some of those are free and some of those are not. The paid ones tend to have similar prices as other cons. For offsite events, check ticket prices directly.

On the show floor itself, prices can vary widely. A typical art print usually ranges somewhere from 20-30$. Prices of commissioned art depends on the artist. It isn’t really possible to give prices for toys, books, and other memorabilia, since there’s such a wide variety, but in my experience, I find these prices tend to be pretty competitive with non con prices.

The major vendors pretty much all accept credit card which make things convenient. With the advent of mobile payment software like Square, a good number of the smaller indie press and artists will also accept credit card. However, a lot of these get processed through wifi, which can be very spotty on the show floor. In the end, cash is king, so if there’s an exclusive you absolutely have to have, you might want to have some cash to cover it just in case. It also helps to have smaller bills so you don't have to deal with the vendor running out of change or anything like that. One thing I did notice is some of the vendors that deal in higher priced items will actually accept credit card only. I don’t think that’s common but it’s something to keep in mind.

Some vendors will have some discounts on the last day of the con to try to move their remaining products, so you might want to wait a bit and see. On the other hand, if you wait too long, the item you want might be sold out, so it’s a definite gamble.

If you’ve exceeded your luggage space, or you just don’t want to carry all your new toys home on the plane, you can ship them home. There’s a Fedex in the convention center, which is convenient but can be expensive. There’s also several UPS locations in some of the nearby hotels which will usually be cheaper, and a USPS downtown.

Events and panels

The events schedule usually goes up two weeks before the con. Well time is money, so just like planning your funds, you also want to plan how you spend your time - even if your plan is to have no plan. That’s a perfectly good way to spend your comic con, but do it intentionally and not by accident.

Since you'll all have different interests than I do, I’m not going to go through the schedule item by item and discuss what I think about it. Instead, let me describe my overall strategy for how I plan my con events. Then, you can fill in your own details.

First, make a list of all the events that you’re interested in attending, whether they overlap or not. Remember, this includes not only the official SDCC events in the program, but also any offsite parties, concerts, showings. Don’t forget also, you’ll want to carve out some time for any fan meetups, the exhibit hall, and artist alley. Put these together into one unified list.

At this point, you should have a list that will probably fill three or four comic cons. That’s fine! Now comes the hard part. Decide which of these are things you absolutely must see. These are the events you’ll plan your con around. I suggest no more than two a day, one in the earlier part of the day and one in the later afternoon or evening. Some days you might have one or none. Don’t feel like you have to have some big events each day; sometimes it’s nice to have some rest days in between.

Some people like to hit just a couple of major events each day, and would be fine missing a lot of other things at the con. I call that the “go big” approach. Personally, I like to have only a couple of major events for the entire con, and my must see panels are usually smaller ones that don’t have a line that might take hours - the “small ball” approach. Both strategies work, but I suggest not trying to do both. They don't clear rooms between panels so you might want to favor back to back panels in the same room. Don't forget that the convention hall itself is large, and sometimes the events sprawl into the adjoining hotels as well. With the crush of people it can take over 15 minutes to get from one room to another, so plan for that!

Also, I try to stay flexible and only schedule maybe 50-75% up or so, with a good chunk of those things I’m willing to miss out on. That way, if something comes up, I’ll be able to switch easily. Often, there will be surprise events, and I don’t want to feel too bound to a schedule.

Never focus on what you're missing. There's always going to be something you're missing, and you will absolutely ruin your comic con experience if you do that.

How long do I need to wait in line?

This question is very hard to answer, and it’s because it can be dependent on so many things.

Sometimes, a moderately popular show is easy to get into because everyone else has also given up trying to get in before it’s started. So you might be able to walk in half an hour before it starts.

Similarly, sometimes by random chance, a lot of people want to get into an obscure panel.

The rooms are not cleared between panels. So sometimes, it can be really hard to get into a panel, because everyone in that panel is actually waiting for the next panel!

Sometimes they just estimate badly and put a panel in a room that’s too big or small. Hall H, Ballroom 20, and the Indigo Ballroom are the big ones. Next comes 6A, 6BC,and 6DEF, which are the medium sized ones. The remaining ones are all relatively small.

My only advice is this: if this is one of your must see events - like you flew to the con because you wanted to see this - then take what people suggest online, then add another hour or two and get in line. Otherwise, you might want to just swing by early to see how the line is looking, and then come back later. Also, some people will tweet how long the line is for the major rooms, and if you’re in line, you can do the same thing and help a fellow attendee out!

Remember, it's ok to bail on a line. Yes, even if you've waited in line for an hour. During my first comic con, when I didn’t know what I was doing, I showed up half an hour early for a Hall H panel. When I didn’t get in (of course), I looked at the next panel in Hall H, and thought that also looked pretty interesting. After waiting another hour, I didn’t get into that one either. Since I'd waited so long in line already, I convinced myself to wait a bit more for the panel after that, and I didn’t get into that one either. Don’t be like me. Decide beforehand how long a wait you’re willing to put in, and it’s ok to bail if the line isn’t moving.

Make sure you and your friends agree on the rules for waiting in line. Will you be taking shifts? If someone decides they’ve waited too long and want to bail, will that offend the other members of your group? It’s easiest just to have these things worked out ahead of time.

It’s almost here - the week of the con!

Around the exhibit hall

The exhibit hall is enormous. If you’ve only been to smaller regional cons, be prepared. If you want to get a preview, the SDCC website has a list of vendors and artists.

There’s no real right way to wander the exhibit hall, but there are plenty of wrong ways. First, take a moment to think about what you consider success for the exhibit hall.

Are you trying to score an exclusive from a vendor? Then you better study the map to make sure you know the best way to get to their booth once the line starts moving, and make sure you arrive early.

Are you there to just wander around like at a flea market? That can work, but be prepared for the crush of people. Also, it will be difficult to cover the entire exhibit hall using that strategy.

Are you trying to make sure you don’t miss anything cool? Well, then you’re doomed to failure already. There’s too much cool stuff going on throughout the entire con.

Anyway, on to the hall areas:

Vendor area - This is where companies sell the things, and where you buy the things. All the things. All kidding aside, there is a good mix of small and large vendors. This is where you find the big brands like Warner Bros, Marvel, Nintendo, etc, but you’ll also find plenty of smaller stores selling all types of eclectic goods.

Keep in mind that this isn’t just for purchases. There are also artist demonstrations, autographs, interactive exhibits, etc. There will be plenty of lines here to get into various booths. Expect con staff in the area keeping the aisles clear, and always ask where the end of the line is. Sometimes the lines can span multiple aisles and have multiple gaps.

Small press area - As its name suggests, here is where you can get comics and books from smaller or independent vendors. The nice thing about this area is that you can talk directly to the writers or creators about their work, and they will usually sign any copies of works that you purchase. The usual disclaimer applies here though: sometimes these things are being self published or indie published because they are too niche for a broader market, or the creators like to engage with the fans; in other cases, they are self published because the big publishers passed on them, and for good reason.

Artist alley - One of my favorite areas to walk around. Here is where you can buy artist prints and pick up commissions. Don’t let the indie feel of this area fool you. There are some artists here who have done plenty of work for more mainstream comics and card games like Magic: The Gathering.

Fan tables - These are fan groups for both the actual content, like Star Wars or Firefly, as well as fan groups for activities related to fandom, eg cosplay.

There’s also lots of activities going on at the con, but not in the exhibit hall itself. These are easy to overlook, so be sure to check if any of these are of interest to you:

Sails Pavilion - This is in the central area upstairs from the exhibit hall. It’s where some of the autograph areas are held, and also serves somewhat as the nexus of the con. They also have a table full of fliers and the occasional free swag, so it’s worth checking once or twice a day as you pass through the convention hall. There is also an art auction here.

Adjoining hotels - Lots of official comic con events overflow into the adjoining hotels. These change every year, so check the schedule. These often include video gaming, board gaming, film festivals and anime showings, and some random panels. On one side of the convention center is the Hilton, and on the other side is the Marriott, and both of these hotels have convention rooms with con events. If you’re moving from one end to the other, I suggest budgeting at least 15-20 min, possibly more on Friday or Saturday afternoon.

Thursday is my favorite day to wander the exhibit hall. It’s not as crowded, most of the good stuff is still there, and the vendors and creators have that initial enthusiasm. By Friday afternoon, many more people have arrived, and Saturday is just an utter madhouse on the exhibit floor. Sunday also tends to be surprisingly busy as people do their last minute shopping and negotiate for that final discount.

Autographs

Keep in mind that there are many many autograph sessions going on, and rules change from year to year. These are tips from experiences in previous years; always check your specific autograph session for details.

Some of the guests have a table in Sails Pavilion, and are there for most of the days during the con. There will be a nominal charge for their autographs. (Officially I believe you can ask them to sign the souvenir book for free, but I’ve never seen anyone do that, and I also believe that to be a bit awkward).

Some of the guests are big names with big studio backing, and these require drawings. They generally happen around 7-8am. Check the time for this year. Also, if you really want to make sure you get a ticket, you should get in line early. How early? I don’t know, these things can be unpredictable. But I suggest at least a few hours - yes, that means very early in the morning - or very late at night, depending on if you plan to sleep. Once you have a ticket, you don’t have to show up until the autograph session at the booth. Just kidding - you should show up early to that one too - generally I’ve seen half an hour to an hour early. Since these are down in the exhibit hall, most people swing by early to check the length of the line, and then wander around the nearby booths until they’re ready to get in line.

Some of the guests will have autographs directly on the show floor. These are usually organized through outside companies, so prices and rules tend to vary a bit, but in general, these are pretty similar to paid autographs at other cons. For actors and other entertainment guests, the fee tends to start around 20-60$ as an estimate. Generally they will provide their own photos that they will sign for you, but you can bring something of your own as long as it’s reasonable. Comic guests and artists usually don’t have fees, but you have to bring something of your own for them to sign. If you don’t have anything, you can usually buy one of their books or other works at the booth. Even if you do, it’s often a nice show of support to buy something at their tables.

Always check your line! I cannot emphasize this enough. There are lots of lines for lots of different things on the show exhibit hall floor. Always make sure you’re in the right line, and make sure you’re joining at the end of it. To keep the aisles clear, there can be many gaps in the line.

Some of the offsite events will also have autographs. It’s impossible to give any specific details here, except to say that most of these will have similar guidelines as the ones in the exhibit hall. Check the rules for the autograph session you are attending.

Food

I’m not really a foodie, so most of my tips are here are going to be in general terms.

Throughout the convention center and outdoor areas near the hotels there will be concession stands selling things like pretzels and hamburgers. They’re alright in a pinch, but tend to be relatively expensive and also not something you’d want to subsist on all four days in a row.

There's a Ralph's in the middle of downtown, so if you want to get some fresh groceries for your hotel room, it's pretty convenient.

For fast casual, there’s a large mall with food court a few blocks away at Horton Plaza, and other fast food places scattered throughout the Gaslamp, including several 24 hour Subways.

For sit down, the busiest ones are right out of the convention center on fifth ave. If you’re willing to wait and snag an outdoor patio seat, the people watching can be a lot of fun. There’s plenty of cosplayers, and sometimes you’ll see some celebrities out and about as well. Be prepared for very long waits though.

If you want something less busy and cacophonous, I strongly encourage you to check out more blocks down on fifth, or some of the side streets. These will often be cheaper and have less of a wait.

Personally, I also enjoy eating at the nearby hotel restaurants and bars as well. The prices are pretty competitive with Gaslamp sit down restaurants, and if you’re at the Hilton Bayfront or Marriott Marquis, you’ll have a pretty good chance of a celebrity sighting there as well.

For years the Syfy channel has rebranded the cafe downstairs from the Hard Rock Hotel with one of their current shows. Yes, the food is still the same, but it’s fun to sit in a different setting, and watch some clips of their shows. By far my favorite was when it was branded as Cafe Diem, especially since I really liked the show Eureka. The last couple of years have been more lackluster.

I tend to wake up late and don’t always have time to grab breakfast, so I like to pack a couple of boxes of snacks on the plane with me. Then I have something for the mornings or a midnight snack. And when I’m done, I can throw out the boxes and use that space to pack more SDCC swag for the flight back.

Some final notes

Remember, Comic Con is supposed to be fun! There can be so much going on that things seem overwhelming, but a little bit of preplanning can go a long way. Try not to stress out, and see you at the con!

Other useful links

SDCC Unofficial Blog
A big hub for SDCC news. Updates very frequently as the con approaches.
Outside Comic-Con
Calendar of Comic Con offsites.

by Yosen
I'm a software engineer who works on both mobile and web programming. I think STEM education is important. I also follow pop culture and dabble in music and the digital arts.