On Monday, Joe offered a helpful discussion of some of the philosophical points of field conferences. Today, I’d like to give some practical tips and tricks that will help make what can be a challenging trip a little easier. Whether you have yet to attend your first conference or you’re a conference veteran, my hope is that you’ll find something useful here. [Image by Flickr user scaredy_kat and used under Creative Commons License]


  • Register early: Most conferences have early-bird registration rates. Take advantage of these by visiting the conference website.
  • Plan your transport meticulously and keep good records. Use sites like TripIt and/or Kayak to find the cheapest flights and the best time to book. If you’re driving, plan your route with Mapquest or Google Maps. Most importantly, keep records of mileage and fares. If your university is paying any part of your way, they’ll likely need you to provide them with this information.
  • Consider a cheaper hotel. Most conference hotels are relatively swanky–and rooms can get pricey. If you’d rather not split your room with five other colleagues, and you don’t mind walking a ways, use Google Maps to locate cheaper digs within reasonable distance. Use an app like Yelp to check out people-powered hotel ratings so that you don’t get stuck in a dump (like I did once–sorry Phill!).
  • Print out/save/post two copies of your presentation–and keep them in separate places. Do the same with your trip itinerary. Safety first, people!


  • Use a packing list: I inevitably forget things when I travel. Like pajamas. So focused was I on my “presentation outfits” that I have forgotten my pajamas at least three or four times. The Universal Packing List website has been a boon. Add information about weather conditions and activities at your destination, and the UPL creates a printable list customized to your needs.
  • Pack a few snacks: I usually pack a box of granola bars in my bag. They’re a quick breakfast, light and convenient, and they’ll keep you from passing out with hunger when you’re not sure when you’re eating next.
  • BYOL – Bring Your Own Lanyard: When you arrive at your conference, you’ll typically get a name badge and something to wear it on. I’ve never been impressed by the dinky elastic strings and annoying, too-short shoelaces that come attached to these badges, so I’m bringing my own lanyard next time. You can find these in your university’s bookstore for a few dollars.

When You Get There:

  • Make an appearance ASAP. Get your conference program, bag of swag, and stake out the room where going to be presenting. This is extremely important if you’re going to be using any kind of technology. Do a lap around the conference hotel and locate the major conference hotspots, such as the book tables, the keynote ballroom, the bar, the restrooms, etc.
  • Hydrate and nourish. Hit a grocery store or mini-mart for drinks and snacks if you can. Buying room food at the conference hotel gift shop is often exorbitantly expensive, and you’ll find a better selection elsewhere.
  • Locate caffeine sources and make a plan for accessing them quickly. You don’t know agony until you’ve seen, at 7:30 a.m., thirty-odd grouchy academics lined up at the only Starbucks at the conference hotel. You don’t want to be in that line with them. Do some recon–ask around, go for a walk, or use your smartphone or laptop–to find out where you’re going to get your morning (or afternoon, or evening) fix.

At The Conference:

  • Don’t expect to get work done. Some people I know are amazing at this–they grade papers on the plane, read hundreds of pages in their hotel rooms, write seminar papers, work on their exams (!), etc. I myself struggle to focus on anything but the conference, my presentation, and marathons of “Auction Hunters” on the sweet, sweet hotel cable. This doesn’t mean that I don’t come to every conference with the best of intentions, but I know myself by now. Point is, before you pack those heavy scholarly texts, think twice and ask yourself what you can and can’t reasonably get done during the conference blitz.
  • Fill your conference bag with practical items, and don’t make it too heavy. I carry a convertible messenger-style bag containing (in addition to wallet, keys, etc.) a bottle of water, a granola bar or two, a sturdy notebook and more than one pen, a supply of my business cards, and my cell phone charger. Keep it on the light side–you never know when friendly new colleagues will ask you to walk to the bar or your scholarly idol will invite you to dinner uptown.
  • Check out the book fair–but wait until the last day to buy books (usually). The conference book fair is a great place to find out about cool stuff in the field, pick up swag, get free food, and schmooze. You’ll usually see a book you HAVE TO HAVE. Check its availability with the book rep and decide if you want to buy it now or later. Often times, publishers will lower the price on books on the last day of conferences.

When You Return:

  • Keep travel-size toiletries in your luggage, even when it’s in storage. This saves tons of time, and cuts down on the chance that you’ll forget something when it’s time to conference again.
  • Make a few notes. How did things go this time, and what would make them better next time? What did you forget? What did you need more/less of? What did you not need?
What other conference survival tips do you have? Add them in the comments below!

3 Responses to Hacking Field Conferences: Some Tips

  1. Katy Meyers says:

    My tip: volunteer. If you are going to the conference for the first time and don’t have anything to present take the time to volunteer. You will either get to go free or get a free meal out of it, and you get the benefit of meeting the people who run and conference and interacting with people you normally wouldn’t get to.

  2. Andrea says:

    Julie, this is great. Thanks so much for the Packing List site: I always forget socks. Last year for NCTE/NWP, I had a color coordinated spreadsheet with outfits, where I was presenting how to get there (it was at Disney World god help me). That’s the only way I can keep it all together–it was saved on Google spreadsheets, of course! Also, I gave up on the messenger bag and proudly sport a backpack. I figure I make up for the spoiling of my outfit by wearing cute shoes and also always having dongles. I carry ones for older Macs/MacBook Pros I don’t even have, just in case someone needs one. I’ve made some GREAT scholarly connections this way. But I have way too many back problems to deal with a messenger bag. We all have our limits. Love the post!

  3. Cory Owen says:

    I’m gonna second Katy’s suggestion to volunteer–it is the *best* way to meet people. Plus, you can always make it your excuse to talk to your research idol by breaking the ice with what your area of volunteer-expertise is for the conference.

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