Scientific Conferences on a Budget

Conferences are an important part of the world of science and technology. We get to publish preliminary results and bounce them off of our colleagues (or sometimes strongest competitors). It’s time for networking and also helps to take a break from the lab grind. But conferences take a huge burden on our budget.

We have to get there, live there and pay the entrance fee. Even for someone who can get repaid from their institution, these are things to consider. As Erik Klemetti put it on Twitter:

Let’s see how we can cut costs for conferences. Especially, students and recently unemployed or self-employed might find this information useful. First things first:

Travel Grants

Why pay for it yourself, if you can find someone else who is willing to pay for it?

In the case of the EAGE, there is the Geo-Quiz that is held on numerous occasions. The winner can take a travel grant home. Same with the FIELD Challenge (Fully Integrated EvaLuation and Development) where the winner may take home a travel grant. Not too bad at all.

Just check if the conference, the state or your institution have any means of support. You may find something in unexpected places.

Get in on the Discounts

 

Registration for our Hackathon

Example: registration for the European Geo-Hackathon

Early birds catch the worm. It’s no news to most reading this, but maybe you’re really new. The earlier you know that you will attend a conference and book it, the cheaper it gets. Additionally, members get preferred rates, while the membership is comparably cheap and often comes with other benefits. Students are most likely best accommodated for, I have yet to see a conference that does not provide student rates at a fifth or less of the normal member rate.

 

Oftentimes, there will be special rates for helping hands in a conference. If you have the opportunity to be session chair or some other function this may come with a grand discount or even free admittance to the rest of the conference. On the other hand, this will take some flexibility from you.

With the ICE in Barcelona, I now learned that an advertised discounted workshop price may have limited availability.

The Email:

Dear Jesper,

My apologies for the delay! I have entered your registration. However, I have not processed your card yet. Space was limited for students to attend the SEPM course for $50 and we reached our capacity. If you would like to attend the course, you will need to pay the full rate of $650.  Would you like me to go ahead and complete the registration?

Thank you!

Even though this fact is not explicitly advertised. Therefore, I recommend, getting in on the discount as soon as possible.

Getting there

Usually, it’s easiest to fly. When it’s on a different continent, you may not even have a choice but to fly. But there are some ways to save money.

Statistically speaking, it’s cheapest to get plane tickets 54 days in advance. Nevertheless, I recommend always shopping around. There are several websites to do this, my three go to pages are the newer Google Flights or the older Google ITA Matrix and Kayak and its subsidiaries. Sometimes the cheap flights may not be listed here, so have a quick Google, if a budget airline serves your route as well.

 

Hopper Airfare Prediction

Hopper Airfare Prediction

Hopper is an app that takes your flight route and uses some statistics to predict prices and notify you of price drops. Definitely worth a try as you may save a couple hundred euros/dollars with it. Currently (April 2016) the Android app only supports round-trips, whereas the iOS app already supports one-way trips.

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skiplagged

Skiplagged

If you’re traveling without checked baggage, using Skiplagged may be an option. It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes a flight with an additional leg to some other place may cost less than booking the actual destination. Don’t ask me why it just works and many people have been using it so far. However, there are some rules to follow. Checked baggage will fly to the end destination of your ticket, that may not be in your interest. The leg for the flight has to be after your first route. This is for the simple reason that a ticket will be invalidated as soon as you miss one connection.

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Personally, I am not an expert on this as it seems like an American phenomenon to me, yet there is a huge community around getting the most out of Credit Card sign-up bonuses, rewards and cashback on Reddit.

Do not underestimate trains. They may not be as fast as planes on the outside, but if you consider the two hours you have to add to plane travel to check in and airports are usually located far outside of cities, whereas the main station is somewhere very central, it may not save that much time after all. Shopping around for trains may also help. Sometimes it may be cheaper to check different pages in different countries. A train going from Germany to Austria can be cheapest on a Czech website as it starts there and there is a promotion. While this is a bit of a long shot for me, I usually check the destination and the starting point. In this case, it would be German and the Austrian train service providers.

ÖBB vs DB

ÖBB vs DB

Another nice option is traveling by bus. I believe US Americans call it Greyhound. I can only speak for Europe, but as I type this, I am in a nice bus with a free drink, Wifi, a 230V outlet on my way from Hamburg to Copenhagen for 17 Euros, flights would be beyond 50. The luggage that is in the belly of the bus would have cost me dearly had I checked into a plane. (It contains a heavy iron I forgot in my old apartment.) However, this may also be the slowest option. In Europe, there is a price war raging on, which is great for the customer. There are several websites to compare prices, a German option is busliniensuche.de, it also shows international options. Usually, Megabus, an English company, will be one of the cheaper options here, but comparing is the way to go. If you’re traveling with a German company, expect German sockets. If you’re traveling with an English company in Germany expect German OR English sockets. It can be tricky but cheap and comfortable.

In addition to the speed and price, there is the carbon footprint to consider. There are many sources you can take it from, planes are not exactly green.

Carbon Footprint of Modes of travel

Carbon Footprint of mode of travel

Accommodation

Accommodation can be one of the main expenses. Considering the AGU is in San Francisco and the EAGE this year will be in Vienna, it is evident that accommodation is sparse and comes with a high price-tag.

The first place to look may be a hotel, but personally, I have not been able to find competitive prices, when we take other options into account. Hostels may be an option for some. They come with varying degrees of comfort. When I look for hostels, I start at tripadvisor.com. It’s a travel recommendation website that is linked together with hostelworld.com. This collaboration gives us a good database of ratings and the luxury of booking hostels online and locking in a given rate. I did this in Malaysia and the hosts knew we were coming and picked us up without us even asking them to.

I understand that hostels may not be everyone’s style, in this case, I highly recommend AirBnb.com. It’s a website where private hosts can advertise their vacant home and get in some rent while they’re on vacation or a different apartment. AirBnb has their own recommendation system and the search is very detailed. You can set a price range, as well as, if you’re cool with a shared apartment or if you’d rather have the place to yourself. When I visited Copenhagen for an interview, my future colleagues would not believe the rate I was staying for, as it was cheaper than the rent of some. The hosts will be rated on the website and you can only rate the host when you stayed there and within a time window, which makes review-tempering less likely. So far I have only stayed at clean and cozy places. At one time I stayed in a nice flat in Berlin that was amazingly stylish and the host was the most accommodating person I have met so far.

There are even cheaper options. No, I’m not recommending, you stay under a bridge. But how about a couch? In the last decade, “Couchsurfing” has gained momentum. People offer you a place to crash for free or some small obolus. Some networks require you to take in guests as well, whereas, others don’t. Shop around, especially when considering, that you will be spending most of your time at the conference and only need a place to crash, you may as well try this option.

Getting around

You take a car to the airport and park there. Then you take the plane and from the destination, you take a taxi. This rings up a bill that I am happy to have someone else pay, but if it’s myself or my project funds I dig into, I’d rather choose a different option.

Uber

Uber

In most large cities you now have the choice to call an Uber car instead of a taxi. This can often be cheaper than a taxi and is definitely cheaper than parking your car for the entirety of a conference. Uber is an app that has been all over the media lately for driving taxi drivers out of business. While this may be a moral issue for you, your wallet may thank you.

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Especially in the US, I experienced a kind of reluctance to use public transportation. When it comes to Western Europe, this is definitely the way to travel relatively cheap. Check your conference, it may even include public transportation within your badge. If it doesn’t check if there are “multi-tickets”. These can often be purchased at a discount and you invalidate them as you go. In my hometown Hamburg, it would also be cheaper to get a day ticket instead of two single tickets. And of course, there’s the option of group tickets, but personally, I’m not too fond of them because they need an immense amount of coordination in the group which may not be worth the meager discount.

As I live in Copenhagen now, the first thing I decided on was getting a nice bike. This may not be feasible for a conference of course, but you can always look into the option of renting one. There is always the option to walk into individual shops, however in recent years, many cities have made a push to increase bike travel. This has been realized by installing a network of bike stations throughout the city. Those bikes are robust, well maintained and cheap. Registering is usually possible online and in some cases at the bike stations directly.

Bike Station

Bike Station CC-BY-SA [email protected]

Just as well as this communal bike option, car manufacturers have pushed into the car-sharing market. BMW has started DriveNow in Germany, UK, Austria, Sweden and Denmark. It’s easy to find a car with the app. It’s not the cheapest option but it adds a nice mix of convenience and price.

Getting fed

Qushuitingstreet

Why not eat like the locals? CC BY-SA 3.0 Rolf Müller

First things first, do not buy food at the venue. A pretzel for 5 Euro is a common sight. (How very German of me to use a Pretzel as reference…)

We talked about private accommodation before. One great point of this is the availability of a kitchen to prepare some food. Bring some Tupperware to take it to the venue. Do not forget silverware.

In case you did not bring any, venturing outside of the venue may be a good option. This will already be a significant price drop. Conferences may usually not be in the touristy main city areas, so if you go a bit further away from the venue you may find some nice local options.

Oftentimes exhibitors will have some appetizers to get you through the day, but it makes me feel like a cheap person to go for seconds without even caring about the company itself. It is also a bad option to plan with. If you were sure there would be food and you go hungry you might go for the expensive venue food.

Depending on the city, there may be deals to find on Groupon and similar “daily deal” businesses.

Being frugal vs Being cheap

Conference Attendance

Make most of a Conference

Making frugal decisions is a good way to go through a conference, have great experiences and not feed on bread and water for the coming months. There will always be someone that does not understand why you would take a frugal option. Haters gonna hate.

Now, there is a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Being frugal is about maximizing the value of your investment. Being cheap is about not investing. You went to the conference, you paid for flights, accommodation, and you were careful with your spending habits. You have to evaluate if a workshop and the added cost now would be worth it. It probably is in case it’s a one-time opportunity with a great presenter. When business / networking opportunities arise over a dinner, don’t just categorically say no. There is always the option of getting a salad and water. It doesn’t always have to be steak and wine. But of course, dining out should yield a good return on investment and there is the risk of having the “treat yourself” moment.

Generally, you should try to avoid the feeling of missing out because of budget restrictions. There are amazing options to go for that are free or reasonably priced. You invested your time into this conference, there is no point to not make it worthwhile. It is a matter of deciding, where to invest your budget to make it the best experience possible.

What are your best tips to make the most of scientific conferences? Share them in the comments!

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... is a geophysicist by heart. I work in seismic interpolation. My interest extend to data security, software engineering, geology and science comm. After work I love to go rock climbing and lift some heavy weights. In the evening I endulge in board games with friends and my wonderful partner. The Way of the geophysicist.
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