Hack Your Conference Budget

When I first started library school, my professors told me that conferences are great… if you had a couple thousand dollars to spend. While there’s no dodging the fact that conferences are pricey, you can definitely “hack your conference budget” as a student. It’s possible to attend a conference without breaking the bank and still get a lot out of the experience by using a combination of sharing, planning, and figuring out which circumstances are in your favor.

I acknowledge that not everyone is able to financially afford to go to conferences, which is remarkably unfair. I noticed that there were a lot of people missing at the ALA Annual Conference this year (2017), and prohibiting cost is only one factor. I hope to work towards breaking down these and other barriers in my future career… though that is a topic for another blog post. Are you ready to budget your conference?

Registration & Travel

Take advantage of your student status and register early. Many conferences have a discounted student rate and an early bird rate, so I decided it would be financially worth it for me to go to a conference while I am still a student. For ALA Annual this year, the early bird student ticket was $170. I was fortunate enough to pick up hours at my job to help pay for this, but I know people who received funding from their department, student government, or their jobs by simply asking. Creating a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign for yourself or a group of your classmates would be another option, or you can carpool with a colleague or another attendee. Flying is definitely more expensive, especially if it’s out of the country. Some organizations pay for part or all of your travel/lodging fees if you are presenting at their conference, or if you are covering the event for the press. Scholarships and volunteering, organized by various branches of the ALA, helped a lot of my friends go to the annual conference this year.


Many students wish to go to a conference just to see what it’s like. If that’s the case, pay attention to conferences that are close by, or the conferences in your friends’ current cities. If you can’t stay at your own house or your friends houses, book your hotel rooms first thing and try to share your rooms with colleagues. Hotel prices really depends what city you’re in, and like plane tickets, they get more expensive the closer to the conference date. Bigger conferences = bigger convention centers = bigger cities = more expensive hotels. An alternative is Airbnb, a website/app where you can stay in other people’s rooms or houses, usually at a lower rate than a stay at a hotel. If you are traveling alone and concerned about safety, I recommend having an entire house to yourself and clicking the filter “Superhost,” which narrows your search to recognized hosts with high ratings and experience. It is not guaranteed to be safer, but my solo-traveling friends have had good luck with it in the past. Be aware that where you stay will partially influence which events you can attend. At ALA, I could not attend evening events because I stayed too far away.


Depending on what city you’re in, choosing public transportation will most likely be the cheapest option for commuting. To determine if your neighborhood is walkable or has a good public transit system, check out Walk Score, which is one of my favorite sites. Getting around the city at ALA Annual was really fun for me. Chicago has one of the best public transit systems in the United States so I bought a week pass for $33, which given how much I used it, totaled about ten cents per ride. It was about a 90 minute commute from where I was staying to the conference center (a bus, a train, and another bus there, and not the same route on the way back), but I got to see the city this way. I got lost multiple times, but I felt like I truly experienced Chicago. If you are staying in one of the designated conference hotels, shuttles go to and from the conference center daily. Lyft is useful in bigger cities, and there’s always a driver available instantly. Bottom line: you will save a lot of money simply by NOT parking your car.


Food was the priciest thing by far. I recommend skipping the long lines at the Starbucks in the conference center, and grabbing breakfast and/or caffeine at home or while commuting. After seeing the exorbitant prices and ridiculous lines at the food court, I packed my lunch every day. I also carried around trail mix, cracker packets (aka my main life source), and a reusable water bottle. I treated myself to dinner at a different restaurant every night and only attended 1 happy hour event. What about people with dietary restrictions? Check out Annie’s post about what to eat at conferences here!


What does “business casual” even mean? I recommend looking at ThreadUp, Old Navy, Gap, Target, or your local Goodwill for some affordable business casual finds. I hit up H&M while I was in Chicago and got a pencil skirt for $1. Also, it’s worth mentioning that at this particular conference, no one really cared what I was wearing. I saw people in jeans and people in suits. Don’t feel the need to buy a whole new wardrobe for the occasion. Your comfort should be your first priority, and the weather should be your second (it was really hot outside but really cold inside, so make sure to dress in layers!).


I highly recommend factoring in some cash to help your health, both physical and mental. A lot of people get sick during conferences, including your’s truly. On my “sick day,” I splurged on some medicine (plus magical Zicam), a Lyft, and soup. There was another day when my anxiety got the better of me, so I left the conference and went to a free museum. I also recommend visiting parks, public libraries, and window shopping. Ultimate money saver: don’t buy anything at the conference itself (they’ll give you plenty of free stuff anyways).

A lot of these factors were very convenient for me, and that definitely played into my decision to attend ALA Annual 2017. Now I only wish that everyone who wants to go to a conference is able to attend without restrictions. What are your conference budget hacks?


Featured image depicts Darth Vader reading ALA Cognotes at the ALA Midwinter Meeting 2013.

Image by the American Library Association, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Categories: Conferences, Finances

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2 replies

  1. Great suggestions, a few things I do and a couple of suggestions:

    1. If you feel safe walking to and from another hotel to get to the conference, don’t stay at the conference hotel. You can either look directly for something cheaper or take your chances with a site like hotwire.com (if you get the trip insurance you can cancel if you end up at a hotel you don’t want to stay at). I usually end up saving about $75-100 a night with a half mile walk each way to the conference on hotel rooms this way. Pack some of those emergency ponchos for rainy days if you do.

    2. If I go the non-conference hotel route I often also end up at a hotel with a free continental breakfast, which saves on meals (and if your room has a microwave and fridge, you can refrigerate and reheat a second or even third meal out of the continental breakfast if you want to). And if you’re still without
    a provided breakfast you can always grab a box of Pop-Tarts or something.

    3. Some conferences offer scholarships or awards, especially for first time attendees, new members, or students. Look into and apply for those when they’re available.

    4. If you know professors or TAs who are going, they might be able to get a university vehicle and be willing to haul students there and back depending on schedules and distance. Paying for their donuts and coffee while on the road does seem to be customary in this instance, but it can still save a lot of money.

    5, I’ve started taking Vitamin C and Zinc daily vitamins a couple of days before through a couple of days after the conference. It seems to help me fight off conference crud, but that’s purely anecdotal.

    6. Your program will probably be more likely to help pay your costs if you’re presenting (poster sessions are usually a great venue for grad students, there’s often a grad student paper panel, or just put in a proposal to present) or on a committee or something as opposed to just going to attend.

    Liked by 1 person

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