Big Con, Small Con: How to choose which con is right for you.
Before we get started, let me define what a "con" is. Con is slang for convention. By convention we here mean gathering for people who have popular culture interests in common. There are general anime conventions, science fiction conventions, horror conventions, comic book conventions, and many others.
Some cons cover one genre, some cons cover many genres. There are even some cons that are specifically for fans of just one television show, like Star Trek conventions or Supernatural conventions.
Here are some things to consider if you haven't been to a con before, or if you haven't been to very many cons.
There are big cons and small cons. A big con is something people travel many miles to go to, like San Diego Comic con or Dragon Con. A big con tends to be a place where you pay a larger premium to get in and there are more people. A small con tends to be something you go to in your hometown or a town nearby.
Advantages to going to small local cons
There are some big pluses to small cons. Small cons are much easier to attend than the big ones. You don't usually have to travel far, so you don't have to try to find a hotel room or worry about transportation. You might already know where to get good food at a reasonable price in the area. You may even run into people you know while you're there.
At smaller cons, the atmosphere is more participatory. You can get involved in local fan panels much more easily than large con panels.
If you make friends at a small con, you may be friends for life. People at small cons are more likely to live near you, so if you form a con friendship, you may be able to hang out again in the future.
Smaller cons sometimes have some ticketing options that are uncommon with large cons, like VIP passes that allow you to skip lines and get premium seating, or autograph packs that allow you to get lots of autographs cheaply. These sorts of perks aren't offered at Dragon Con.
Disadvantages to small cons
There are also downsides to smaller cons. There is less to do, and you're less likely to see big celebrities because small cons can't afford the appearance fees on some stars. This is why you don't frequently see names like Norman Reedus or Misha Collins on small con guest lists. However, small cons can still get some pretty cool celebrities. You can find out who's coming to your local cons by accessing their websites a few weeks before the con, although be aware, celebrities sometimes back out at the last minute due to filming schedules, health issues, or personal problems. This happens at big cons too.
Another problem with small cons is that they tend to be short and end each night rather than carrying on into the next morning. If you're looking for a party, check your local con's Facebook, the promoters may have already scheduled an after party.
Advantages to big cons
Big cons like Dragon Con and SDCC can pull in some big names. There are some huge celebrities at Comic Con every year, such as Tom Hiddleston or Hugh Jackman. Those people are probably not commonly seen in your hometown, but at a big con, you have a chance to see stars of that caliber.
Big cons have lots of awesome activities available, day and night. There's never a moment at Dragon Con when I'm standing around bored. I'm always racing to the next thing I have planned.
Big cons allow lots of people from small fandoms to find each other. Big cons attract people from all over the world to attend, which allows you to find other people in your fandom.
Big cons attract lots of great cosplayers, so you'll get some amazing pictures out of them.
Disadvantages to big cons
Big cons have a lot of space to cover. The dealer's room alone at Dragon Con takes up a ton of mall space. I can't say how big it will be this year, but in the past it generally took up two floors of whatever building they put it in. It's huge. The con itself is spread out over five host hotels. You may have to walk a very long way between panels you would like to attend. You will get tired. You might cry.
Sometimes, at Dragon Con, the rooms fill up. That means if there's something you really must see, sometimes you have to skip something else you'd like to do in order to get there before the room fills up. Generally, all I do is go to celebrity panels and the dealer's room, so I skip every other event to make sure I have time to get where I'm going. I have to prioritize who I want to see. One year, I had to choose between Stan Lee and Carrie Fisher, and I chose Stan Lee, because I felt the odds were better I'd have a second chance to see Carrie Fisher again. I never got to see Carrie, but I'm really glad I did get to see Stan.
It's easy to feel alone at a big con, because although you are surrounded by thousands of people, you might not know any of them. My general method of making friends in the cafeteria is to look for familiar flair from one of my fandoms. If you're a Firefly fan, look for Jayne hats. Browncoats, in my experience, let other Browncoats sit with them.
Drinking, by the way, is a common but not required portion of con life, particularly at big cons. Dragon Con has massive lobbies where I personally have seen men dressed as Tony stark enjoying a martini. At Dragon Con, kids should be out of the hallways by 9 PM, because after a certain point the costumes become considerably more adult and there is considerably more partying and drinking.
Consider your expenses
Big cons are expensive.
Let's say you go to Dragon Con, and in that hypothetical year, membership is $130 at the door. I always preorder a year in advance, which means I only paid $85. I have my membership. No premium memberships are available or required, and for whatever the eternal membership price is in that theoretical year, you can go to Dragon Con every year until you're dead and you'll never have to pay for a membership again. And that's a good thing, because membership costs go up.
Not only do you have to buy a membership, you also have to pay for a hotel room if you travel somewhere to attend the con, and these can cost a pretty penny. You can bring some of the costs down by sharing a room with friends or finding a room to share online with someone you trust.
I've never bothered with a photo op with an actor, because unless it's for Facebook or something I don't see the point. Those are commonly pretty expensive, but I understand those keep the actors going between gigs. Expect to pay at least $20 for these if you want one, and sometimes as much as $100. This is true at small cons as well as big cons.
Autographs also cost money if you're into those, and tend to run even higher than photo ops as autographs are considered very collectible. If you want the autograph as an investment, ask them nicely not to personalize it for you. This is always an uncomfortable topic, in my experience. I've bought autographs a few times, it feels better if you let them put your name on the item, but the item that is signed is less valuable that way.
At Dragon con, there's a special banquet you can pay an extra $65 for, but I don't think I've ever even met anyone who has done that. It might be worth it, but I won't speculate.
Creation cons, which tend to cater to just one fandom, have things called "Meet and Greets" you can purchase to spend a few minutes in a small group with your favorite celebrity. I know people who think of these as being very worthwhile, but I've never done this. They tend to be very, very expensive, so choose wisely.
But you can walk up and talk to the actors at the walk of fame for free at Dragon Con. I don't know if all cons are this open. All the ones I've ever attended have been, but I wouldn't be surprised to attend one where the actors are roped off to con attendees who aren't buying an autograph, particularly at something like a Supernatural con, where the actors are highly sought after.
Then there's the dealer's room. You can spend an enormous amount of money in the dealer's room. You can buy big stuff you've put a lot of thought into at Dragon Con, such as an Ultra Sabers light saber or a Utilikilt. Big cons are great places to try on fandom and nerd specific clothing that you might otherwise only find online. You can also find rare comic books, action figures, and collectibles at cons as well as bargain items you would never have bought under normal circumstances. You might even buy a $20 mystery bag from a vendor. Who knows what wonders might lie within?
Then you have to consider food. Food can be very costly, big con or small, but at Dragon Con, if cost is an issue, for the love of God, don't buy food from the hotels. Go to the mall or wander outside of the con walls in search of better food for a bargain price. Sometimes you can find pizza guys selling boxes of pizza fairly cheaply on the street.
As you can see, Dragon Con can get very expensive, and I've heard San Diego comic con is much worse.
Small cons are not so bad.
Most of the small cons I've attended offer a three day pass at $40 or less and also make VIP packages available for those who'd like to also purchase autographs or get priority seating.
Generally if you go to a small local con, you don't have to pay for a hotel room because you can just go home at night.
Photo ops and autographs are usually the same price at any con the actor attends.
Some small cons have special VIP parties and meet and greets that cost extra.
Small cons have dealer's rooms just like the big cons, except much, much smaller. The risk to your wallet seems to go down considerably when there is a smaller selection of items available.
In your con selection process, take these things into consideration and make the choice that's right for your wallet, your personality, and your sanity.
General rule of thumb: the smaller a con is, the easier it'll be to have fun without doing a whole lot of work, paying out a lot of money, or getting really tired. So, Adventure Con and the Fanboy Expo are easier cons than Dragon Con. Less walking, less waiting, less crowds, and they're cheaper. They're also both local cons, so you don't have to pay out for a hotel room.
Conversely, the bigger a con is, the more night life it will have and the bigger celebrities and better panels it will have. Dragon Con is open 24 hours, whereas the Fanboy Expo and its ilk are only open during the day.