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WWDC on a Budget

I know conferences can be expensive, and everyone has to judge for themselves what “affordable” means. But I’ve seen a lot of people lately say that they simply can’t do WWDC anymore because it’s “way too expensive” and I wanted to address that.

Now, of course, depending on your situation, any conference can be a financial burden. I would never want to imply that conference travel is cheap. But there are ways to cut down the cost of a trip to San Jose every year. Many I’ve found to be a great help in making it possible to continue going.

If it’s just not even within the realm of possibility for you, so be it. But maybe you’ll find something here that helps make the yearly sojourn a bit more attainable.

Don’t go to WWDC. Just go to San Jose

I have never gone to the WWDC conference itself. For years I wasn’t a developer, so I didn’t feel the need. Now that I code as often as I design, I could probably benefit from going to the show. But at $1,600, that’s a huge chunk of cash right out of the gate. Many smaller conferences are far cheaper than that.[1]

There are plenty of things to do in San Jose that week that don’t involve watching talks. In fact, the talks are the last reason to go to any conference. In the case of WWDC, it’s even less a factor, as the talks are made available on video almost immediately after they happen. Even if I had a ticket, I’d probably spend most of the week in the labs and in the hallways, networking with as many Apple employees as I could, rather than sitting and listening to talks I could easily watch later.

Another benefit of not getting a ticket: not having to wait for confirmation you won the lottery before booking your flight. Waiting will absolutely make your flight more expensive. More on that in a bit.

Also worth noting: not having a ticket means you’ll feel less compelled to stay the entire week. More on that, too, below.

Don’t Stay at the Fairmont

San Jose has more than one downtown hotel. (Crazy, I know. But true.) The Fairmont is nice, but it’s way overpriced. I know, “everyone” is staying there, and you want to bump into your favorite people. Here’s a secret: the bar and lobby at the Fairmont is open to non-guests. Also, catching people at a coffee shop during the day is a better way to have a memorable conversation, anyway.

While getting a bargain hotel for WWDC in San Francisco was probably a bad idea, in San Jose the prospects are far less sketchy. The hotel in which I’ve stayed for the past two years is called the Convention Center Inn and Suites. If that sounds like a less-than-luxury experience, it is. (When I first arrived last year, I thought I was walking into a Cohen Brothers movie.) But you know what? It was clean. It was cheap. It was safe. And it was a few blocks closer to the Convention Center than the Fairmont.

Get a Roommate

Both this year and last, I split a room with my friend Curtis Herbert of Slopes fame. He’s a reasonably nice guy, and he doesn’t mind that I tend to snore—a huge plus. This year, we booked a “suite,” which has two beds and even a wall between them. The cost? $170 per night. That’s $85 for each of us. Try getting that deal in most major cities in the US.

Book Your Room Early

There’s a caveat to that great room rate: we booked it in January, before Apple announced WWDC. It’s not hard to predict when WWDC will be most years, though. There was only one week that made sense this year, so we just took a chance. The rate was fully refundable, in any case, if we happened to be wrong.[2]

In years when the dates are less obvious, I’ve been known to book two different reservations at two different hotels, just to cover my bases.

If you try to get a room at the Convention Inn now, it says “Call for Pricing.” That’s what happens when an unsuspecting hotel manager wakes up to discover one morning in April that 99% of the hotel is booked for a single week in June.

Don’t Stay All Week

This is the hardest one for me, because I don’t like to miss any of the action. But if it’s between not being there at all and only getting three days in San Jose, I’ll take the three days. Get there on Sunday (so you can catch a live stream of the Keynote somewhere with friends on Monday morning). Hang a few nights for the parties, etc. Then leave on Wednesday or Thursday. I stretched it to Friday myself this year, but last year I left on Thursday, and I had no regrets. The night-time free events are pretty much done by Wednesday night (since Thursday is the night of Apple’s Bash). 90% of your friends will be gone by Friday morning.

In years past, I’d stay from Saturday until the following Sunday, and that got really expensive. Cutting just a few days off the trip saves not just on hotels, but on food and other incidentals.[3]

If you’re flying in from a really remote location, where a three-day trip just makes no sense, consider three days in San Jose, then an extended trip in another American city close by that isn’t so expensive. Turn it into a mini-vacation.

Take Advantage of Free Activities

Between parties like the Loop Bash, live podcast recordings, music concerts, AltConf, and more, there are lots of free events during WWDC week. You should not have to spend that much on keeping yourself entertained. Most of these events feature free beverages and in some cases food.

Spend Less on Food

Sure, your friends may be dining out every night at San Jose’s most expensive restaurants. You don’t have to. Grab a burrito and catch up with them later. But do make sure you catch up to them later. Not spending time socializing defeats the whole purpose of this trip, after all.

One slightly expensive meal with the right people could benefit you way beyond the money it costs you, though. So make these decisions carefully.

Research Your Flight (But Don't Make it All About Price)

This is one area where I don’t recommend bargain hunting too much. There’s no good way to get your flight cost down, really. You can shop around, but most of the tricks you use to get a cheap hotel won’t apply to flying.

  • You can’t book super early, because most airlines don’t let you cancel or change your flights without a serious penalty.
  • It doesn’t pay to do crazy layovers and connections or to fly crap airlines. The stress it adds is not worth whatever you save in most cases. Fly as direct as you can.
  • It doesn’t pay to choose crazy flight times just to save a few bucks. You will be sleep deprived enough that week. You don’t need to add to the problem by flying at midnight, if you can avoid it.

My rule of thumb—if it saves me several hundred dollars, it may be worth considering. But if it’s a $20 or $50 difference, I don’t bother.

Flying into San Jose can be cheaper than SFO, depending on where your origin is. I’d research. Personally, from New York, I find that direct flights to San Francisco are plentiful enough to be the cheaper and more convenient option. You can split a Lyft down to San Jose with friends if you plan it right, and it won’t cost that much.[4] The train down to San Jose from SFO is cheaper, though it will take longer than you want just to get to the train. Plan accordingly.

Although you can’t book before Apple announces dates without taking a huge risk, I would recommend booking immediately after Apple does make the announcement. When I learned this year that the dates were confirmed, my first stop wasn’t the “Compose new Tweet” button. It was the Delta app.

Flights fill up fast. And airline prices get higher as seat availability decreases. Every minute counts when thousands of people jump to book flights at once. If you wait until Apple announces its lottery winners, prices are sure to be hundreds of dollars more expensive.

The Bottom Line

So let’s add it up: I’ll spend just under $400 for the hotel, another $450 or so for the flight, and a likely incidental food/drink expense of another $600. That means I’m looking at roughly $1,500 to go to WWDC this year. That’s not nothing, but it’s not the most expensive conference trip I’ve ever taken by any stretch.

The bottom line is that if you’re a member of the iOS/Mac tech community, this is not a good time to be getting less social. When your indie business is down, or your full-time job is driving you to insanity with too much work, that’s no time to be isolating yourself and limiting your future options. It’s the right time to be building your network and fostering long-term relationships with people you don’t often get to see. The people I’ve met and spent time with at WWDC have often turned out to be the most important people in my career.

Maybe even with all these cost-cutting measures, you still can’t afford to go. Or maybe the timing just doesn’t work for you. Okay. Maybe next year. But don’t make a hasty decision based solely on financial assumptions or poor planning. After all, not putting yourself in a position to succeed can often be more expensive in the long run.

And if you decide WWDC is just not for you, consider one of the many other great conferences happening around the world. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there are actually more conferences than ever happening in our community. And networking with peers is valuable enough to be well worth the expense once or twice a year, as far as I’m concerned.

  1. This is a moot point, of course, if your company is paying for your ticket (and your hotel, etc.) Of course, if that’s the case, you probably don’t need to be reading this. ↩︎

  2. Most hotels will give you a decent refundable rate if you’re booking very early and the hotel’s name doesn’t start with “Fair…”. ↩︎

  3. Some flights could be effected negatively by shortening the trip, however. But usually not by as much as you’ll save everywhere else. ↩︎

  4. Many folks are willing to wait around the airport for up to an hour just to half their Lyft price. Ask around to your friends who are arriving on the same day as you. ↩︎