Some Tips for (Vegan) Graduate Students Going to A Conference

Attending and presenting at academic conferences is part of graduate student life, and I have been trying to present at a conference at least once a year. Being in Canada, the Film Studies Association of Canada (FSAC) Annual Conference has been my main (and favourite) conference. The size of the conference from year to year, but I feel very much at home when I am attending the FSAC conference. I was planning to submit a proposal and hoping to present there in Victoria, B.C. this year; instead, I spent last week in Chicago to attend the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Annual Conference in Chicago.

2013 SCMS Conference Program

I submitted my proposal during the open call for papers back in August, and I almost forgot that I had submitted a proposal until November when SCMS e-mailed its members that they were experiencing a delay in finalizing their decision. I eventually received a surprising acceptance e-mail in early December, and started planning for the conference. I thought that I would share what I actually did here:

  1. Book flights and hotels ahead of time
  2. Keep all the receipts for reimbursement
  3. Research local vegan spots
  4. Get a prepaid sim card or a travel pack if you are going out of country abroad and using your phone
  5. Navigate the conference area with Google Maps and Offline map apps
  6. Check book sales at the conference

1. Book flights and hotels ahead of time
Here is my rule of thumb for booking flights and ho(s)tels: the earlier, the cheaper. Back in December, I did not know on which day I would be presenting my paper, so I figured that I would need to stay for the entire conference. (Also, this was the first time attending the SCMS conference, so I wanted to stay for the entire conference as well.) This year’s conference in Chicago was from March 6 to 10. Since I could be presenting in the first panel on the first day, which actually turned out to be the case, I decided to fly into Chicago on March 5 and then leave there in the late afternoon/early evening on March 10.

– Use mileage flight rewards 
If you have accumulated mileage for flight rewards, you may want to check if you have enough even for a one-way flight. I had accumulated some mileage with American Airlines (AA) over a few years, but I did not have enough for one way. Some airlines ask you to buy miles for the insufficient amount of miles, and others ask you to pay the price difference, which was the case for AA. By redeeming my AA mileage for a flight reward, I think I saved around 75% off of the original price.

– Subscribe to airline newsletters (or follow the companies on Twitter or like them on Facebook)
Many airlines offer flight sales once in a while, and if you buy your tickets at that time, you can get a really good deal. Particularly if you are booking your flights much earlier, you would be surprised by how cheap your flights could be. I think that Porter AIrlines quite often has flight sales of up to 40% or 50% off, and I booked my return flight from Chicago when it was about 50% off the regular price.

– Find a good deal for ho(s)tels
I usually stay at a university student residence or hostel to save money, but I decided to stay at a hotel with a kitchen this time since I was going to be in Chicago for 5 nights. I searched on online booking websites such as Expedia and Travelocity, but I found the most useful since it had a search criterion for a place with a kitchen/kitchenette. I am not sure how much I saved by using this website, but I saved at least $200 to @300 dollars, compared to the price that I would have paid by booking a decent hotel in the area where I stayed.

2. Keep all the receipts for reimbursement
For a lot of graduate students, including me, booking and paying for flights and accommodation upfront can definitely hurt our wallets, but universities often provide one or more types of funds, like professional development or conference ones, to which students may apply to receive reimbursement for a portion of their travel costs to attend and present at a conference. Make sure to ask or search for such funds at your school and remember to check the applications and deadlines so that you won’t miss your chance to receive some reimbursement. For some fund applications, you will eventually need to submit (original) copies of receipts for transportation, accommodation, and conference registration fees in addition to original ticket stubs, so make sure you keep all of your receipts and tickets!

3. Research local vegan spots

Delicious doughnut and latte at Fritz Pastry

Delicious doughnut and latte at Fritz Pastry

I am a foodie and a vegan, so I feel more comfortable knowing what food options I will have when I going somewhere. I stayed at a hotel with a full kitchen so that I did need to eat out for every meal, but I wanted to try some vegan places in Chicago. Yelp and HappyCow are good places to start with, and VegNews Magazine‘s website may have good lists for the the place where you are going. Finding blogs by local vegans may also give you a good sense of where to go as well. Once I found enough interesting places to check out, I created a map on Google Maps. Some places that I actually visited are:

  • Chicago Diner (I asked a server for a recommendation and tried their famous Radical Reuben Sandwich and a cinnamon roll. This place is similar to Fresh in Toronto, but I liked the atmosphere of this place much more.)
  • Karyn’s Cooked (Again menu is similar to Fresh, but I think that the atmosphere is closer to Live Organic Food Bar in Toronto.)
  • Fritz Pastry (I went here for their doughnuts, and they were amazing! This place closes at 1 pm on the weekdays, so you need to make a trip here in the morning to get their awesome doughnuts!)
  • Urban Vegan (This place seemed too pricey for what it served, but it tasted okay.)

4. Get a prepaid sim card or a travel pack if you are going out of country and using your phone
Living in Canada, we do not have great travel packs for our cell/smart phones. If you intend to use your phone while you are away, you should definitely buy a travel pack or a prepaid sim at the local area. Roam Mobility offers several options for those who live in Canada and are travelling to the U.S. A benefit of using Roam Mobility is that you will have a sim card or phone that you can use as soon as you arrive at your destination. If you have an unlocked phone and some time to shop around, T-mobile‘s prepaid sim seems to be a good option. I was actually going to purchase a T-mobile pre-aid sim card, but my offline map app was good enough for me to navigate the city, so I decided not to purchase one after my first day there.

5. Navigate the conference area with Google Maps and Offline map apps

My map for Chicago on Google Maps

My map for Chicago on Google Maps

Going to a conference is a great opportunity to learn new things and to meet new people, but we should also enjoy experiencing the local spots. I do not care about typical tourist spots, and almost all my attention goes to vegan food. What I used to navigate Chicago was the My Maps Editor app on my iPhone. You can import not only My Places/maps on your Google Maps but also other KML and KMZ files. I am not sure exactly how it works offline, but as far as you have opened the app and navigated an area beforehand, this app seems to work offline. As far as you are receiving some sort of cell tower signal and/or wifi, your GPS works so you can easily find out where you are on the map. And the beauty of KML/KMZ importing function is that you can add public transit lines and stops easily on the map as well. The City of Chicago makes a lot of data available online and you can find the kml files for the Chicago Transit Authority’s “L” (Rail) System stations and lines here:

6. Check book sales at the conference

Books that I bought 50% off at the SCMS Annual Conference

Books that I bought for 50% off at the SCMS Annual Conference

If you are attending a large conference, some major publishers will likely have booths set up at the conference and will be selling some books. Understandably, many of them do not want to take back the books that they brought with them, so you may get a great deal toward the end of the conference. Some publishers only take cash, make sure to have enough. (I actually needed to borrow some money from my supervisor to buy a book.) I bought four books at 50% off, which is a much better deal than what Amazon or the Book Depository usually offers!


I found many more vegan places in Chicago, but due to my tight budget and schedule, I was able to check only four places. I am not 100% sure, but Chicago seems to have more vegan spots than Toronto, though Toronto is now the fourth largest city in North America by beating Chicago by 80,000 people.  I hope that I can visit there again to try out other awesome vegan places!


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