10 Ways to Attend a Conference for Less (or for Free)

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Industry conferences can be a vital way to keep up with the latest trends, earn continuing education units, and make connections. People who attend on behalf of their employers can expense their airfare, accommodation, and registration. But what if you run your own company or work for a small shop with a tight budget? Sure, the conference travel and other associated costs can be written off when you file taxes, but they still may seem too much to shoulder. Here are 10 proven methods for allaying the expense of an out-of-town conference (some easier and more advisable than others).

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Conference tickets often have early-bird prices that can save you a pretty penny. Reserving airfare and accommodation well in advance can also keep costs down. Before booking, check the conference website for coupon codes that provide discounts to attendees.

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Everything from airport shuttles to hotel rooms can be shared if you plan ahead. Although this won't help with the price of admission, it can still save you a few bucks.

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Depending on the conference, there may be a long list of people who want to volunteer. Some conferences have also switched to using staffing companies because too many volunteers would "wander off" into the sessions while on duty. It's still worth checking into this option, however. Although you may not get to network as much or as effectively with other attendees, you'll strengthen your relationships with the event organizers, who are likely to be authorities in your field.

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Being tapped as a speaker may involve a competitive application process, but it could be worth a shot. Just be sure you can perform if you are accepted, because your name and reputation will be on the line in a big way.

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Contact a relevant company and offer to wear a branded T-shirt, promote a product during the conference, and write reviews or draw attention to the brand after the conference has ended. Of course, this works best if you have access to a large audience, via social media or some other platform, and are a true believer in the sponsor's products. If your following is large enough, consider contacting the conference organizers directly to see if you can work something out with them in exchange for free registration.

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As a conference affiliate, you earn commission for referring others who register. Keep selling tickets until you've earned one of your own.

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Many conferences have accompanying parties and networking events (official and unofficial) that are open to anyone. If your main interest is in networking, it may be worthwhile to attend the parties even if you can't afford the sessions. Some conferences even have "networking only" passes that are either free or very inexpensive.

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Sponsoring companies, or the organizers themselves, often give away a few free tickets every year. Keep in mind, you may need to strike a ninja pose or perform some other stunt to be eligible.

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Don't want to spend any money for airfare, hotel, or conference registration? Help put the entire event together. This is by far the most difficult and time-consuming option but may also be the most rewarding. Think about it: One of the main reasons people attend conferences is to network. If you're an organizer, people already know your name, and everyone has a reason to talk to -- and thank -- you.

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This is a more deceitful tactic that's best avoided, but there are a few ways to pull it off (no super-spy skills required). You can borrow a badge from a friend who is able to go for only part of the time, or arrange to split the cost and share a badge. This works especially well if it's a multi-day event and you each have different interests that are featured on different days. Of course, it might cause some confusion and hamper your ability to network. It also won't work if your friend has a well-known name or if there's a picture on the badge.