When it comes to making holiday or travel arrangements I’m quite well-organised, generally finding and booking a good early deal. However, my excessive zeal of planning things far in advance has now backfired twice in a row in terms of making conference arrangements. So here’s my attempt at working out why and what to do differently in future.
For my first conference, I booked flights and hotels pretty much as soon as I thought everything was confirmed (i.e. the conference organisers had emailed to accept both of my abstract proposals for poster presentations and my departmental permission to travel form was approved). I was on the verge of claiming my expenses for the flights when I received a completely unexpected invitation to also present one of my posters as a talk to a small group on the first day of the conference. Part of the invitation was a travel award (hotels and flights covered); really exciting but I’d jumped the gun and already booked and paid for things… With some wild organising, emailing, form-filling and internet-searching I managed to sort it out somewhat. The main complication from the whole situation was that I ended up staying in 2 hotels and having to move on the first day of the conference, which in hindsight, was completely impractical.
For the next conference, I took making travel arrangements a bit more slowly. There are other people I know travelling to this one so I’ve coordinated with them on what to do. We booked our flights and I had just submitted my expense claim for them when the airline decided to cancel the outbound flight and offer us a terrible indirect journey instead. It was either go with the new annoying roundabout route or try to find something better but have to undo the expense claim. Not the best choice. I ended up just sticking with everyone else and will now be travelling for the better part of a day just to get from the UK to Germany.
I guess no matter how organised you try to be, you can never prepare for the unexpected. It seems like a desire to arrange things and claim expenses back quickly and efficiently ended up complicating things for me. The trick is you need to get your timing right: do things too early and you might end up out of pocket for longer, the timetable for the conference might not be finalised and you might miss out on something at the very start or end and people you know who you were hoping on travelling/staying with might not have decided what they’re doing yet. On the other hand, delaying in booking and paying for things results in higher registration fees and more expensive hotels/flights; this can be a big deal if your budget is limited.
There is a potentially brilliantly simple solution to this issue, suggested to me by a post-doc friend of mine. Her trick is to have a dedicated credit card which is used for all conference-related expenses. Afterwards, she just prints her statement and gets all her money back, including any charges incurred. I’ve always been against the idea of having a credit card for fear of getting into debt but given the stress I feel at spending 100s of pounds of money I don’t really have on travel arrangements….well it’s kind of a moot point. I think getting a conference-only credit card may be an idea worth pursuing.
Also, for anyone out there who has yet to arrange their travel plans to an academic conference, I’ve written this short and hopefully handy guide. It may seem excessively obvious but there are those couple bits in it which could potentially confuse you at first, the way they did me.
Step 1: First you should really get some form of approval from your supervisor(s) to submit the abstract; depending on how much relevant work you’ve done, your supervisor(s) might suggest submitting more than 1 abstract; that’s pretty cool, but bear in mind that both/all of them may be accepted which = more work.
Step 2: Write an abstract in the style requested by the conference and double check with your supervisors that it’s decent enough and then submit it. Now’s also the time to apply for a travel award if you are planning on doing that.
Step 3: Wait (while maybe having a vague look at how convenient/expensive flights and hotels are going to be).
Step 4: Hopefully, you will have heard that your abstract was accepted to do the talk or poster (whichever you asked for).
Step 5: Now is the time to get official permission to travel from the head of department or postgraduate office, if your university has such a procedure – at my university, this form also involves agreeing a budget for your expected expenses.
Step 6: You should probably wait for the approval before doing anything else really…
Step 7: Register for the conference.
Step 8: Book the hotel and flights, conferring with other people who you know are also going.
Step 9: Finally, claim your expenses!