Last year I spent $848.80 going to PAX East. I know this because I just did my 2013 taxes. That’s $300.10 for a flight from Austin to Boston and $548.70 for a hotel room. But venture beyond airfare and accommodation – into the forest of lost receipts – and it’s another story. Add in food, drinks with colleagues, intercity transportation and other incidentals and I spent more like $1,100-1,200. Overall, that was worth it. I spoke on a panel, developed contacts, saw friends and – just as important when you’re spending that much out of pocket – I had fun.
But it begs the question: is PAX really worth the expense?
What Does It Cost to Attend PAX?
A three-day PAX East badge will run you $75, while Prime badges are $95 for four days. That’s a great value proposition, since $25 a day buys access to the stunning array of panels, demos and previews, shopping areas, celebrity appearances, LAN deathmatches, tournaments, live music and people-watching that PAX delivers. And don’t forget the after-hours partying, both official and unofficial. You can’t ask for a better return on investment for the badge itself.
If you’re attending locally, with the badge being your biggest expense, there’s no question whether PAX is worth it-but the equation changes when you add in travel and accommodation.
Travel costs, of course, vary considerably depending on where you live. If you’re able to take a bus, a commuter train or drive to PAX, you could probably keep travel under $100. But everyone outside the immediate area needs to tangle with airfare.
To estimate how much people spend on flights to PAX, I conducted an informal poll among my freelancer colleagues. Not only did this give me hard numbers (from people who track expenses), but looking at tickets people actually bought calculated in some realistic human error like buying a ticket too late or taking a pricier flight that fits within someone’s work schedule. It’s admittedly unscientific, but provides a rough estimate.
The lowest airfare in my sample set was $230 (from Milwaukee to Seattle) and the highest was $720 (Raleigh-Durham to Seattle). The people that paid in the $400-700 range overwhelmingly lived either in the middle of the country, on the opposite coast or in a city that didn’t offer direct flights. In all, the average cost of airfare to PAX East was around $375, while the average for Prime was $416. Given this data set, let’s say most people who fly pay around $300 on the low end vs. $600 on the high end.
Hotels are thankfully a little easier to estimate, since everyone works off the same price. I paid about $180 a night at the last PAX East, though that was due to the fact that all the cheaper hotels were already full – though a search on Hotels.com reveals that even if I booked now for PAX Prime, I couldn’t get better than $118 a night for a room within walking distance. But let’s split the difference and say that an average hotel will cost you $150 a night (most go for $160+). So for three nights at East we’re talking $450, or $600 if you hit all four days at Prime.
Then there are all the incidentals. Food and drink will probably cost about $100-120 depending on how many days you stay. (Alcohol can and does inflate this expense). Add at least $25 for cabs and mass transportation and a few dollars here and there to participate in sealed deck tournaments. And then there’s shopping, which is another wildcard – I don’t shop at all, but I’ve seen others spend $50-100 on that alone. To be conservative, let’s peg miscellaneous meal and entertainment costs at $150 for the weekend, plus $50 if you shop.
Total that up and you get about $725 to attend three days of PAX East  and $895 for four days of Prime. Add $300-600 for a flight, and you’re talking on the low end about $1,025 for PAX East and $1,195 for PAX Prime – though with a pricier flight it could easily be as much as $1,325 for East and $1,495 for Prime. And keep in mind there’s an economic cost to burning vacation days or giving up hourly wages to be there – unless you do as I always did, and put in overtime before you leave.
If you’re attending PAX as press or an exhibitor, well, you’ve just gotta do it – but for a simple attendee who’s there for the entertainment, that’s by no means a cheap vacation.
There are, of course, tactics that make PAX more affordable.
During PAX Prime 2012 I stayed with a friend – it meant I had to take an hour-long bus ride to and from the suburbs and pay pricey cab fares when the busses stopped running, but I saved $400. Similarly, you can reduce costs if you split a hotel room two, or even three ways. (Judging by the number of voices coming through my hotel room wall at PAX East 2012, some people take this to an extreme – it sounded like a refugee camp in there.)
And speaking of badges, there are ways to get in for free. Some people put together a panel so they can attend as a speaker. Others volunteer as Enforcers or come as press – though trust me, even though they’re fun, those options aren’t anyone’s idea of a relaxing vacation.
For small expenses, it’s mostly moving numbers around – don’t shop and you have more beer money, or don’t drink and you can buy more stuff. Share cabs, fill your schedule with free events and RSVP to parties with complementary food and drinks. But beware of unnecessary nickel-and-diming: if you’re paying to get there, you might as well spend $50 extra and have a good time.
How Does PAX Stack Up To Other Destinations?
So what we’ve got is this: for someone that lives far away and doesn’t engage in significant cost-cutting, PAX is a three to four day vacation that can cost between $1,000 and $1,500.
That’s a lot. Enough money that the question shouldn’t necessarily be “Should I go to PAX?” but “Where could I go instead?” And the truth is – with careful planning – you could vacation internationally for roughly the same price.
Whenever someone told me the price they paid for a ticket to PAX, I immediately pulled up the website SkyScanner.com. After entering their departure city, I entered “Everywhere” as their arrival city and made their departure/return dates flexible for the whole year. The results were shocking.
For the cost of a $369 round-trip ticket form LAX to Boston, you could go to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands or Costa Rica. With a $380 ticket from Miami to East, you could make it to Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. The $600 flight that took one friend from Montana to East could’ve put him in Honduras or Mexico. And the $720 flight from Raleigh-Durham to Seattle? Man, where do you want to go? St. Petersburg. Ireland. Belize. Guatemala. Barbados. Add $60 more and you’re in Shanghai; add a hundred and you’re in Istanbul. Keep in mind, these fares are if you’re entirely flexible on travel dates, but it’s possible if you plan in advance.
Also, many of these destinations offer cheaper accommodations than Boston or Seattle, with hotel rooms for under $100 a night- and in some countries like Costa Rica and Turkey, as low as $40 for a three star hotel. (And that’s if you don’t want to stretch your dollar by staying in $15-a-night hostels.) If you’re willing to miss PAX twice and save money for one big trip instead, doubling your budget could open up destinations in Europe or Asia – you just have to snag cheap tickets and plan in advance.
And you don’t have to go as far as another country, either. There are plenty of travel destinations in the U.S. that would serve you well for a splurge weekend. You could load up the camping gear and visit the fossil quarry at Dinosaur National Monument or hike the Grand Canyon. Hell, if you want a bonding experience with friends, round them up and head to New Orleans for a weekend of ghost tours and bad decisions. The point of travel isn’t how far you go, but that you go somewhere new, interesting and fun. If you play Watch Dogs at PAX, sure, you’ve played it first, but in a few months everyone else will have played it too. But if you go to Costa Rica or backpack the Rockies, those experiences – and those stories – will last you a lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong: I love PAX. I’ve spoken there three times, and hope to do so again. It’s a fun expo, and there’s nothing like being surrounded by games and the games community for three days. At my last PAX I talked to a woman who was escorting her kid there, and asked her what she thought of the show. What she said sums up, in my mind, what PAX can be at its best: “His older brother’s a baseball player and his sister’s a cheerleader,” she said, patting her kid on the head. “He loves games and I figured, hey, this weekend is his time to shine.”
In my mind PAX is like Disneyland – everyone should go once, and I’ll never begrudge someone who makes it a yearly pilgrimage.
But if you already went last year, and are ready for a new adventure, you might consider where else in this amazing world that $1,200 could take you.
It may be further than you think.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.