Today is the last day for people to cancel their hotel reservations at Comic-Con International for a full refund. Starting Saturday, they’ll keep a $75 cancellation fee.

So what’s the good news?

If you couldn’t get a room in March, and haven’t found alternative housing for the convention, this may be your second chance!

Even if there were fewer “just in case” reservations this year, there are always at least some people whose plans just fall through. Someone gets sick, their financial status changes, they were counting on a raise that didn’t happen, a cousin schedules a wedding for that weekend, etc. Rooms should be opening up over the next few days as people take their last chance to cancel without penalty.

The question is: what happens to them?

The old reservation process worked like a crowded store, where everyone kept trying to pick a room until they ran out. So when rooms freed up, they were made available to whoever happened to be checking up on the system.

This year, though, was like a massive take-a-number system, with Travel Planners assigning rooms to people in order (even though it’s not clear exactly what order it was). They did cap the line, but there were an awful lot of people who got requests in but no rooms, and ended up on a waiting list. A representative confirmed by email that they will contact people as rooms free up.*

So, what we should see in the next few days is Travel Planners offering rooms to the early part of the waiting list. Edit: Maybe not – see the comments.

It’s a safe bet that some people on the list have already secured a room through other channels, and no doubt some of them will want to stick with their alternate lodging (especially if their alternate hotel is across the street, and Travel Planners hands them something ten miles away). That will probably trigger a second round of free rooms next week.

No doubt the process will repeat itself on June 18, when the rest of the deposit becomes non-refundable.

Of course, it all depends on just how many people cancel their reservations to start with. I doubt anyone outside of the travel agency (and maybe CCI) has solid numbers of just how many con-goers are stuck in limbo.

*The way they put it was that they were trying “to identify any rooms already committed that might not be ultimately utilized.” Gotta love corporate-speak.

Planning to go to Comic-Con International, but couldn’t get a hotel room during the reservation lottery? There’s no magic bullet or secret code, but here are some things you can do to find a place to stay during the con:

ADDED: Call customer service if you placed a request but haven’t heard back from them. There may have been a problem with the email (at their end, at your ISP, or anywhere in between), or there may have been an issue with the reservation that prevented them from processing it or sending the confirmation. But do it soon, so you don’t miss the deadline to secure it with a deposit.

Some rooms may open up when the deposit deadline passes. Maybe. This is probably only an option if you submitted a reservation request but didn’t get a room, and it assumes that (a) not everyone will manage to make a deposit in time and (b) Travel Planners will move on to the wait list with the rooms that free up. I wouldn’t rely on this one.

Book directly, but be prepared to spend more. And be prepared to try a lot of hotels before you find one with available rooms, or else go through a travel site like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline or Hotwire.

Look into short-term condo rentals. Hotels aren’t the only way to rent a room. You could make your trip into a week-long vacation!

Find roommates to share the cost of that directly-booked room. Or find roommates who already have a room. A lot of the downtown hotels actually have suites, so you might even have some privacy. (One thing to watch out for, though: hotels will often charge more for extra people.) If you don’t personally know anyone to share a room with, try asking in your online communities.

Stay with friends or relatives in the area. Obviously not an option for everyone, but again, you can check with online friends.

Stay farther out and commute. If all you need is a place to sleep and shower, you don’t have to stay downtown. Mission Valley and Old Town have trolley service straight to the con, and you can get a 4-day trolley pass for $15.

Try again after cancellation deadlines hit. Some rooms will open up after the last day for a full refund, and more open up after the last day for a partial refund. Check the convention website for this year’s dates and how to get in for the resale.

Good luck!

Once you’ve got your lodging situation settled, check out the rest of my Tips for Comic-Con.

It took more than 8 hours, but I finally got my hotel confirmation for Comic-Con. It wasn’t one of the 12 I’d requested this morning, but it’s in my price range, relatively close, and was actually #14 on the list we put together last night.

All this despite the fact that I put the request in within 5 minutes of the system going online. That part was smooth, and judging by the comments on Twitter and at The Beat, it went smoothly for most people.

Then came the waiting.

On one hand, it was better because I could actually do things — like, y’know, work — instead of sitting there hitting refresh on the browser and redial on the phone for two hours. On the other hand, instead of two hours of active frustration, it was eight hours of wondering whether they had lost my info, or whether I had mistyped my email address, or whether they had actually run out of rooms in the first five minutes and hadn’t gotten around to telling me. A confirmation number for the request itself would have gone a long way toward making me confident that I was in the system.

Later posts on Twitter, and later comments at The Beat, reflected the growing sense of frustration among congoers — and anger as they were assigned hotels that weren’t even on their list.


It seems that not everyone’s requests were handled in the order received. I saw people who had received confirmation hours before I did, but who had submitted their requests a few minutes later. My guess is that Travel Planners was taking two passes through the queue: one pass to handle the requests that they could fill based on people’s actual choices, then one pass to handle the requests where all the preferred hotels were full. Even that doesn’t quite track, though, so I’m not sure what was really going on.

Edit: Katie suggested that they might also be prioritizing based on how many nights you tried to reserve. I was only reserving three nights, so it sort of makes sense that they might give more weight to someone trying to reserve four or five.

Lessons to be Learned

As with the convention’s struggle with crowding, every year they solve one problem only to discover another lurking behind it. A lot of people have compared this year’s process to a lottery, but really, it actually shifted the advantage from luck to typing speed.

Think about it: For the last few years, everyone has had to try to get through, repeatedly, over a period of several hours. Those lucky enough to make a solid connection would then make a reservation and leave. You could start at 9:00 and get through at 9:05 or 11:00, but there really wasn’t any sort of strategy you could apply other than trying multiple avenues at the same time.

Now? Everyone logs in at 9:00, fills out a form immediately, and submits it. Whether you submit your request at 9:05, 9:10 or 9:15 has nothing to do with luck. Instead, it has to do with whether you made up a list beforehand, how long it takes to enter your information, and how much time you spend verifying it before clicking that button.

In that way, it’s actually less of a lottery than it used to be!

Update: I’ve posted some ideas on what to do if you couldn’t get a room.

San Diego hotel rooms for Comic-Con International go on sale tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM Pacific Time. Because they’ve sold out in a matter of hours the last few years — or, more precisely, because they’ve overwhelmed the reservation system while doing so — Travel Planners is instituting some new policies and a new procedure.

Last December they announced that they would require a deposit at reservation time, and a cut-off point in May after which it would no longer be refundable. This should help cut down on some of the “just in case” speculating that always happens. (Previously you had to provide a credit card when making the reservation, but they didn’t charge it.)

As for the procedure, here’s what used to happen: You would search for hotels, get a list of those that have rooms available, enter your name and contact info, then enter your credit card and get immediate confirmation. At every step, the server would be slow, and there was a good chance that you would have to start over. Yes, it would even fail at the last step.

The new scheme is wildly different: Instead of searching for a hotel, you’ll be asked to enter a list of up to 12 choices, in order of preference, and submit it. A few hours later, they’ll send you an email to confirm what you’ve gotten.

My first thought: this is exactly how it worked for me last year, when I got through on the phone instead of online. It’s also how reservations by fax used to work.

It’s annoying not to have instant feedback of course, but I suspect one of the main reasons the system breaks down is that it’s trying to handle so many complete transactions simultaneously. This way, the only part running “live” is collecting requests. Once those are all in, they can process them at whatever speed the reservation system can actually handle.

Plus, if they really want to minimize the load on their website, they can put everything on one page and minimize the number of graphics and scripts. Every image you have to load slows the page down. Every new page you have to load is another chance for the process to break down completely. When designing a web application, there are times to emphasize looks, there are times to emphasize convenience for the user, and there are times to emphasize simplicity in the actual process. This is one of the latter.

I guess we’ll see how it goes tomorrow morning.

Update: The request process, at least, went surprisingly smoothly. ← I’ve got some thoughts here on the reservation form and how the process worked.

I’m pleasantly surprised that Comic-Con International and/or Travel Planners has gotten their act together for next year’s convention. Before attendance (and hotel rush) went completely insane, they used to send out hotel info with their fall newsletter or in a postcard around December (or maybe January), but over the last two years it’s been pushed later and later. For 2009, they didn’t even announce a date for hotel reservations until February…a month before they opened. The list of hotels went up even later — the day before, IIRC.

The fall newsletter, now an online magazine, went up today, and along with it not just the date for reservations, but a list of hotels…including distance, prices, and shuttle stops. Hotel reservations go online March 18, 2010.

Additionally, they’ve made some interesting changes that may help combat the craziness:

  • Reservations will now require an immediate deposit of one night’s stay
  • Deposits are fully refundable until May 14.
  • From May 15 to June 17, there’s a $75 cancellation fee.
  • From June 18 onward, deposits are nonrefundable.

With luck that’ll cut down on some of the “just in case…” extra reservations, now that there’s an actual financial commitment to it.