Everyone always talks about how insane San Diego Comic-Con is. The crowds, lines, smells, excitement—and it’s all true. But what most people don’t know is just how crazy and stressful it is to actually attend Comic-Con. There are levels upon levels of hoops to jump through.

You’ll need a badge, you’ll need a hotel, you’ll need parking, you’ll need a game plan, and each part of the struggle is almost pointless, unless you’ve completed the ones before it. So, without further ado, here’s a run down of the incredible lengths most people must take to attend San Diego Comic-Con.

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1. Get a Badge

If you want to attend Comic-Con, you’ll need a ticket, which they call a badge. There are multiple levels of badges ranging from four day with the preview night, down to each individual day. Can you only attend one or two days? You can get badges for that. Prices range from $17 for a single, off-day if you’re a “junior.” or $220 for a full, adult, four day badge with the extra preview night. (There are also exhibitor, professional and press badges, as seen above. Each is its own, other, separate headache.)

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The problem with badges is the process to acquire one is incredibly difficult, and happens earlier than most people would think. Seven years ago, this wasn’t an issue. At that time, badges took at least a few weeks to sell out. But in the past five years or so, getting Comic-Con badges has become a stressful, instantaneous roll-of-the-dice for fans.

Before you can even consider buying a badge though, you have to sign up with a Member ID. This is the easiest part of the process and, hypothetically, it cuts back on people buying multiple badges to scalp them. Once that’s done, the first people who can buy badges are the ones who attended the convention the previous year. Those people have to hold onto their old badges because Comic-Con requires them to qualify for a special pre-purchase period. This goes down in the Winter—so, yes, you need to start planning Comic-Con upwards of nine months out. Comic-Con doesn’t totally sell out during that process though. They hold back around half the badges for general purchase.

When the general sale date comes around, if you’ve registered for a Member ID, you’ll get an early email notification. It’ll give you a time, date and instructions to log onto a special website. This process has changed drastically over the past few years, but the latest way it’s done is as follows. Before the designated time, everyone enters an online waiting room (one that can only be entered with a special number provided in the aforementioned email). When the time comes, everyone in the online waiting room is assigned a randomized spot in the queue. If you aren’t in the room at that time on that date with a working browser, you can kiss your chances at a badge goodbye. But, if you are in, then you wait. And wait. And watch as the four-day badges sell out, then Saturday, Friday, Thursday and Sunday. Hopefully, you got a good slot, and can get the day or days you want. If not, you’re done. Comic-Con is sold out.

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2. Book a Hotel

Congratulations, you got your badge. Now, where do you stay? There are dozens of hotels all over not just the Gaslamp District of San Diego (near the Convention Center where Comic-Con is held) but across the entire city. This should be easy, right? Wrong.

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While some hotels further out from the event do take your run of the mill, general reservations for the days in question, most block off the majority of their hotel reservations for a lottery. This usually happens in the Spring, sometime between February and April. Comic-Con emails all attendees and tells them that at a specific time on a specific date, they can enter a lottery to get a room. Generally, there are about 70 hotels in the lottery which get more popular and expensive the closer they are to the convention hall itself.

Here’s how the lottery works as of 2015. (It’s changed multiple times in the past 5-10 years because of various problems). At the appropriate time, a website opens up. You go onto this website at the time, fill in all your info, pick your top six hotel choices, and submit. Two days later, you are assigned a hotel based on availability when your time-stamped request was submitted.

Sounds fair, right? Hypothetically, when it works, it is. But this isn’t some leisurely activity. Literally every second you don’t have your information submitted, your chances of a nearby hotel dwindle. I’ve known people who submitted in the first 3 minutes who get no hotel at all. Basically, if you can’t fill out and submit under 60 seconds, you’re not going to be able to walk from your hotel to the convention.

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Once your hotel assignment is sent, there are numerous options to try and change it, swap with friends and more. But a two night deposit is needed within 48 hours of the reservation (this could be upwards of $800). This deposit is fully refundable for a good chunk of time—but it’s still brutal.

3. Reserving a Parking Spot

Let’s say you submitted your hotel but didn’t get a top choice. You got something a few miles out. There are free shuttles provided by Comic-Con but I haven’t heard many positive stories about them. There’s also mass transportation from various parts of the city. These are all valid options.

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But let’s put those aside and say you have a car. You want to drive to Comic-Con every morning. Which, again, should be easy. It’s in the Gaslamp District, an area of San Diego that not only has a convention center, but a professional baseball stadium as well as hundreds of restaurants and attractions. This is a busy, busy area. Parking should be plentiful.

Yes and no. Much like the hotels and badges, most parking at Comic-Con is also done by lottery system. Ace Parking hosts a lottery in the Spring for the right to pay for a spot in a handful of designated lots. These, of course, are the choice lots, including the one underneath the convention center, so they go pretty quickly. If you don’t mind walking a mile, there’s certainly parking further out, but if you want a close, convenient spot, you have to fight for it. (Of note, most of the bigger hotels offer their guests parking.)

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4. Waiting in Line

You’ve done it. You’ve acquired a badge, a hotel and a parking spot. You are at Comic-Con! The mecca of pop culture with panels, booths, events and more about everything you love in this world. Where do you start? Well, the answer is in line.

Comic-Con is legendary for its lines—and trust me, the stories you may or may not have heard don’t even come close. Every day, lines start very early—in many cases the day before—to get into some of the key rooms. (Yes, you read that right, some people will forgo hours if not days they could be enjoying Comic-Con to line up for the next day of Comic-Con. Rumor has it the Hall H line for Saturday 2015 has already started. It’s the Monday before.) The key rooms are the main convention hall, Ballroom 20 (where many of the big TV panels are held) and Hall H (where the biggest TV panels and most movie panels are held. You see that line in the picture above).

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So let’s say you want to see a panel on Star Wars taking place Friday evening in Hall H. Without exaggeration, if you aren’t in line by Thursday evening, you may miss it. In the past Comic-Con has changed their policies about lining up hoping to discourage it or make it simpler, and this year is no exception. For Hall H, they’ve changed the policy so people can potentially get in line for a few hours the night before, get a wrist band, sleep in their ultra-expensive hotel room, then come back early in the morning and reline up according to wristband. But who knows how that’s going to work.

For the past eight or nine years, spending the night outside to get into Hall H has become the norm. Every single year the lines start earlier, get longer, and it’s more and more stressful. That may change this year, but attendees need to know that getting into that one room means that’s your entire day.

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5. Choose Wisely

You got into Hall H for a major panel. Congratulations! Now, what do you do? Well, you sit there all day. Comic-Con does not empty the rooms between events, so people who show up for the first panel of the day, for the most part, will be staying in that room all day. That also means that line you’re in in the morning isn’t only for the room’s first panel, it’s for the room’s last panel of the day too.

But let’s say you decide to do something else in the morning like, for example, get up super early and line up to buy a toy exclusive on the convention floor. Once that’s done, you want to try and pop into Ballroom 20 for a 5pm panel. There’s a good chance that won’t happen, because the room is already full from 9am that morning. That’s not to say it’s impossible. I’ve seen people walk into ultra popular panels right as they start without spending a second in line. But, most of the time, that doesn’t happen. Planning a day of Comic-Con isn’t a big mystery, since you can’t jump around. Pick one thing and stick to it.

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6. Two Hours

But what if you don’t care about the big events? You want to have a leisurely Comic-Con, walking the floor, being spontaneous, or maybe enjoying one of the hundreds of smaller panels the convention offers, on everything from film production to toy collecting, cosplay and, yes, even comic books. This is very possible. But there’s one thing to keep in mind—the magic number “two hours.” In my experience you need to give yourself two hours to get into almost anything. Whether this include waiting in line, getting something to eat or traversing the massive crowds, running between events with only a 15-20 minute window is very difficult. Not impossible, according to the specific circumstances, but a good rule of thumb is give yourself two hours to do anything just to be safe.

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There’s so much more too. Like the individual booth policies to buy exclusive merchandise (some are lotteries, others line up in different pavilions, some take online preorders months before the convention), the lack of good food options in the convention hall itself, finding decent wifi, all of these things are added stresses to actually attending Comic-Con.

For me though, what it comes down to is this. I’ve been attending Comic-Con for over a decade. And though it’s gotten incredibly stressful, expensive and frustrating, it’s all worth it to be in such a positive, fun and exciting environment. Just know what to expect.

[H/T: SDCC Unofficial Blog]

[Images: Top - Photo by Denis Poroy/Invision/AP 1 - Germain Lussier 2 - Hilton 3 - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images 4 - SDCC Blog 5 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images 6 - Chris Frawley/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. via Getty Images]

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