This year was my second trip to San Diego for Comic-Con after a five-year absence. I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do to accomplish exactly what I wanted to accomplish. But, guess what? I didn’t. The reason is not that anything major had changed. And it wasn’t because the convention had significantly grown; attendance was 125,000 in 2007 and 130,000 in 2012. I think it was because many people had been before and were more savvy about how to navigate the ins and outs.

Taking both years into account, as well as some valuable lessons learned this time around, I’d like to share with you not only how to survive at Comic-Con, but also how to thrive. Continue reading and you will be able to begin planning a successful trip for next year. Follow these ten steps and you’ll be a pro, whether you’ve attended in the past or not.

1. Condition yourself.

Comic-con is physically exhausting. You’ll fare better if you build your stamina ahead of time. I’m not kidding; it’s the perfect opportunity to lose a few pounds while you train for the experience. If you can’t be on your feet for at least four hours without aching, you’re going to suffer in San Diego.

Start early and take baby steps. I’d even recommend going to a smaller, local convention and walking the floor to get the feel of it. Keep in mind that the biggest crowd you face at one of these is a drop in the bucket compared to what you’ll face at Comic-Con.

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2. Be prepared.

You’ve got to think of your physical survival. Although there are food stands in the convention center, count on not having easy access to food or drink during the times you’re there. Take snacks and a large bottle of water with you. Warning: the more you drink, the more you’re going to have to go to the bathroom, and that may also be inconvenient.

Bring a small folding chair or stool to use when you’re standing in line. Unless you’re actually in the exhibit hall, there’s room to spread out and make yourself comfortable while waiting to gain access to a panel or screening. Chances are you’ll be outside some of the time. Bring a hat and sunscreen.

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What kind of bag do you need to carry all of your survival tools? I thought this year I’d use a messenger bag so that I could gain easy access on very short notice. But at the end of each day, my shoulder was killing me. A backpack would have been better. There are plenty of bags given away at booths to use for quick storage of things you collect on the floor.

Cameras are a must. Unless you have a tested and true phone, I wouldn’t rely on it for the best pictures. Be sure to pack chargers and extra batteries. You’ll definitely want to recharge everything overnight, but you may also need a quick jolt during the day and outlets are not that hard to find.

3. Set priorities.

It is physically impossible to do everything you want to do at Comic-Con. You may not believe me, but what are you going to do when panels for two of your favorite TV shows happen at the exact same time in two different rooms? You can’t be in two places at once, so you have to decide what is more important to you.

And what would you rather take from your Comic-Con experiences: pictures, autographs or just bragging rights that you were in the same room with your favorite movie star?

If it’s pictures, you have to be really close to the stage in the panels, which means standing in line incredibly early, if not overnight. Otherwise, you’ll be taking pictures of the screens broadcasting the panels to the back rows. Try circling the booths on the exhibit floor during autograph signings. They’re usually an hour long and swarming with people at the beginning. While security will keep you moving, you can usually snap some good ones later in the hour.

If it’s autographs, you’ll probably need a ticket ahead of time. Very few studios host signings for walk-ups. I wrote an entire article about obtaining autographs, but the tip here is to find out ahead of time what is required. Then, check and double-check to see if the qualifications change. Allow at least an hour standing in line, even if you have a ticket. And remember that’s an hour you will have to sacrifice attending a panel or doing something else.

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If you want only the thrill of being able to say you were in the same room with Robert Downey, Jr., even if it’s the 6,500-seat Hall H, you’re going to have to stand in line anywhere from one to four hours… at least. If you don’t care where you’re sitting, you won’t have to wait as long. But any time you wait will be time sacrificed elsewhere. I hope you understand now how it’s impossible to do everything you want to do. You must set priorities.

4. Don’t let the lines scare you.

A line that wraps upon itself through several tents, then crosses the street, then snakes down the sidewalk before doubling back upon itself along the bay can be rather daunting. But consider the time of day. If it’s before 9:30, the convention hasn’t even opened yet and you’re probably going to get in to Hall H that morning. 6,500 people is a lot. If everyone is spread out with their chairs like I recommended, they’re going to take up more space than you’d think.

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On the other hand, if the convention is in full swing, you may not gain access to Hall H until people filter out of early panels. That is why if there’s a specific panel you absolutely must see, you should get in line one or two panels ahead of it. People are not required to clear the room between panels and while some camp out all day, others really do leave after they’ve seen the one they want to see.

Ballroom C is also problematic. It’s not as big and the lines aren’t quite as long. But I stood in line two and a half hours to get into the 3:30 Vampire Diaries panel. Study the schedule and try to anticipate interest. Before Vampire Diaries were panels for Fox’s Animation Domination block of shows. I had a feeling there was a different audience for it and Vampires. I was right. I entered at the end of American Dad and was able to move closer to the stage when it ended and people cleared.

Other rooms are not nearly as crowded. And, sad to say, if it’s a smaller panel actually dealing with comic books, magazines or books, you can probably walk right in.

5. Consider your entertainment options.

So, what are you going to do while standing or sitting in line for three hours? I’d recommend bringing an iPad or Kindle. They’re less bulky and heavy than books and magazines, plus they give you more options than just reading. Warning: with electronic devices, you run into issues of batteries and charging. Refer to Step #2.

You may not need as much entertainment as you think, though. The Comic-Con crowd is very friendly, so you’ll have conversations and discussions. Plus, there’s a constant parade of colorful characters walking by. Don’t be shy! Take advantage of the opportunity to meet new people, many of whom probably share some of your interests.

Do not count on consistent internet access. Wireless is supposedly available in certain areas (and hotels), but it’s so overloaded, it’s virtually nonexistent. Depending on your mobile device vendor, you may or may not have availability of texts (or even phone calls). I had better luck in the mornings, but almost none later in the day.

6. Plan ahead.

It’s not silly to suggest you map a plan of attack for the 460,000 sq. ft. exhibit hall. If you think you’ll just start at one end and leisurely stroll to the other, enjoying all the sights, you will be disappointed and simply not have enough time to do it. I tried it, and at as quick a pace as the crowd allowed, it took me nearly six hours over the course of two days.

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Visit the Comic-Con website ahead of time and study the exhibit floor, list of vendors and list of exclusives. Decide what you want to see and what you want to purchase or collect. I’d literally print a map and mark the booths you want to visit. If there’s an exclusive that you absolutely must buy, head there first and be prepared to stand in line at least an hour. Do not wait; they will sell out.

Preview night on Wednesday is not quite as crowded and, surprisingly this year, Friday afternoon wasn’t either. But Saturday? Forget it! Be patient. If you’re claustrophobic, stick to the perimeter of the floor; it’s not quite as crowded. There are no fast lanes anywhere, but the fastest way to get from point A to point B is via the outer edges.

7. Be alert.

At all times, be alert of what’s going on around you. On preview night, I passed Atticus Shaffer (Brick from The Middle) on the exhibit floor. In line for Comic-Con souvenir t-shirts (there’s a line for everything), I watched John Landis visit a booth across the aisle. Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) complimented me on the Peter Cushing bust I bought and was carrying with me. And, Stephen R. McQueen (Jeremy from The Vampire Diaries) stopped for a picture when we passed in the hall.

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Also be sure of the scheduled times for various events. It doesn’t hurt to double check. An update to the schedule is published each morning and is available before entering the exhibit floor. More importantly, know how long it is going to take you to get around; then, allow just a little more time to get there.

8. Keep an open mind.

You may discover something new at Comic-Con that you never thought you’d like. Before a screening I really wanted to see, I sat through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles panel. I’ve never been a TMNT fan, but the new animated series looked amazing! I became quite interested in what the panel had to say about it. And, although I never expected it, I got to see Sean Astin and snap a pretty good picture.

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If there’s any down time (ha, ha), seek out at least one of the smaller panels that you can walk right into. Expand your horizons and learn something new.

9. Consider your departure.

How are you going to get everything home? Hopefully, you didn’t pick up everything that was shoved in your face; you have no obligation to do so. But it’s likely your booty will take more space than your suitcase allows.

Unless you brought a second suitcase, there is a Fed Ex store inside the convention center, right outside the exhibit hall doors. Plan ahead, though; lines on Sunday are discouraging. Pick up a box and a roll of tape the day before, then pack it and check it as one of your bags when you fly home. You’ll likely pick up a poster tube at one of the booths, so you can carry-on your posters.

10. Enjoy yourself.

Most importantly, just have a good time! Don’t complain; you’ve been warned about what you’re getting into. If it sounds like you’re not going to like it, don’t go.

Enjoy the enthusiasm of those participating in cosplay. Have a laugh with the overweight superheroes and male slave Leia’s, but truly admire the craftsmanship of most everyone else. Ask to take pictures. Most people will love to pose for you. Be careful, though, it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s in costume and who’s not, especially when uniforms are involved.

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Be vigilant. At some point you will lose track of day and time. By the end, you may not care about much of anything. But remember why you came. Remember that not everyone who wanted to go could get tickets. You are lucky and you may not ever do it again. Dig deep, find that energy and plow through to the end.

With all the warnings I’ve issued, is it possible to enjoy Comic-Con? Absolutely! It never ceases to amaze me that with all these people together in one place, there is something for everyone, regardless of the subject matter. There is bound to be someone in the crowd who will recognize the most obscure reference to your favorite comic book, movie or TV show. You can truly be yourself; no one will look down on you. Celebrate and let your geek flag fly!