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CES 2016 Survival Guide: What Newbies Need to Know

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

It’s finally happening: After years of making a business case for this trip, you’re headed to Las Vegas for CES. Huzzah!

Or you finally annoyed the wrong colleague, and that CES veteran is sending you to the gadget show as punishment. Oy gevalt!

The sprawling convention formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show (now just ‘CES’) constantly challenges regulars like me (January’s show will be my 19th in a row… ugh). For newcomers, CES can be outright overwhelming. But advance planning can moderate the madness. 

Related: More coverage of CES 2016.

And if you’ve never been (and never intend to go), the following guide will let you know exactly what you’re missing.

1. Packing: Bring batteries, food, and comfortable shoes

Whatever bag you’ll carry all day should hold an external battery pack and multiple charging cables for your phone as well as a travel power strip—preferably one with USB ports to charge devices.

Then add more business cards than you think you need, several Clif Bars or other shelf-stable food, and a water bottle. If you know how to make a laptop bag’s contents look non-threatening to an overwhelmed security guard (I don’t!), please do, as CES will feature bag searches this time around.

On your feet: the most comfortable, reasonably-fashionable footwear you own. For me, that’s hiking socks and Ecco dress shoes; a few female journalist friends advised wearing flats with comfort insoles.

Most important: Whatever you bring to CES should fit in carry-on luggage. That way, you can avoid a long wait after landing at McCarran International Airport—and if your airline has its bag claim in the intimidatingly enormous Terminal 3, you can exit from Terminal 1 and have a slightly wider set of transit options.

McCarran Airport baggage claim on a slow night (Photo: Michael Kappel/Flickr).

2. Getting around: Hoofing it may be your best option

Las Vegas has its virtues, but efficient CES transportation isn’t among them. Taxi lines are dreadful—as is the insulting $3 surcharge for credit-card payments. The CES shuttle lines are almost as long. And the monorail doesn’t connect to the secondary exhibit space at the Sands Expo Center and requires long waits to board during mornings and evenings of CES week.

But walking and public buses can be decent alternatives.

Although sidewalks outside the Strip are often miserably narrow, the fastest way to get from the Las Vegas Convention Center to the Wynn or the Encore around 6 p.m. is to walk the 1.2 miles in between.

The RTC’s Deuce and Strip & Downtown Express (DTX) buses offer frequent service along the Strip and up to downtown and connect to four airport routes. A two-hour pass costs $6, a 24-hour pass $8.

Don’t forget the free monorails and trams that connect individual casinos on the west side of the Strip: Treasure Island to the Mirage, the Bellagio to Monte Carlo to Crystals, and Excalibur to Luxor to Mandalay Bay.

The wild card this year is Uber and Lyft, which finally got licenses to operate in Las Vegas after years of stonewalling by the local taxi cartel. I’m glad we finally have that option, but I don’t know how those ride-hailing services will cope with the crush of CES. Remember, the most recent show drew over 170,000 attendees.

(Photo: Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech).

3. The venues: CES is all over town 

Most of CES fills the three enormous halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The North Hall hosts automotive and wireless gadgetry, the Central Hall holds most of the mainline electronics manufacturers and is therefore TV Central, and the South Hall’s upper and lower levels feature drones, VR, and phone accessories. For a more detailed breakdown of what’s where, see the cheat sheet prepared by CES’s organizers, the Consumer Technology Association.

Getting from one hall to the next can take from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on slow walkers in front of you. My longstanding routine has been to devote one day to each hall, starting with the Central Hall on the day CES opens.

When you do need to get across or through the LVCC, stick to the edges of each hall.

Exhibits of wearables and smart-home devices await at the Sands, while many evening events take place at the Wynn and the Encore. Tuesday’s press conferences, meanwhile, are almost all confined to the Mandalay Bay conference center at the southern end of the Strip.

About those press conferences: Unless you’re on some VIP list (which may turn out to be illusory in practice), you will often have to wait half an hour or more to get in and then get no useful hands-on time with gadgets.

(Photo: Yahoo News).

4. Power, bandwidth and food: Recharge early and often

At CES, “ABC” stands for “always be charging.” If you’re sitting or standing near a power outlet, plug in every gadget you have, even if they’re over 80 percent of a charge.

Connectivity is often dreadful at CES. Free WiFi is nonexistent in most public areas, and in smaller events it routinely conks out. Be prepared to tether your laptop to your phone. If you own or can borrow an LTE hotspot, bring that too.

As for keeping yourself recharged, stay hydrated and lower your expectations for midday food. The LVCC’s concessions are nothing to tweet about, nor is the unchanging press-room chow. (The pesto-chicken sandwich has been the most reliable option there.) The bigger issue either way can be long lines—that Clif Bar I told you to pack could become your lunch.

If you’ve put together your schedule right, you shouldn’t have to pay for dinner at CES. But if you want a break from overpriced steakhouses or packed CES receptions, head to downtown Vegas, walk around the Downtown Container Park, and grab a taco while you watch a giant metal praying mantis spout fire from its antennae.

(Photo: RoadsideAmerica).

5. Going home: Best escape routes

If the blackjack dealers cleaned you out, your cheapest way to McCarran is the $5 shuttle that runs from the LVCC and Sands to the airport every 30 minutes Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I’ve never had a problem with the TSA Pre security lines here, but if you don’t have Pre you should show up early.

If you have an American Express Platinum card, show up early regardless of Pre status—that card gets you into Amex’s fantastic Centurion Lounge. Other Amex cardholders can get in for $50, which might be worth it if your flight has been delayed or the blackjack dealers did not clean you out.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

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