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The difference between local and traveling train shows

I took my family to a train show–The Great Train Expo–this past weekend. I’ve been going to shows for about 8 years or so, and while we had fun, I ended up not spending any of the money I brought with me. At least not on myself. I think I have an idea why. There’s a difference between local and traveling train shows.
I attend traveling shows and local shows when my schedule permits. Other commitments kept me from every last local show for about three years. If anything, that accentuated the difference for me.

The traveling shows definitely have more for the kids, like ride-on trains and a play area or two. And if you’re looking for Thomas or Brio wooden trains, you’ll find more of both at the traveling shows. Pricing is all over the map. If you only plan to buy a couple of items, frankly, you’re better off saving your $7 admission and taking the kids to a toy store. You’ll save 15% off retail, but the cost of admission more than wipes out the savings. But the guy in line ahead of me on Saturday, who bought more than $200 worth of track and accessories, probably saved quite a bit of money at the show. And the train show is more fun, right?

I had a list of about a half-dozen things I was looking for: a postwar American Flyer diesel horn billboard, a prewar or early postwar water tower of any make as long as it was tin, and various parts to complete a Lionel 675, 2034 and/or 2037 locomotive.

I found no Lionel locomotive parts whatsoever. I found plenty of postwar and modern water towers made of plastic, but nothing made of tin. Flyer billboards were incredibly plentiful–dealers selling Flyer outnumbered the dealers selling postwar Lionel–but prices were high. The lowest price I could find on a diesel billboard was $35 and most were much higher. I’ve seen them sell for $20 online, so clearly I need to do a little more homework.

I think the traveling shows are better places to spend an afternoon with the kids. But if you’re a hobbyist buying for yourself, the local shows are much better. Most of what I saw at the Great Train Expo in the way of classic Lionel/Flyer/Marx is available at one or two of my local stores on any given weekend. The price won’t be any higher, and it might be lower. And with some luck, I could see some stuff in those stores that I didn’t see at the show too.

At the local shows, I can typically manage to find something I wouldn’t easily find at a store, and I can almost always find a bargain that was worth the cost of admission. Two years ago, I spent about $50 on reproduction prewar-style lights. I haven’t seen any in a store since. The stuff just isn’t normally available to me locally. A year ago, I picked up a Marx KCS caboose in poor condition out of a junk bin for $5. It’s in poor condition, but it’s recognizable. That’s more than worth the cost of admission.

Here are some tips for finding deals and hard-to-find items at shows.

But aside from seeing the layouts, there wouldn’t have been much there for my sons. My usual approach, when I have time to do it, is to go to the local shows, spend an hour or two scouting out for myself, then go get them, bring them in to the show to spend an hour or so looking at the layouts.

When I was a year or so in, I could make a day of these shows. Not so much now. There’s a lot less that I’m looking for now, but I also think there’s less at the shows than there was in 2004.

That’s the difference between local and traveling train shows. Which is better? It depends what you’re looking for. Here are some tips for finding shows, which may be helpful, especially if you have trouble finding what you’re looking for at the shows you’re visiting now.

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