This is a tricky question, and like many such questions, it really does depend. It depends on what your background is, it depends on what your career goals are, and it even depends on whether you can afford to make the trip on such short notice!
In general, I would advise attending. If you are new to Federal Government, this will be a kind of first taste. You may think you have it figured out, but outside information and one assessment tell only part of the story. To get a better understanding of how the Federal Government and its multitude of agencies operate, you need to talk with them one on one, face to face. You'll learn that, not only is each agency's mission different, but also that each agency views and approaches the PMF program from sometimes vastly different perspectives. While you might get a sense of that over the phone, it's much more evident in person, and it's well worth the trip to find out some of these things. With any luck, you'll get an offer you can take home and think about, and if you're even luckier, the offering agency will take you back to their bat cave for a quick tour.
If you don't get an offer at the job fair, however, don't fret. The networking opportunities are also worthwhile. You'll get to talk with lots of different agency personnel, and they sometimes have surprising opportunities open up after the job fair. If you make a connection with some of them, they'll probably think of you, and even if they don't reach out to you, you'll probably have their business cards.
One final note before I talk about minimizing costs for the budget-minded: don't rely on the Projected Positions System (PPS) for your job leads. It's, shall we say, extremely sub par for a job listing system (it hasn't been updated as a system since circa 2003 from what I hear), and I'm not sure I can name anyone who actually got their PMF appointment by applying to a PPS listing. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but the reality is that many agencies work outside the PPS whenever they can (cynically, many believe this is a way to avoid running afoul of underqualified veterans who made it into the PMF program). Networking and contacting agencies whose work interests you are still the best ways to find that appointment, and that's bolstered by the job fair.
On Minimizing Costs
Now, if your primary concern with attending the job fair is the cost of travel and lodging, I have some tips to help you minimize those, although they may be of varying palatability.
- Plan Ahead: Most of your last minute and underplanned decisions come with extra cost. Learn everything you can about the airport you're flying into, the hotel you're staying at, the Convention Center, and how to move between them effectively and cheaply. Also, this may or may not apply, but if you're arriving from a warmer part of the country, bring a jacket! It was cold (45 degrees) last year and raining half the time.
- Fly Southwest: Most of the time (but not always), their fares are the lowest you'll find. Consider flying into BWI instead of Reagan. Southwest had some great direct flights into BWI, which saved me time and money. Also, it's not very difficult to get back to DC by train: the MARC train, when I took it last year, was $6 each way, and the Amtrak was $12 each way. It takes planning to pull it off, but it beats catching cabs everywhere
- Walk Everywhere: If you managed to snag decent accommodations close enough to the Convention Center, try walking. It's free. Of course, if it's raining, this may be less desirable unless you're only going a few blocks.
- ...Or Learn the Bus Routes: Sure, the subway is fast, and sometimes it's convenient too. But not always. The buses cover large areas that are not well served by the metro trains, and in many cases you can plan door to door, minimizing your walk time. Learn to use the WMATA Trip Planner to find good bus routes, and supplement that with the Next Bus tool (also mobile formatted so you can check it from your web-enabled phone). If you need another reason to consider buses: they are $0.40 cheaper per ride than the trains, and you can transfer for free within 3 hours if you...
- ...Get a SmarTrip Card: Paying cash costs more (ten cents, which I know isn't much) per ride than paying with a SmarTrip Card. It's a $10 minimum investment ($5 for the card and a $5 initial balance), but you can easily rack up more than that in transit costs over the course of the job fair. Also, if you are going to eventually move to DC, you'll want one anyway. The other benefit of the SmarTrip Card is that it enables the free bus transfers mentioned above, since Metro no longer issues the paper kind. This can save you money.
- Consider Hosteling: Hotels are nice, but that comes with a pretty steep markup. I don't know of any hotels in the DC area that are both nice and cost less than $75 a night (as listed on Kayak; this rate was for a room in College Park, Maryland). Most will be significantly higher. Consider this alternative: Hosteling International runs a hostel within walking distance of the Convention Center. Their rates run well below hotel rates: $25-$45 a night for dorm style rooms. Admittedly, it can be tough to get good quality sleep, but you're only going to be there for like three nights. One other note: if you aren't a member of Hosteling International, you'll have to pay an extra $3 per night as a temporary membership fee. It's still worth it, in my opinion, since the location is so good. Also, it's a great way to meet other people from all over the world.
One REALLY final note, in case none of this really convinces you: this can be counted as a job search activity, and as long as it's related to your field of work (it may not be applicable to everyone), you can deduct the travel and lodging expenses on your next tax return. Consult with your tax preparer for applicability, but do keep it in mind.
So, are you planning to go? Share your thoughts!