Going to the Car Show? What You Need to Know – And What to Wear

The car show is the best place for car shopping: Cross-shop different cars, ask experts for advice, see options you never knew existed. Here's how to make the most of it!

The Bright Orange Chevrolet Camero Is Sure To Be A Big Draw At The 2018 Atlanta Auto Show.
Chevy gave away Camero cars during media day...but not the kind you can drive home in. Photo: Maria Smith

Because Car Shopping Is Serious Business, and the Car Show Is a Serious Mall

It’s auto show season! Between the end of Summer and Spring, auto shows ramp up, with shows in nearly all medium to large cities. And then, there are the electric car festivals, concours events and more, all opportunities for you to see what’s new, cross shop competing models and measure up what you need with what’s new in the industry.

We are huge fans of of auto shows because there is really no better place to shop for a new car, to get up to speed on new technology and to develop a solid footing for your next car shopping journey.

And, you’ll see a greater variety of colors, interiors and lifestyle options at the auto show than you’ll see at a dealership. Often, the dealer won’t even tell you that the car you’re looking is available in navy leather with white piping, even as they’re looking your shoes and handbag in navy leather with white piping.

So, here is our guide to how to best see the auto show, what to wear, why it matters, and how to get the most out of your visit.

Related: Yes, You Can Buy A Car At Costco, And Here’s How to Get the Best Deal

Erica Tries Out A Convertible At The Houston Auto Show And Yes, It Looks Good On Her! Photo: Erica Mueller

Erica tries out a convertible at the Houston Auto Show and yes, it looks good on her! Photo: Erica Mueller

Car Shows are For You, the Car Shopper

If you think that auto shows are for gear-heads and enthusiasts, they are not. You don’t need to ‘wrench,’ or speak mechanical lingo; in fact, these shows are designed for you absorb easy to understand information, to ask questions and get explanations that make sense. Just like everywhere else you shop.

Employees at car shows are typically not sales people, they are product specialists: Highly trained on all the details of each model in their exhibit and ready to explain and answer. They are hired by the car maker, not a dealership, and their focus is on you and the car, not the deal that you might make to buy or lease a car.

They can also often answer questions about a car’s competitor. Looking at the Toyota Grand Highlander and wonder how a detail compares to the Jeep Grand Cherokee L? Ask the product specialist; she’ll probably know.

Product specialists can’t actually sell you a car, though they can set up an appointment at a dealership so you can get more detailed price information and take a test drive. And, in my experience, product specialists are lovely people who are made happy by talking with you about cars and answering questions. So ask away!

Related: What the Product Specialists are Wearing at the Auto Show

2023 Chicago Auto Show

Thrill rides are part of the Chicago Auto Show. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

The Disneyfication of The Car Show: Experience the Life and Style

This may be our most favorite trend of all: gone are the days of cars on pedestals and booth babes in skimpy outfits alongside them. Now, car makers build evocative to elaborate exhibits designed to put you in the mindset of that brand.

At Subaru you’re likely to enter an National Park exhibit complete with information on climate and sustainability; at Toyota, ready yourself for adventure and family fun. Ford’s exhibit is filled with passion, for off-roading, for trucks, for speed.

Want to know more about how to connect an electric car to your home? Hyundai has answers and examples. Looking for a bit of quiet luxury? Head over to Lincoln. Is the height of technology and design your thing? You’ll want to spend time at Genesis.

And then, there are often rides and thrills, from the Camp Jeep off-road ride-along to Ford’s drag-race-esque F-150 Lighting experience; there are ride simulators, test drives and more. Almost every car show has an electric car track now, too, usually inside the show where it’s warm and comfortable, so you can experience an electric car for yourself.

Disneyfication: See what I mean?

Related: Cars in the Barbie Movie

The Bright Orange Chevrolet Camero Is Sure To Be A Big Draw At The 2018 Atlanta Auto Show.

If there’s a car you’re dreaming of, try it on at the auto show. Photo: Maria Smith

Bring Your Full Self – and if You Can, Your Regular Co-Riders – to the Car Show

So, does what you wear to a car show matter? Yes.

You might be tempted to put on your Lulus and running shoes for optimal speed and comfort so you can see it all. To leave the kids with a sitter so you can see everything in peace. Or, you might see the auto show as a stroll through a sculpture garden before drinks and dinner. This would be short-selling your experience and robbing you of valuable knowledge: not just what the product specialists can tell you, but what you can learn for yourself.

Dress for Daily Life

If your usual go-to is a stretchy blazer and sensible heels, that’s a good idea for the auto show, too. If your goal is to spend more time off the grid, put yourself in that mindset by donning your hiking boots and bringing your backpack.

I like shoes with a low, chunky heel for seeing an auto show. These are a nice bridge between flats and higher heels and give me a good feel for the driver’s seat and pedals, getting in and out – especially if there’s a running board – and sizing up the height and scale of a car.

Agirlsguidetocars Ny Auto Show Tour

Climb into the Ford Expedition and check out the roomy second and third row. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Take Photos – Lots of Photos

Another reason to dress for daily life: take photos with the cars you really like. You in the driver’s seat; you standing with the car. Your kids in the back seat. When you get home, assess: Do the cars and the colors you loved hold up for your daily life? Your style?

Does that Go Mango Dodge Charger, which you loved so much at the show, look as good with your daily black and white wardrobe and with the Evergreen Fog and Peppercorn you just painted your house? Or is just the pop of color you needed?

Be Prepared to Sit in all The Seats, Even the 3rd Row

This is especially important. I put myself in my passengers place when I get into and out of the passenger seat, center and 3rd row. Can I slide into the front passenger seat, or do I need to use the grab bar? Can I climb into the 3rd row without straining? Do I need the running board, or is it in my way? What I’m wearing always matters; while doing this in jeans or yoga pants is ideal, not everyone is always dressed that way. I find that running through these exercises in a skirt is more telling of complaints I’ll get from my passengers.

Don’t Put on a Show Putting Down the 3rd Row

If configuring kids car seats, adding seats for extra passengers or accommodating regular Costco hauls is your regular routine, come to the show prepared to try this out in each car you’re considering.

That likely means jeans or yoga pants are on tap, as well as boots or sneakers that give you the traction and flexibility you need for these exercises. This is not the time to try out that ruched mini-dress you’ve been excited to wear, even though it is super cute.

Car Seat Challenge

Karen Anne tests out the seats for us firsthand! Photo: Karen Anne

Bring the Kids, and Maybe the Car Seats, But Probably Not the Dog

Most auto shows have discounted or free tickets for kids, plus lots of things to entertain them, from rides to food and entertainment. And, the wide open spaces of convention centers are kid heavens for burning off excess energy, especially during a cold, snowy winter.

But getting your kids to try out that 3rd row, to see how easily they can climb up on the running board and getting their opinion on your favorite lime green color? That’s priceless.

And here’s a bonus: let them sit in the driver’s seat, something they rarely get to do. You’ll see a new look of wonder and respect on their faces when they do this; their imaginations are opened to the day when they get to sit in the driver’s seat and command the car themselves.

What most auto shows, and the convention centers where they are held, don’t allow are dogs,  large bags or oversized equipment. So if you’re thinking of bringing a wagon loaded with your kids car seats to see how they fit in the cars you want to shop – a very good idea, by the way – call ahead to see if this is allowable. At certain shows, especially those outdoors or in which you’re able to take a test drive, kids car seats should be welcome. But check with the show.

Take a Test Drive

Yes, you can take a test drive at many auto shows. This is another reason the right footwear is a good idea. It’s also a good reason to have your kids car seats handy; they will have to be properly secured in order to ride along. And, save cocktails and dinner for after the show; you’ll have to take a breathalyzer before getting behind the wheel.

Typically, the test drives are outside of the convention center and often, a brand representative is required to ride along with you. But the process is easy: Sign a waiver, leave your contact information, take a breath test and away you go.

The 2023 New York Auto Show

The 2023 New York Auto Show

Have a Great Time and Then, Reward Yourself

This may be the biggest shopping trip of the year, but looking for and buying something that costs tens of thousands of dollars should not be taken lightly. Give yourself plenty of time, four hours or so, to see the show and everything on your list. Relax and enjoy the show’s spaces – places to sit and relax for a few minutes, to recharge your phone and yourself – or get a beverage or snack.

And afterward, book a foot massage. You’ll need it, but you’ve earned it.

This story contains affiliate links; A Girls Guide to Cars may earn a commission from sales generated by links in this story. So, shop away!

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss