tl;dr: WordCamp tickets should cost $20/person/day or less and include lunch and a t-shirt/swag. Offer scholarships/discounts so money doesn’t keep anyone out.
Setting Ticket Prices
In utopia (or Paris), WordCamps would all be free, like WordPress itself. In reality, though, when an event is free, a lot of people sign up and then when the day comes they might change their mind, forget, or just want to sleep in. A small ticket cost provides incentive for people who’ve registered to show up on the day. Why does this matter? As WordCamps get bigger, they sell out, and people who wish they could attend are turned away in favor of the early birds. If the early birds don’t show up, you wind up with empty spaces that could have been filled by the late-wishers.
We think of WordCamp tickets not as being comparable to conference tickets (for many WordCamp lineups, you’d have to pay hundreds of dollars at a regular conference), but as being just enough to get people out of bed on that sleepy WordCamp morning. Typical prices run about $15-20 per day, which basically covers lunch and a t-shirt, leaving you to cover the additional event costs through fundraising. If you think you need to charge more than $20 per day, chances are there’s something going on your budget that can be adjusted.
Comp and Discount Tickets
There are some situations in which tickets should be free or discounted. All your speakers are donating their time and should be given comped tickets. Likewise, your organizing team and the volunteers usually get comped tickets. That said, if you have a very active meetup group and everyone is volunteering or speaking, that doesn’t leave anyone to buy tickets! In some cases it makes more sense to have the volunteers get a discount or comped ticket only if a certain number of hours have been put in. Some WordCamps don’t comp any tickets at all, including speakers, if they have kept them priced very low, which is another way to go.
WordCamp ticket prices are usually so low that the idea of giving them away almost seems silly. You are more than likely to get requests for free admission, though! People will ask for press passes, courtesy passes, cross-promotion passes. In many industries, this is standard procedure, so don’t be afraid to say no to these requests. Press passes are tricky because if WordPress democratizes publishing, who’s to say which sites are worthy of being considered “press” and getting free passes? That said, if a high-profile news site offers to liveblog your event, produce stories about the event/speakers/WordPress leading up to and/or after the event, or conduct interviews among speakers and attendees that can be uploaded to wordpress.tv, then you could just consider them event volunteers.
Scholarships are a little different. The IRS likes us to have scholarships, as part of the Foundation’s educational mission. Again, the typical ticket prices are so low this seems unnecessary, but we like to do it one way or another. Some events knock off $10 for students and teachers, some have a scholarship application and give away a set number of free passes based on need, some offer free passes in exchange for volunteering. These are all reasonable approaches, just be sure to have a plan in place for making attendance possible for low-income people.
Online Ticket Sales
WordCamp.org sites currently use the CampTix plugin to sell tickets (and provide comp tickets to sponsors, speakers, and organizers/volunteers using a coupon code). This allows you to accept PayPal and credit card payments. The only fees are from PayPal (about 3%).
You can use the ticketing plugin to get additional information from your attendees as well, such as shirt size and dietary restrictions. Instructions for how to use the plugin are available on Using CampTix Event Ticketing Plugin.
Walk-in Ticket Sales
Some events close registration a day or two before the event so they can print out things like registration lists and name badges in advance rather than doing it the night before your WordCamp. Whether you do this or not, you may want to sell walk-in tickets. You can accept cash, obviously, but can also ask us to loan you an iPad with a Square reader so that you can take credit cards at the door. Many WordCamps charge a little more for walk-in tickets since those people were not accounted for when planning food, shirts, etc., while others charge the same price. Either approach is fine, but if you do charge more, it shouldn’t be more than an extra $5/day.