How to Plan a College Tour on a Budget
Turn a traditional campus visit into a fun, informative adventure that you and your college-bound teen will always remember.
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When Diana Clingan's daughter, Brienne, expressed and interest in attending college in Boston, the Port Washington, New York, Mom would have had every reason to fret about such a trip. As the largest urban zone in New England, the Boston area is home to more than 50 colleges and universities. Deciding which ones to visit would be hard enough. But first there were the logistics.
Where would they stay? Could they afford meals and lodging near the campuses they wanted to visit? And what about the "Big Dig" -- the extensive overhaul of the city's streets and expressways that had turned Boston into an obstacle course of orange cones, "road closed" signs, and frustrated drivers?
Instead of worrying about the roadblocks, real and imagined, to their trip, Diana relied on the advice of experts and her common sense. With an auto club travel guide in hand, she booked a hotel "in a random town between Connecticut and Boston, which was much cheaper than anything in the city, and next to a restaurant. Since meals on the road can add up, I made sure it also had a microwave and a fridge, so we could pick up lunch or dinner from a local market," she says.
Diana employed other expert-tested strategies for making their itinerary manageable, but perhaps the most important thing she did was change her perception of the trip ever so slightly. This wasn't just going to be her daughter's college search. It was also going to be a mother-daughter road trip -- one that would build some treasured memories and, when it was over, leave more than a few dollars in Diana's wallet, too.
The Clingans succeeded, and so can any family planning their momentous college tour. It just takes a little front-end strategizing to make sure the trip meets everyone's needs.
Janet Spencer, coauthor of Visiting College Campuses (Princeton Review, 2004), now in its seventh edition, didn't just interview travel experts and college admissions professionals for her book. She did work in the field, exploring campuses with daughter Amanda and son George. Spencer feels that the college fact-finding mission, whether it takes you across the state or across the country, provides a rare opportunity for parents to focus on soon-to-be-gone teens. "It's a chance for parents to bond with and learn more about their child," says Spencer, "plus a good time for kids to de-stress and for everyone to visit a part of the country they might not ordinarily see."
Spencer offers parents a step-by-step plan.
Decide When You'll Visit
Although many families plan visits during the summer, it's worth trying to visit during the school year so you can talk to students on campus and get a sense of the place when it's fully populated and operational. Contact schools to determine if they'll be in session during your planned visit. High school and college breaks are often at different times, so consider traveling during school holidays beginning in spring semester of junior year. If possible, leave the last week of August and first week of September free for visiting -- many college students have returned to campus by then.
Group schools you want to visit first by region, then by type or size (once you've grouped schools in, say, the Midwest, you might want to look at one large public university, one large private institution, one small one, and so on). Plot your route, drawing a loop or circle that requires minimal backtracking. If you're visiting several schools within the area, figure out distances between campuses and decide in which order you'll visit.
Budget Your Time
Estimate how much time you'll spend at each school and how long it will take to reach the next school. Experienced parents recommend visiting no more than two schools a day.
Plan Your Stay
Look for different places to stay that are convenient to your prospective colleges. For a treat, try something more vacationlike, such as a bed-and-breakfast, resort, or campground.
Keep an Open Spot on the Schedule
Consider expanding your itinerary to include other colleges in the area -- you may be in for some pleasant surprises.
Once you've got a basic plan sketched out, start laying the groundwork for a smooth trip. Here are some tips to consider.
Consult the Experts
Although many people have used the Internet as a resource for booking their own travel plans, the complexities of planning a college tour are enough to frazzle any parent. To save yourself some trouble, talk to a travel agent.
"We can really help with situations that can frustrate parents -- such as how to handle the complexities of coordinating visits to more than one city," says Kathy Sudeikis, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Agents, who has shepherded her own three kids around college campuses.
Another expert to consult is at the college's visitor center. Fran Lane heads up the University of Georgia's, providing visitors with "information on lodging, access by air, van shuttle from the airport, and driving directions from the four corners of the globe." Lane cautions parents to avoid jamming the itinerary: "One mom came in 'huffy' and later apologized to us for her attitude, explaining that she was so tired from roaming through college campuses," she says.
Visitor center representatives also have a finger on the unique pulse of the school and its different campuses. They can give you advice about planning visits around the college schedule -- sports as well as academics. For example, they may recommend that families plan visits around lesser-known days off, such as teacher workdays, rather than major holidays.
Get Great Rates and Rooms
Whether you're booking a hotel in a big city or a small town, always ask for college rates, typically available through a school's collaboration with the local Chamber of Commerce. In Philadelphia, for example, you can stay at a Best Western close to Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, Moore College of Art and Design, or Temple University. As part of the package, a "welcome kit" (key ring, bumper sticker, camera, and note from the mayor) is thrown in.
Many schools, such as Wellesley College, have "alumni networks" offering the possibility of staying in a local graduate's house (and picking up extra information about the school). Other schools let visitors stay on campus overnight, and your student may get a taste of dorm life.
Staying with friends in strategic college towns is another dollar-wise strategy. Cindy LaBuff lives 12 miles from Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College. "Our friend Susan and her daughter Kristen buddied up with another mother-daughter and stayed with us. Kristen toured Cornell and (fellow high schooler) Stacy checked out Ithaca College. We got to see each other and they saved money on hotels. I know they'd do the same for us," says Cindy.
Take an Off-Campus Tour, Too
You're not just picking a college, but a home for four years. That's why your most important consideration, after touring the actual school, is to walk or drive around and do some reconnaissance of campus neighborhoods.
Sometimes the idyllic pictures in a recruitment brochure don't quite match reality. Brenda Lange advises investigating Web sites before schlepping, something she did when she and her son began checking into colleges. "My son discounted one campus when he saw the rural nature of the surrounding country," she says. Then there's the sleaze factor, which never makes it into a school's PR material. Pamela Oldham recently toured with daughter Lindsay, commenting that "one campus portrayed with rolling, green hills was actually in a very urban setting -- with some disturbing neighbors. To get to the school, we took a route different from the recruiter's recommendation and found adult clubs, shabby neighborhoods, and dirty, littered streets."
Take Time to See the Town
Many schools tout their home city's cultural attractions, sports teams, restaurants, and whatever else might lure you to the area. If time permits, wander through the area to see what there is to do when you're not in class. Take in the sights. Remember, a big part of the trip is to enjoy your time with your children, and to build memories that will keep long after they've graduated and moved to the college of their choice.
When you're touring colleges you can get to your destination three basic ways: via plane, train, or car. The method you choose will depend on how far you're going, your budget, and your timetable. If you're driving your own car, you'll want to know how to navigate the target area. To get a feel for traffic in a big city, such as Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, turn to the city's college Web site, such as www.thecollegecity.com in Pittsburgh; www.bostonvisit.com in Boston; or www.onebigcampus.com in Philadelphia. Philadelphia's site offers a "miles and minutes" chart to help you get from one campus to another on time. Try to pick a hotel that offers free parking.
If you'd rather not fumble with maps and travel cups of steaming coffee, take the train. Amtrak lets you relax while speeding toward your destination and they sometimes offer "Campus Visit Coupons" for your aspiring student. (800-872-7245 or www.amtrak.com).
And planes? For the best fares, consult your travel agent or log onto one of the many Web sites offering discount fares: Orbitz, Hotwire, Priceline, Expedia, and Travelocity are among the best known. Be flexible on dates and routes, and travel on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, when fares tend to be lower. Many low-cost carriers, such as Southwest, Jet Blue, and ATA, offer discount rates year-round.
For more help planning a college visit, try:
The American Society of Travel Agents 703-739-2782 or visit www.astanet.com. This official society site offers plenty of insider travel tips.
The College Board 212-713-8000 or go to www.collegeboard.com. Great college search resources, including a checklist for visitors.
Campus Visit Magazine 888-998-4748 or www.campusvisit.com. Web site for a magazine that is targeted right at families planning to visit colleges.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, May 2004.