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. Use these tips to save money while still experiencing every stop on the must-see list.
As if making the decision on where to go to college isn’t stressful enough, there are a lot of logistics that go into just visiting potential schools. While your students may be stressing over finding their place in the world, you may be wincing at the cost of traveling around the state, region, or country to check out a variety of institutions of higher learning. When should you go? Where will you stay? How will you get there?
First and foremost, 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. College visits, whether they take you across the state or across the country, provide a rare opportunity for parents to bond with soon-to-be-gone teens and visit a part of the country they might not ordinarily see.
Perhaps the best advice one could hear, however, is that you need to let your child drive the bus. Your child needs to guide the decision process on what colleges and universities to visit, because they are the one going to college after all.
Now, read on for more tips for planning college visits, saving money, and making fun family memories along the way.
Decide When You'll Visit
Timing is everything. Spring semester junior year is an ideal time to start your college visits, continuing on into the last week of August and early September. While you may want to visit during summer, it’s worth trying to visit during the school year so your child can see the campus in full activity. It will give your child a better sense of student life. Reach out to the school to check the calendar, as high school and college breaks often take place at different times. This can be helpful so your child isn’t missing out on too many of their own school days and you’ll be able to make the most of the time while you are visiting.
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Grab a map and divide up the schools your child wants to visit by region and then by size. For example, if you have a group of schools in the Midwest, you might want to look at one large public university, one large private institution, and one small one. Plot your route, drawing a loop or circle that requires minimal backtracking.
Also take advantage of any other family trips you may have planned — whether a weekend getaway or a trip to visit family and friends. Check to see what colleges and universities are in the area and plan to make a visit if your child is interested. You’ll get a family vacation out of the deal, and your child may be pleasantly surprised with another school to consider.
Take the Whole Family or a Friend
As you plan visits, consider bringing younger siblings along as well. While no two kiddos are alike, you never know what might catch their attention or help them realize the school might not be a fit for them.
Then check to see where your child’s friends are touring. Being able to send your child along with another family or splitting the cost of accommodations and transportation can help make a visit more affordable, as well as fun.
Related: The Ultimate College Packing List
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 to visit your child’s top choice (pre-visits, that is) last. Your family will get better at doing a college visit with each stop you make. You’ll know the right questions to ask, what to look for and will end up saving yourself time and money in the long run.
Consult the Experts
The complexities of planning a college tour are enough to frazzle any parent. Use your resources and save yourself some trouble, by talking to the college's admissions office and/or visitor center to get information on lodging, van shuttles from the airport, and driving directions. Visitor center representatives also have a finger on the unique pulse of the school and can give you advice about checking out activities beyond academics that might appeal to your student.
Admission counselors at some school may also be able to connect you with financial help to make your on-campus visit a reality. If you have demonstrated financial need, are from underrepresented racial or ethnic backgrounds, or are a first-generation immigrant, there are programs to cover transportation, accommodations, and even meals.
Eat on Campus
Speaking of meals, after all your touring you’ll surely have worked up an appetite. When lunch or dinner time rolls around, take advantage of the opportunity to experience a meal in the campus dining hall. As an added bonus, many schools will pay for your family to do so.
Get a Room
If you need to stay the night, check on college rates at nearby hotels, as many have collaborations with schools through the local visitor bureau or Chamber of Commerce. Many colleges have also had several Airbnb options pop up right near campus that are ideal for a visit overnight. Check to see if the school you are visiting offers an option for your child to stay the night with a current student (hello, dorm life!) or to be hosted by a local alum. These are great ways to save money and allow your child to connect with individuals who can share more insights into the school.
Also consider who you might know that lives nearby. If you can stay overnight with family or friends, you’ll save big on making the trip. The silver lining is that if your child ends up choosing that school, they will have friendly faces to visit as well.
Imagine not having to leave your home to get a glimpse at what a college or university is like. While an in-person visit is ideal, technology is playing a huge role in helping more students — especially those whose families don’t have a budget to “see” campuses — consider potential schools. Your teen, a digital native, will appreciate the ability to glimpse a virtual campus tour — whether through augmented reality or 3-D technology. These virtual tours can help your child get a clearer picture of the campus in the palm of their hand. This can also help narrow choices down as you look at what colleges and universities to visit in person.
Tap into Apps
Make sure you check online for the colleges you plan to visit, as many have now created their own college visit apps to help guide you through the process of visiting their school, including interactive maps, driving directions, admission information, and other sights to visit while you are in town. Other apps are designed to capture information from multiple visits. BlueCapVisit allows you to select schools to visit, keep track of your impressions and then help you make your decision on which college or university to attend. YouVisit Colleges has more than 500 college campuses to explore through virtual reality. Several websites — including Go See Campus, and Campus Compare — provide resources as you plan your visit. Other general apps can be used to help navigate the tour process and keep your child’s thoughts organized. Students can pin photos and other information related to each college on Pinterest. Post photos on Instagram as you tour to look back at your memories. Use periscope to video record your visit and connect with other students while on campus.
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. Take in the sights, embrace this new adventure together, and have fun!