My daughter graduated high school in June and started college this fall.
She wanted a big school with football, great academics and lots of rah rah. She also yearned for a school with demographics that would fit her background, religion and interests. One with clubs and organizations where she could spread her wings, take on leadership roles and try new things. She also liked the idea of a quintessential college town.
As we embarked on finding the best fit, we realized that college visits were part of the puzzle of the college-application process. Once your high-school junior or senior narrows their list, visiting a few schools will give them a sense of “can I see myself spending four years of my life here?”
We live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. For some colleges, like those in Florida, we waited until she was accepted before planning the visit. In my daughter’s case, we began visiting colleges in her junior year, but we visited the majority of them during her senior year.
Although I didn’t have a specific budget in mind, I was conscious of the costs. Here are some tips that worked for our family’s budget.
1. Build College Visits into Existing Travel Plans
The University of Michigan was on my daughter’s wish list. So, when my son had a baseball tournament in Detroit, we decided to plan a visit as part of the same trip.
I found a small airline carrier that flew to Detroit for about a third of the price per ticket than flying out of Philadelphia International Airport. The round-trip tickets were a reasonable $140 each.
We stayed at a budget-friendly, suite-style hotel outside of the city, saving $50 per night. We directly negotiated and asked the front-desk clerk for breakfast vouchers. He obliged — and they helped us save about $20.
2. Combine Visits to Multiple Colleges
From Philadelphia, we decided to plan a day trip south to visit the University of Maryland (where I graduated) and the University of Virginia.
We embarked on our drive at 5 a.m. My husband and I split the driving, grabbed sandwiches at a convenience store on our way home and saved the cost of a hotel — about $150 — by not staying overnight. It was a long day, but we visited two great state schools.
Another time, my daughter and I flew to Florida to visit the University of Miami and the University of Florida in Gainesville.
I found a reasonable connecting flight through Miami from Philadelphia to the small regional airport in Gainesville. Sure, the connections through Atlanta and Charlotte were quicker, but flying through Miami saved us $170 per ticket.
We toured UF on Friday. We used points for the two nights we stayed in Gainesville, saving more than $400.
To get to Miami, we could either rent a car and make the five-hour drive, or fly from the regional airport. I found a $150-per-ticket fare from Gainesville to Miami, and I thought the hour-long flight and $300 cost made sense.
After our tour on Sunday, we opted for the latest flight home, which saved us more than $110 per ticket.
3. Fly Midweek
Our daughter wanted to visit Tulane University in New Orleans. I kept checking airfare — and it was over $500 per ticket for weekend flights.
I plugged in flights for early Tuesday, staying just one night and taking the last flight out on Wednesday. The price was $277 per ticket — it was like buy one, get one.
I understand this isn’t an option for everyone. But I have been a full-time freelance writer for 18 years. I have several clients, and the advantage of working from home and working for myself is that I have lots of flexibility.
That said, it’s important to note that when I am out of my office and not writing, I am not earning. So, I have to pick and choose my visits carefully.
4. Divide and Conquer
Not all households are two-parent ones, so again, this isn’t an option for everyone. But my husband and I realized we couldn’t both go to all college visits, and this strategy saved us money.
For example, I took my daughter to Florida and New Orleans, which saved the extra cost of a flight for my husband.
The Ohio State University was also on her list. My husband and daughter flew midday on a Friday and returned early Sunday.
Even though they had to spend an extra night in the hotel on Saturday night, the cost differential made sense. The extra night at the hotel was only $129, whereas flying out Saturday would have cost us an extra $170 per ticket.
5. Accept That You Will “Have” to See Some Colleges
Our daughter was also accepted to Boston University, where my husband graduated. He chose to fly and said the trade-off was the traffic he’d hit and the toll on his back during the six-hour drive.
This was not a savings situation, but other factors often come into play. My husband loves Boston University and wanted to show our daughter where he had attended college.
The Payoff of College Visits
After almost two years of touring and deciding, our daughter just started the University of Florida in Gainesville. All told, we spent about $2,500 on college visits.
As a mom who has been through it, I can say it all works out! Tell your student to keep an open mind when they visit schools, as their final choice may even surprise them! Good luck!
Your Turn: Have you planned college visits on a budget? Share your tips in the comments!
Erica Lamberg is married and is the mother of a daughter and a son. She is a business and travel writer and is based in suburban Philadelphia.