Time for summer camp
5 Tips: Get a head start finding a camp for your kid now. Here's how.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Snow may still be on the ground in some places, but summer camps are already beginning to fill up.
If you're looking to get your kids into camp this year, 5 Tips is here to tell you what you should know before packing their bags.
1. Get in now
It's estimated there will be 11 million kids going to summer camp this year. To get into the camp your kid wants, you should act quickly. Many camps are reaching their occupation limit by March, says Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association.
Parents shouldn't wait past mid-April if they want to send their kids to camp, according to Ann Sheets of the American Camp Association. You should also start making your camp decisions now if you're considering a traditional camp. They tend to fill up first, according to Chris Thurber, the author of "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success."
There's another benefit to being the early worm. You may get a registration discount, says Sheets. Keep in mind that schools in some states let out earlier than most and that means summer camp starts even earlier. In Texas, for example, schools get out in the middle of May.
2. Whittle down your options
Too much choice isn't always a good thing. Today there are over 5,000 day camps and 7,000 sleep away camps. There are camps for every kind of hobby, from sports and fine arts camps to education and test prep camp and travel and adventure camps.
To narrow your options, get a sense of what you can afford and what interests your child. Then you can begin trolling the Web. The American Camp Association runs a database of 2,400 accredited camps that you can search by your activity and cost preference, at www.CampParents.org.
Camps that are accredited by the ACA must comply with a number of health and safety standards. Keep in mind only a small portion of summer camps are accredited and there are plenty of great summer camps that may not be accredited.
If you want to see all kinds of camp choices, go to www.mysummercamps.com. You'll be able to search traditional, specialty or special needs camps.
3. Negotiate tuition
Summer camps are not cheap. One month at a private camp will cost you at least $3,500. Agency camps like YMCAs or the Boy Scouts cost about $350 a week, according to Sheets. Try to get your kid a "Campership." Camperships are need-based scholarships some private camps may offer.
Not all camps advertise they have this kind of program, says Thurber who is also a member of the ACA. And don't worry, you don't have to fill out complicated forms like the FAFSA. It's much less formal than that.
You can negotiate a better tuition rate. This may work if you have more than one child who is registering, or who may be a future camper. There may be a discount for referring other families. And if your kids' book shelves or toy chests are overflowing, you may want to donate the stash in exchange for a discount.
Camps are also in need of medically trained personnel. So if you volunteer to be a nurse for a month, your kids may be able to go to camp for free.
4. Get the stats
There are a few statistics that are essential to determining whether the camp you've chosen is a strong one. The most important stat is the average tenure of camp directors.
If the average tenure of a camp director at that camp is five years or less, it's a very negative sign, says Thurber. If that average is more like 15 years, take it as a sign that the organization is very strong. You should also look at the retention rate of campers. If 75 percent of campers return, that's exceptional, says Thurber, but even a 50 percent retention rate is pretty acceptable. It's a worrisome sign if less than half of campers return.
You should also ask how the counselors are recruited. If there is a high percentage of counselors who were once campers, it's a good indication that leadership skills are cultivated and valued. No matter how you slice it, a counselor who has invested years in the camp is going to be stronger than the counselor who just answered an ad.
5. Get help
Going to camp isn't always a bowl of cherries. And it may not have anything to do with your child. Only five states require criminal background checks for camp counselors.
Homesickness is also bound to play a role. In fact, 95 percent of campers have homesickness at least once and about one in 14 kids will have intense anxiety, according to Thurber.
If you find that either the camp just wasn't the right choice for your child or that they're not adjusting well, you may be able to get your money back from the camp. While refund policies vary from different camps, you may have some wiggle room. Track down the camp director and ask whether you can get some or all of your money back.
If you feel it's best to file a complaint against an accredited camp, you can go to the American Camp Association directly. Otherwise, look to your local Better Business Bureau or Health Department.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to email@example.com.