Do it now: Book your kid's summer camp
By May, popular camps will be booked solid. Here's a four-part plan for getting this project under control.
By Cybele Weisser, MONEY Magazine staff writer

(MONEY Magazine) - Letting your children sit on the couch all summer watching reruns of Punk'd might be cost-effective, but it's not exactly enriching. With more than 12,000 day and sleepaway camps in the U.S., there's almost certainly one that will suit your child's taste--and your budget. Don't wait: By May, popular camps will be booked solid.

Follow our four-step guide now.

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• Cookouts or cuisine? Specialty camps that teach everything from astronomy to yoga are all the rage but can be much more expensive than traditional ones. If your kid has his heart set on stargazing, look for a traditional camp that offers that activity.

• Can they sleep away? Some overnight camps accept children as young as four, but if your child isn't comfortable sleeping at friends' or relatives' homes, he likely isn't ready. Day camp can be much cheaper--an average of $250 a week, says the American Camping Association (ACA), vs. $400 to $900 a week for sleepaway.

Mount a Search

• Cast a wide net. If you want lots of leads, check out Internet directories like KidsCamps.com, SummerCamps .com or CampSearch.com.

• Solicit advice. You can also let a free advisory service, such as Campfinders.com, search for you. But keep in mind that most services are paid a commission by the camp for each camper that they refer.

• Pose tough questions. About 2,400 camps are accredited by the ACA for meeting its 300-plus quality standards. If a camp that you are interested in isn't, look at the ACA's guidelines (at acacamps.org) and ask the same health, safety and camper-to-counselor ratio questions yourself.

Tally the Fees

• Public or private? Camps affiliated with nonprofit groups like the YMCA or the Scouts are often less than half the price of a private program.

• Egregious extras. Look out for additional charges for activities, luggage transport, computer usage or anything else that isn't included in the basic price.

• An escape hatch. If your kid changes his mind come May, or becomes ill or too homesick to stay for the whole session, many camps will offer you a prorated refund, less your deposit. Find out in advance.

• Financial relief. Nearly two-thirds of camps offer "camperships," or financial aid. Many others allow parents to spread payments over the course of a year.

Lower the Cost

• Go later. July is camp high season. Some programs lower their fees in August.

• Make it a quickie. A one- to three-week stay may be plenty for your child to get the full-fledged camp experience.

• Enroll early and often. Most camps offer a discount of 10% or so to parents who sign up as soon as enrollment opens in the fall. Does your kid have a sibling? You'll typically snag another 10% to 15% off if you sign up more than one child for the same program.

• Grab tax breaks. If you have kids under13 enrolled in day camp (not sleepaway), you may qualify for a tax credit worth up to $1,050 for one kid and $2,100 for two or more. You may get even better savings from a flexible spending account at work, which lets you stash up to $5,000 a year in pretax money for child care.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.