College tours on the cheap

Got a kid who's college-bound? Here's how to visit all those campuses without breaking the family bank.

By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing columnist

(Money Magazine) -- The first time I set foot on campus at my alma mater 31 years ago was the week that classes began. Clearly times have changed.

These days kids expect to visit a dozen or more colleges before they decide where to apply, and a few more after acceptances roll in (you hope) to determine the winner.

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Dan Kadlec is co-author of "The Power Years", a guide for boomers. E-mail him at boom_years@moneymail.com.
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Every campus has its own vibe, and experiencing it firsthand really is helpful. But seeing too many schools can also be counterproductive - the distinctions blur, and it's both stressful and expensive. A single overnight trip for two can top $1,000 for air fare, car rental, hotel, meals and parking. Now multiply that by 12.

I should know. My daughter and I jumped headlong into her college search this spring, blitzing three parts of the country (seven schools and 1,800 miles) in one week. As I was tallying the travel receipts (ouch!), I vowed to be smarter on my next go-round. You may find that my new strategy helps you too.

Start close to home

Before you begin lining up plane tickets and hotel rooms, check out a few campuses in your backyard - even if your child is dead set against attending them.

Those first college visits are mostly about figuring out priorities. Does your child prefer a big or small school? Urban or pastoral setting? By starting with schools near home, you can solve this part of the college-search puzzle on the cheap.

Take a virtual tour

An online tour is no substitute for the real thing. But this can be an inexpensive way to cull questionable schools from your initial list and to refresh your memory of colleges you visited months ago.

Rather than rely on the slickly produced official video from the college (typically available on its Web site or at campustours.com), consider shelling out $15 per DVD for independently made videos of actual tours at collegiatechoice.com.

Get in, get out

In areas with lots of colleges, schedule visits to several schools on the same trip, aiming to see at least two campuses a day. Slow the pace if you land on a campus that sings to your teenager, but move on quickly if it's clear that the fit isn't right.

Register in advance with the admissions office for a tour and an information session. "Colleges today pay a lot of attention to demonstrated interest," says Shirley Levin, a college consultant in Rockville, Md.

If your child is on the bubble and the college has documented his visits and other inquiries (say, at a college fair), he may gain an edge.

Scout for discounts

Some schools - and their marketing partners - offer reduced rates on transportation and hotel stays for prospective students (check with the admissions office or on the college's web site under Admissions or Tours).

You can get a two-for-one Amtrak deal through Campusvisit.com; the site also offers hotel discounts for Boston, Philadelphia and northeast Ohio. Now if we could just find a college to give us a break on tuition too, we'd be all set. Top of page

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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.