How Parents Can Turn a College Tour Trip Into an Actual Vacation

Campus tours are a good way to help your college-bound teen see whether or not a school is right for them. But you don’t need to spend your entire summer vacation or spring break plans on campus. Family vacations and campus tours don’t have to be mutually exclusive activities. If you strategize carefully, you can turn those college visits into memorable family trips. Here, parents and travel agents share how to make the most of your college visits.

Build Your Vacation Around a College’s Location

For California resident Amy McElroy, her older daughter’s interest in attending a New York City college offered the perfect opportunity to plan a family vacation. The city provided plenty of sightseeing and culture for everyone to enjoy, so they planned a seven-day excursion. During their visit, the family toured five schools—Pace, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Wagner, and New York University—no small feat for a weeklong trip. But McElroy and her family balanced out the tours by taking in a few Broadway shows, spending time at museums and exploring Central Park.

“The trip absolutely helped our daughter fall in love with NYC,” says McElroy. Being in the city for an entire week rather than flying in and out strictly for campus tours helped give the McElroys a realistic sense of the city and made for a great family trip.

Plan Ahead

To pull off a trip that’s both functional and fun, some advance planning is in order. “Make sure you schedule all the [campus] tours way ahead of time,” says McElroy. “Some are hard to get into and others don’t offer tours on certain days or times.” College-visit consultant Janice Caine, of Brentwood, California’s Custom College Visits, recommends booking tours and campus visits at least 30 days in advance if possible

After this critical part of the schedule is in place, you can begin to build out the rest of your vacation. Katie Kubitskey, owner of the Louisville, Kentucky–based travel agency My World Travel, suggests researching and making a list of things to do in the area before you set off. That way, you have an easy reference of options while traveling instead of doing on-the-spot searching.

Caine adds that with the right planning, you don’t even need that much time to squeeze the vacation feel out of a college visit—even just a couple of available evenings will do the trick. Look for museums that stay open late, make dinner reservations at local restaurants, look into concerts, or other events that correspond with your trip’s timeline.

Be Realistic 

As you create your family vacation plans, be mindful of what’s truly possible to accomplish in a single day. “It’s best not to try to see more than one school per day, even if you can fit it in logistically,” says McElroy. “It’s too much to process and it’s exhausting. Mixing fun and a tour in a day—taking the opportunity to enjoy what’s around a school—gives you a much better sense of a school and an opportunity to digest it.”

Build in the extra time for fun and relaxation to ensure there’s still a “vacation” component to your trip. “I’ve also worked with families that have chosen to break up college visits and when driving from place to place, have stopped for a day to do some sightseeing or hiking in between,” Caine says.

Allow For Flexibility

While it’s good to have a predetermined schedule, allow for wiggle room. And make sure to take your college-bound teen’s wishes into consideration. If your teen absolutely does not want to go on a tour, it might be worth hearing them out. Walking around town or having a low-key coffee at the campus cafe can still give them a feel for the vibe of the college.

You also may find yourself spending more time on campus than anticipated. Look at bulletin boards and consider going to a student dance performance or open house, if that’s something that interests your teen. You may not see every college on your list, but remember that your teen is also gaining valuable perspective on their likes and dislikes just by being on a college campus—even if it’s not the exact one on the list. Spending a lot of time on a campus can help your student get an idea of urban vs. rural, small vs. large, and other categories that can help them assess different schools.

Don’t Forget About Siblings

College visits are typically interesting for college-bound students and their parents, but the same can’t always be said for everyone in the family. Have a plan for what siblings, especially younger ones, will do during campus tours. “You might think about staying a bit farther away from the college campus and spending a night at a resort that would appeal to kids. It might take you a little longer to get to campus, but the kids will feel more like they’re on vacation,” suggests Caine.

Caine offers another idea as well. “Have the younger child bring a friend. That way they have company and the parents aren’t always tasked with entertaining them,” she says.

Consider a Virtual “Pre-Tour”

Many admissions offices have robust virtual tour experiences. Consider doing those prior to visiting campus so you can get a sense of what you’ll see. And while admissions officers do pay attention to whether or not a student has toured, they’re also mindful of financial or time constraints. Admissions officers will also be able to recognize demonstrated interest through attending virtual info sessions, following social media, and talking with admissions reps at college tours. Keep in mind that you can always apply and visit after your applications are in, or after you’ve been accepted.

Remember: The attitude you bring into the trip will have a lot to do with how the tours turn out.  A stroll on campus may never feel as relaxed as a walk on the beach, but having some fun activities on your itinerary can make it a memorable and productive family vacation.

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