If you have a teenager in high school, your family travel plans likely have a new focus: college tours. If you’ve got college-bound teens, it’s time to start adding campus visits to your vacation itineraries. Do your research and those campus visits can go from required trips to fun getaways. Here are TravelingMom’s tips for planning a college tour family vacation.
With one kid in college and a senior in high school, college tours have dominated our family vacations for the last few years. Visiting a college can give you a feel for the school’s culture. That’s the kind of thing you don’t learn from a brochure or off the internet. You have to see it for yourself. Your children might think they loves the idea of a city campus, but are then struck by the bucolic setting of another. They might think they wanted a Big Ten college, but then discover a smaller school is more to their liking. Visiting college campuses can help teenagers, and their parents, make sense of a complicated and costly decision.
1. Plan ahead, way ahead
Don’t wait until junior year to start visiting campuses. If you do, you’ll turn what could be a fun excuse for a getaway into a grueling marathon of campus tours. Start including campus visits in your travel plans as early as freshman year. Heading to Boston for business? Bring along your kid to the see the city and a couple of schools. Visiting the grandparents in Arizona? Visit Tempe, home to Arizona State University, the largest university in the United States, with more than 70,000 students.
2. Choose a hotel that’s close to the heart of campus
Be aware that rates at campus hotels can double or triple during parent weekends, big games, and other events. During our visit to the University of Michigan, we stayed at Ann Arbor’s recently renovated Kensington Hotel. It was stylish, close to campus, had a pool (a must for our 9-year-old!) and free use of computers and printers, a must for me and my husband. It was a great place to relax between campus tours and exploring the town.
3. Make your dining deliberate
Taking time to check out the student cafeteria will give you another glimpse into the study body. Do students generally look like hippies or preppies? You’d be surprised how the norm can change from one school to the next. Make sure to stop by a signature off-campus restaurant as well. While in Ann Arbor, we hopped over to the iconic Zingerman’s Deli. Beloved for its corned beef sandwiches, it was a good spot to talk about our overall impressions of the campus.
4. Get tickets to a game
Football season is an exciting time to visit college towns. If you’re not visiting in the fall, try getting tickets to a basketball game, or whatever sporting event your kid is most interested in. It’s just one more way to get a feel for the school’s culture on a college tour family vacation.
5. Go off campus to get a feel for the surrounding neighborhood
College towns and neighborhoods have a charm all their own, often attracting independent bookstores, shops and ethnic restaurants. Make sure to find out what the must-see things are in town.
No trip to Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin, would be complete without visiting the beautiful white-domed Capitol. It’s the epicenter of this liberal town that’s been the scene of many a protest, whether against the Vietnam War or in favor of marijuana legalization. Free tours of the Capitol are given throughout the day on the hour. If you really want to get a feel for Madison’s radical reputation, stop by any weekday at noon to hear a group of aging hippies who call themselves the Solidarity Singers. Or visit Wisconsin’s Capitol on Saturday morning from May through October, for the Dane County Farmers’ Market. It’s the country’s largest producer-only farmers market.
Each college town has its own “must-sees,” and its own personality. Get to know each personally during your visit.
6. Travel in comfort by renting a roomy van or SUV
If your college tour family vacation is a road trip, make sure you’re traveling in style, with plenty of space for everyone. We drove to Ann Arbor in a three-row Toyota Highlander. There was plenty of space, and chargers, for everyone. Teen drivers will get a kick out of discovering the newest lane changing and cruise control technology. It was a whole lot comfier than road tripping in a sedan!
What has been your experience with a college tour family vacation? Have any tips to share on how to make the college tour circuit a fun adventure for the whole family?