As the parent of a high school senior, you might not think past the giant college tuition bill looming in your future.
However, don’t lose sight of the costs of actually visiting these colleges. During your child’s senior year, it could cost way more than you think.
Let’s go through a few of these costs and help you budget for this whirlwind of credit card charges and emptied wallets. You don’t want to spend all your money before the first tuition bill arrives.
College Visit Travel Expenses
The costs of visiting colleges might take you by surprise. For example, let’s take a look at a few expenses you might encounter:
Average cost of a flight: The average domestic flight cost $359 in 2019, according to Business Insider. You may pay more for luggage fees and other perks, such as in-flight meals.
Average cost of transportation: Value Penguin stated the average cost of transportation for four days was $224.
Average cost of a meal: Overall, Americans spend an average of $33 per day on food when on a vacation.
Average cost of a hotel: The average cost of a hotel is $150, according to Value Penguin.
The costs may vary depending on your situation; a college visit is very different from a vacation.
In addition to these basic travel expenses, you could pay for the following out of pocket as well:
Parking fees: Varies, but it could cost $20 to park on campus for three to 24 hours.
Swag items: Sweatshirts can cost up to $70 or more, for example.
Meals on campus: Varies, but could cost $0.
Campus events: You may pay $168 on average for football games in the SEC conference.
How to Cut Down on College Visit Costs
Let’s break down some of these costs and detail how you can save money on everything you eat, drink, sleep and do while you’re on college visits.
How to Cut Down on Airline Costs
Take a look at how to handle airline costs if you must fly for college visits.
Go for carry-on luggage. Your first checked bag can cost upwards of $30 or more to check, just like through Delta. Try to avoid the checked baggage fee by sticking to carry-on luggage.
Fly on a cheaper day. Luckily, you can usually visit colleges from Mondays through Saturdays, so if you can visit on a Wednesday when you know your flight will be cheaper, go for it.
Connect your flights. If you don’t mind adding a detour by connecting flights, consider doing this. You won’t get to the college as quickly but at least you’ll save money if you go with a connecting flight.
Don’t eat at the airport. Pack your lunch for flights. It’ll cost less.
How to Cut Down on the Cost of a Rental Car
Take a look at these tips to cut down on the cost of rental cars at your college town destination:
Book in advance. You can keep an eye on the rates prior to your visit. If rates dip on the day you plan to drive the rental car, cancel your original reservation and rebook the car at the lower rate.
Check rates with several companies. Don’t go with the company you’ve always used. Hertz may offer a better rate than Enterprise.
Use a third-party site. If you know you’ll need a hotel during the college visit, use Expedia or another site to compare rates at car rental agencies. It may cost you less.
How to Cut Down on the Costs of Meals and Hotels
Here’s a little-known secret of visiting colleges and universities: Many hotels and restaurants will give you a discount if you confirm that you’ll be visiting a local college or university. Before you travel, ask the college or university you plan to visit about a list of discounts.
How to Cut Down While You’re on Campus
Most families just book visits and pay without thinking about costs involved. Those little costs add up. Don’t let that be you! You can save on those college visits. Gather a list of all of the colleges you’re interested in attending.
Step 1: Get organized.
There’s no reason you shouldn’t apply a budget-minded approach to visiting colleges. Gather a list of all of the colleges your child has expressed interest in applying to or possibly attending. Download a free personal finance tool to keep track of how much you spend on college visits. Set a budget for each college visit you plan to do.
Bonus tip: You can use Personal Capital’s free Education Planner to plan for tuition expenses as you prepare for your child’s education.
Step 2: Ask about vouchers.
When I was an admission counselor (I spent 12 years in college admission), we handed out reimbursement vouchers to students who lived in noncontiguous states — the ones that didn’t touch our state line. You could get reimbursed for flights and even gas for your trip to campus.
Ask about these, and while you’re at it, ask about application vouchers as well. Many colleges and universities will let your child apply for free if he or she visits campus.
All colleges name these programs in different ways. Some provide travel reimbursement and others provide grants for specific travel-related costs. Other colleges and universities even sponsor scholarships for college visits. The bottom line: Ask the college or university for more information about their vouchers or programs. They’ll know what you mean.
A quick note: You might find that only high school seniors who would find a campus visit cost prohibitive can do a campus visit for free. In addition, some campuses only allow first-generation, minority or low-income students to qualify for free college visits. Other colleges might only allow students applying for a specific major or program or study to visit campus for free. Ask about these qualifications before you assume you’ll get reimbursed for your visit.
Step 3: Make sure schools fit the budget.
Does your child really have an interest in the schools on the travel list? You should spend some time determining whether you can actually afford the colleges on your student’s list. If you can’t afford to send your child to an out-of-state school and you don’t want him or her to borrow to attend that college or university, it might be a waste of money to visit the campus in the first place.
Step 4: Look into the logistics of viewing colleges in person versus virtual tours.
If you don’t think you can finagle extra money from your budget to pay for college visits, consider viewing a few campuses online instead. You might find that everything looks really pristine on college campus videos, and that’s the danger. College campuses will only put their best foot forward on college videos. (Why would they show you those dungeon-esque residence halls?)
They will only show you the newest, most polished buildings, classrooms and residence halls, so beware. It’s not like actually being there on campus to witness in person.
Step 5: Ask about other ways to save.
When you call in to schedule a visit to campus, ask about the best parking spots, how you can save on discount tickets (sometimes the admission office will have free theatre tickets or music tickets for prospective students) and more. The more you’re clear on what your high schooler wants to experience, the better the admission office can serve you.
Never register for a visit online. The best way to save money involves talking to the campus visit coordinator or admission counselor over the phone to schedule a visit. That way, you’ll get the most comprehensive information possible, including a possible list of hotel and meal discounts. The campus visit coordinator would also be happy to make recommendations (and give you tips and tricks on places to eat and stay).
Step 6: Put together a savings goal for every visit, then review afterward.
Consider your expected expenses and try to put together a savings goal for every visit. Once you’ve actually accomplished a college visit, review your spending and ask yourself whether you’ve saved enough money. If not, reflect on how you could have saved more and adjust for next time.
Save Money on College Visits
You can save money on college visits. Sometimes you just have to get creative, and sometimes all you have to do is talk to a campus visit coordinator.
Really quickly, also consider two more options:
Tack your visit onto a family vacation. If you happen to take a summer vacation or go on a spring break trip, why not slip a college visit midweek? Killing two birds with one stone can feel really great, and that way, you don’t have to return to the same location when everyone’s schedule gets busier in the fall.
Don’t forget about the colleges and universities close to home. Even if your child adamantly insists that he or she won’t attend, consider visiting these schools anyway. Visiting a college or university in your child’s hometown gives you both experience visiting schools. You’ll spend a lot less if you choose to visit colleges right around the corner.
Budgeting for college visits comes down to planning ahead. You can prepare for these expenses with Personal Capital’s free finance tools. Millions of U.S. households use these tools to track their savings goals, create budgets, and plan for big-time long-term expenses like college tuition or retirement.
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Personal Capital compensates Melissa Brock (“Author”) for providing the content contained in this blog post. Compensation not to exceed $500. Author is not a client of Personal Capital Advisors Corporation. The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.