How to Save Money on College Tours

The Wall Street Journal
By Cheryl Winokur Munk
May 31, 2018

Travel expenses while visiting colleges can run into the thousands, but there are ways to keep them under control

Parents of college-bound children tend to focus on the most obvious, biggest expenses—tuition, room and board. But there are additional expenses that not everyone thinks about.

One of the biggest: the cost to visit schools while deciding which to choose.

College-visitation costs can easily add up to thousands of dollars. The good news is that unlike fixed costs such as application fees, visitation costs can be managed with some clever maneuvering. Experts offer several tips to help families accomplish their visitation goals without breaking the bank.

1. Start with virtual tours
Some families feel they have to visit every school their student is interested in. But there are other options, says Casey Near, senior director of Collegewise, a company that counsels students on choosing colleges. For instance, families can take advantage of online research to help them weed out colleges that may not suit their needs, without ever setting foot on campus, Ms. Near says.

Many colleges offer virtual tours on their websites. There are also aggregator sites like YouVisit that may offer even more in-depth virtual tours or a tour that doesn’t exist on a particular school’s website—so it’s worth checking out both options, says Kat Cohen, chief executive and founder of IvyWise, a college-admissions counseling and tutoring provider. Other options include eCampusTours, which provides sets of 360-degree photos of various campuses, and CollegeWeekLive, a free, online event held several times a year that is designed to connect prospective students with colleges and universities in a live, interactive environment.

Dr. Cohen says students and families should also explore university-related social-media channels such as Facebook , Instagram and Snapchat. They can help students get a comprehensive picture of a school, student perspectives and the opportunities available on campus.

2. Visit a near ‘proxy’ school
Ms. Near recommends students start visiting local colleges as high-school sophomores to get a taste of similar schools they might be interested in. For instance, a student from Connecticut, New York or New Jersey considering a big, urban school out West might arrange to visit a similar-size school closer to home. This would allow the student to attend a lecture, walk the campus and get a feel for the environment at this type of school without spending a large amount of money on travel and overnight accommodations.

With thousands of schools in the U.S., there’s bound to be a proxy within two hours’ drive where students can spend a day, Ms. Near says. Nothing precludes an actual campus visit if the student wants to move forward, but it can help families save time and money if students can rule out certain types of schools based on local visits, she says.

3. Research flyout programs
Some schools do so-called flyout programs—covering some or all of the expenses of a student’s visit—in the fall for low-income applicants, and schools may extend the opportunity in the spring to admitted students from all financial backgrounds, Ms. Near says. Some lesser-known rural schools that are harder to visit because of their location will commonly pay for a flight up to a certain cost for students who have already been admitted.

These opportunities can change from year to year, so it’s worth calling the school’s admissions office to determine the policies, Ms. Near says.

4. Budget creatively
Families can also use StudentUniverse, a platform that caters specifically to students planning various trips. The platform can also be used to find low-cost accommodations for families planning on staying overnight.

Dr. Cohen also recommends that students get creative with overnight accommodations. For instance, many schools provide applicants with the option of spending a night in a dorm with a current student, which can be an opportunity to get a free, firsthand look at campus life. For students touring with their family, Airbnb and VRBO can be a cost-effective alternative to hotels near campus. Some larger cities also offer hostels with private rooms for families, Dr. Cohen says. In addition, students may be able to arrange free accommodation if a student from their local high school attends the college they are visiting, she says.

There are also ways for students to keep their dining costs down while they are visiting colleges. Eating at a dining hall is a good way to evaluate dining options at a school, but it can be pricey if you aren’t using a meal plan, especially for several people. Plan to have one small meal on campus and research nearby dining options that are affordable, Dr. Cohen suggests. Families can check out discount sites such as Groupon to see if any local restaurants are offering deals. Some schools may offer food vouchers to visitors, and families can always bring their own drinks and snacks from home to keep costs down further, Dr. Cohen says.

Parents “need to plan ahead so that these visits fit within their budget,” she says.