Travel News

Making College Tours Fun for the Family

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA Providence, RI San Francisco, CA Santa Barbara, CA

College Tour quad pictureIt’s college tour season.

A time for parents to start mourning the pending departure of their children and for kids to start imagining their freedom.

For those lucky (and financially stable) enough to even consider out-of-state college — considering the skyrocketing costs of tuition and other expenses — first comes the road trip with mom and/or dad to look for the “right” school.

For some parents, it’s a matter of cost — in-state lower-cost tuition costs versus stratospheric Ivy League prospects. And that presumes their child even has relatively decent SAT scores!

Either way, the college tour road trip often dissolves into a tension filled excursion. Like any trip, some planning is essential (how many schools can you visit in one three or four day period?) And while it can be tempting to pack in a dozen colleges in one brief trip, it might be more practical to look at a smaller number of schools over an extended period of time. There is no one answer.

But this much is clear: driving time will be longer than you planned, and trying to score inexpensive air fares in the summer months is almost impossible.

California high school senior Rachael Benjamin spent part of last summer touring East Coast colleges with her mother. Driving from Cape Cod to Boston, Amherst, and Providence, they spent hours in the car and several nights in hotels, with plenty of college pit stops along the way. While Benjamin maintains that she and her mother didn’t get into any major fights on the weeklong road trip, she does admit that “college is kind of a touchy subject in general. We would get stressed out and snappy. It was mostly about what I want to study as opposed to where I wanted to go.”

And therein lies an important distinction which applies to travel in general. The destination has become incidental to the experience, or, in Rachael’s case, the school location is less important than the courses you want to pursue.

And then, there are the stress and tension factors. An increasing number of companies are now offering college tours to prospective students. These groups of students travel around regions of the U.S. to visit multiple colleges within a few days or a week.

The benefit here is that there are no parents involved, and kids are trucking along with other like-minded students—kind of like a little microcosm of college life. These companies often include city tours and cultural activities, i.e. a trip to see a Broadway show, to help students decompress and acclimate to the surrounding area. And with an organized group, students get the opportunity to see schools that they may not have had on their “list,” thereby opening them up to possibilities they hadn’t considered before. A weeklong college tour can cost between $1,500-$2,000, including ground transportation, hotels and meals.

So what’s the best option for you? Family road trip or sending the kids off on their own?

According to Robert Rummerfield, founder of the 16-year-old company College Visits:

“There’s a lot of bonding going on between the students on these trips. There are different cultures, different religions, and they’re actively involved in something. By the end, they’re exchanging emails, and sometimes tears.”

The company organizes about 25 weeklong tours a year. Most trips include two school visits a day—more than that “can be overload and have a negative impact,” says Rummerfield.

Depending on the region, students are usually bused around or are given the option to take public transportation. Often times, they have the choice of which schools to visit that day: “For example, this morning we had a choice of visiting American University or University of Maryland, and this afternoon was Georgetown or George Washington.” On trips that may involve lots of road time, say San Francisco to Los Angeles, they may fly instead of drive, or make a stop along the way in Santa Barbara.

The Texas-based CE Tours has been leading college tours for nearly 10 years. The company invited individual students from the around the world, as well as working with specific schools and governmental groups that target underprivileged and/or underachieving students.

CE also encourages seeing only two colleges a day, which usually includes an admission presentation, a campus tour and, if possible, breakfast or lunch on campus. “Sometimes I give them an on-campus challenge, like talking to a student about their experiences,” says tour manager Ashley McClelland. “Sometime I have to bribe them with small prizes, but they usually come back excited that they talked to someone.” The two most common questions that CE tour guides hear from students have to do with whether their SAT scores are up to par and what kind of financial aid is offered.

McClelland notes that the basis of the company is to provide parent-less tours for students. “They get to see their potential college with friends and get a whole different perspective on it.”

It seems like an ideal solution. Ship the kids off with other students to see a variety of colleges and universities. However, Rachael compares her own experience of traveling in the summer with her mom and going on an organized tour over spring break. She went with College Authority with about 40 other students, traveling by bus from North Carolina to Connecticut to visit 14 colleges.

“It was fun, and it was informative.” But, she advises, “I think you should do it with your family instead of friends. It’s a stressful experience and people can become competitive about who can get in where.” (Note: When your kid starts comparing SAT scores with a busload of students, it may be time to intervene.)

The answer is that there is no one solution. Visiting college campuses is an emotional time for everybody. It’s where your child may spend the next four years of his or her life. It represents an impending break from their home life. Between the natural emotions and the common stresses of travel, expect tensions to run high.

Our suggestion: if you have the time and the money, start with an organized group trip and then follow it with a more focused, intimate parent/child trip on a second tour. If you can find the time to travel with your college-bound kid, grab it. It’s a chance to bond over a very grownup experience that you may not ever get again. But if you think you’ll kill each other within the first two hours, check out the tour company contacts at the end of the article.

Tips for college travel:

  • Do your research ahead of time. If your child hibernates if the temperature drops below 40 degrees, Cornell may not be the best option. If he or she would rather belt out a show tune rather than cheer at a football game, consider Sarah Lawrence over Notre Dame. Remember, this isn’t about you reliving your youth, it’s about them experiencing theirs.
  • Map out your route in advance, and consider investing in a navigational system. Garmen and Magellan have saved many a marriage, so preserve your relationship with your kids by avoiding long hours in the car and convoluted routes.
  • Talk to as many people as possible. That includes other students and professors, not just admissions office staff and enthusiastic tour guides (they’re hired to be bubbly). If that means letting your child wander off on their own to avoid the embarrassment, do it. Let them pretend they’re a freshman on campus and see how it feels.
  • Don’t overdo it. While it’s tempting to compare as many colleges as you can, remember that each tour takes at least two hours. Seeing more than two (maximum three) a day is overload. The campuses will start to blend in together and the exhaustion will inevitably lead to cranky parents and teens, which can affect the perception of the school.
  • Take good notes. Again, the campuses will start to blend together, especially as students narrow down what type of college they want to attend.
  • Take your time. Make it an experience, not an obligation. A college tour is also about travel, so explore local shops and restaurants, take a scenic drive, and experience all that the town or city has to offer. You may find that you and your child have a lot more in common than you realized.

College Visits: 800-944-2798,

CE Tours: 866-423-8687,

College Authority: 512-795-0332,

For an unusual college tour opportunity, check out “On the Air: Daniel Andrew and Jordan Jones, Unofficial Tour”.