College-application season is approaching, and that means prospective students are in the midst of campus visits.
Seeing a college in person carries more weight these days, in part because the rising cost of college makes students and their families skittish about choosing.
"You're making a huge financial decision, so you want to be a smart consumer," said Lisa Carlton, an education consultant in Austin, Texas.
But travel to far-flung campuses is expensive. Two airline tickets and two nights of hotels and restaurant meals can easily total more than $1,000, so some planning can help manage costs, counselors said.
It is not necessary to visit every school you apply to.
"Colleges do not expect families to go back and forth across the country in the application process," said Lisa Sohmer, an independent college counselor near St. Petersburg, Fla.
But most counselors do suggest visiting a mix of college types, like an urban college, a large public university and a small liberal arts campus — and starting close to home.
That way you create a point of comparison without having to spend a night in a hotel. Visiting does not mean you have to apply. It is for you.
Another easy first step is to take a "virtual" tour, which most schools offer on their websites. Typically narrated by an upbeat student, the tours offer a quick look at the campus and its surroundings.
Tacking on a campus visit to family vacations, or having a student piggyback on a parent's business trip, can help keep costs down.
Sharing visits with other families — having your child tag along on a friend's trip, and returning the favor — can also save on travel costs. If your child is mature enough to travel alone, a one-day visit might work, saving money on airfare, said education consultant Cheri Barad.
Once you have a feel for what the student likes, various online tools — Naviance is one offered by some school districts — can help narrow down the choices by matching the college's criteria such as grades and test scores with the student's preferences.
If air travel is out of the question, try to visit a "proxy" school near home, said Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder of CollegeVine. "It's not a perfect match," he said, "but you'll get a rough idea."
And if you can only afford one visit, make it a top-choice college that has shown "demonstrated interest," take the official tour and talk to admissions representatives to make sure they have seen your interest.
And parents: Avoid the bookstore. Your child does not need to collect T-shirts and sweatshirts from every campus. Acceptance letters often include discounts to the campus store. Wait until then.
Carrns writes for the New York Times.