How to minimize the cost of college visits

Planning ahead can help make college campus visits more affordable (and enjoyable)

Erica Lamberg
Personal finance writer
covering travel, budgets and credit card strategies

Saving money on college visits

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College is a major expense, which is why visiting ahead of time is a good idea. It can give you or your child a better idea of what the school is like before committing to a pricey tuition package.

“Exploring and visiting future colleges to attend is exciting, but between flights, road trips, hotel stays and essentials like food and visiting campuses, it gets expensive,” says Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance expert at TopCashback.com

While the price tag involved in visiting multiple schools can be a strong deterrent, especially if you’re already worried about tuition, with some strategic planning and smart use of credit cards, there are ways to minimize costs of a college tour.

"Exploring and visiting future colleges to attend is exciting, but between flights, road trips, hotel stays and essentials like food, visiting campuses, it gets expensive."

Plan ahead of time

When deciding whether a visit is worth your money, consider data that shows it can increase your child’s chances of getting into their favorite college.

According to a 2017 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 14 percent of four-year colleges view demonstrated interest as having “considerable importance” in admissions decisions, and another 25 percent see it as having “moderate importance,” outweighing some other factors such as an interview or work experience.

The first step to saving money is planning your visit ahead of time so you can fit in everything you want to see in the shortest time possible. Amy Goodman, college admissions counselor at IvyWise, an educational consulting company, says to:

  • Set up appointments well in advance with any faculty members or admissions counselors you want to meet. Have questions ready that you can’t easily answer through an online search.

  • Visit areas most used by students, such as academic buildings, student centers, technology hubs, housing and dining facilities.

  • Explore offsite. “College visits can assist students in understanding the many different facets to their personal, academic and social needs in a college experience,” Goodman says. “Students should also venture outside the physical borders of the campus and explore what the greater community has to offer.”

  • Visit during the week. This can also save you money and give you a more realistic view of student life.

    “This provides the future student with the real feel of the university, and there may be classes the student could peek into,” says Erin Erdmann White, director of leisure marketing and media with Visit Bloomington, home to Indiana University.

    An added perk – hotel rates are lower during the week, since there are often university- related sports activities on the weekends, driving up the price of rooms.
"Students should also venture outside the physical borders of the campus and explore what the greater community has to offer."

How credit card rewards can offset costs

Once you know where you want to go and what you want to do when there, you can start using credit card freebies and rewards to help out with the cost.

Many credit cards come with hidden perks that users don’t know about, says Smith. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card provides trip delay insurance and primary rental car insurance to users, while the Chase United Explorer Card offers cardholders free checked bags, priority boarding and lounge access.

Category bonuses can help

Rotating category bonuses can pay off big if you use the right card to fund each part of your travel.

You’ll often find gas as a bonus category for many cards, in which you can earn double or triple points filling up. With the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi you can get 4 percent cash back on gas.

Other common category bonuses include groceries, travel and dining out.

Whether your planned campus visit is a year from now or coming up, by paying attention to which cards offer which bonuses, you can increase the rewards you earn to pay for future travel.

Sign up for a new card to fund campus visits

If you’re planning on visiting schools within the next few weeks or months, it might be tough to spend your way to enough reward points to cover a large portion of your trip. The fastest way to get a big haul of points is by signing up for a new credit card.

But what kind of card? Consider these alternatives:

  • Gas card.
    While gas cards tied to a single company’s station have fallen out of favor, they may work well for your child’s grand tour of college campuses.

    According to research by Niche.com, which looked at the choices of 350,000 college-bound students, 72 percent of them attended in-state colleges. That means your tour may consist of a road trip rather than a flight.

    The CreditCards.com 2018 gas card survey found that many gas cards offer a quick burst of savings in the form of large discounts during the initial months of use. Many general-purpose cards also offer gas discounts.

  • Airline card.
    If you have to buy several plane tickets for your campus visits, consider signing up for a rewards card that enables you to buy more than just one roundtrip ticket with the sign-up bonus.

    The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card is a great option if Southwest flies to the cities you’re visiting, since the sign-up bonus will usually get you several roundtrip tickets if you book early enough.

  • Cash back card.
    A cash back card is a great way to start accumulating some funds to pay for your trip, no matter how you decide to get there.

    The easiest-to-use cash back cards are ones that offer 1.5 to 2 percent cash back on whatever you buy, such as the Capital One Quicksilver Card, which has no annual fee and 1.5 percent off on all purchases. 

  • Hotel co-branded credit card.  
    If your main cost during college visits will be hotel rooms, a co-branded hotel card is a good option.

    Before signing up for a hotel credit card, check out the website of your preferred hotel chain to see how many points a room would cost in the cities you’re visiting.

    Choosing to pay with “cash and points”, which you can do with some of the bigger hotel chains, can help you stretch your points even further.
 

Video: 4 ways students can build credit

Consider booking through third-party sites

You can find some of the best flight and hotel deals on third-party sites, such as Hotwire.com and Hotels.com. If your credit card rewards you extra points for any travel purchases, purchases made through these third-party sites would qualify.

Some credit cards work specifically with discount travel sites, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which awards 10 points per dollar spent at Hotels.com when you book via a specific link. If you are a fan of Priceline, the Barclays Priceline Rewards card can be useful.

“I was already an expert bidder on their ‘Name Your Own Price’ platform,” says cardholder and credit educator with Money Management International Thomas Nitzsche. “Thanks to the card’s bonus on redeeming points toward past Priceline purchases, and with only moderate domestic travel, I received over $1,000 in cash back last year.”

While Nitzsche is a fan of reward cards, he warns parents looking to cut down on college visit costs to sign up only for cards you know you can pay off in full, every month. The high interest that comes with reward cards far outweighs any points earned, he says.

Planning your strategy for visiting schools on a budget doesn’t have to be tedious.

Smith recommends also involving your future college student in the process. “Don’t wait until college to become financially savvy. Instead, take advantage of the travel opportunities to save money and expand your knowledge on reward credit cards,” she says.

See related: 4 reasons why college kids need a credit card, 9 credit lessons for college students 


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Updated: 06-17-2018