College Road Trip: 8 Lessons Learned and Practical Advice

Parents of teens watch college loom larger on the horizon every day. While our kids work hard on building their college lists, studying for admissions tests and filling out the applications, one area where parents can lend a hand is in planning a college road trip. This is where I will soon be with my 17 year old daughter.

Five years ago I traveled with her older brother, a journey where the lessons far transcended each college’s printed FAQ. Now that I am doing this a second time around, I know that I’ll watch her growing independence and try to prepare my head and heart for her ultimate departure.

Here is what I learned from traveling with our son, and what I will take along with me while touring with child #2.

girl holding map of US

 Tips for a Planning a College Road Trip

1. Treat it as an adventure.

My son and I drove through eight states visiting schools that, except for one, we had never seen before. The settings ranged the gamut – from urban center to the middle of nowhere. Some were universities and others, small liberal arts colleges.  There was something captivating about each college even those that my son eliminated from his list, and we found surprises all along the way.

2. Be tourists.

Learning about the histories of the schools from the student guides was like taking a series of museum tours with backward-walking docents. As we drove from school to school, we caught slices of Americana along the way and sampled local cuisine at cafes where we often ate dinner.

3. Work as a team.

I depended on my son’s navigation skills and ability to find a Starbucks while he was happy to leave the driving to me.  A very welcome feeling of relating to each other as adults snuck into the journey and in into our relationship.

4. Make the college road trip into a vacation.

He was liberated from 11th grade homework and sports practices, late school nights and early alarm clocks. It was a break for me too.

5. Prepare to talk, and talk some more.

No cooking or cleanup meant we had a relaxed dinner for each day’s post-mortem. Every evening, while I sipped a glass of wine, I heard him think out loud, formulating what mattered most to him in a college. I tried to just ask questions, keeping my opinions to myself, at least until he finished giving me his sense of each school.

6. Be flexible with the plans.

High school counselors often divide schools into “safety/likely/reach” but there is one additional category – a school “you don’t want to get out of the car to visit.” Driving along a remote country road late one afternoon, we shared a growing, uneasy feeling about the fit of the school next on the list. We agreed to keep driving. It only happened once but I think my son was happy to see his by-the-rules mom loosen up a bit.

7. College road trips should be about our teens, not us.

The risk of information overload is real and it’s easy for college visits to become a blur, especially if you’re visiting a string of schools one after another. My son had made appointments with football coaches at each stop (he wanted to play collegiate football and these meetings were crucial) so we often skipped the info sessions, opting just for the tours to get a physical feel for the campus.

For our daughter, who has no plans to play sports beyond high school, we are making time for info sessions and tours, a much more typical approach to campus visits and one that she prefers.

By all means, do not be the parent who dominates the tour or meetings with coaches or other college administrators. This is the time for your teen to take the lead with their questions and conversation.

8. Watch for a glimpse of the future.

My daughter will explore each campus and town looking for suitability and fit. We will drive countless miles, and will walk many more while we tour each school. In my eyes, the daughter I start the trip with will transform from a high school kid to a teen who looks a little more like a college student. I believe she is ready for the next step, not quite sure about me.

Save Time and Money on a College Road Trip

One final tip: If you’re flying, rather than driving to the destination for your college road trip,  consider looking into a travel site like Kayak where you can find deals on flights, hotels, and rental cars in one spot.

You will also find city guides on Kayak where you can make do a little research and make dinner reservations through the Open Table portal (my favorite way to book a table for dinner) and find other ideas for touring. It is often in exploring the areas around campus that helps teens determine if a school is truly a good fit for them.

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