Ten Ways to Make Your Vacations Extraordinary
How can you make your vacations extraordinary? Do you feel like your vacations are monotonous? Do you tell your friends where you are going or what you did and they say “me too”? Well, it’s time to customize your vacations. Yes, customization can add extra costs to your vacation. However, with strategic planning, you can add-on one benefit and cutback on another budgeted item. With or without VIP spending power, you can plus your travel routine! Your next vacation can absolutely stand out. With creative planning, you can even add special moments to your trip at no additional expense. By trying a new destination or just adding in a new activity, you’ll have a vacation that is personalized. Let’s check out ten ways to make your vacations extraordinary. Don’t be afraid to do something different.
1. Change Your Mode of Transportation
Do you always fly to your destination? Or maybe you like the adventure of a road trip? Think about how exciting it would be to change your mode of transportation.
Tour a foreign city using the underground metro system.
If the kids are used to piling into your vehicle for a road trip, try flying to this year’s vacation destination. This might mean cutting back on other costs — and that’s okay! So, instead of renting a large beach house, fly to Washington D.C. and tour the free museums.
Fly to your next destination.
You can also change your transportation at your location. Do you always rent a sensible car for a couples only trip? Try renting a convertible or a jeep and see how much fun you add to your vacations.
Rent a convertible for memorable fun.
Do you usually take Disney’s Magical Express from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) to your resort? Surprise the family with a car service; extra points if it’s a limo! If you use a car service on an airport trip, you’ll get that extra dose of “special” as soon as you land.
Reserve a limo!
From your port of call in Italy, is your first inclination to walk around the town or take a guided bus tour? Instead take the train to a place you’ve always dreamed about and travel with the locals.
Take a train to see a bucket list place — like Pompeii!
When you’re traveling to multiple locations, think how you can make the journey a little bit different. From Los Angeles to San Francisco, take the train. London to Paris? EuroStar!
2. Try a New Recreational Activity
Sure, you could go skydiving to really standout. But, you don’t have to go to that extreme. At the beach, take a surf lesson, go fishing, or go back-to-basics and fly a kite.
Wright Brothers Visit National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, then…
Go fly a kite!
Flying Kite on Sand Dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, North Carolina.
On your next cruise trip, dance, rock climb, zipline, or ice skate. Learn a new dance routine to really shake things up!
Dance the night away! Dazzles, Royal Caribbean.
Many of us gear our Walt Disney World trips around the theme parks. On your next trip, spend a day outside the parks to enjoy playing miniature golf, boating, fishing, horseback riding, or learning archery.
Rent a Sea Raycer. Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
3. A New Destination or Time of Year
This one may seem obvious but many of us tend to go to the same destinations at the same time year. Of course, familiar vacations are memorable. Traditions are also important to families. Still, you can change your routine just a little bit to make your next journey extra special. If you usually travel over Spring Break, book this year’s trip for Thanksgiving. Try visiting your favorite location during the festive holiday season and see the locale in a whole new light.
Merry Christmas Slipper Dessert at Grand Floridian Cafe on Christmas Eve.
A new destination can sometimes be daunting. Will you enjoy it? Usually, the answer is yes. Ditch the beach and go to the mountains. Stuck on land-based vacations? Take a cruise.
Take a cruise!
Or just change beaches: Hilton Head Island instead of Myrtle Beach; Destin, Florida instead of Gulf Shores, Alabama; Rehoboth Beach, Delaware instead of Ocean City, Maryland; a West Coast beach instead of East Coast getaway, and so forth. Even if you return to your once familiar vacation for the following year, you’ll find yourselves reminiscing…
Huntington Beach over Thanksgiving!
Or think farther away and go to Europe. Sail the Mediterranean instead of the Caribbean. Head to Hawaii instead of Mexico. The possibilities are endless.
Sailing into the Grand Harbor, Malta.
Touring Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Try a new-to-you vacation spot!
If you’re a Disney World fan that always attends the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, try visiting during the spring instead and tour the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. Or plan to attend the Halloween festivities in the Magic Kingdom.
4. Splurge on Amenities
Amenities are the little things that make us feel special. From chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to your cruise stateroom to balloons delivered to your Walt Disney World resort, added amenities are always memorable. And instagram-worthy!! 😉
Order special treats to enjoy during your vacation!
5. Tweak Your Traveling Party
If you always travel with kids in tow, take a couples only trip. Invite the grandparents and/or aunts and uncles. Take a parent-child only trip for special bonding time — this works for parents of grown children too. Try a guys trip to the Caribbean to scuba dive or a ladies trip to New York City to see a show. Imagine the possibilities!
Travel with family!
6. Make Your Trip a Celebration
From a destination wedding to a birthday getaway, your trip is the perfect time to celebrate. Don’t let those annual milestones go unnoticed. This year, take a weekend trip for your anniversary, go on a cruise for your birthday, or take your child to Disneyland Paris for graduation.
Our son’s January birthday celebration aboard the Disney Wonder.
For our 10th anniversary, we renewed our vows in Walt Disney World!
A splurge for our 10th anniversary vow renewal — riding in Cinderella’s Coach!
Whenever someone asks me what I want to do for my birthday? The answer involves travel. I’ve spent my birthday on a cruise ship, in Barcelona, in Paris, on a road trip heading home from Yellowstone, at beaches, and so on. Of course, I’ve been in Walt Disney World a number of times! Skip the gifts and make some priceless memories instead.
7. Take a Tour
You could take a guided tour for your entire vacation or add on tours during your trip. Some of my favorite tours: Stonehenge from London; Normandy from Paris; a cruise ship tour of the captain’s bridge; a plantation in St. Croix; a Magic Kingdom tour; Roswell, New Mexico; and Carthage and Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia.
A tour to Stonehenge.
Tours can often be pricey, however they add convenience and/or in-depth education that is usually not regretted.
8. Cross Off a Bucket List Item
On every single trip, you have the opportunity to cross off a bucket list item. Bucket list achievements come in all sizes.
Devils Tower Wyoming
Try one of these personal goals:
- Teach your child to ride a bike.
- See the Milky Way.
- Picnic in a beautiful setting.
- Watch a turtle crawl to the sea.
- See the Chincoteague ponies.
- Dine somewhere special; extra points if it’s for New Year’s Eve or another celebration.
- Get a tattoo.
- Learn to…. paddleboard, ski, golf, mix a delicious cocktail, make authentic pizza, etc.
- Swim with a dolphin.
Bike riding on vacation!
Proud bike rider!
Go exploring via bicycle!
See the Chincoteague Ponies in Virginia.
Horseback Riding at Bill Cody Ranch in Wyoming.
9. Take More Pictures
Hiring a photographer to take pictures of the whole family is an extra special way to commemorate your trip. Whether it’s a once in a lifetime adventure or an annual vacation, photographs will always keep the memories alive.
Take lots of photos!
And here are two important tips: * Give each child an age-appropriate camera. Some of the most touching or extremely hilarious photos that we have viewed were from our young child’s eyes. * Include the family’s photographer in photos. I’m usually the photographer in the family and well, there just aren’t a ton of photos of me. Do better than we did — you won’t regret it. Every now and then, have a photo watching night at home. Which vacations were your favorites? Take a vote on where to travel next.
Finally, there’s nothing like an upgrade to make your vacation stand out. Upgrade your accommodations (get a balcony stateroom or a Magic Kingdom view), meals, souvenir purchases, excursions, and other vacation components.
Concierge Room at the BoardWalk Inn.
Do you usually sail in an interior cabin? Next cruise, drive to the port instead of flying and upgrade to an oceanview cabin. Or try a cruise line (like Disney or Royal Caribbean) that is new to you. Not sure which one is right for you — read my Disney vs. Royal Caribbean Splashdown.
Magic in the Med!
Headed to Walt Disney World for a week of quick-service meals? Maybe try a few table-service meals instead of purchasing more Mickey Ears and other souvenirs.
Pizza at Epcot’s Via Napoli!
Of course, there’s something to be said for the familiarity and tradition of visiting the same location each year. Just change it up a bit. Make your vacation extraordinary!
How have you made your vacations extra special? Share in the comments below or join the discussion on our Facebook Page.
Surreal Places Series: Travel Locations You Must See
As you start narrowing down your next adventure, consider these surreal places and spaces. These are the first suggestions in our new series focusing on travel locations you must see!
Conjuring up visions of locations that you can barely imagine? Well, the ancient site of Pompeii, would fit that dream. As you take in the ruins, it’s difficult to juxtapose the tragic disaster that occurred in A.D. 79 with the peaceful, majestic Mount Vesuvius of today. While trying to grasp the magnitude of the volcanic eruption, you’ll also be exploring an archaeological site (with homes and streets!) that is so much larger than pictures portray.
Pompeii is a hauntingly surreal place.
This is one place that really messed with my mind. And I feel compelled to visit again — to try to take in the magnitude of this hauntingly, beautiful excavation.
I love traveling by train in Europe; it’s a convenient transportation option especially while traveling through a foreign country. The train stop nearest the excavation is Pompei Scavi-Villa Misteri. It’s a very short walk to the entrance, however you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be walking for the better part of your day, plus the surface is uneven so watch your footing.
United States Virgin Islands
A popular land and cruise based vacation spot, St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands boasts a stunning harbor near Charlotte Amalie. My favorite way to enjoy this view is on from the balcony of a cruise ship.
Blue turquoise water soothes the soul at St. Thomas, USVI.
On St. Croix, an excursion to Little La Grange will entice your senses. A 19th century plantation turned cattle ranch, the house is now the Lawaetz Family Museum showcasing family antiques. Spend time touring the impeccable grounds with tropical flowers and trees.
The gorgeous Little La Grange Plantation House and grounds on St. Croix.
The grounds at Little La Grange.
Headed to the U.S. Virgin Islands? Do not miss St. John for tranquility. In fact, swimming at Trunk Bay Beach is one of my all-time favorite memories. Add it to your vacation itinerary for playing in warm waters amidst an unspoiled setting. We took a boat from St. Thomas to St. John, however, I’m dreaming about an actual stay on St. John! How about you?!
Zion National Park, Utah
Experience the beauty of the steep, red cliffs of Zion National Park. Nestled in this surreal place are forest trails cut alongside the babbling Virgin River.
Zion National Park is a contrast of red steep cliffs and green forested trails.
Of all the parks that we have visited, this is my teen son’s favorite. From horseback riding to hiking, Zion offers a multitude of family activities.
Even teens appreciate the surreal beauty of Zion!
Plan to hike and/or horseback ride in the morning or evening. Avoid the hottest afternoon hours; the heat was brutal during our vacation in late May – early June.
Recommended Lodging: Desert Pearl Inn in Springdale, Utah.
Desert Pearl Inn, Springdale, Utah.
Stay tuned for our second part in the Surreal Places Series, plus watch for in-depth reviews of our recommended surreal places to inspire your vacation plans.
Have you been to any of these surreal places?
Where should we (and our readers) go next?
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Wander into Disney’s Grand Floridian (GF) and time starts to slip away — back to the Victorian era. Whether you’re stopping by for a respite or staying at the Grand, the breathtaking lobby will beckon you to sit a spell. While marveling at the ornate decor underneath stained glass domes, find a cozy chair, then listen to the Grand Floridian Society Orchestra (GFSO).
Let time go by at the GF Lobby.
THIS is one of my favorite places to relax while in Walt Disney World.
Grand Floridian’s second floor seating.
From their prime real estate on a second floor balcony, the Grand Floridian Orchestra perches high above the immense lobby. When the live music starts, it seems to float throughout the multi-storied room, where guests listen from elegant seats on the first and second floors.
Grand Floridian Lobby.
Others listen from Mizner’s Lounge nestled just behind the band.
Evenings at the Grand Floridan are even more enchanting once the band starts to play their ragtime, Dixie, and jazz music with some Disney tunes mixed into the playlist.
These refined musicians have been led by drummer Patrick Doyle. For 44 years, Patrick was a full time musician at Walt Disney World until he semi-retired in July 2016; he now plays two nights per week.
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
GF Trivia: The Tennessee Waltz was played every day for the “Teddy Bear Lady” as it was one of Lynn’s favorite songs. Lynn would visit the GF often with her husband, Bruce, and then daily after her beloved husband passed away. Last I had heard (and correct me if I’m wrong), she was in hospice care. Her visits are greatly missed by the Cast Members as well as many patrons of the Grand Floridian. If you have an update on this lovely lady, please share in the comments. I recall seeing her as she listened to the music on many of our GF stays and visits.
And don’t forget to request one of your favorite songs.
When You Wish Upon A Star.
Request your favorite tune!
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra Schedule
The current daily schedule has performances listed at 4PM, 5:20PM, 6:25PM, 7:35PM, and 9PM.
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Get ready to mark your Disney vacation calendars! On Sundays and Mondays, the following Grand Floridian Society Orchestra Band Members entertain guests:
- Bobby Pickwood – Bandleader/Trumpet, Cornet, and Flugelhorn
- Jeff Phillips – Piano
- Doug Mathews – String Bass
- Paul Parker – Drums
- Dick Fote – Trombone
- Gene Hunn – Flute, Clarinet, Bass, Tenor, and Soprano Saxophone
If you visit Tuesday through Saturday, the GFSO band members are:
- Patrick Doyle – Bandleader/Drums
- John Katalenic – Piano
- Charlie Silva – String Bass and Electric Bass
- Davy Jones – Trumpet, Cornet, and Flugelhorn
- Harold Johnson – Trombone/Vocal
- Rex Wertz – Flute, Clarinet, Bass, Tenor, and Soprano Saxophone
Dates, times, musicians are subject to change.
It’s difficult to find time to see and do everything at Walt Disney World; I get it. It’s also challenging to find time to rest on a vacation that mostly centers around theme parks. Spending time at the WDW resorts is a fun arrival day activity before your Disney days become crazy busy.
So, when you need to escape the throngs of crowds standing in loud queues, make your way to Disney’s Grand Floridian and let the sweet sounds of the Grand Floridian Society soothe your ears, your heart, and your soul.
Contact Us, Follow Us on Twitter, or comment below to share your Grand Floridian Orchestra experiences.
UFOs and Starry Skies: A Themed Vacation Itinerary in Texas and New Mexico
UFOs and Starry Skies is a fascinating itinerary that was part of our 5,000 mile southwest trip. Yet, it’s easily adaptable to add on to a long vacation or for a shorter road trip. Traveling through Texas and New Mexico, you’ll get to see the mysterious Marfa Lights, attend a Star Party at McDonald Observatory, explore the UFO phenomenon in Roswell, climb White Sands, and continue to feel very small next to the Very Large Array.
To accompany this itinerary, stay tuned to The Castle Concierge for more in-depth reviews.
Read on for an itinerary with optional stops to add to your aliens and starry skies exploration.
Pre-Trip To-Do List
Your pre-trip to-do list for your UFOs and Starry Skies vacation gives you an idea of some of the logistics that will need to be addressed before setting out on the open road.
- Book a hotel in Alpine, Texas, Roswell, New Mexico, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
- Reserve the Star Party at McDonald Observatory, 3640 Dark Sky Drive, Fort Davis, TX 79734.
- Look up sunset time for Fort Davis, TX.
- Reserve a Roswell UFO Tour with Dennis Balthaser.
- Reserve hotels, if needed, before and after this itinerary.
Begin the Road Trip
Drive to Alpine, Texas.
We made the 5 hour journey from San Antonio, departing around Noon and arrive about 5PM. Plan your trip according to your starting point!
On Road to Alpine from San Antonio, Texas.
Note that this town has limited lodging and dining options (Pizza Hut, Subway, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen), so consider making reservations early.
It’s going to be a late night so we recommend resting at your hotel (we stayed at the Hampton) until it’s time to travel to the McDonald Observatory, which is 50 minutes away from Alpine.
Arriving before sunset at Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory.
Depending on the time of year that you are visiting, you may be able to see the Marfa Lights at dusk, followed by the Star Party. Since we were visiting in May, we went to the Star Party first (9:30-11:30PM), then stopped at the Marfa Lights in the late evening.
For reference: Marfa to McDonald Observatory is 45 minutes. Alpine, Texas to Marfa is 22 minutes.
The scenery along the way to the McDonald Observatory was beautiful. We left before sunset and were there with plenty of time to explore the Visitor’s Center, have a snack, and watch the sunset (8:49PM, during our visit).
Due to the elevation of 6,700 feet above sea level atop Mount Locke and the dark skies, McDonald Observatory is a great location for viewing the starry skies.
See the stars at McDonald Observatory.
Unfortunately on our night, the skies were cloudy. The Observatory added extra lectures and were able to point out some stars. We were also able to view several planets through the telescopes. Best of all, I saw a shooting star!
Marfa, Texas is known for the mysterious lights that appear on clear nights.
The dark drive down the mountain, plus the added anticipation of seeing the mystery lights definitely gave us a spine-chilling ride. We located the Marfa Lights viewing center and parked our car in the pitch darkness. As late as it was, we were not the only ones making the stop. There were some people already there (locals and tourists) as well as people coming and going while we were there.
As instructed we gazed into the blackness toward the Chinati Mountains and some locals told us where to focus our attention. At first, we didn’t see much of anything but we heard cows grazing nearby. And then it happened, a light flickering. Another one bouncing. Two or more lights would appear seeming to hover and then dance.
What are the lights? I don’t know. Are they headlights? I can’t say. I do know that the feeling of being out there in the dark between Marfa and Paisano Pass was other-worldly. And, I’m glad we made the stop.
We certainly had a lot to chat about on the ride back to the hotel! In fact, we still talk about that entire evening. Amazing!
We had pre-booked the Holiday Inn in Roswell, New Mexico. While there are more accommodations here, you’ll still find that your options are limited compared to other touristy stops.
Since we were out late star-gazing and looking at mysterious lights, we slept in. Departing by 10AM, we were in Roswell by 2PM. The four hour drive is quite desolate so plan accordingly.
Prepare for your road trip before heading out on the desolate roads.
After checking into our hotel, we decided to rest and then go out to dinner. We had underestimated how tired we would be from the previous late night. If you arrive with energy, I would recommend touring the UFO Museum (allow one hour).
Meeting us in our hotel lobby, Dennis Balthaser picked us up for our pre-arranged private Roswell UFO Tour. We spent from 9-11AM riding around Roswell in his vehicle. There wasn’t a single boring minute. He kept us completely captivated with accounts of the alleged UFO crash. It was extremely interesting to how this event affected the town of Roswell and its people.
Hangar 84 in Roswell, New Mexico. Were alien bodies and debris kept here before being flown elsewhere?
After the tour, we had lunch, then spent an hour at the UFO Museum.
White Sands National Monument
Begin your two-hour drive to White Sands National Monument. The other-worldy landscapes glistening with white gypsum sand are stunning.
Glistening white sand!
Continue to Las Cruces where you’ll spend the night before continuing your itinerary. An optional morning stop at White Sands Missile Range Museum makes for a fascinating tour surrounded by gorgeous scenery. Be sure to have photo ID to enter the gates.
White Sands Missile Range Park has an impressive display.
Very Large Array
Plan to drive to the Karl G Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) located on the San Agustin Plains. This drive to 7,000 feet above sea level is also rather isolated so be sure to gas up, get food, and stop for breaks when you are near civilization. Fifty miles west of Socorro, New Mexico, this astronomical radio observatory is made up of 27 radio antennas (each 82 feet in diameter).
Very Large Array from Road. Wow!
A video presentation (Jodie Foster from Contact narrates) and self-guided tour will take about 1.5 hours from the small VLA Visitor Center.
Standing next to one of the antenna at the VLA.
For sci-fi fans, the VLA is iconic. Stop here and try to take in some of the mind-boggling science!
Very Large Array Antenna focuses on the science of black holes and more!
Drive to Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona and/or Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Due to a travel delay, we had to skip Meteor Crater and drove right to Flagstaff.
One of our favorite itineraries, the UFOs and Starry Skies theme was a highlight of our summer trip.
Are you ready to set out on a UFO and Starry Skies adventure?
Roswell, New Mexico: Southwest Road Trip Overnight Stop
During the summer of 2016, our family took an extended road trip through the southwestern portion of the United States. An exciting journey that allowed us to check off several destination-related bucket list items, including a stop in Roswell, New Mexico.
Visiting and touring the area surrounding Roswell, New Mexico has been a bucket list item of mine for decades. The events that allegedly occurred at Roswell shortly after the end of the second World War have always intrigued me. As a sci-fi/fantasy fan, I also have a related interest in the history of the phenomenon of UFO sightings. Luckily, both my wife and my son share this interest. Our road trip was the perfect opportunity to make the pilgrimage.
Driving the Roswell Highway
Part of the mystique of Roswell is due to its remote location.
Road to Roswell
New Mexico History
Regardless of your interest or level of skepticism related to such topics, it cannot be denied that Roswell, New Mexico holds a significant place mark in the history of post World War II America and has influenced aspects of our culture for decades.
Fat Man Bomb Casing at White Sands Missile Range
New Mexico, in general, surprised me by both its beauty and the wide-ranging cultural influences it holds. Undeniably, one of those cultural influences is the importance it played during the last half of World War II and in the infancy of the Cold War.
After 20 months of development, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated 200 miles south of Los Alamos at Trinity Site on the Alamogordo bombing range on July 16, 1945.
Trinitite – debris from Trinity Site on display at White Sands Missile Range
Today, New Mexico continues to harbor a significant military presence at the White Sands Missile Range.
Kitschy Close Encounters
Visiting Roswell can include experiencing its quirkier side, such as the dozens of green alien figures of various sizes decorating businesses throughout the area.
Alien take-over in Roswell
The International UFO Museum And Research Center is located in Roswell and is an informative place for those desiring to dive deeply into the specifics of the 1947 incident at Roswell as well as for those who are simply curious.
Additional UFO and alien theories, as well as the expected tourist trappings of T-shirts, books, and other paraphernalia, can be found at the museum.
Kitschy Close Encounter at UFO Museum
We spent about an hour or so pouring through some of the more detailed exhibits related to the supposed UFO crash. The museum is definitely worth visiting while in Roswell in order to get a more intimate view of the cultural impact the incident in 1947 has had on the town.
Exhibit at UFO Museum
The primary purpose of a more serious visit to Roswell should include a plan to visit several of the actual locations integral to the Roswell incident. While you could surely work to do this on your own, we found it advantageous to have assistance in not only finding the locations, but in explaining the importance of each place within the context of the Roswell story.
Fortunately, there are several options for guided tours of the Roswell area. Researching months in advance of our visit, my wife came across solid reviews related to the tours provided by Dennis Balthaser.
Ballard Funeral Home in Roswell
The experience we had with Dennis was fantastic. He picked us up at a designated time in our hotel lobby, and then spent the next several hours driving us around Roswell showing us the specific locations and detailing the events that transpired before, during, and after the incident at Roswell.
Dennis is widely considered to be an expert on the incident at Roswell and has developed a significant resume of research and presentation on the topic.
Driving onto the Roswell International Air Center
The tour included numerous stops and drive by locations: drive by of rocket scientist Robert Goddard workshop; drive by former homes of Intelligence Officer Major Jesse Marcel, and Public Relations Officer Walter Haut; current City Hall (Roswell Police Station in 1947), and more.
Most exciting, was driving onto the Roswell Industrial Air Park, known as the Roswell Army Airfield in 1947, to see Hangar 84 where “bodies and debris” were briefly stored before being shipped elsewhere.
Dennis was extremely courteous and knowledgeable throughout the entire tour. His tour allowed us to gain a much better understanding and appreciation of the events. Not only was he able to provide us with fascinating information that was new to us, he demonstrated an interest in why we wanted to visit.
Clearly, Dennis has found his passion and was able to share that with us in an accessible manner. I would strongly recommend his tour for anyone interested in diving deeper into the incident at Roswell. We took the private tour for up to 4 people. With Dennis doing the driving and unfolding the story in chronological chunks, we were able to really absorb the scenery and mind-boggling information.
Dennis Balthaser shows us a 1947 photo. Original water tower still stands.
Our visit to Roswell was extremely satisfying. We were able to appreciate the importance of the event while gaining additional perspectives on what may or may not have happened.
This overnight stop on our 5,000 mile trip gave us lots to discuss and think about!
Von Braun Exhibit
Plus, Bucket List item checked!
What U.S. destination is on your bucket list? Let us know in the comments!
College Visit Preparations: How to Plan a Campus Tour
After touring a few universities you’ll find that visits are indeed helpful. During your college visit, consider that this is the campus environment and local area where your child will be living for the next 4+ years. And if there are job opportunities in the area, this relocation could be an even longer commitment.
You’ll need to discover if a small, medium, or large campus is most suitable. Is a city or suburban campus the best fit? If the locale is of little importance, then you’ll have even more options open to you. More tours, oh my!
Campus visits can be an all-day event or a quick one hour tour. Consider whether you want to take a formal tour through the Admissions office and/or an Academic Department or a self-guided tour. Both have their pros and cons. In fact, for those colleges that remain top on your student’s list, I would recommend both.
A formal visit will typically involve setting up an appointment via the college’s website and possibly setting up a more detailed visit to the academic department of your child’s intended major.
Formal visits are usually lengthy with a set schedule. Your day could include checking in at the Admissions Office or Welcome Center, a presentation about the school, a general tour given by student ambassadors, lunch in the dining hall or food court, a visit to an empty classroom, a tour through a staged dorm room, a session on financial aid, and more.
Visitor Center at University of Tennessee at Knoxville
A formal visit may involve touring with a large group of students in varied majors or a small group of students hoping to pursue the same course of study.
Consider college tours versus larger preview days. Preview days are usually large events sponsored by the school during which you’ll get to tour the campus, sit in on presentations, visit a club fair, and/or see a sporting event. These are campus wide events rather than smaller Admissions Office gatherings. Both are beneficial, although I find the larger events to be a bit more time-consuming and stress-inducing. These larger events however are often planned on weekends rather than weekdays making them possibly an easier fit in your calendar.
Meeting with an Academic Department
You’ll need to set up an appointment with the academic department of interest in advance.
If your visit includes meeting with an academic department, then this is where you’ll want to really take notes. What are the criteria for admissions? Does the school support internships and co-ops? How soon will the student begin taking classes in their major interest of study? What projects are required to be completed during senior year? Do they offer scholarships? Are there first-year class requirements that must be met before a student is admitted into the major?
Engineering Building at Purdue
Will your child be spending a large amount of time in a computer lab, engineering lab, theater, or music room? If so, ask to see that space. If the engineering labs are in an old part of the campus, deep within a tired engineering building, then perhaps the school isn’t putting funds toward that particular curriculum.
Self-Guided Tours and Summer Camps
On the day of your formal tour, I would suggest leaving at least an hour free to spend some time exploring the campus on your own. Visit the bookstore, sit down in the food court and observe students, ask a student some questions. Ask what popular restaurants are within walking distance of campus and have dinner there. You’ll see the prettiest areas on your guided tour but may notice some less than stellar sights roaming on your own. Then again, you may find even more to love as you explore!
We’ve received extremely helpful information from current students participating in our son’s intended major as well as from students in marching band. Ask about the activities that interest your child.
Marching Band Visit at Old Dominion University
Look for summer camps and other ways to spend more time on the campus that most interests your student. For one of Nic’s top school choices, we returned to roam the campus on our own. Consider participating in a summer camp at one of the colleges. A stay in the dorms and more time spent with the students and professors before applying? Yes, please!
You’ll often hear talk of a dream school. Is it the one with the best ranking nationally? The best ranking for a certain course of study? A local school with a great football team? An inspiring campus with beautiful buildings? A campus with a plethora of dining options? The party school? The Ivy school? The school with the fantastic hotel-like dorms and outdoor swimming pool? A dream school has a different meaning to each student. Maybe it’s a family member’s alma mater. Your family may require several visits to this school to determine whether it really lives up to expectations or whether it falls flat in some unexpected ways. Then again, a one time visit may result in that dream school sticking and that’s exciting!
Contact Admissions for your college visit
Ideally, parents and/or your student should review college materials that have already been mailed or picked up at college fairs. We devised a question sheet before our first college fair and it’s been amazingly helpful throughout our chats with Admissions, College Deans, Professors, and students.
Many colleges have virtual tours on their websites. We like to watch these together on our big screen TV, if time permits.
Confirm start times and locations. On our first college visit, we forgot that we were traveling from the Central time zone to the Eastern time zone. While we left with plenty of time to make up for this error, we then ran into traffic. After a detour, we finally arrived on time but the mad dash stressed us all out and wasn’t a good way to start a long day. Learn from our mistake!
Get a map and directions!
College campuses can also be large and sometimes their layouts are confusing. Consult a college map prior to your arrival. Know where the parking lot for visitors is located and how far it is from your tour’s starting point.
Decide before your visit if you would like to set up a chat with a coach, marching band director, or other person who may be important to your overall college experience.
When to Visit
Try to schedule a visit while the college is in session. Some campuses don’t even give regularly scheduled tours during the summer months. You’ll need to visit during a high school break that doesn’t conflict with the college’s schedule. And this is why you should absolutely start touring colleges early!
Common Data Sets
We do recommend creating a spreadsheet to compare schools. Student body size? Campus size? Number applied? Number accepted? Number enrolled? How many students join a fraternity or sorority? How many men vs women are on the campus? What’s the average ACT or GPA score of accepted students? Is an interview part of the admissions process? How many students live on campus or are from out of state? Do they have a jazz band, newspaper, or other club of interest?
All of these questions can be easily answered with a quick Google search for common data sets. For example, “Auburn University common data set”. Insert the name of each school and voila! Instant data!
Day of Visit
Eat a good breakfast. It may be a long time before you can sit down for nourishment. Some colleges put out a spread of breakfast food, others provide a bottle of water and a meal ticket for later in the day. With lots of walking, sometimes in all kinds of weather, you’ll want to be fortified.
Speaking of weather, check the forecast. We’ve been caught in a downpour. We’ve toured in extreme heat. Bring extra water, even though schools usually have bottles available.
Bring a notebook. We like to sit down with Nic during lunch or immediately after a college visit and ask him his immediate impressions. He may note that he liked or didn’t like the dorms. He’ll give us his thoughts on the engineering facilities. Any random observation that he can look back on to help with his decision is jotted down quickly. Some of these details will be difficult to recall after you’ve visited several campuses, so you’ll appreciate being able to refer back to them.
Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. Even if the campus is large enough to supply a bus, van, or trolley transportation for part of the tour, you will still be walking and standing on your feet a lot.
Should You Visit Every School of Interest?
It depends. Does time and budget permit? Do you really want your child to see that high reach school before you know if he/she is accepted?
Stats to Look Up
Make the Most of Your College Visit
As an investment in your child’s future, be sure to go on college visits, ask questions, and help guide your child to find the right fit for them.
Out of State College Tour
Is the school with the best ranking, newest buildings, and/or coziest dorms the top pick for your child? Does the school closest or farthest from home appeal more? Is the university with the most costly tuition (or the one offering academic merit scholarships covering the full price of tuition) the best choice?
We don’t have the answers to those questions. What we are concluding is that the best fit for our child will be unique from what the best fit is for yours. There’s not a single path to success. Help your child set their own course with a college visit!
Update: Nic applied to 7 schools. He was accepted to six (Florida Institute of Technology, Purdue, University of TN at Knoxville, University of Alabama at Huntsville, Ohio State, and Auburn University). After careful consideration, Nic has chosen his college path. He’ll be attending Auburn University, Auburn, AL.
Now, it’s your turn to help us on our journey to college. Tell us how many colleges your child visited and what was the criteria that led them to pick their school. Or just give us your most helpful tips and advice!