All over the United States, laptops and road maps are replacing beach towels and bathing suits as college students head back to school. And, as usual, many incoming freshman are bringing their families along for the trip.
But this year, more is getting in the way than first-year jitters and unfinished summer reading lists. Gas prices rose over the summer, and hotel capacity remained limited, which means that room rates have gone up. Fall is a big season for business travel, so back-to-schoolers in major metro areas may find themselves competing with businessmen for scarce hotel space. It doesn't take a degree in mathematics to know what that means: You can add some significant travel expenses to that $40,000 tuition bill this fall.
But that doesn't mean you can't make the send-off an enjoyable one, replete with cultural activities and great food. The keys are to plan ahead, so you're not scrambling for a place to have a celebratory dinner, and to choose wisely, so you're not jammed into a mediocre spot with all the other visiting families.
To help college-bound families everywhere make their trips a little easier to plan, we've compiled our first-ever travel guide for parents. Using data from the upcoming edition of Cities Ranked and Rated by Bert Sperling and Peter Sander, we determined the ten metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of four-year colleges. Then, for each associated city, we consulted local experts (including students) to find a centrally located hotel, a nice but not extravagantly priced restaurant for a send-off dinner, and a general daytime activity to keep the family occupied while the new student attends orientation.
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Jan Freitag, vice president at Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research, doubts that high gas prices--now almost $4 per gallon in some cities--or inflated hotel prices--which rose 6.8% in the first six months of 2006--will get in the way of business travelers or families trekking to campus.
"If you have to make that trip, you'll make different choices along the way," Freitag says. "Families may not stay for an entire week, but just overnight, because hotels are expensive. They'll stay at a Courtyard Marriott instead of a full-service hotel, or drive further to outlying hotels which aren't right on campus. They'll eat at TGI Friday's instead of a nicer restaurant."
In some cases, we found that college-bound families qualified for special pricing. In Minneapolis, we suggest the Marquette Hotel, where room rates start at $369. But if you're feeling pinched by tuition, at the Holiday Inn Minneapolis Metrodome, anyone associated with the nearby University of Minnesota gets a discounted rate of $104, compared with the regular rate of $150.
We also discovered great places to dine affordably, even in large and notoriously expensive cities like New York. The funky Carnegie Delicatessen & Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan has dinner entrées starting at $11 and a menu packed with classic New York options, like sandwiches stuffed with pastrami or corned beef, and enormous slabs of cheesecake for dessert.
As for the sightseeing, we've chosen an introductory activity in each place, and many of the best are inexpensive or free. Use that orientation day in Chicago to skip out to Millennium Park, a hot spot for arts performances, or take to the river for an architectural boat tour. Head to the Getty museums in Los Angeles or the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (The Freer and Sackler galleries for Asian art are beautiful and often uncrowded.)
Who knows? You might even learn something.
© 2012 Forbes.com