More bang for a bunk: Picking a summer camp

Kids Attend Camp For Attention Deficit Disorders
Students head out to camp out together at the Center for Attention and Related Disorders camp at the Great Hollow Wilderness School in New Fairfield, Conn. The camp, like many others, offers scholarships for families who can't afford the standard cost.Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images file
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Though spring has just sprung, it's already time to think about summer camp. More than 10 million kids are expected to attend this year. Many parents, armed with brochures and checkbooks, have already attended camp open houses since the beginning of the year, and some even registered their children before last year’s camp season ended. But with more than 12,000 local camp choices, both for day and overnight, chances are that you'll still be able to find the right summer experience for your child.

To register for a traditional sleep-away camp, you should typically act quickly since many camps reach their bunk bed limit by March and April. But since some camps make decisions on financial aid later in the spring, it’s definitely not too late to try, according to Ann Sheets, president of the American Camp Association (ACA).

Discounts can make a significant difference since a week at the typical private camp now averages $590, with more resort-type camps going over $1,000. Even a week at the local day camp now averages $250 weekly. But don’t equate cost with quality or assume that camp is out of the question because of your finances. Many camps will work with you by offering discounts, sliding fees and other financial breaks. The ACA estimates that 65 percent of accredited camps give some type of financial assistance.

Here are a few tips for finding the right camp where the price is as good as its offerings:

Decide if it’s the right time. If your child has a burning desire to go to camp, ask yourself a few questions first. What prior experience has he/she had being away from home? Has he/she gone on sleepovers or stayed overnight with family or friends? If so, was the separation easy or difficult? Is your child persistently talking about and asking to go to camp? That's a pretty good indication he/she is ready, even if you are hesitant.

Also, how old is your child? A day camp may be best for children under 7. Sheets, whose five-year-old daughter recently announced she wants to go to camp this summer, suggests parents think about starting with a shorter period the first time out, such as two or three days instead of a full week at a day camp. If all goes well, try a week at a sleep-away camp and then longer.

Whittle down your options. Today there are over 5,000 day camps and 7,000 sleep-away camps. There are also camps that cater to nearly every interest, from sports and fine arts to academic and adventure camps. To narrow your choices, get a sense of what your child is interested in and then start surfing the Web.

To see all kinds of camp choices, go to where you can search for traditional, specialty or special needs camps. The National Camp Association offers a free referral service on its that allows parents to fill out a form with their requirements and requests, which staff members then research to identify specific camps that fit the bill.  The American Camp Association’s offers a database of 2,600 accredited camps that you can search by age, activity and cost preference. Camps accredited by the ACA must meet up to 300 health, safety and program-quality standards. Keep in mind only a small segment of summer camps are accredited and there are plenty of great summer camps that aren’t. In that case, you need to do your own homework — ask the camp why it’s not accredited, and also how they annually evaluate health and safety measures.

When you get down to two or three choices, get on the phone with the camp director or owner, or visit to find out more. Many camps have parent-visit weekends, hold open houses, or offer tours in the spring. Always ask for references.

Whatever resource you use, conduct a camp search with your child, says Sheets. "The more involvement they have in the decision-making, the more relaxed they’ll be when they go, and they probably won’t want to leave." She recommends having them talk to other kids who’ve attended the camp.

There are also some essential statistics that determine whether the camp is a strong one. The most important is the camp director’ average tenure. If it’s five years or less, that’s not so good but if that average is more like 10 or 15 years, take it as a sign that the organization is strong. Also look at the retention rate of campers. If 75 percent of campers return, that's exceptional, but if less than half of them return, that’s worrisome.

Check the staff-to-camper ratio. At minimum there should be a ratio of one-to-10 for ages 9 to 14 at a day camp, and one-to-8 at a resident camp. These ratios don't apply for special-needs campers, who may need one-on-one attention. Also, ask how the counselors are recruited. If a high percentage of counselors were once campers there, it's a good indication that leadership skills are a key part of the camp’s philosophy.

Look for financial breaks. The prime time to look is during the fall and winter since many camps offer "early bird" registration discounts. But realize that many camps have some sessions that are harder to fill. "The June and July sessions fill up faster, but sessions around the Fourth of July and in August are typically lighter in enrollment so some camps offer ‘late’ discounts," said Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association.

Some camps also offer a discounted tuition rate if you have more than one child registering, you have a younger child who may be a future camper, or if you refer other families. Because many camps are in need of medically trained personnel, they are likely to lower the tuition if you can volunteer medical expertise for a session.

Ask if the camp has "camperships", need-based scholarships offered by some private camps. Not all camps advertise that they have this kind of program. Don't assume you make too much to qualify, and if you do decide to apply for a campership, do it early. Many camps also accept credit card payments and will work with parents to put together plans that spread out payments over the summer or even the entire year.

Negotiating tuition with the camp isn’t a good idea. "If a camp is willing to negotiate, that may indicate it’s having enrollment difficulties," said Solomon. "Since they set their tuition based on how much revenue they generate during the season, I’d be concerned if they were willing to negotiate extra discounts."

If you’re sending your child to day camp, you may be able to take a tax deduction since the camp could qualify as childcare. Ask an accountant if you qualify.

Find out about fees and refunds. Know what’s included in the tuition. Some camps charge fees for special programs such as horseback riding, day trips or special transportation. For overnight camps, ask about the cost of laundry services and whether you need any special equipment. Also ask whether you should send spending money for your child since many camps have stores where they charge for necessities such as sunscreen, film and T-shirts with the camp logo.

It’s also important to know the refund policy beforehand, in case the camp just wasn't the right choice for your child or they're not adjusting well. Refund policies vary from different camps — some offer a refund before a certain date or will reimburse for illness while others offer no refunds. Know the policy before sending any money. Solomon says that most camps try to be flexible. "Camps exercise more good will when there’s an unforeseen experience like a death in family rather than if you’re changing your mind on a whim a few days before camp starts."

Consider cheaper alternatives. Enroll in a shorter session instead of the entire season. Two weeks is a lot cheaper than eight weeks and is definitely better than none. 

Camps run by faith-based organizations and nonprofits such as the Girl Scouts, YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs are typically less costly or offer financial assistance, and they’re still high quality, according to experts. "Since they offer virtually the same activities as traditional camps, they’re terrific in terms of quality and you’re not getting a lesser program," said Solomon. "They may not offer pricier activities such as water-skiing or horseback riding, but if your child isn’t interested in them in the first place, they don’t have to be a priority."