By her sophomore year in high school, Kathryn Skagerberg had already set her sites on attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. So her mom's idea of visiting other colleges that summer seemed like a stinker - at first.
But her mother kept prodding. Wouldn't it be nice, Mrs. Skagerberg suggested gently, to visit Harvard to see if it really was the best fit? Kathryn resisted at first, but soon relented.
"I had a lot of things going on and it was my  summer vacation," says the Houston honors student, now a senior. "But then we did it and I loved [the trip]. It surprised me because actually looking at the schools made a big difference."
Look out Disney World. Summer "vacation" stopovers at college campuses are fast becoming one of the hottest attractions for families with high school seniors, juniors, and even sophomores. Many colleges report jumps in summer and spring visits by ever-younger high schoolers and their families.
"It's like the American middle-class grand tour," says Theodore O'Neill, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Chicago. "Everyone that can afford it goes on a pretty extensive visit. A lot come in the summer and a lot return for second and even a third visit."
Mr. O'Neill and others say there's a key reason for parents and undergrad-wannabes to spend a few warm days scoping out colleges: Those four years have become a huge investment for American families.
Private college tuition, room, and board average more than $20,000 per year. Not surprisingly, parents and students are want to make informed choices that save them money. If a student transfers because he doesn't like his school, making up credits could cost an extra $25,000.
"Buying something you have not actually tested is not a wise idea," says Zola Schneider, author of "Campus Visits and College Interviews," published by College Board Publications. The only way to tell how well a campus "fits" is to visit, she warns.
Although it has some drawbacks, summer can be a good time to visit a school. "The best time to go is when students are there," says Robert Rummerfield, a former admissions officer who started "College Visits" in Charleston, S.C., which organizes bus tours of college campuses. But, he adds, "Summer's big advantage is that parents and children actually have time off from work and school to go visit."
Summer is also perfect for students making their first foray to identify serious prospects. Many will follow up with a second trip in the spring to confirm their choice after being admitted.
With more colleges than ever offering "early decision" applications in the fall - a summer visit becomes key to making an informed choice, experts say.
Though college campuses in summer can seem quiet, a few students usually are on hand to answer candid questions about everything from academics to student attitudes about drinking, crime on campus, and fraternity hazing. Ordinary students may be more candid than tour guides, so it is important to seek them out.
Because many colleges now start in late August, it is possible for parents and their high schoolers to visit some campuses that are in session before their high school resumes, Ms. Schneider says.
Kathryn and her mother, Christine, chose to avoid logistical hassles altogether. So they flew to Boston last June where they joined a week-long tour put together by College Visits. The pair spent 10 days getting a first-hand look at 12 college and university campuses (two colleges per day) along the East Coast from Washington to Boston.
For about $1,300 per person, travel, room, and meals were covered. The two stayed on in the Washington area after the trip and traveled to three colleges on their own.
"It was sort of strange looking at the campuses because they were kind of empty," Kathryn says. "But I still found a lot of students working or taking summer programs. So you could always find someone to talk to."
The trip changed everything for Kathryn.
Harvard was nice, she says now. But going into her senior year this September, Kathryn now plans to apply to as many as six colleges - and Harvard didn't even make the cut. Her mother is pleased with the results.
"I found the tour extremely helpful and in long run very cost-effective," she says. "I am extremely grateful we went at that time instead of waiting until this summer. Now I have no sense of panic that we're not going to get all of this done."