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Low-Cost Destinations? Head Back to College

If you’re looking for some low-cost place to go this spring or fall, consider a college town. Chances are you’ll find lots to do and plenty of reasonably priced accommodations, restaurants, and activities. I’m referring here to those many small- to medium-size cities around the country that are home to good-size colleges and universities.

Most colleges and universities present or host a wide variety of activities and events that can fascinate visitors. Many are “free,” and if not, admissions are usually minimal:

Sports. Except for big-time football and basketball at a few major schools, college sports are usually accessible and affordable, at venues small enough that you can actually see what’s going on without a telescope. Colleges typically field lots of other teams, for both men and women: Baseball, softball, swimming, track and field, wrestling, tennis, fencing, and volleyball often play before no more than a handful of die-hard fans or players’ friends. At a really big school, you’ll probably find more than one event per day during the sport’s season.

Theater and music. Any school big enough to have a theater, music, or film department will probably offer all sorts of performances: full-scale concert and plays, showings, student recitals, master classes, and such; many also present visiting performances by professional companies and groups from neighborhood schools. The music department of the small university in my hometown, for example, presents a diverse schedule of recitals and concerts covering classical music, jazz, brass band, choral, and other genres. If you’re not familiar with university student performances, you’ll be surprised at the level of talent and skill on display.

Museums. Chances are a good size school will have a museum or gallery or two—some with broad scope; others narrowly focused on one of the local specialties.

Environs. If what’s going on at the school isn’t enough to retain your interest, many college towns are located in areas with a diversity of other activities. Look for local parks and recreation facilities in the vicinity.

Although there’s no single pattern to college town development, most tend to offer reasonable accommodations and eating options. Those I know feature a mix of mid-range and budget motels and a group of inexpensive, funky restaurants clustered near the campus. Sure, these days, probably half of them are pizza joints, but you usually find enough other cuisines—at reasonable prices—to make your stay enjoyable.

The main challenge is in timing your trip. Late spring—the next two months—is an excellent time. End-of-semester periods tend to concentrate various activities and presentations. Fall is also a good time, after the school year is in full swing. Obviously, midsummer is a down period at most schools—even if the school runs a summer term, activities and sports are apt to be scarce.

Your other challenge is to avoid really peak times: fall on big-time football weekends and spring at graduation time. Those are good times to avoid as accommodations will be scarce and overpriced, restaurants will be mobbed, and you won’t find much else going on, anyhow. Fortunately, scheduling is easy: All the schools I know post complete activity schedules online.

In today’s society, we tend to obsess on superstar performers and ignore the almost-as good. And, of course, we pay dearly for the superstar obsession: $100 tickets and up to ridiculous levels, crowds, big venues where, from the cheap seats, you think you’re be better off watching on a three-inch TV set. College level talent these days is pretty good, in both athletic and artistic endeavors, and you can see a whole week’s worth of college theater and sports for the price of one Broadway performance or major league game. And who knows: You might spot a future Pujols, LuPone, or Horowitz on the way to the top.

Have you ever visited a college town as a tourist, rather than a prospective student? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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