The food was superb, from the lobster soup to the warm chocolate cake in a nice restaurant in downtown Boston. But it wasn't the choice of restaurant that was making me so happy this particular Saturday night.
It was that we'd survived a day of college touring in Boston without a meltdown, without stalking off a campus, without tears and with everyone still speaking -- and even more surprising, smiling.
Anyone who has ever toured colleges with a high school student -- and I was on my third round that Boston weekend --- knows that's no small feat. I've driven four hours to have my son refuse to get out of the car because he didn't like the look of the campus; I've flown halfway across the country to have my daughter bail out before the tour because she didn't like the looks of the other prospective students ("too intense") and because the campus was "too flat." (What did she expect in Chicago anyway?). I've gotten the evil eye from a child when I've asked a question on a tour. (Parents are supposed to be seen and not heard in these situations, I quickly learned.)
So you can imagine my pleasure this Saturday night in America's "College Town" -- Greater Boston is believed to have the highest concentration of colleges and universities in a metropolitan area anywhere in the world -- that 16-year-old Melanie was thoroughly enjoying herself. Certainly it helped that we opted for a hip hotel and made time to visit the Museum of Science, a short walk from our hotel.
I looked around the restaurant and wondered if any of the other families were also touring colleges. Boston boasts some 57 colleges and universities and college applications and college tours are up, as they are most everywhere. We met families from across the country. One year recently, Boston University campus tours hosted nearly 50,000 prospective students and their families.
These visitors mean big bucks for Boston, tourism officials report, contributing more than $350 million to the local economy each year. No wonder many Boston hotels are now touting college visit packages complete with a map of the area highlight colleges and a discounted rates.
The trick to making these college tours productive is to plan ahead and try to have fun when you're not touring. Your child will quickly forget all about his I-won't-get-in-anywhere or I-have-no-idea-where-I want-to-go-to-school jitters. Check out the penguins and the seals at the New England Aquarium or take your young artists to the Museum of Fine Arts. Shop till you drop in Harvard Square or Faneuil Hall Market Place. Eat pasta in Boston's Italian North End or take a tour of Fenway Park where the Red Sox play. Walk the Freedom Trail with costumed interpreters. Boston boasts all kinds of terrific winter hotel deals at under $100 a night.
The other good news about college visits to Boston is that if you are just starting the search, you can see a variety of schools in one trip. No wonder the tours and information sessions are so crowded. Some families avoid the process all together by sending the kids off on organized tours with companies like College Visits (www.college-visits.com), which is run by a former Johns Hopkins University admissions official. But if you are going this fall, here are some tips from one who has been there:
Splurge on a nice hotel or a fancy dinner. Revel in the time together with your son or daughter.
Insist that your child take charge. That means the kids should decide where to visit, call and make the appointments and introduce themselves at the admissions office when they arrive.
Take a virtual tour before you set out to see campuses. The university or college website can give your son or daughter a sense of the place and perhaps help them to narrow down their selection -- big or small, rural or urban -- before you set out.
Make appointments. It's a mistake to just arrive on campus without calling ahead to arrange a tour or information session.
Plan for down time whether it's around the hotel pool, shopping or taking a hike amid fall foliage. Check the region's tourism Website to see what's happening in the area when you plan to visit.
Consider B&Bs when visiting small college towns. I discovered the innkeepers were a wealth of information about everything from campus sports to local restaurants and shopping. You'll likely meet other families touring the same schools and can compare notes.
Leave the siblings behind. They'll just be bored anyway. If you're taking a morning from vacation to tour a school, and have another adult with you, take the younger kids elsewhere.
Keep quiet and let your son or daughter ask the questions on the tour. You know whatever you say will embarrass them anyway. Use the time when you're in the car or over dinner to discern their feelings about the school. What did they like? What didn't they like? Suggest they jot down a few notes.
Pare down the itinerary. More than two schools a day and it all becomes a blur. More than three days and it's too much to digest in one stretch.
Remind them -- that they will find a school -- and hopefully several schools -- that they will like and that will welcome them.
Remind yourself it's going to be over in a flash. Then all you have to do is figure out how to pay for it.
Eileen Ogintz interviews families and experts around the world for her widely syndicated column Taking the Kids ™ and is the creator of www.takingthekids.com She's written seven family travel books most recently The Kid's Guide; NYC and The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow TakingTheKids on twitter and like us on Facebook, where Eileen welcomes your questions and comments.