(NerdWallet) – To create a fun but affordable summer for her daughters, ages 11 and 13, Flossie McCowald plans out camps well in advance. The Pennsylvania resident snags early bird discounts, takes advantage of a church-based sleepaway camp that offers scholarships and leverages sibling discounts.
“Every little bit helps,” says McCowald, who is the founder of SuperMomHacks.com, where she writes about parenting.
That’s especially true when camp is more expensive than ever. “We’re in an inflationary environment, and camp is no exception,” says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, which represents camps and industry professionals. He adds that camps are facing price increases across every major cost category, including staffing, insurance and transportation.
The ACA says that according to responses it collected from members nationwide in 2022, on average day camp costs $88 a day and overnight camp costs $173 a day, while some camps are free, and most offer need-based financial aid to low-income families.
If you’re looking for ways to make summer camp more affordable this year, consider these tips from camp experts:
As McCowald’s experience shows, booking early — even before the previous summer ends — can result in significant savings. Camps often offer discounts for early bird sign-ups as well as give away in-demand financial aid or reduced-price spots while camp is still in session.
Sometimes, camps trying to establish programs for certain age groups will offer huge discounts to new campers, says Karen Meister, director of the southern division of Camp Experts and Teen Summers, which finds camps and summer programs for children and teens.
“Most discounted offerings are done at the end of August the summer before,” she adds. That’s one reason why signing up early can pay off.
Ask about incentives
Lauren Nearpass, CEO of Summer 365, which helps families find summer camps and programs, says how you choose to pay for camp often affects the final price. You may be able to get a discount for paying the full amount upfront or paying with a check instead of a credit card, for example. Signing up for a longer stay can also bring down the per-week price, and installment payment plans may be available.
“Never hesitate to ask about discounts. Not all financial aid is advertised,” Nearpass says.
Rosenberg notes that day camp expenses can also be eligible for the child and dependent care tax credit as well as flexible spending accounts for dependent care, which are tax-advantaged accounts offered by employers.
Beware of hidden costs
Jennifer Rosenstein, a camp referral agent for The Camp Lady, which helps families find camps and teen programs, says it’s worth checking on extra costs that can show up later, such as travel to the camp or hotel rooms the night before camp starts. Uniforms and extra activities like horseback riding or field trips can also add to the total price.
Nearpass notes that you can often buy camp gear like uniforms from websites or Facebook groups at reduced prices. “You can also work with other parents to buy items in bulk for spirit days or other supplies — divide and conquer,” she says.
Explore lesser-known options
Rosenberg says there are many types of camps beyond the for-profit model, including nonprofit camps, camps run by service organizations and faith-based camps, many of which offer subsidies. The ACA’s “Find a Camp” tool helps parents connect with all of their options.
Community groups, colleges and local governments often offer discount camps, Rosenberg adds. The National Summer Learning Association’s Discover Summer website can help connect parents with local options as well as job programs and summer internships for teens.
McCowald says that if you have a child with a medical condition, learning disability or special needs, there are often free or discounted camp options available.
Parents can also save by keeping some weeks less scheduled. “Summer is a good time to just get outside and play, ride bikes around the neighborhood and hang out with friends,” McCowald says, while acknowledging that not everyone lives in a neighborhood amenable to that kind of freedom. Parents can even form a “camp co-op” where they take turns overseeing one another’s children and planning activities, she adds.
Use camp fees to teach kids about money
Whatever you’re paying for camp, you can make the decision process a learning opportunity, says Kate Sorensen, owner of the website CouponCravings.com and mother of two camp-loving kids in Iowa. “I told my daughter this morning, ‘We will sign up for camps together and write down the cost of each one,’” she says. That way, her daughter learns to appreciate the value of camp.
It’s a lesson camp can impart before it even begins.