For some families, summer camp is a ritual. Parents went to camp nearly every summer and loved it, and it’s a given that their kids will too, when the time comes. Other parents are surprised when a child comes home from school to announce that so-and-so is going to camp and they want to go away, too.

But the search for the perfect camp can be daunting. “There are so many ways to execute the experience of camp; it can be overwhelming,” says Jill Tipograph, who advises parents on summer camp options. The right camp, Tipograph says, can be “transformative,” making kids more socially adept and self-reliant, less gadget-absorbed, and often interested in new activities.

If you’re beginning the search for a camp for your children, here are four questions to ask and some advice on finding the answers.

Day camp or overnight?

Considerations like budget, how long you and your child want camp to last, your other plans for the summer, and your child’s age, interests and personality will factor into this choice.
Some overnight places take campers as young as seven, but it’s more common for children to try it for the first time at nine or ten. Barb Levison, another adviser on camp choices, says that while some camps have one- or two-week “rookie sessions” for first-timers, most ask campers to choose a three or seven-week session. The latter allows for a full camp experience and can simplify summer logistics for working parents. But it might mean your child’s summer will be taken up by single experience. And with costs running from $8,500 to $10,000, a full term could mean giving up the family vacation.

Day camps offer more flexibility in the number of weeks kids attend--often anywhere from two to eight. Levison says that this allows parents to combine experiences, such as a few different specialized camps or camp and a family vacation.

General interest or specialized?

Tipograph advises starting with general-interest camps and only considering specialized camps after kids have had that experience. “Camp should offer exposure to a broad range of activities,” so kids can learn about themselves and discover new interests, she says. “And once you go the specialized camp route you don’t go back [to a general program].”

Specialty camps can allow middle and high schoolers to bond with peers who share their interests, master more complex skills, or delve into an activity they’re interested in and don’t have access to during the school year.

While some run the length of the summer, specialized camps are more likely to have shorter sessions, Levison says. When choosing one, parents and children will want to pay attention to how qualified the instructors are, what there is to do besides the central activity (you might still want a pool or lake, for example), whether kids are grouped by age or ability, and whether the camp welcomes newbies or is “really about mastery of the subject,” says Levison.

Marla Coleman, past president of the American Camp Association, says some general interest camps allow campers to spend a lot of time, but not all their time, immersed in a favorite activity, which can offer the best of both worlds.

How do we know it’s a good camp?

The American Camp Association accredits roughly 2,400 day and overnight camps, about one-fourth of the camps in the U.S., Coleman says. To earn the ACA seal, camps must meet 300 criteria that touch on everything from counselor hiring practices to facilities to the programs offered. “If a camp isn’t accredited, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, but you want to ask why it isn’t,” Coleman says.

Try to visit a camp the summer before you apply, all the experts say. Talk to the director and make sure you have compatible ideas about the care and nurturing of children and what camp should and shouldn’t be. Then ask to speak to parents whose kids attend the camp. “If a director won’t give you the names of other parents, move on,” says Tipograph.

When you’re visiting and talking to these folks try your best to suss out the camp’s culture. Even general interest camps will differ in things like the balance of activities, whether campers stay with a group or can choose their activities, how much free time they have, and whether they are big or intimate, very rustic or less so. Not every child fits every camp.

“Kids know themselves. If they look around and can see themselves here, or they look around and don’t fee a connection, trust that,” Tipograph says.

A good one will have a return rate for staffers of at least 40% to 60%, Coleman says. Overnight counselors will include college students and day camps will have high schoolers, who are by their nature transient. But you also want to see teachers, coaches, artists and other adults returning each year to oversee the young counselors and teach their respective activities. Counselors, especially for overnight camp, should receive some training and have background checks.

The ACA has a find-a-camp tool on its website. It allows parents to search for accredited camps according to criteria such as geographic region, session length, co-ed or single sex, traditional or specialized, and so on.

It costs how much?

Camp is sizable expense, to be sure. Eight weeks of day camp can run $3,000 to $6,000. But here are ways to manage or defray some of the costs.

Look for early bird discounts, which can be offered in dollar or percent terms. They usually require a deposit in the fall and might require early full payment, too. Similar discounts might be offered to returning campers with slightly different deadlines. Many camps also offer a 10% or so discount for a second sibling.

Some camps will barter, too, allowing a child to attend for free or half price if their parent has a skill the camp needs. Parents who are teachers, coaches, artists or dancers often make this arrangement, but Tipograph says camps sometimes need dietitians, camp doctors or administrative help, too.

If you can’t be an early bird, being very late can sometimes work in your favor. Levison says that if camps have specific groups to fill as opening day nears — say they have empty bunks in their 11-12 boys cabin — they might offer “sizable” discounts to those groups.

Camps run by nonprofit organizations like the YMCA tend to be less expensive than other camps. And many overnight camps offer scholarship, though these usually require applying early, too.

Additionally, the experts say, many camps will allow you to pay in installments, even if they don’t advertise this. Regardless of how much you pay and how you do it, be prepared to pay in full by the time camp starts. The experts say that is the one thing that’s usually not negotiable.