The NCAA defines an unofficial visit as any visit to a college campus paid for by you or your parents. The NCAA permits an unlimited number of unofficial visits throughout the recruiting process. The only restriction placed on unofficial visits is during an NCAA "Dead Period."
During a Dead Period, a college coach may not have any in-person contact with you or your parents, on or off campus. Be sure to double-check the NCAA Recruiting Calendar before making travel arrangements to ensure that you are able to meet with the coaching staff.
Do not assume the coach will automatically know dead period dates off the top of their head -- do your research. (NAIA institutions place no restrictions on unofficial visits.) A copy of the NCAA 2017-2018 Recruiting Calendar may be found here.
Because prospective student-athletes are starting the recruiting process much earlier, the NCAA has passed new legislation that will make the coordination of your unofficial visit significantly easier.
SEE - NCAA BYLAW: 184.108.40.206.2 UNOFFICIAL-VISIT EXCEPTION
Institutional staff members may make unlimited telephone calls to a prospective student-athlete (or those individuals accompanying him or her) beginning the day immediately preceding the prospective student-athletes unofficial visit (per Bylaw 13.7) until the conclusion of the visit. If more than the otherwise permissible number of calls or otherwise impermissible calls occur under this exception and a scheduled unofficial visit is canceled due to circumstances beyond the control of the prospective student-athlete or the institution (e.g., trip is canceled by the prospective student-athlete, inclement weather conditions), such calls shall not be considered institutional violations. However, the institution shall submit a report to the conference office noting the cancellation of the unofficial visit and the reasons for such cancellation.
As of August 1, 2017, it is now permissible for NCAA coaches to call, text, or email a recruit the day prior to their visit, even if that is not normally allowed. This legislative change will benefit freshmen, sophomores, and rising juniors who would not have previously been permitted to communicate with coaches unless they initiated the contact themselves.
For example, coaches are now able to send you an itinerary the day before your scheduled unofficial visit, text you directions if you are having trouble finding their office, or give you a call to let you know that they will meet you after the tour in a specific locale. Such communication was not permissible before.
During an unofficial visit, it is typical for a coach to give you a tour of their athletic facilities, talk to you and your parents about their institution, and highlight their program. In addition to this athlete-specific portion of the visit, I advise scheduling a formal campus tour through the admissions office to view the school from a non-athletic perspective.
Email the coach well ahead of time to let them know the specific date that you will be visiting their campus and your desire to meet with them. Provide the coach with a couple of times you are able to meet -- usually before or after the campus tour. I suggest starting unofficial visits at the completion of your sophomore year.
Unofficial visits can help in two primary ways. For a recruited athlete, unofficial visits are critical in gathering information as you begin to narrow down your choices. For a non-recruited athlete, unofficial visits allow you the opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with the coach to tell your story.
If you are a recruited athlete, use this time to learn as much as you can about the program and coaching staff. Identify the factors that will be most important to you in determining if you will return for an official visit. Have a short list of specific questions ready that address your most critical factors. You should view unofficial visits as a means to narrow your choices -- not as a mechanism to determine where you want to go. Keep in mind that during an unofficial visit you are typically only hearing the voice of the coach. Coaches are well versed in knowing what to say and how best to sell their programs. The official visit will prove much more informative.
If you are a non-recruited athlete, the unofficial visit serves an entirely different purpose. Use this time to sell yourself. You have a limited amount of time to convince the coach that you are more than your current PR's. Give them a reason to want to recruit you. Instead of asking a detailed list of questions, use this time to express your keen interest in their program and desire to run competitively in college. Be as low-maintenance as possible.
There is no imposed limit on the number of unofficial visits you may take, so take as many as possible. There is no better tool to help you hone in on the best school/program for you.