It started out as a cool enough idea: Travel to Niagara Falls to celebrate our 1-year anniversary as a blended family. We didn't have passports to fly to Canada, so were prepared for a horrible bus ride and wonderful hotel stay. We got the opposite. What we thought would be the worst part of the trip was actually the best.
Two adults and one child, age 11, from Newark, N.J., on a bus upstate. The last-minute flight was too pricey, close to $1,200 for the time we wanted to travel: Friday after work and school.
Amtrak's routes were just as long as those for the bus, about 8 hours, but the train does not offer after-business hours trips on Friday. We were pleasantly surprised that the Greyhound bus we chose left after 9 p.m. from New York City, and it was equipped with power outlets, so our phone or laptop entertained us the whole trip.
Here are some travel tips for both travelers and travel vendors:
One of the best parts of the trip was the bus ride. We received an awesome tip from a veteran Greyhound bus driver:
Tip 1: Some folks without a passport can use an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL) to enter Canada and return to the U.S. An EDL, currently issued by the states of Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, is specifically designed to meet the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) and is sufficient proof of identity and citizenship for American citizens entering Canada via land and marine ports of entry. It also allows people to re-enter the U.S. via a land or water border -- but it doesn't work for those who fly.
Tip 2: Amtrak, please create more after-work options to travel directly to Niagara Falls. Niagara is one of the gems of N.Y., perfect for weekend getaways and nature lovers. Greyhound/Trailways offered the best night-time travel times from New York City to Buffalo, N.Y., a border city to Niagara, Friday night.
Tip 3: Travelers, aim for a nearby city under 30 minutes drive from your hot-spot destination -- you may get a better seat on a less-crowded train or bus, and save money on food and hotel accommodations, if you stay on the outskirts of your destination.
But make sure your car has a GPS. If not, you may need to use a cell phone to navigate, which limits its availability for picture-taking and entertainment.
Tip 4: Drivers, if you're going to rent a car, double-check the hours of operation for the location where you are renting; some are open 24 hours (think airports), while others are only open during business hours. We waited for three hours to be picked up from the terminal, since the Enterprise branch we were using would not open until 9 a.m. In hindsight, we should have spent the $40 to take an Uber to the 24-hour location at the airport.
Tip 5: Auto rental firms, think like Zipcar, you may get more business to have at least 1 car available 24 hours. In some cities, the company has a carshare program, Enterprise CarShare, but like the 24-hour locations, it's not everywhere. Car rental companies, please offer early pickups and later drop offs on a case-by-case basis.
Tip 6: Managers, keep your promises. We arrived at the hotel at 11 a.m. The front desk manager took our cell phone number and said we would be called as soon as a room was available. That never happened. We circled back to the hotel at 3 p.m. still in our travel clothes, only to see well-groomed people, who looked as if they just stepped off the covers of magazines, being checked in before us. Major disappointment.
Tip 7 to the hotel industry: Some commercial rest-stops set up a shower room for long-distance travelers. Try it, if you want to build loyalty.
Calls to the DoubleTree front desk and reservation office to inform them of our early arrival for three consecutive days leading up to the trip were unceremoniously discouraging. We should have stuck with La Quinta, which had an earlier check in time of 3 pm. They have always let us into a room by 1 pm, though.
Tip 8, hotel industry - in case you missed my tips on how to accommodate travelers and improve your check-in times: Stagger your check-in times and cleaning staff. Not all check-ins need to be at the same time.
Tip 9: Hilton Honors' site states "perks start the moment you join." But that is only if you book as a member. I signed up for the Hilton Honor's program a day after I booked the Hilton DoubleTree hotel. Even that did not guarantee us early check-in. Hilton wrote me in an email it is "is constantly evolving" its program "in response to guest feedback to make travel more valuable, more flexible and more personalized - for every type of traveler." Well, there are several guests asking in online chat rooms whether Hilton Honors could guarantee an early check in, so Hilton has some evolving to do.
Tip 10 to hotels: Follow the apartment-rental industry standard and post the actual measurements of your pool and rooms, if you want loyalty. Don't hide the size and trap people in with non-refundable rooms before they view the merchandise in person. Our room at DoubleTree was tiny and plain. I wish I could have "returned" it without a cancelation fee. Photoshop tactics are just dishonest. The pool and gym were on the lower level, where there was no wifi.
Tip 11: Make sure your downstairs gym and pool areas have wifi.
Our favorite part of the trip was the tour!
Tip 12: Splurge on the tour: Our tour, which was about five hours and covers several great destinations around the Falls, was conducted by Over the Falls Tours. We experienced Maid of the Mist boat ride, Cave of Winds, Goat Island, Bridal Veil and of course Niagara Falls at night. The tour guide Felix was knowledgeable and the people in our group were so loving and fun.
Outside of the hotel, it was the best trip ever!
In all, the trip cost about $1,000, with the expensive food ($120 for three at the Rainforest Cafe), tour and accommodations (The bus alone was about $350, plus $50 for the rental; the tour was about $245 for three).