Thursday, May 7, 2009

Niagara Falls on a Budget

Niagara Falls is a gorgeous place to visit, but going there on a budget requires careful planning. My family just returned from a 3-day/2-night trip, and I'd like to share some of the tips we learned.

A few years ago we stayed in Niagara Falls, New York (USA); this time we stayed in Niagara Falls, Ontario (Canada). We found that the Ontario side of the river offers many more choices in terms of things to do, places to eat, and so on. We also found that the view of the falls is markedly different from the different sides of the river, so we're happy that we had the opportunity to see both.

Planning and Timing

Niagara Falls has many hotels, from economy motels to luxury hotels. My husband did a lot of research about the seasonal fluctuations of hotel rates and the season-opening dates of the major attractions. He found a short window in the spring between the opening of the Maid of the Mist and the seasonal hotel rate increases. That's when we planned our trip.

At the moment, a passport is not required for Americans travelling to Canada by land. This is changing soon, though, so check the State Department website for current information. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative covers the topic of U.S. citizens travelling to Canada.

We had heard that the casinos offer the best exchange rate for currency. Some shops will accept US money, but, as this is offered as a convenience, they don't necessarily give the best exchange rate. The duty-free shops also offer a good exchange rate, although there might be a service charge.

Getting There

From New Jersey, Niagara Falls is within range for a road trip. As always, we packed snacks, bottled water, and sodas--not only for the car trip, but also for the rest of the stay. Keeping a cooler of bottled water in the car probably saved us from purchasing at least a dozen beverages on this trip. Back at the hotel, in the evenings, we enjoyed cold soft drinks from our cooler instead of stopping at a convenience store or vending machine.

What To Do

The falls are simply amazing. Seeing the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls from different viewing points was the best part of the trip. The American Falls look beautiful from the Canada side of the river, but the viewing points in New York allow you to be much closer to the top of the falls. All of the views are memorable.

What else can you do during your visit? There are many options, especially in Ontario, but planning is essential if you want to limit costs. Viewing the falls is free, but practically everything else is expensive!

Coupon booklets are widely available at hotels and shops. I recommend considering the options and making decisions up front, instead of deciding on an as-you-go basis. There are multi-attraction tickets that might save money, if you want to do everything that the ticket allows. We didn't go that route.

As with anything, some attractions are better values than others. For us, the Maid of the Mist was a must-do attraction. There's no better way to experience the tremendous power of Niagara Falls than to be near the base of the falls in a boat! For that, the tickets were well worth the price. Other attractions cost about the same, but we were unwilling to spend the ticket price for those. Of course, which attractions are important and worthwhile will depend on your family's interests.

Where To Stay

Falls-view hotels rooms are very attractive, but very pricey. On top of those high rates, most, if not all, of the falls-view hotels tack on a parking fee. We stayed at a mid-tier chain hotel, about two blocks away from the falls. The rate was reasonable, and it included free parking and free breakfast every day. On our previous visit, we stayed in a comparable hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, but it was several blocks away from the falls. We preferred being closer to the falls, and would choose to stay in Ontario again.

Where To Eat

This may be the most difficult part. Everything in Niagara Falls is expensive! A hot dog counter on Clifton Hill (one of the main tourist areas) charged $5 for a hot dog. A Clifton Hill pizza chain was charging $4 for a slice of pizza and a fountain drink. We found a pizza shop, away from Clifton Hill, where the pizzas start at $8.99, but that's a 12-inch pizza. We saw ads for buffet restaurants that were somewhat more affordable, but I don't know anything about the food quality. We didn't venture far beyond the tourist areas, so I don't know if there were more affordable options there.

We were surprised to find that restaurants don't offer free refills on soft drinks. I don't know how it is where you live, but free refills are almost standard here. Not so in Niagara Falls, at least in Ontario. We sipped slowly and/or drank water.

The most frugal approach would be to bring a cooler and prepare your own sandwiches. We didn't do that, but we tried to make careful choices. As I mentioned, our hotel offered a free breakfast, which amounts to significant savings when other food options are so expensive. When we took a side trip to Lockport, New York, we stopped at Burger King--and ordered from the value menu--before we returned to Niagara Falls.

Where To Shop

As you might expect, souvenirs at Niagara Falls can be expensive, too. We browsed the official gift shop as well as gift shops at Clifton Hill, in the surrounding area, and just outside of town. We discovered one tourist trap just outside of town; they publish percent-off coupons, but their prices are much higher than anyone else's! We found the best values just away from Clifton Hill, where there are several discount souvenir shops. (Use caution, though: one of the shops displayed postcards and toys in the front of the store, but their other merchandise was mostly drug paraphernalia.)

We inquired about the cost of mailing postcards from Canada to US addresses. The price was something like $1.68 plus tax. Although the Ontario postmark would have been special, we brought our postcards to New York for mailing!

If you're an American, consider shopping at the duty-free shop before returning home from Canada. We stopped in to see what they sell, but expected to find only alcohol. They sell that (I have no point of reference to say whether the prices are good or not), but they also have good prices on souvenirs and food items. The duty-free shop had a good-quality embroidered t-shirt for $20; other shops were offering much lower-quality shirts for the same price. The same maple-sugar candy that we'd decided to skip from the Clifton Hill souvenir shops was significantly less expensive at the duty-free shop. So we stocked up on essentials like chocolate, maple candies, and cookies. :)

If you'd like more details, let me know and I'll be happy to share!

An edited version of this article is published at Associated Content.


  1. You were only 20 minutes away from me. As for refills, yes, Ontario does provide that,lol. Just not the tourist trap restaurants in Niagara Falls. I tell tourists to go to Walmart or the Dollar Stores when they are in Niagara Falls to get their souvenirs, Your saving yourself TONS of money.

    The Canadian side of the Falls is gorgeous isn't it..There is A LOT to do that doesn't cost little or anything. Wonderful parks like Queenston Heights is a pleasure and free. Has a water park for children, playground and LOTS of history.

    Checking out the Locks is something that is quite fun and education. The children, and adults do enjoy it.

  2. Wow, that was a VERY informative post!! I wish we lived closer to Niagara Falls...that would be a big trip from here. :) Thanks for all the time you put into this.

  3. Very good post and I live in Niagara Falls. Some of the dollar stores have great Canadian souvenirs. I also have a blog post that discusses some frugal things to do in Niagara Falls:


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