Ah Niagara Falls, one of the most iconic natural landmarks shared between the US and our neighbor Canada! I’ve experienced both sides of the waterfalls in both spring and winter. As I visited Niagara Falls in warmer weather over a decade ago with my family, I’m going to focus mostly on my most recent trip with my husband. I was inspired to FINALLY share my own experience after reading OrangeLacesTravel and A Walk and a Lark‘s stories! They have much better photos and information about visiting in the summer time! From the title, you can tell that I have an exciting saga of our misadventures in December, and several road trip danger lessons learned! Sadly the unfortunate events that occurred also means that I don’t have many photos to share or lower quality than my usual standard. We’re relying mostly on my storytelling!
Let me know if you love this and it could turn into another series, since the Rome Hotel Horror Story also received great responses! Hopefully not too many other incidences in the future since I don’t want to think I attract awful events. Honestly, our weekend getaway started off promisingly as we were en route to Hornell, NY to visit Leona (Crafty Boo & Artsy Pea) and John, our friends from college! (Also visited them just recently in Wisconsin too more on that in the future.) I’m proud and somewhat bashful to admit this is the LONGEST post to date, so I’ve added a sub-menu for your ease of navigation!
- Planning & Driving Up
- Upstate NY Local Flavor
- Rendezvous with Danger Part 1: Canada Border Crossing
- Exploring Niagara Falls at Night in Winter
- Unexpected Terrible News
- Rendezvous with Danger Part 2: Driving Home
Planning & Driving Up [↑]
As a savvy deal seeker and perpetual planner, I first found the enticing offer of cheap accommodations on the Canadian side on Groupon Getaways! My husband and I have never visited the Canadian side, so we thought it was a great way to squeeze in a quick weekend trip while also visiting friends. Leona had mentioned she and John were only about 2 hours away from the Falls, so we could all drive up and spend the day together! After debating between several different hotels, I chose the Quality Inn based on price and location. They also included some extras in terms of coupons and vouchers. In addition to booking the reservation, Groupon also allows you to cancel 48 hours before your reservation date without any fees. This gave me confidence in rearranging plans if we encountered a random snow storm! Guess what?! They were still offering the same deal to fill their winter vacancies this year.
Weather in Massachusetts at the time was moderately cold without any traces of snow. (We haven’t had a White Christmas here in years!) Hornell, however is further up north and received a light blanket of snow on the Friday night when we arrived. We left Eastern, MA right after work hours opting to take my fuel-efficient car for the 400+ mile journey. Make sure you double check that you have your passport since you’ll need that to cross the border! My husband knows I’d rather not drive on long car rides (plus he can’t sleep as a passenger anyway) so he’s always so generous about taking the wheel! Our GPS estimated 6-7.5 hours as we hit a few patches of traffic driving west (while I napped). We only made one pit stop to refuel gas, stretch our legs and grab a light dinner so we arrived late around 11:30 PM. John was exhausted from the week’s long hours, so only Leona greeted us in their spacious new apartment while he slept.
Leona cleared out their second room (office/crafting workstation) for us to set up our air mattress. Unfortunately I cannot recommend the Coleman® GuestRest Double High Airbed air mattress purchased from Target. We used it for one night and it became a single high bed from the leakage! The next morning we woke up and hung around the apartment while Leona cooked us a delicious pork and veggies meal paired with rice before deciding what we’d do for the day. The dish actually inspired him to cook this a few weeks later (sans veggies, working on that).
To my disappointment, Leona and John opted out of accompanying us to Niagara Falls as originally planned. Now the room choice of 2 Queen Beds instead of the King Suite, which would have been the same price seemed like a waste. Instead we decided to visit a local coffee shop and continue hanging out before parting ways.
Upstate NY Local Flavor: Sugar Bowl Cafe [↑]
We drove separate cars to the charming town of Dansville, NY, parking right in front of the Cafe on a lazy Saturday afternoon. They also have a restaurant attached, but it was still early in the day so they were not open yet. We each ordered one of their drinks featured on the menu, and they came in these large portly mugs creating such a cute photo worthy shot. We learned of the amazing news that John had proposed to Leona a few weeks earlier! They shared a few glimpses of the photos of how it happened with the well loved bananagram game and the gorgeous sapphire ring! I also am honored to let you all know that they have chosen to have me be their “Unoffocial Officiant” for their wedding! After celebrating the exciting news, we wanted head out to Niagara Falls before daylight completely disappeared, and refuel for the northern border crossing.
Rendezvous with Danger Part 1: Canada Border Crossing [↑]
Welp as you can tell from the header, our journey up north faced several challenges starting here. As we were in a small town for the cafe, our Waze GPS recognized the route of going through various other small towns was the best route rather than getting back on the major interstate highway. (Cue the dramatic sounds.) As Dana was exhausted from nearly 6.5 hours of driving yesterday night he thought it was fair that I drive the remainder 2 hours to Niagara Falls. I have since deleted Waze from my phone due to this incident, and the app’s multiple attempts to direct me to take these IMPOSSIBLE left turns into several lanes of oncoming traffic without any stoplight! I do not want to save a minute of driving for the perceived shorter route by risking my life.
Lesson #1: Out of State Plate? Proceed with Caution!
In retrospect, I should have known this lesson since the events that unfolded thereafter infuriated me to no end. Waze took us through the main roads of small towns. About 40 minutes after departing the cafe we wound up in a town called Mount Morris, NY. I remember the moment vividly where I was in the left lane driving about the SAME speed as all of the other surrounding cars when I saw the flashing lights of the police car. I thought nothing of this since I thought he was trying to pull someone else over… Then the cop car was right behind me, and Dana noted that he was definitely signaling to pull us over. I thought perhaps one of my car head or tail lights might have died, and he just wanted to be nice let us know. Unfortunately, Waze’s speed limit database does not have all the small towns logged so I had NO IDEA I was going significantly above the speed limit: ~45 mph in a 30 mph. I am still NOT convinced that I was actually going that fast the entire time, when all of the other cars around me were going at the same speed.
This was the FIRST time I had ever been pulled over in my life in 8 years of driving. According to Dana, that cop had printed out the ticket the moment he pulled me over with an unwavering conviction. He was overall professional (and somewhat cold) in his demeanor. He however, lacked any empathy even when tears uncontrollably streamed down my face. He didn’t care that I had a clean driving record. The best part was when he remarked, “This is a traffic violation ticket rather than a speeding ticket, so it shouldn’t add any points to your license, but I’m not sure you should double check.” He knew from my MA license plate that we were hundreds of miles away! It was highly unlikely that we’d venture back to contest the targeted ticket. A couple months after the incident I received the insulting letter in the mail with the boldly noted fine of $200 – only payable via certified check or money order! Our frugal winter Niagara Falls trip suddenly became much more expensive than anticipated. Much to Dana’s concern I still drove the remainder of the way across the border while bawling loudly on and off for another hour. I had to coach myself to calm down before pulling up to the border control window. Thankfully crossing from US to Canada went much more smoothly as we handed over our Passports for their routine inspection.
Exploring Niagara Falls at Night in Winter [↑]
We checked into our quaint budget hotel the Quality Inn, and surveyed our food options. As we received a coupon voucher we decided to try the Outback Steakhouse. Our journey to the actual restaurant which was only a few blocks away was quite comical. There were large patches of ice across the pathways so even with our winter boots, we were slipping and sliding our way down. I probably looked like a slow penguin waddling my way across. They probably salted the walkway earlier in the day, but some areas refroze. We saw several other ladies briskly walk across with their high heels and club attire on the other side, so I’m not sure why I was having such difficulty. (I’m very clumsy.)
The initial slippage did not discourage me to continue on our journey down to the actual falls past the Clifton Hill tourist trap area. I loved all of the holiday decorations set up! They had several giant present boxes underneath an even bigger tree! Dana thought that the views with the falls illuminated looked beautiful! As it was still quite cold we didn’t spend too much time out there before skating back as we intended to explore the place more in depth the next morning before leaving! We ended the night as the only people in their dimly lit pool area enjoying the hotel’s hot tub.
Unexpected Terrible News [↑]
The next morning after melting and scraping my car out of the thick coat of ice, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat at the strangest IHOP location, interconnected with a multilevel arcade. The actual bathroom wasn’t even on the same floor as the actual restaurant! I had a $50 gift card so why not?! We confirmed that we could use it there even with the currency difference. They would just convert the bill to USD (no doubt at an unfavorable rate) to use the card offsetting the 20% discount I purchased from Amazon. Our T-mobile cell phone plan included 2G connection in Canada at no extra cost, so we could still text and browse online very slowly.
Dana scrolled through his Facebook feed (always a dangerous rabbit hole) and noticed a concerning message from one of his friends. He was the first to learn that a family friend, who was an Optician had passed away just the day before from an unexpected heart attack! Dana was in complete shock and horror at the news. He spent the rest of the breakfast moving his food around on the plate. I also felt sick immediately, as we had both just seen him a week ago when he fitted me with my brand new glasses and contact lenses! Everything happened so suddenly! Dana felt an urgency to drive home and and cross back to the US immediately. He needed to make some phone calls and let his family know about the horrible news. We decided to just drive by the falls instead of our original plan of getting out to walk around again, despite paying for hours of parking, so I don’t have any great photos during the daytime. (The cover photo actually was a frame taken from a quick phone video.) Instantly after we crossed over back to NY, Dana started his calls to find out more information about what happened and informing his family members. We did not make a pit stop until around 3:30PM at what we thought was the halfway point in our trip for a food and bathroom break.
Rendezvous with Danger Part 2: Driving Home [↑]
I personally would NOT recommend driving in the winter unless you have a sturdy 4-wheel-drive vehicle! My poor little sub-compact hybrid car has great mileage, but quickly encountered trouble on our way home. Not even 20 minutes after leaving the rest stop, Dana noticed the car behind us quickly changing to the left lane. He thought that the car was going to cut us off, and did not notice the large debris in our lane on the highway. I also didn’t see the object, since I regrettably was looking down at my work laptop. We hit that chunk of ice or unidentified debris at about 70 mph, sending a HUGE jolt to my poor car. Dana didn’t notice any warning signals come up on the car dashboard immediately, so he continued to drive for another mile or two. I felt very uncomfortable, so I asked him to pull over to inspect the damage in the breakdown lane. Dana stepped out to check the car and trailed off saying, “Umm… Your hubcaps are missing now and the tire wheel is dented. Otherwise it looks ok. Should we turn around and try to look for the hubcaps?”
Horrified, I had no idea what to do so we made the stupid decision in retrospect of turning around on I-90 at the next exit to try and look for the silver plastic hubcaps. Mind you, each exit is about 20 miles apart, so when we got off at the next exit to head in the opposite direction we probably wasted at least 30 minutes in this futile search.
All the while, the sun creeped quickly below the horizon and a warning light on my tire pressure popped up! The dented wheel on the front passenger side did not have a proper seal, so the tire was losing air pressure by the second! We did not feel safe just changing the tire on the side of the breakdown lane, so we pulled into the cell phone rest stop a few miles further. We spent over 30 minutes just trying to figure out where the default car jack was located on my car. Everything else was located in the trunk under the mat cover! We also had to MOVE everything from the trunk to the back seat to access this compartment. I had to look up on YouTube how to dislodge the crappy jack, which was hidden behind/under the Driver’s seat in a plastic compartment. Of course the basic kit made everything more difficult. Dana was very familiar with the process of changing tires, since he’s had several flat tires on his own car in the past. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared and fearful of my life! The spare tire donut was significantly smaller than my regular tires, making driving very unsteady. At around 5PM on a Sunday, no mechanic or tire shops were open… I had the idea of finding a Walmart Supercenter with an auto department. It was another 30 minutes out of the way. Before blindly setting out, I called the Walmart and told them of our predicament. The woman on the other end was surprisingly nice. Even though the department was closed they could get someone in the store to help me find a replacement tire!
Once we arrived, we also stopped by the auto area to get me a tire gauge so we could assess the tire pressure. There was some initial confusion on who to ask, but I was so impressed by how helpful and nice the staff were in Glenville, NY! Even though in the end they didn’t have the correct tire size in stock, they still went out of the way to search the back inventory and usher me to the locked auto area to check. We spent the remainder of our time making various calls to our lifelines, and getting the saddest Subway sandwich, thinking we’d be stranded for who knows how long.
Now you might wonder why didn’t we call AAA? Yes, I have that… and we actually did call them in addition to the useless ToyotaCare service line. It turns out since we were about 180 miles away from home, the entire towing was NOT covered under my AAA Gold Plan (only up to 100 miles). Instead, the remainder would have cost an additional $3.67/mile in cash of course! Almost $400 additional, as if the traffic ticket earlier was not bad enough! If I had upgraded to the premium tier before this terrible incident, they cover up to 200 miles. However, the world doesn’t work that way. Each of the customer service reps suggested that we stay overnight somewhere, and bring the car to an auto shop the next day. If only we had that luxury. We both needed to work the next morning!
After exhausting all of our other resources, Dana called his father, Bob, who is quite handy with cars to inform him about our unfortunate predicament at 7PM. Bob told us that despite warnings of not driving for prolonged distances or time, we could in fact drive on the donut home. However, we would need to switch the donut to the rear tire so that the front wheel steering was more stable. In the freezing parking lot we changed 3 tires, as the jack only allowed us to target one tire at a time in order to move the spare tire to the back. We temporarily swapped in the leaky tire for the rear one, then removed the spare tire for the good tire, and then finally switched out the bad tire with the spare. One of the other Walmart patrons noticed we were struggling and kindly offered us help. As we were half done with the tire changing we declined. (We appreciate the offer!) Dana urged me to learn this life skill so he had me remove the bolts from the last tire. I received a Tire Changing 101 Lesson in the harsh freezing weather while crying. I also ripped my new favorite plaid skirt (it even had pockets)! It was so difficult to loosen them with the wrench included. Dana suggested that if we survived I should buy a crossbar wrench instead.
We cautiously hit the road again at 8PM to drive the remainder 180+ miles, at an average speed of 50 mph in the right lane on I-90 home. We called Dana’s father in intervals to ensure that we were still alive and didn’t need to pull over. Our plan D was to drive to about 100 miles and summon AAA to tow us the remainder of the way home, if my car wavered. Dana remarked that by moving the spare to the rear, it made steering more stable, but still quite dangerous. I also feared another cop would pull us over AGAIN upon seeing our questionable vehicle on the road. By some miracle and Dana’s excellent driving, we made it back at a snail’s pace, close to midnight. We were so frazzled and thankful to have survived that harrowing ordeal. Once we crossed the threshold of our apartment, we immediately went to sleep.
Many thanks to Bob’s quick thinking advice, and his handiwork on my tire wheel! He managed to hammer it back to a circular shape so that the tire could create a seal around again! My car was back to life and I thankfully didn’t have to dump hundreds into buying a pricey new wheel after searching for price quotes. Weeks later, Dana and I purchased replacement hub caps since it was difficult to tell if I could get the right fit from online. The set of 4 was only about $35. The manager at the AutoZone was even nice enough to guarantee that if the hubcaps didn’t stay on they would refund us. Sadly less than a year later, I recently lost ONE of those darn hubcaps again (my car is back to looking sad) at one of my clients surrounded by endless construction. I suspect I hit one of those raised manholes or bumps and it fell off.
Needless to say I will not be attempting any more winter road trips in my car. Have you experienced any misadventures? Do you enjoy retelling the stories or do you try to just forget the awful experience? Now that we’ve survived to tell the tale we can look back and laugh at the entertaining moments.
Rating: 1.5 ★1/2, alright I might be a little harsh since the falls were awesome but this was such a treacherously unforgettable experience.