I was so delusional last summer. I had a 4-day weekend off from work and Jono was visiting me here in New York. "I'll take him to Niagara falls on independence day weekend," I thought. "What could go wrong?" I thought.
Rule number one for travelers who want to avoid crowds, long lines, and over-spending is to never visit popular destinations and landmarks on a holiday. And the last thing you want to do is pay for a tour at such a time.
In all the traveling I did abroad, you would think I would not have made such a rookie mistake—in my own state of New York! Alas, I did. And that’s how I was reminded of the consequences when you do not deviate the norm.
Warning: I’m going to rant about how awful the tourism industry can be in this post. Get ready for it.
Parking in Niagara Falls
Early in the morning the day before July 4th, Jono and I drove from Rochester to Niagara Falls. I was feeling good, thinking we had planned our day well by hitting the road early to make it there before the 9am opening.
We arrived to find that every other traveler had the same idea. The roads surrounding the Welcome Center were already getting congested and metered parking and the main lots were filling up quickly. We opted for the closest lot we came across with empty spaces right next to Smokin Joes Native Center.
This parking space set me back $20. I discovered later that parking on nearby Goat Island is only $8-10. Bad move #1.
To Take or Tour or Not
I really, really dislike paid tours most of the time for a myriad of reasons. Unless the tour is given by locals in a country where the guides probably rely on your payment to feed their family that day, I find that I am completely intolerant of paid tours.
I like to go on foot so I can stop when I want to and where I want to rather than be paraded around from point to point. I prefer to look up facts about a place online on my own than pay a guide to tell their own version to me. And I like to pay for things only that I could not otherwise do so easily by myself.
The folks at the Welcome Center somehow convinced me to pay $65 per person for a 3-4 hour bus tour of all the Niagara highlights. This included a 2.5-mile bus ride to Whirlpool Point (a park that is otherwise free to visit) and the price of both Cave of the Winds ($17) and the Maid of the Mist ($18.25).
The biggest error we made in purchasing this “all-inclusive package” was this: We assumed being a part of the tour would mean we had (a) already received our tickets to each of the highlights; and (b) this would get us to the front of the line (or at least a shorter line) than those who had chosen to visit each highlight on their own.
Well. Neither of these assumptions were the case at all.** As a result, the 3-4 hour tour that fit well into our plans for the day turned into a much longer experience.
Perhaps on a less busy day, the tour would have been a worthy option. This was not that day.
**According to some recent reviews of this tour on Trip Advisor, it seems people are claiming to have cut lines while visiting the park. I cannot verify if this is what the company actually does. All I can go by is what my tour guide did on my tour, which was to not cut any lines at all.
The bus took us about 5 minutes up the road from the Welcome Center (away from the all the other highlights) to Whirlpool State Park.
The tour guide (who was also our bus driver) held our group back at an informational pavilion to tell us some facts about the park and the pool. I got impatient after about 2 minutes standing there, listening to him ramble on. I just can’t stand there listening to a dude talk when gorgeous views of nature are just steps away down a path. I must see it—NOW!
Not wanting to be rude, however, Jono and I hung around for a bit longer. Then we made a dragging stroll in the direction of the viewpoint. I was literally miming a lasso in the air, swinging it around the tour group and guide, and pulling it toward us to try and coax them along.
Eventually we gave up on them all and just walked down the path to look at the water.
The view was, indeed, spectacular.
I am sure I would have missed seeing this place if I had not been forced to go. Mind you, this is one of the few positives I could say about the tour.
About 15 minutes went by. The group had finally joined us at the ledge with the guide. Some of what he was saying was interesting. For instance, the tram we could see going across from the Canadian side tricks many tourists into thinking they’re getting to cross over onto US territory without going through customs. Oh, how mischievous! Well, actually, the tram just takes tourists across to another part of Canada. The border splits the Niagara River and then turns at the whirlpool, so the tram goes from Canada to Canada. Another (annoying) trick of the tourism industry, I suppose!
At this point, we had been there for an hour, simply looking at the water below. I was getting worried about getting to see the other highlights in time, but I was also trying to be patient.
Cave of the Winds / Hurricane Deck
Finally, we parked the bus near the Cave of the Winds ticket area. I was really excited for this part of the tour. It was a guarantee to get wet and get up really close to one section of the falls.
By now it was almost 10:30 in the morning and the lines were already enormous! But I expected that. What I didn’t expect was that our guide had to get on one of the lines to get everyone tickets! We waited for him before getting on another line that took us looping around for 20 minutes into a building where we were given a free pair of water-sandals. I suppose some people have complained about losing or ruining their shoes on this tour. So they provide these (ugly) sandals for you that double as a souvenir (I just wore my flip flops).
People emerged from the building with their new kicks, changed into them at varying speeds, and then shuffled onto another line that would eventually take us down an elevator to the waterfall. And by “eventually” I mean 45 minutes to an hour later.
All in all, we waited nearly 2 hours to start the Cave of the Winds tour!
I have to say, the experience was worth the wait.
The Cave of the Winds tour is all self-guided, so you can spend as long as you want walking on the rickety rafters that take you near the falls and even directly in the path of its spray at varying points.
Everyone walked through with their ponchos on, perhaps to protect their phones and cameras in their pockets. But I wanted the full effect. I was hot from waiting in the sun all afternoon—it was time to cool off!
Sans poncho, I stood on the “hurricane deck” and literally felt like I was going to blow away as I was blasted with water. It was insane how powerful the water was and soooo much fun!
Missing the Maid of the Mist
It was almost 1pm by the time we took the elevators back up. The guide told us we had to wait for everyone else before getting back on the bus to go to the Maid of the Mist. So we took the time to check out nearby Terrapin Point.
I am so glad we did this because we otherwise never would have seen the iconic view of the falls. Terrapin Point overlooks the location where the Maid of the Mist travels and then turns back around.
The Maid of the Mist boat ride is perhaps the most iconic and well-known experience associated with visiting Niagara Falls. I rode the Maid of the Mist when I was much younger on a visit with my family. What I remember is that the boat does not get very close to the falls. You get wet—misted, in fact, but it’s mostly a glorified boat ride to get a different perspective (and some close-up photos) of this famous spot.
Jono had never taken this ride before, so I really wanted him to have a chance to do it.
At around 1:30pm, we were back on the bus heading across the Niagara River. This is when we hit traffic. Massive traffic.
The congestion was so bad it took us one hour to travel one mile. I am not exaggerating.
We arrived at the line for the Maid of the Mist and, once again, we had to wait for tickets. Workers informed us that the wait was 1.5 to 2 hours!!
The other plans we had set for the day were already ruined. So, at this point, we were over it. It was time to get back to the car and get out of there before the traffic on the way out got even worse!
The Meager Discount
We thanked and tipped the guide and asked him if we could get a discount for missing the boat. He called it in to the Welcome Center so that we could get some money back on our way out.
We went up to the ticket counter and gave one of them our name. He punched in some numbers and then said, “Okay, I took $10 off.”
“No, $5 off each ticket.”
“Um. We were told this tour would take 3 hours, at most 4. It took 5.5 hours and we didn’t even get to do the iconic Maid of the Mist which is $17 each. Come on man, you gotta do better than that.”
We ended up getting only $10 off both of our tickets. In other words, I paid $55 for what I would actually call a $35 value. Not great.
Putting a Positive Spin On It
I tried to put things into a positive perspective as we sat in traffic on the way out of Niagara Falls.
My attempted rationalizing: “Maid of the Mist kinda sucks anyway,” and “Cave of the Winds was so awesome, I’m so glad we did it!” and “The Whirlpool and Terrapin Points were really pretty!!” and “It’s good we got that parking spot because the traffic was sooo much worse right in front of the Welcome Center!”
Of course, all of these statements are true to an extent. But the reality is that this was an epic failure of an experience.
I would never, ever recommend to anyone that they go to Niagara Falls on Fourth of July weekend. I found out after the fact that both July 4th and Labor Day are the park’s two busiest weekends of the year.
My Summarizing Tips
If you do (idiotically) decide to visit the falls on one of these fateful holidays (like I did), I highly recommend never bothering with a tour. Do it all on your own. Just plan accordingly.
The following is an itinerary I’ve created, meant to reduce the torture you will experience if you visit Niagara Falls on July 4th or Labor Day weekend:
- Arrive in Niagara Falls well before 9am.
- Drive directly to Whirlpool Park. Take your photos. Maybe even hike one of the nearby trails! (optional: Do this last)
- Drive over to Terrapin Point to park in Lot #2 ($10). Take your photos.
- Before 9am, walk to the Maid of the Mist ($17 per adult) and get on the line for tickets. Finish the Mist tour.
- Walk back to Lot #2 and get on the line for Cave of the Winds ($18.25 per adult). Finish the Winds tour.
- Dry off on your walk over to Terrapin Point for some views of the falls from above.
- Get back in your car and put on some good music, because the traffic will already be rough as you’re leaving.
- Give yourself a round of applause for not messing this up as badly as I did!