Most of my travels are not simply vacations. On the contrary, I like to use my travel experience as a way to give back to the communities I visit. It all started with a mission trip to Cieneguilla, Peru, back in 2007.
My high school youth group went to the Posada de Amor orphanage and their neighboring Eliel Christian School. We did construction and painting projects, taught English, and spent quality time with the children. I had such a great experience, I returned two years later.
In 2010, I heard about another church that owned a mission in Carmen Serdan, Mexico. They offered trips for people to help out with the handicapped orphans they care for. I went along, and although we didn’t see even one touristy thing, I had a great time!
Even though I haven’t gone on another “mission trip” since then, I have incorporated volunteering into elements of my travels. Ever since I was old enough to help, I’ve loved volunteering at camps offered by the Girl Scouts and churches, like this time at Camp Tadmor near Lebanon, Oregon.
When I went to Nashville in 2012, I realized that was the headquarters of a nonprofit magazine that I write for. Before going, I e-mailed the editor asking if we could meet. She responded, saying I was coming during important planning days for the magazine, and I was invited to help with this. I was glad to help out!
This past summer in Niagara Falls, I learned about a ministry called the Magdalene Project, which helps homeless people, prostitutes, and low-income families. I called up the director and asked how I could help. After asking me about my skills and passions, she offered to let me help chaperone a trip with their kids’ club.
After all this volunteering in my travels (the buzzword for this is “voluntourism”), you’d think I would encourage everyone to go out and try to volunteer on all their travels, right? Well, sort of. I’ve learned a lot since my first trip to Peru, and I’m now more selective about how I voluntour.
I think the most important rule is this: if you wouldn’t volunteer at home, you shouldn’t volunteer while you travel. Hapless volunteering is a terrible way to try to make your trip meaningful. If you want to volunteer while you travel, find a local charity to work with before your trip. This will help you gain experience and make sure you’re cut out for the job. Don’t want to help near your home? I hate to break this to you, but this indicates that you shouldn’t volunteer afar either. If you want to help your destination’s community, you can still make a difference by purchasing from family-owned shops, staying at local accommodations, or sending donations to worthy causes. You must be dedicated to give your time.
I’ve also learned that just because an opportunity exists doesn’t mean I should go for it. In fact, this can potentially hurt their community! For example, our Peru trip leader told us that two of our tasks were to play with kids and do construction. The problem was, I never picked up a power tool before! I should have at least learned the basics before going. Better yet, the money spent on my plane ticket could pay local experienced construction workers to do the work. Then, instead of just helping the orphanage and school, we could help local impoverished workers as well!
Now, while I’m no construction expert, I do know how to play with kids. But was that beneficial? The kids did have fun playing with us, but I know it hurt everyone emotionally when we left. Volunteering long-term, or at least keeping in touch through letters and frequent visits, would be a less harmful way to form relationships.
Looking back, I think the one thing we did that was of real value was teach English. This is a sought-after skill in business, thus breaking the cycle of poverty. Since we were the only native English speakers in that area, we were best suited in this department.
Contrast this to my recent voluntourism experiences. Before I went to Niagara Falls, I talked with the ministry director and offered to help in any way needed. (I also worded it so she wouldn’t feel obligated to place me if it was a hassle to get me involved.) She did what all charity leaders should do: asked questions! She wanted to know about my past volunteer experience, profession, church involvement, and even my hobbies! With that information, she could find the role where I would be most effective, which happened to be chaperoning a field trip.
Same thing goes with my experience in Nashville. If I hadn’t spent several years writing for Devozine, I would have been more of a burden than a blessing. In addition, I didn’t waste money by making special volunteer trips. I’d already planned extended travel in these places, so I was able to maximize my buying power by staying in locally-owned small hostels, buying from local businesses, and spending time learning about the actual culture and needs of the area.
Are you still interested in voluntouring? If you’ve read this far, I assume you are. The above wasn’t meant to scare people from voluntouring (because it CAN be a meaningful and helpful endeavor), but rather to just get people thinking about how they voluntour. I could continue to provide information on other things to think about, such as your ability and availability, safety limitations, legal requirements, and how to find worthy organizations to voluntour with, but all this information could fill a book! Instead, I’ll refer you to someone who already wrote a book! I learned a lot from Kirsty Henderson, a worldwide traveler who has volunteered in several countries. She wrote The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. The eight chapters are filled with essential information, such as why you should (or should not!) pay a fee to volunteer, different types of volunteering, and a guide with a country-by-country breakdown of organizations you can help and what they provide their volunteers. I used this to discover a few opportunities that I’m looking forward to being a part of!
I don’t believe that you have to be rich to travel. In fact, as long as you’re not in debt, there’s a trip out there that can fit your budget perfectly. Whether you’re headed around the world or simply to the next town over, here are a few ways you can get the most out of your travel experience- and still stick with your budget!
Eat Ice Cream
I’ve visited (and once even lived in) several towns with triple-digit populations. There isn’t much in these places, but there’s usually an ice cream shop. Ask for a scoop of the most unique flavor on the menu, and you’ll be reminded of your visit whenever you taste, smell, or even hear that flavor. If you’re visiting an area that has several options for ice cream, pick a place that serves flavors from a local creamery. Sure, a small cone at an ice cream stand may cost more than a whole tub at the grocery store, but these few dollars won’t break anyone’s budget.
Visit a Church
If you want to meet locals, experience culture, and look at unique art and architecture for free, then head to a church near your destination. Churches are found throughout the world, even in places where it’s illegal, so you’re likely to find several churches within a short radius. Because this is part of your travel experience, don’t be bound by denomination or feel like you have to agree with everything the church believes. I’ve used travel as a way to experience Methodist, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and Catholic churches for the first time. Some churches have a historic significance to the area they serve, and may even be open during non-service times for visitors to see what makes the building unique.
Take a Walk
Not only is walking free, but it can actually save you money if you use it in place of buses, taxis, or car rentals. You can experience a lot more of the area by walking. While I remember taking some long walks on family vacations, my first trip with extensive walking was in Nashville. It was there that I went to RCA Studio B, where Elvis first recorded. I didn’t intend to go there, it just happened to be one of the many fascinating places I ended up stopping at while on my way somewhere else. Besides, walking ensures that you can enjoy all that ice cream you’ll sample, guilt-free.
Go On a Bike Ride
Some areas are not pedestrian-friendly, either because of a lack of sidewalks or because all the places you want to visit are a few miles apart from each other. In that case, I recommend seeing the area on two wheels. If you cannot bring your own bike to your destination, many hostels and other travel-related businesses can rent a bike to you (with a lock and sometimes a helmet) for a daily fee. Bicycles are the best of both worlds: you’ll be able to notice most of the unique things you would if you were walking, but you can also travel faster and for further distances. While staying at a hostel in Canada, I met a fellow traveler who came from Japan to ride a bike from Los Angeles to New York City, with lots of side-trips along the way. Imagine all that he must have seen!
Getting a durable, quality camera may come with an upfront cost, but it is certainly worth all of the memories you’ll be able to capture. Naturally you’ll want to take pictures of the sights you see and the people you share it with, but you can also spend some time and actually get creative with the photograph. If you take a picture of a famous place, it will look the same as the millions of other photographs that other people took of the same place. However, can you incorporate your own unique flair? I once read a traveling shoe ambassador’s blog that put a face on a flip-flop and took pictures of it in several countries and states. If you take a fun spin with a photo, be sure to share it with me!
Go To Unique Sites
When traveling, you probably pick your destinations based on what you can see there. Of course you’ll want to visit what your destination is known for, but also keep an eye out for unique, little-known sites and attractions. People go to South Dakota’s Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, but only a portion of these people stop at the wacky Wall-Drug on the way there. Find out about roadside stops that can enrich your travel experience at places like RoadsideAmerica.com. You can also follow road signs to any interesting-sounding attractions or, better still, ask the locals for their inside information.
Chat Up People
Okay, I have to admit that I’m not naturally inclined to walk up to random strangers and start a conversation. But I do appreciate it when another (non-creepy) traveler comes up to me to talk. Being a native English speaker, I have had the privilege of helping people from all over the world practice their foreign language skills simply by chatting with them! While I had the luxury of speaking my own language, I have been able to hear all kinds of interesting first-person stories, and have also picked up a few tips for my travels. If you want to meet new people on your travels but aren’t very outgoing, try staying in hostels, riding the bus or train, or simply standing in a long line for a tourist attraction, and eventually someone will start talking to you!
What are some ways that YOU make the most of your adventure while spending little money?
What would you rather spend your money on: a super-amazing trip of a lifetime, or day-to-day costs? Of course you want to be able to live well, but when you’re saving for a trip or other big goal, you may realize that you’re spending money on things that you don’t need to spend money on. But going on a spending freeze does not mean you have to stop enjoying the things you love. It just means you have to go about things differently. Here are twenty-one expenses that many people have, along with some cost-free substitutions.
Instead of paying for network television… many channels upload some of their popular shows onto their website or onto the free version of Hulu. ABC, CBS, and A&E are just some of the channels whose websites you can visit for free shows. Yes, this does mean watching on your computer, but if you really want to watch on a bigger screen, you can consider a one-time cost of buying a cord that will display your computer screen on your television. If your favorite show is not offered online, see if a friend who has that channel would be willing to host a weekly screening night.
Instead of going out to dinner… enjoy time together by cooking a meal at home. Begin by looking up a recipe (for free online, of course) for a dish you’ve never made or tasted before. If you don’t have the ingredients at home, make shopping at the grocery store part of your dinner date! This can be your opportunity to try out crazy cooking methods and use your finest dinnerware. You can even make it formal by busting out the cocktail dress or suit and tie! I realize that technically, this still costs money as you’re buying the ingredients, but you need to eat anyway, right? As long as you’re not purchasing new cookware or exotic foods, this memorable night in can cost just as much as any other meal you cook at home.
Instead of spending money on movies… some production companies have movies available for free online, often available to stream straight from YouTube! There are also dozens of websites dedicated to providing free documentaries to the public. Now this takes care of your movie subscription services, but what about the movie theater experience? If you’re a business owner, ministry leader, or even a blogger, not only can you attend movie screenings for free, but you can see them before they come out. Since getting into the Lifeway Films advanced screenings, I’ve been able to see several free movies over the past few years in the best theaters in town!
Instead of buying books… the obvious recommendation would be the library, but I realize that it is not a viable resource to everyone. Even if you do have a local library, it may not have the kind of selection you want. Many communities have some sort of book exchange, which could be anything from a mailbox on the sidewalk, to a bookshelf in a store, to a whole building filled with free books! Sure, you may have to give up some books, but in return you can get an entire selection of new books! If your area doesn’t have a book exchange, consider starting one up! A great way to get brand-new books is to enter contests, often sponsored by either the author or the publisher. Even if there are no advertised contests, a nice fan letter sent to the author may be returned by free books- possibly autographed!
Instead of shopping online Craigslist, eBay, and other online stores… you can look for a local free group on Facebook. This has a similar philosophy to the Freecycle website, but because it’s on a regularly-accessed social network, it tends to be better utilized. Once you join your local group, all you have to do is either post what you’re looking for, or post something that you want to give away. Your neighbors will then be able to help you out in your endeavor. In addition to this, never underestimate the good old-fashioned method of telling your friends what you’re free-shopping for!
Instead of purchasing clothing… you can try trading with friends. Of course, this only works if your friends have similar size and style. You can also take up sewing and upcycle your current threads. You can prolong the life of your clothes by patching up holes, or you can give your wardrobe a complete makeover and turn one item of clothing into something else entirely. If you get creative, you can turn a t-shirt into a skirt, or a skirt into a scarf!
Instead of buying school books… share with a friend who is also taking the class, or borrow from someone who took the same class the previous semester. If you don’t have these kinds of connections, many school libraries, and sometimes local public libraries, carry the current school books and allow students to borrow them for a short time as needed. If you can, contact the instructor before the class starts and ask what books are actually required. (Sometimes what the school thinks is read and what the instructor actually assigns can be different.) All the above options typically only work for books that are not read on a daily basis. You probably will have to buy some books, so find them used for as cheap as you can online, and after your class ends you can sell them directly to another student for almost the same amount that you bought it for. Even though it requires putting a little money down, many students find that this method will help them break even in the end.
Instead of purchasing souvenirs… take lots of pictures. Go geocaching and trade for an item that will remind you of the area. Keep a travel journal. Collect your ticket stubs, itineraries, and brochures. Find rocks, shells, or other natural objects and label where you found them (make sure this is legal before taking them). The souvenirs you want to buy are likely made overseas and simply stamped with your destination’s name. Another bonus of free mementos is that they often better represent your vacation spot.
Instead of giving pricey gifts… find a way to spend time instead of money. Newlyweds may need a house- or pet-sitter while they’re on their honeymoon. First-time parents often need help catching up on housework and yard work, or getting the nursery ready. Not-first-time parents may be looking for babysitting for their older kids or meal preparation. You could also get crafty and make a unique, quality gift out of items you already own. Used gifts are sometimes okay as long as it’s a gift from the heart, such as an antique family heirloom being passed down. Just make sure that your free gifts don’t come across as stingy or unwanted. In some cases it is better to buy a (couponed, on-sale) gift for a dear friend than hoarding away a few extra bucks.
Instead of paying for a pet… pet-sit for your friends and neighbors and you could get paid to snuggle with a furry friend! You can also get your animal fix by volunteering at, or even just visiting, an animal shelter. You could also volunteer or work as a farmhand and be exposed to a variety of creatures! Remember that a pet does not typically fit into a traveler’s lifestyle. You either have to hope to find pet-friendly lodging and camps and pay the extra pet fee, or pay for a kennel or pet-sitter back home. This is a huge expense in addition to the regular expenses of food, immunizations, etc.
Instead of buying paper products… use reusable! Many people already have plenty of towels and other paper product replacements already in their homes, but even if you don’t have enough cloth towels to replace paper towels, you probably have enough material to make your own. Bandannas can make festive napkins. Old t-shirts can be cut to any size of rectangle for whatever you repurpose them as. Even old socks are great for scrubbing and wiping down when cleaning. If you don’t feel like washing rags, use a small piece of salvaged cloth for the task and then throw it away.
Instead of purchasing periodicals… think about why you’re really reading it. If you only buy magazines to read one or two certain sections, search for those topics on Pinterest and you’ll get thousands of pins linking to articles on that topic. Remember that lots of magazines publish their most popular articles online for free. As for the newspaper, I’m not sure why they’re even still in print, but you can find all that news online and immediately after it happens. If you want something you can hold in your hands, there are free subscriptions, or at least trial issues, to many magazines. They’re getting rare, but they’re still out there! Finally, utilize free magazine racks, check out magazines at the library, and trade magazines with friends. As long as it’s your first time reading it, who cares if the magazine is several months old?
Instead of paying to exercise… work out at home and on the road. If you are traveling and there is no price difference between an accommodation with a pool or workout room and an accommodation that doesn’t offer any workout equipment, choose the place where you can be more active. As long as you have decent walking or running shoes, you can turn any place into a gym. Motivate yourself to exercise more at home by doing small, vigorous tasks such as unloading groceries, walking to the mailbox, or vacuuming. Also, there are many workout videos available for free online streaming. Some may recommend simple exercise equipment, but you can replace a yoga mat with a towel and use water bottles filled with rocks instead of weights.
Instead of buying shipping material… save the packaging from items shipped to you, cover your address with a new label, and ship it out! If your shipment requires cushioning, you can use already-used wrapping paper, the contents from a paper shredder, or any other needs-to-be-recycled paper from around the house. Oh, and you can also save the bubble wrap that gets sent to you for later use. You can even place fragile items in the center of the package and surround it with other softer, non-fragile items. If you plan to ship through Priority Mail at the US Post Office, don’t even bother trying to find packaging. All post offices provide Priority Mail boxes, envelopes, tape, and address labels for free. Whenever you have to mail just a small envelope, consider if you could send the information online instead. If you’re careful about your shipments, you can get away with only spending money on stamps!
Instead of buying video games and gaming devices… I’m not entirely sure why the gaming industry is so big when there are so many games you can play for free. If you have a smart phone, you’re probably already aware that you can download free gaming apps. There are also many free online gaming sites with many different genres. And a bonus to parents and students: there are a ton of fun, free games that are also educational! But, in my opinion, video games will never be as fun as traditional board games. You probably have a few hiding in the back of your closet; why not pull them out and play a few rounds?
Instead of paying for a hotel room… don’t do it! I understand the merit behind hotels and motels, but I believe that they are used far more than they need to be. Read my article on ten alternatives to hotels. All of them are cheaper than a hotel, and several of the suggestions are absolutely free!
Instead of an expensive friends’ night on the town… enjoy a night in! Have a potluck (depending on what dish you make, you could actually spend less than you would for your own personal dinner), and spend the night watching movies, playing games, or simply catching up. If you volunteer to host a night like this, your friends will probably realize that they can also host low-key, low-cost get-together at their house. There will be fewer pricey nights in town and more times celebrating friendship in the comforts of each other’s homes.
Instead of spending money on music… many cities of decent size will have free concerts going on at least a few times per month. These may be small, one-man shows inside coffee shops, but this could be great as you’ll really get to know the artist. For in-home entertainment, Amazon often offers free downloads, and up-and-coming artists will give some songs away on their website to get people interested in their music. Of course, if you don’t care about owning music, you have plenty of options for listening to music, such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and, of course, the traditional radio.
Instead of buying snack foods… go foraging! First study up on different types of edible plants that are native in your area, and which ones can be poisonous if ingested. Then go into the forest or perhaps even your backyard or another area that doesn’t get sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Some leaves can be used as spices or to make herbal tea, and there are plenty of other nuts, flowers, grasses, fruits, and roots to enjoy. Foraging may not fill an empty belly, but it will give you a greater appreciation for food and hopefully these wild, organic options will lessen your consumption of junk food!
Instead of spending money on sporting events… watch the kids! In most communities, sporting events for children in middle school and under are free to attend. Even if you don’t have any kids in sports, this is an easy, free way to show your support in the community. Check with the local schools and Little League for game times. You could also check with community clubs, churches, and other organizations that may play intramural sports and ask if you can come watch a game. Local games can be just as interesting as the big leagues. If you’re set on seeing the professionals play and you don’t get any free sports channels, you can stream some games online.
Instead of paying a monthly phone bill… make phone calls using Google Voice. If you’re in the United States, you can call for free to any other phone number in the United States. However, there are some caveats. First of all, you need to be connected to the internet, which usually isn’t a problem with the prevalent free WiFi and the fact that so many people use data plans. The worst part is that you cannot provide a number for people to call you, and you cannot leave voicemail. But since Google Voice will take care of most of your outgoing calls, consider getting a cheap pay-as-you-go phone for when you need to receive calls and leave messages. You can get a Tracfone for as little as $10 (they even have smart phones for a slightly higher price), and all of their phones come with at least 10 free minutes upon activation. If you prefer texting, there are many websites that will allow you to text over their website, and will even provide recipients with a temporary number for them to text you back.
What swaps have you made to save money for your adventures?
This past July, I backpacked around Niagara Falls. My primary goal of this trip was to have a ton of awesome new experiences. My secondary goal was to keep it minimalist. Both of these goals came into play when I decided how to get to Niagara Falls. Because I was living in Central Ohio, it seemed almost pointless to fly. Besides, the Niagara Falls airport is nowhere near the actual Niagara Falls. Driving was out of the question. I already find driving to be somewhat stressful, and it would be even worse figuring out directions, navigating traffic, and driving my car that was already on the fritz. And although I did enjoy taking a train trip a few years ago, there are no Amtrak stations in Central Ohio. That only left one option:
The Greyhound bus.
I had never ridden in a Greyhound before, but I had heard and read plenty of horror stories. But it would be a new experience for me, and I would save a lot of money. Besides, it wasn’t that long of a trip, so surely I could handle it.
I took three different buses there and back. One from Mansfield, Ohio to Cleveland, one from Cleveland to Buffalo, and from there I took a New York Trailways bus to Niagara Falls. It turned out to be a great experience! Right away I started telling my friends, family, and fellow travelers the perks of riding the Greyhound:
-You save lots of money!
-It’s the most environmentally-friendly way to travel
-You can take a carry-on plus one checked bag for free
-Large panoramic windows are perfect for drive-by photography
-Centrally-located drop-offs and pick-ups
-Personal adjustable air vents
-Free WiFi (woo-hoo!)
-Power Outlets (double woo-hoo!)
-Enough rest stops so you never have to use the mysterious bathroom in the back of the bus
-A sense of community you can’t typically find on an airplane
(Note that these features are based on the new bus models; some older models are still in commission, but they are getting rare.)
As mentioned in previous posts, I moved from Ohio to Oregon a few weeks ago. It was the biggest move I ever made. I had to travel through ten states and four time zones all the way across the country. And guess how I got there?
Yep, the Greyhound bus!
Because I didn’t want to spend days on end inside a bus, I bought four separate bus tickets so that I could stop at a few different cities, see the sights, and visit some friends. I bought a ticket from Columbus to Chicago, from there to Omaha, from there to Denver, and finally, to my home in Oregon. The bus ride combined with several days of mini vacations ended up taking me nearly eight days to make this trip. During this time, I did see the darker side of Greyhound. While I think overall Greyhound is a worthwhile experience, these are some of the pitfalls:
-Regardless of the time of day, stops are made every 2-3 hours, so it’s really hard to sleep
-The seats don’t have enough legroom
-The overhead compartments are usually too small to hold typical carry-ons, which translates to even less legroom
-Small children can have meltdowns on long rides
-Some (not all) bus drivers can be in very bad moods
-The buses run late more often than they’re on time
-You have to transfer your own luggage every time you change buses
-Fellow passengers can be cranky, annoying, or have body odor
-YOU could be cranky, annoying, or have body odor
No, traveling cross-country by bus is not for the faint of heart. However, I think everyone can benefit from taking a bus ride that’s only a few hours long. I was really glad to have the experience of my Ohio-to-Niagara bus ride before embarking across America. Because of it, I was able to come up with some handy tips that probably saved my sanity. If you’re heading on a Greyhound trip anytime soon, here’s some tried-and-true advice you may want to consider:
-Buy your tickets online and several weeks in advance. You’ll save a ton of money that way.
-If you plan to sleep, come prepared. I brought melatonin tablets, lavender lotion, a Snuggie, and a pillow. You may want to bring a neck pillow instead of a full-size one, and earplugs may also be beneficial. I’ve heard some people suggest bringing an eye mask, but I would advise against it. I think you’re much more likely to get robbed if you’re already blindfolded!
-Unless you enjoy eating nothing but fast food and convenience store snacks, bring a few healthy foods along with you. Yes, food and drink are allowed on the bus!
-Bring hand sanitizer and keep it convenient. The 3.1 ounce liquid rule doesn’t apply to buses, so feel free to bring an industrial-sized bottle!
-Don’t expect to look your best. I always kept my hair tied back and covered with a buff, hat, scarf, or some combination of all three. I changed my clothes once per day and brushed my teeth during layovers. Other than that, just make sure you apply deodorant, and don’t even bother with hair styling, make-up, or fashion.
-Pack as light as possible. Because I was moving, I had a lot to carry. It was a hassle.
-You may find some sketchy people on the bus. Sit near the front of the bus where you can easily call for help from the bus driver. I even wore a rescue whistle under my shirt. I never had to blow it, but it could have saved me if I got into a dangerous situation.
-Try to keep track of where you’re going and how much longer you’ll be on the bus. For some legs of the ride, I pulled out my GPS so I could follow the route and know exactly where we were at. When I didn’t use it, I sometimes wouldn’t even know what state we were in!
-Using the WiFi is a great way to pass time, but don’t expect it to always work. (And even when it does work, you cannot use it to stream videos.) Other things I did to pass the time included watching DVDs, writing in my travel journal, napping, and conversing with my fellow passengers.
-Try to talk at least a little bit with your fellow English-speaking passengers. It will make everyone more comfortable.
-If it’s light outside and you have a several-hour layover in any given city, do yourself a favor and get out of the bus station! Because stations are centrally-located, you’ll probably see quite a bit on a short walk.
Even after spending too-many-hours-to-count on the bus, I can’t wait for my next opportunity to ride the Greyhound. I signed up for Greyhound’s Road Rewards, and between my Niagara Falls trip and my Ohio to Oregon trip, I earned enough points to get a free companion pass on my next trip! I’m excited to introduce someone else to the joys of riding the Greyhound. But first, I need to figure out where to go!
Stay tuned for “Across America By Bus, Part Two”, in which I actually tell you what I did at my stops across the country.
As much as I’ve traveled across the United States, I never seemed to make it to Canada. I had been to New York, but never set foot out of the Big Apple while there. This summer, I took an eight-day trip to Niagara Falls. This means I had the opportunity to see the other side of New York State, as well as finally enter Canada. And since I visited both sides of this international city, people often ask me “Which side is better?”
Now, when it comes to travel, I don’t play favorites. I sometimes say that because I’m not a mother, my trips are like my children, therefore it would be wrong to choose a favorite. And really, I enjoyed both countries very much, but for different reasons. Here are a few highlights from each side:
US: You can take a trolley around Niagara Falls State Park, which is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, public transportation around the rest of the city isn’t so great.
CA: While there’s nothing fun like a trolley, you can buy a WeGo pass and ride any bus with the WeGo logo. It goes anywhere in town that a tourist would want to visit.
US: You can get up-close and personal with the falls. There are spots where you can be about five feet away from the top of the falls. (Naturally there’s railing to keep you a safe distance.)
CA: There’s only one waterfall that spans from the US to Canada, but because you’re not so close, Canada is the best place for viewing the falls and taking scenic pictures.
US: My favorite attraction was Cave of the Winds, where you can walk a deck at the base of Bridal Veil falls and get drenched. Other attractions include the Gorge Discovery Center, Aquarium of Niagara, and the Observation Tower, all of which are packaged in the Discovery Pass. The most famous attraction is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.
CA: My favorite attraction was Journey Behind the Falls, where you literally walk in an underground tunnel where you can see the underside of Horseshoe Falls. Another attraction included on the Adventure Pass is an amazing theater experience called Niagara’s Fury. Canada has an identical tour to Maid of the Mist, but it is called the Hornblower Niagara Cruise.
Down the River:
US: The Gorge Trail system offers miles of paths along the Niagara all the way to Lewiston. I experienced it as a combination of hiking and biking, using a bike I rented from Gorge View. This takes you through three state parks, Niagara Falls (of course), Whirlpool (which is the best place to view the large Niagara whirlpool), and Devil’s Hole (aptly named because of the hundreds of torturous steps, but has a great view of the power plant). If you drive, you can go to Fort Niagara, which is a historic base where the Niagara drains into Lake Ontario.
CA: While you could walk downriver by foot on the sidewalks, the WeGo buses can take you all the way to Queenston Heights, with hop-on-hop-off stops at interesting places such as gift shops, aviaries, and a large floral clock by the power plant. The White Water Walk takes you on a long deck as close to the Whirlpool Rapids as is legal (there is also an Aerocar that takes passengers above the Whirlpool for an outrageous extra fee). This side also has a beautiful site where the Niagara connects with the Great Lake, and you can get there by paying an extra fee for a special WeGo bus.
US: This is the side where you’ll experience the most nature. Wooded forests, walkable islands, and dirt paths are hard to find on the other side of the Niagara. It also seems to be the quieter town, if you go a few blocks away from the park, there are only houses, restaurants, hotels, and one casino. If you’ve never had Indian food before, this is the place to try it. Authentic Indian restaurants are practically on every corner.
CA: This side has a lot more tourist flair. Clifton Hills is a Disney-Vegas mashup filled with quirky museums, flashy tourist traps, and casinos. There are elegant (AKA expensive!) restaurants that beautifully frame views of the falls, most notably the Seattle Space Needle’s twin, Skylon Tower. While the nature aspect is lacking, more tourists mean more shops and services are offered here.
US: I stayed at Gorge View Hostel, which is the closest hostel to Niagara Falls. My favorite aspects were that is was across the street from the aquarium, the bedrooms were spacious and comfortable, and the owner let guests go on the roof to watch fireworks.
CA: I stayed at Niagara Backpackers Hostel in the bed-and-breakfast community, so everything was pretty upscale and historic-looking. I enjoyed this family-run accommodation, and the free breakfast was delicious!
Names and Number of Falls:
US: There are three waterfalls: American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe. The American Falls span between mainland New York and Luna Island. From Luna Island to Goat Island is Bridal Veil Falls. Then from Goat Island (still part of New York) to Canada is the Horseshoe Falls.
CA: There are two waterfalls. The American Falls is the collective name for the waterfalls on the US side. Of course the largest waterfall is still a horseshoe, but it is referred to here as the CANADIAN Horseshoe Falls! I just found it funny that each side has different interpretations of what the falls are!
As long as you have a passport, I encourage you to visit both sides of Niagara Falls to get the full experience. After all, perhaps the best part of Niagara Falls is walking across the Rainbow Bridge, where you have one foot in each country!
Note: This post was made possible in part by two hostels on opposite sides of the Niagara! Gorge View in the States, and Backpacker’s Hostel in Canada.
When I mention to people that I enjoy staying in hostels, I expect one of the following responses:
“What’s a hostel?”
“Aren’t those only in Europe?”
“Those are creepy; you shouldn’t stay there!”
For the last two, I’d like to shout a resounding NO! Hostels are found throughout the world, and only horror movies make them creepy. (In fact, I feel a lot safer staying at a hostel than I do anywhere else!) As for the first question, a hostel is an accommodation where, instead of renting a room, you can rent a bed inside a dorm. That means a big savings in money, and also a greater sense of community with others who are also staying in the hostel.
Even though hostels are most popular in Europe, and I hope to visit dozens of hostels there next year, so far I have only stayed in hostels within the United States. (Okay, so I stayed in one in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but it was only a mile away from the U.S.!) Here are a few I have stayed in and recommend:
Music City Hostel, Tennessee: This was the first hostel I had ever stayed in. Music City Hostel is a culmination of everything that the city of Nashville represents. A variety of travelers from all around the world creates this makeshift community that results in spontaneous jam sessions, late-night talks, and memorable experiences.Music City Hostel is located on the West End of Nashville. This is the district where the hospitals are located, so you will often hear ambulance sirens, but other than that it is a very quiet community. It is a few blocks away from the nearest bus stop or main street, yet it is still extremely easy to find. It is less than a mile away from several attractions, including Centennial Park and Vanderbilt University. It is also within walking distance of Downtown Nashville. Overall, Music City Hostel provides an excellent opportunity to meet new friends and experience the Nashville sights and sounds. This unique hostel is recommended to anyone with a love of travel!
Wayfaring Buckeye, Ohio: The staff was amazing, the amenities were more than I expected, and I saved a whole bunch of money compared to if I had stayed anywhere else! I had only had one previous hostel experience, but the staff at The Wayfaring Buckeye made sure I understood everything and made me feel at home. It did seem to have a fairly quiet atmosphere, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your personality and amount of energy, but if you wanted to talk, there were plenty of people willing to talk! I was especially impressed by the cleanliness. The hostel was conveniently located near the OSU campus. It was just a few miles by bike to get to the heart of Columbus. I was surprised that bikes and locks were provided for free! The Wayfaring Buckeye appears to have once been a duplex, but a wall dividing the two homes was removed. That means twice the kitchen space, living rooms, and everything else!
Gorge View Hostel, New York:Gorge View Hostel is the closest hostel to the Niagara Falls. This building is at least 85 years old and offers an interesting history in addition to its ease of access to Niagara Falls. This fairly new hostel offers a comfortable combination of old-fashioned charm and modern amenities. Gorge View is certainly worth staying at for several days! Perhaps the best part about the Gorge View location is that it’s the perfect place to view fireworks! On nights when Niagara Falls hosts a fireworks show, the rooftop is open for all guests to view the show and the lit-up city skyline. Overall, Gorge View Hostel is an excellent choice for travelers who want to see the wonder of Niagara Falls. This is one of the few hostels where you can interact directly with the owner, and he can definitely provide lots of insider information and fun stories. The hostel is continually improving, so every visit will get better and better!
Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel, Ontario: Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is a charming, family-owned-and-operated accommodation. On the outside, the old Victorian home seems perhaps to fancy to be a hostel, but on the inside, you’ll enjoy many of the amenities that are unique to hostels. Niagara Falls Backpacker’s Hostel lives up to its “international” name by housing travelers from all over the world, many of whom are friendly and great to share experiences with in Niagara Falls. The hosts speak both of Canada’s national languages, English and French.There is so much to do in the Niagara Falls area, and Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel is in a central location where you can access it all. The young will love to hear about adventures from their global peers, and older folks will appreciate the BnB-style atmosphere and community. All ages will enjoy their stay at Niagara Falls Backpackers Hostel.
Hostelling International Chicago, Illinois: HI-Chicago is one of the largest hostels in one of the largest cities in America. This safe and friendly hostel welcomes travelers around the world from all walks of life. It includes all the standards of Hostelling International, but for just a few dollars more will also provide a great place to stay for non-members. If there is anything you need to know about Chicago, ask the staff on the first or second floor. Need a cab? They’ll call one for you. Need a recommendation for a pizza joint? They’ll give you a map and point out their favorites. Need to explore Chicago on the cheap? They sell discount tickets to many of the popular attractions, including the famous Willis Tower Skydeck.
Note: Links and hostel research provided by Hostelz.com. At this site, you can find out more about hostelling and book and nearly any of the thousands of hostels around the world!