Trip Report: Toronto, Mammoth Cave, and Niagara Falls Road Trip
The Root of Good family made it back from our 3.5 week road trip a couple weeks ago. Here’s an after action battle report on our trip including highlights from all the places we visited plus a complete cost breakdown of our trip budget. Skip to the end for some travel hacking tips to save big bucks on your next epic vacation!
We traveled for 24 days with stays in the following cities:
- Between Charlotte and Asheville, NC – staying with family 3 nights
- Nashville – 1 night
- Bowling Green, KY (Mammoth Cave) – 3 nights
- Detroit, MI – 2 nights
- Toronto, Canada – 12 nights
- Niagara Falls (Canadian side) – 2 nights
- Washington D.C. – 1 night
- Back home in Raleigh!
When I describe this summer’s big crazy road trip to people, their first reaction is to drop their jaw, drool, and say “wow, sounds like an awesome trip!”. Their second reaction is to scrunch their eyebrows, and ask in a puzzling way “wait, Nashville and Toronto – those… aren’t anywhere near each other are they?”.
They aren’t. But we’re not complete geography noobs either. We wanted to visit Nashville and Niagara Falls (near Toronto), and decided to embrace the triangular path between those two locations, with Raleigh forming the third vertex of the triangle. And visit some cool places along the way (some of which you, dear gracious readers, suggested!).
For more detail on our trip planning, check out “The Great American Canadian Road Trip – Summer 2016 Edition“.
We only spent one night in Nashville, so we had to play the role of stereotypical tourist and see what we could during our limited time in town.
Bowling Green, Kentucky and Mammoth Cave
We only spent one night in Nashville so that we could spend two full days exploring Mammoth Cave. We stayed in the city of Bowling Green about 30 minutes from the Cave entrance.
Dayton, Ohio (Air Force Museum)
Thanks to all the commenters and Root of Good friends that suggested the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It was a perfect break from our seven hour drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan.
Exactly zero people got excited when I mentioned that we were spending two nights in Detroit. It’s not exactly the kind of place you visit while on vacation apparently. My perception of the big D included active gang warfare, rounds flying overhead, and houses going up in smoke as the innocents suffered collateral damage to life and property.
We needed a place to stay half way between Toronto and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Detroit was almost in the middle. And they have one of the only four Category 1 Starwood Preferred Guest hotels in the nation (the Four Points By Sheraton Detroit Airport was beautiful, by the way). So it was settled. We would pause for two nights, rest, relax, and possibly test out the thickness of the sheet metal on the minivan as we drive through the inevitable war zones.
Sadly, there was very little going on in Detroit. It was very quiet. No people. Almost eerie. Mid-day on a Saturday and there were basically zero people in downtown. Traffic was light.
We rolled around town to check out the blighted areas and they didn’t disappoint. Through the window, block after block rolled by. We saw more cleared or reforested lots than abandoned houses. Most blocks had no more than one or two inhabited houses. We didn’t see any crime probably because there were no people. Zero corner boys slinging their trade. No one running from the non-existent cops. No gunfire. Just a very peaceful drive around a mostly deserted part of town.
Upsides included the Renaissance Center on the waterfront and the burgeoning Mexicantown (which was booming!).
Toronto, Ontario Province, Canada
We spent 12 nights in Toronto in an Airbnb rental in the Roncevalles neighborhood a few miles west of downtown. Since we had our van, we skipped the streetcars and subway in Toronto and chose to drive or walk everywhere. Downtown was about 15-20 minutes away by car.
After leaving Toronto, we headed south to spend two nights on the Canadian side of the falls. On the way down we stopped at Welland Locks to watch a ship transit the canal up river.
Once we arrived in Niagara Falls, we planned to do the Maid of the Mist (also called Hornblower Cruises on the Canadian side) but learned that the wait to board the boat can be two hours. Poor planning on our part because we visited during the busiest time of year on the busy weekend. Instead, we explored the falls on foot and by bus from the US and Canadian sides.
Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Udvar-Hazy annex)
Washington, D.C. served as our last waypoint on the trip. We spent the night at an Aloft hotel near the Dulles airport (free with SPG points, of course) then woke up, played some pool, and departed for our last bit of tourism of the vacation. The Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
It’s got a bunch of cool planes, missiles, rockets, and spacecraft of various types. But the most awesome vessel in the hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery. This bad boy flew to outer space 39 times over the past several decades. And we got close enough to almost touch it.
For anyone thinking of replicating our trip, the Air Force Museum and the Air and Space Museum had a lot of overlap (once you’ve seen several hundred planes from the various eras of flight, several hundred more planes don’t add a lot of marginal utility). Air and Space is still an awesome museum because of the Space Shuttle. The Air Force Museum stood out for having a few historic Air Force Ones that used to fly former presidents (and you can walk through the Air Force Ones). Both museums are free except for a $15 parking fee at the Air and Space Museum.
After 2,432.3 miles and 25 days on the road we made it home in one piece. Another great vacation on the books!
We budgeted $2,100 for the whole trip. We’re good at optimizing expenses on the fly and miraculously managed to spend only $954 for our 3.5 week road trip. Of course we’re travel hackers, so that total doesn’t include several thousand dollars worth of free lodging expenses (including 4 room nights at a USD$300-400/nt hotel in Niagara Falls). First I’ll show the travel budget with actual expenditures, then I’ll reveal some travel hacking tips so you can replicate some of my success. All amounts in US dollars with the US to Canadian dollar exchange rate hovering around USD$1 to CDN$1.30.
Lodging – $157 (budget: $476)
- 12 nights Toronto Airbnb rental – $43 (after $345 airbnb referral discounts, $85 cancellation/rebooking credit and $500 Barclay Arrival Card travel rebate/bonus, plus a $56 damage charge for our kiddo breaking a fancy pants light fixture)
- 3 nights Bowling Green, KY Airbnb rental – $47 (after $250 Airbnb gift card from Amex credit card reward bonus)
- 1 night hotel in Nashville from Hotwire – $66
- 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Detroit Metro Airport – $0 (8,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 2 nights x 2 rooms – Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls Fallsview – $0 (12,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
- 1 night x 1 room – Aloft Dulles Airport North – $0 (4,000 SPG points from Starwood Amex)
We initially booked a two bedroom Airbnb apartment on the east side of Toronto. The landlord cancelled a month before our trip so we had to re-book a different property. Airbnb offers a rebooking credit of 10% of the amount you initially paid to help you find a replacement property. The new rental was a big win because it was cheaper and nicer.
Now for the bad news. Our four year old pretended one of the light fixtures was a steering wheel. He drove it hard. It broke. We agreed to the landlord’s request for $56 in damages to replace the light fixture. Otherwise the 12 nights in Toronto would have netted out to negative $13!
In other lodging snafus, let’s talk about the $66 Nashville hotel we purchased through Hotwire. The room itself was okay, but the hotel had serious issues with management. We showed up around five or six in the afternoon expecting our hotel room to be ready (check in time was three pm). It was not ready. We grabbed dinner nearby then checked in with the hotel. Still not ready. We gave up checking in at that point and decided to spend the rest of the evening touring around downtown Nashville. Fortunately when we returned to the hotel around nine pm our room was ready. The hotel had many cautionary reviews, but these weren’t visible until after we booked the room through Hotwire and they revealed which mystery hotel we booked. Next time around I think we’ll either book a higher class of hotel through Hotwire or book directly with a hotel and not roll the dice. Though at $66 for a room with clean sheets, clean bathroom and free breakfast in the morning, it wasn’t a horrible deal in spite of the six hour delay checking in. I might be able to get a partial or full refund if I fought and fought and fought, but it’s simply not worth $66 to me.
Transportation $264 (budget – $500)
- 2,432 miles – $148 (most gas was below $2/gal)
- Tolls – $6.50 ($5 bridge crossing in Detroit; $1.50 bridge to US in Niagara Falls)
- Parking and Transit – $110 ($18 for 24 bus pass in Niagara Falls; $92 for parking)
I used the Gasbuddy app to find the cheapest gas stations along the way. Most were under $2 per gallon. We filled up just before entering Canada because the average gas price north of the border is around USD$3/gal, so we only had to purchase a few gallons in Canada at those prices.
We somehow managed to avoid toll roads everywhere other than the one international bridge crossing from Detroit to Windsor, Canada (USD$5). We also walked to the American side of Niagara Falls for the day and spent USD$1.50 for the privilege of making a pedestrian crossing on the international Rainbow Bridge.
We budgeted $200 for parking and/or transit and spent almost half that. I used the Best Parking website to find the best deals for parking and frequently paid USD$3-5 for all day parking in downtown areas that might have been $20+ otherwise. Except one day when there was a Drake concert and the “event rates” kicked in. You win some, you lose some. For us, driving proved cheaper than transit so we went with the less expensive option.
Food $435 (budget – $720)
- Restaurants – dining out about once per day – $435 or ~$20 per meal
- Groceries – slightly less than what we usually spend at home ($125-150/wk) – $0 extra (but $208 total, mostly in Toronto)
It seems like we ate out constantly, but looking at the numbers, we only ate out once per day on average. At $19 or $20 per meal, this roughly matches our average from our Canada trip two years ago. Some of the meals were very inexpensive at $10-15 (think fast food dollar menu or BOGO falafel wraps), other meals were closer to the $20 average (inexpensive take out from a “real” restaurant), while several meals were $35-45 at regular sit down restaurants. We usually drink water with our meal and skip alcohol at restaurants. That plus the weak Canadian dollar meant some really good eats for under USD$50 for our family of five.
Entertainment/Admission Fees $98 (budget – $400)
- 2 days of Mammoth Cave tours – $96
- Touristy stuff at Niagara Falls – $0
- Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – $2
The two days of Mammoth Cave tours was the only big museum or park admission cost during this trip. So many other museums are free all the time (Air Force Museum; Air and Space Museum) or certain days of the week (like the outstanding Art Gallery of Ontario).
We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto – a “name your own price” museum where I dropped two American $1 bills into the donation slot. It was worth every penny (they had Shaq’s boot available to touch and smell!) but not a lot more. Regular admission was crazy expensive so it’s unlikely I would have visited without the name your own price option. The museum wasn’t crowded even on the day you can get in for free, so I imagine the regular admission days are really desolate.
Souvenirs $0 (budget – $0)
- 5,024 pictures and tons of memories – $0
I don’t like souvenirs. Toronto’s City Hall handed out free TORONTO pins, so technically we received a few souvenirs but paid nothing for them.
Budget Wrap Up
- Lodging – $157
- Transportation – $264
- Food – $435
- Entertainment – $98
- TOTAL: $954
At $954 for 3.5 weeks of life on the road for a family of five, I’d say we did okay. Our goal wasn’t to travel this cheaply. It just happened. We also had several hundred dollars of Airbnb referral credit that brought costs down which might be hard to replicate if you don’t have a blog.
We saved about $200 on utilities while we were out of town primarily by setting the thermostat on 90 degrees and therefore using very little electricity. We also consumed zero water and almost zero natural gas for the hot water heater. Does that make our net vacation cost $754?
Travel hacking tips
When we plan a trip we try to leverage our existing stash of airline miles and hotel points for free flights and hotel rooms. For stays over two nights, it’s often cost effective to stay at a short term rental located through a service like Airbnb or VRBO.
Large credit card sign up bonuses are our main source for miles and points. Some cards entice new cardmembers by offering $400-500 reimbursement for any kind of travel expense (like the Barclay Arrival Card and the Capital One Venture card). Other cards provide 30,000 to 50,000 hotel points or airline miles. A third variety of cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards, offer points that can be transferred to a variety of hotel or airline programs or redeemed at the Chase site for 25-50% extra value (compared to redeeming for cash).
We slashed the lodging expense significantly by careful use of our credit card points. We redeemed the $500 sign up bonus from our Barclay Arrival card on the Toronto Airbnb rental.
I picked up a $250 Airbnb gift certificate by redeeming 25,000 of the 150,000 American Express Membership Rewards points we earned when we signed up for a pair of Amex Business Gold Rewards cards in December last year. That slashed the total price for three nights in an Airbnb rental in Bowling Green, Kentucky from $297 to $47.
We booked nine nights at Starwood Hotels (including Four Points by Sheraton and Aloft hotels) using 24,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points from a single Starwood Amex sign up bonus offer. The most amazing redemption of the bunch was a $400 per night (in Canadian dollars) room in Niagara Falls for 3,000 points per night (and one of our rooms was upgraded to the Falls View executive room priced over $500 per night).
Overall, we slashed what would have been $3,000 in lodging expenses to under $200 using credit card reward points and hotel points. Not a bad deal at all.
Travel hacking is how we traveled through Mexico for seven and a half weeks in 2015 for $4,500. If you like free travel as much as we do and want to get some of these same cards, check out these credit card offers.
Airbnb is an incredible way to save money while on vacation, particularly if you’re traveling with a family. We booked decent two bedroom apartments and houses for much less than the cost of a crappy hotel room suite. The biggest benefit beyond having tons of space is that we get a full kitchen so we don’t have to dine out for a month straight. If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, check them out for your next vacation and save $35 off your first stay.
Cooking at our house or apartment helps bring the food cost down. This doesn’t mean you can’t try new restaurants and cuisines while you’re vacationing, but simple things like cereal, yogurt, fruit, and eggs for breakfast are much cheaper when prepared at “home” rather than purchased at a restaurant. For lunch and dinner, we made a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads (on the easy end) while frequently delving into more complex culinary pursuits by cooking ribs, sausages, tortellini, spaghetti, and tacos during our two week stay in Toronto.
A few technological innovations helped us immensely. The GasBuddy website/app shows the cheapest gas stations along your route. The Best Parking website/app shows the cheapest parking for your area and time of day. Google Maps is another great free resource and allows offline download of maps with navigation (we didn’t have data on our cell phone while “overseas” in Canada).
It’s worth mentioning the financial benefits of slow travel. When you aren’t trying to hit all the bullet pointed sites in your travel guide within the typical American week long vacation, you can take time to relax and enjoy the trip more. Schedule a “do nothing” day every two or three days of the vacation and spend the day strolling around the neighborhood, take the kids (or just you!) to the pool, catch up on your Netflix queue, or cook a big feast in your kitchen. When you’re paying a weekly or monthly rental rate instead of a nightly rate at a hotel, it doesn’t cost much to take the day off from the sightseeing trail.
I also find tracking expenses and seeing where your travel dollars went to be a useful exercise. I don’t really manage our spending against the budget while on vacation, but that could be useful if you are on a really tight budget or need to conserve cash for another upcoming trip. Personal Capital is a great (and free!) app and website tool to track your spending automatically. Then you can see where your travel dollars go without spending lots of time manually tracking expenses.
Where to next?
For 2016, we increased our travel budget to $10,000. However we most likely won’t spend it all this year. Year to date through August we have only spent $3,100 for travel. That total includes our Canada road trip, $810 for a recently booked cruise in late November, partial payment toward another cruise in December, and some miscellaneous travel related expenses throughout the year. We should spend another $1,000 to $2,000 for the remainder of the second cruise and other cruise expenses. We will likely end the year with half of our $10,000 travel budget unspent.
Not to worry, as we are already talking about spending the summer of 2017 in Europe, so there’s a good chance we will use most of the $10,000 travel budget next year, and the $5,000 not spent in 2016 might come in handy too.
What epic trips have you taken? Where do you want to travel next?