Whirlwind Niagara: Buffalo and the Greater Falls area in one long weekend

72 hours in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, with a tour of both the US and Canadian sides, as well as an afternoon in Buffalo's rejuvenated Canalside district and a stop at the Buffalo Zoo

Whirlwind Niagara
One long weekend is more than enough to experience most of the sights of the Buffalo/Niagara area.  Make sure to bring your passports -- otherwise, you won't be able to see anything on the Canadian side.  If you wanted to extend this trip for another day or two, you could go fully through the Canadian threshold and add a trek to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque (and apparently, slightly hoity-toity) community in Ontario on Lake Erie.  

Since we didn't have enough points with one airline to cover all 3 of us roundtrip, we booked separate one-way awards on DL (Delta) and B6 (JetBlue), meaning we still ended up paying nothing out of pocket!  Outbound, we went JFK-BUF via JetBlue points, most of which were earned from the 40k sign-up bonus on the JetBlue Barclaycard.  In total, we transferred 54,400 B6 points for 3 one-way tickets to BUF, worth about 1.2 cents/point here, which is just about the expected return.  

Niagara Falls, New York
It's about half an hour from the airport to Niagara Falls.  We stayed at the Giacomo, a beautifully restored building a few minutes from the Niagara Falls State Park and the Rainbow Bridge into Canada.  It's the tallest building on the New York side of the Falls, and was recently acquired by Choice Hotels under the Ascend Collection brand.  That means that we were able to transfer 40k Amex points to Choice at a 1:1 ratio, then book two nights in a one bedroom suite at 20k points/night.  Paid rates for the suite were about $300 a night, netting a redemption value of 1.5 cents/point (excellent for Choice points and acceptable for Amex points).

The New York side of the Falls is decidedly more run down than the Canadian side, but it has it's high points.  These include the perennial Maid of the Mist boat tour, the Cave of the Winds behind Bridal Veil Falls, and the wide open Niagara Falls State Park itself.  All three are must-see.

Niagara Falls, Ontario
The US (near) and Canadian (far) falls, as seen from the center  of the Rainbow Bridge
The US (near) and Canadian (far) falls, as seen from the center
of the Rainbow Bridge, with downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario
in the background
It's a quick 15 minute walk into Canada from the Giacomo via the Rainbow Bridge, provided you remembered to bring your passports.  The walk across the bridge itself is quite enjoyable, particularly on warmer days when there's a light breeze, and the mist from the falls is carries past you.  This is also the best vantage point to view the fireworks over the Falls, which occur on weekend evenings throughout the summer.

The Canadian side is very touristy, which may be a draw for some more than others.  This results in the area feeling a little more polished (and slightly safer) than the New York side (though we never felt unsafe around our hotel).  There are numerous small amusement parks and arcades, and a bevy of haunted houses and assorted odditoriums, including the obligatory Ripley's Believe it or Not.  Queen Victoria Park is a lovely area for a stroll along the edge of the Falls, and temperatures here easily felt 10-15 degrees cooler than on the hilltop streets above.

Buffalo, New York
Back in the car and half an hour south, and you'll find yourself in Buffalo.  At one time, there were more millionaires per capita living in Buffalo than anywhere else in the country, and the city was thriving on cheap electricity from the Falls, traffic from the Erie Canal, and booming industrial development.  The bottom fell out in the 70s, and though the city is not exactly a vibrant metropolis today, some areas have been making a comeback.

We stayed at the Lofts on Pearl, a Wyndham hotel under the Trademark label.  This is an all-suite hotel, and being a Wyndham property, all redemptions are fixed at 15k points/night.  This means that we netted a massive two-bedroom loft with cathedral ceilings and a full kitchen for the same 15k points/night you'd pay for any other Wyndham property.  The points came from the Wyndham Barclaycard, which deposits 15k into our Wyndham account each year just for paying the $69 annual fee (the card has since been devalued, and paying the fee now only gets you a 6k bonus annually -- another reminder to strike while the credit card iron is hot).

The Buffalo Lighthouse, as seen from the Harbor Queen cruise
The hotel is a few minute walk from KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, as well as the trendy Canalside district.  The hotel is also next door to the multi-story Pearl Street Brewery, one of the best places to eat in the city (and in fact, you get a breakfast voucher each morning to be used in the Brewery's basement deli).  We took a leisurely canal cruise on the Harbor Queen and enjoyed a few cocktails while taking in the Buffalo skyline.  There are also narrated history tours for those who like their boat trips with a little more structured education built-in.

Before leaving, we stopped at the Buffalo Zoo for a few hours, which is only 15 minutes from the airport.  This was a good way to spend the morning, as the walkable zoo is built for younger children, and includes interesting rotating installations and exhibits.

BUF-JFK via DL, redeeming 42k Delta points for three one-way tickets, worth about 1.5 cents/point here.  As a newly minted FO (Delta's lowest tier frequent flier), we were upgraded to first, the only caveat being that we had to split the reservation so that my son and I could be upgraded while my wife bit the bullet and stayed in coach (Delta only allows you to be upgraded along with a single companion).  The flight was an hour, and was over before we knew it, making the whole upgrade business slightly moot!

Points redemptions
42k Delta SkyMiles @ 1.5 cents/point + 
54k JetBlue points @ 1.2 cents/point + 
15k Wyndham points @ 1.33 cents/point + 
40k Choice points @ 1.5 cents/point =
~$2078 in free travel!

Guide used:
Moon Niagara Falls

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