Jetting off on the spur of the moment used to be strictly for high rollers. Now, thanks to the Web, it's easy—and cheap. At Niagara Falls, one traveler finds out why sometimes it's also best
Travel is like dating. a destination captures your attention in, say, a glossy magazine. You flirt with the idea of going. You commit to a time.
But schedules don't mesh, and you're forced to plan too far in advance. By the time you go, you've built it up in your mind, found out too much about the object of your attraction, or simply lost the excitement that led you to it in the first place. Spontaneity is the soul of the first date and, I'm here to argue, modern travel.
Luckily, the Internet has made the spontaneous trip a breeze. T+L asked me to prove it by going somewhere I'd never been, for a weekend, on a moment's notice. To ditch the planning, to date blind. I woke up on Wednesday, checked the airlines' sale fares, and by 10 a.m. had a rendezvous with Niagara Falls. By noon, I had set up a car rental, found a motel room, and done some research on interests we might have in common, all on-line. Thursday and Friday I crowed to anyone who would listen that I was going—crazy me!—to Niagara Falls. It's not unlike the way I behave when I have a date.
Saturday morning I flew to Buffalo ($110 round-trip from New York City), picked up my car, and drove to the Canadian side of the Falls. It took me all of half an hour to realize that my date, so pretty in pictures, is a bit of a slut. She'll do anything to woo tourists. Maybe whore is a better word, since she does it for money.
This first impression was not shot down by my motel room, a vivid little space with a blood-red carpet, water bed, and cherries-in-the-snow Jacuzzi tub—heart-shaped, naturally. Nor by the main drag's "attractions," luridly appealing to the baser instincts. (A wax museum celebrating the world's greatest murderers, including the Unabomber, is vulgar.) Nor by the greed on evidence at the casino, nor by the thousands of souvenir shops.
And then I saw the real her.
So I'm a sucker: She's got a heart of gold—the Falls itself. The famous Maid of the Mist boat trip is a good start, but it's the Cave of the Winds walk, on the American side, that had me falling in love. Wearing a yellow raincoat and chic booties made of industrial carpet (very Kyoto tearoom), I journeyed down to the foot of Bridal Veil Falls. I sipped from her waters, and posed for photos.
I got to know her, all about her. I rode a gondola over the Whirlpool, where the river enters a bend in the canyon and agitates like an Aspen hot tub on New Year's Eve. I took the Journey Behind the Falls, a walk into the heart of the Canadian side's Horseshoe Falls. Should I be embarrassed to admit I admired my love from behind?I saw her from above, too, on a balloon ride and from the top of the Skylon Tower. At night, the area is positively Parisian—the frothy Falls illuminated with equally frothy colors, an older gentleman selling single red roses and smiling sweetly.
In the end, I loved Niagara, and ultimately her sluttiness was part of the charm. If I had won at the casino I'd be singing a different tune about greed; then again, it was only Canadian money. If I hadn't been alone in my motel—well, I needn't go into that (a sympathetic man solo in a heart-shaped tub is the epitome of bathos). Truth be told, I loved the motel. I loved the ice cream store shaped like a soft-serve cone. I could even learn to forgive the wax Unabomber. And the last-minuteness of it all was essential. If I had made more of it than a quick romp, if I'd had the time to do any more research, if I'd asked my friends what they thought of her, I would almost certainly have been scared away. She's got a bad reputation.
Will I see her again?Probably not. But Niagara, we'll always have our weekend, and I understand why you have to turn on the red light now and again. Let he who is without sin go elsewhere. And spend weeks planning the trip.
8 Steps to an 11th-hour Trip
1. Most airlines offer last-minute Internet weekend fares, usually on Wednesdays, which you can see by going to their Web sites or signing up for e-mail newsletters. Rather than cluttering your in-box, join smarterliving.com, which compiles all the week's deals in a single e-mail.
2. Keep an eye on the fares from week to week and you'll get a sense of who flies where and how often certain cities are on sale (Caracas is common, Rome is not). It's important to decide quickly, since these seats go fast, especially to popular destinations. If you're set on a particular location and it's not on sale, there's always Priceline.com, but you're playing with fire.
3. Don't be afraid of the phone. I tried booking my ticket through the new Orbitz.com Web site—a breeze to navigate—until it went buggy on me. Then I called US Airways and got it done quickly (and I didn't lose the Web-only fare). If the airline gives you attitude, tell them your computer broke.
4. Airlines often tag car-rental deals onto their last-minute e-fares—I got mine through Alamo, which partners with US Airways. Chain hotel specials are usually available, too.
5. Almost every hotel is on the Web these days, with pictures (even the dregsy Continental Inn, where I stayed, is shown on a Niagara Falls reservation site). City hotels that cater to business travelers are more likely to have last-minute deals, especially on weekends. Check out the consolidators—Hotel Reservations Network is one (hoteldiscount.com)—but know that you can sometimes get better rates by calling the hotel directly.
6. If you prefer package trips or just need inspiration, go to Site59.com. They can be funky—I once did a New York City trip called Beef and Guns, where I shot at a rifle range and then had a steak dinner—but there are plenty of more mainstream choices as well.
7. Visit travelandleisure.com for destination info (and sign up for the weekly Hot Deals e-mail of last-minute bargains). Then poke around: someone has almost certainly compiled a guide to anywhere you want to go. Citysearch.com has good, up-to-date listings for U.S. cities; Zagat.com is great for restaurant reviews. (I'm a fan of swimmersguide.com, which lists public-access pools all over the world.)
8. Don't worry. Any place you're likely to go has a tourism infrastructure and can handle whatever situation you bring to the table. Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to Madrid on a Wednesday and flew out Thursday night. On the plane I realized I had no idea how far the airport was from the hotel or how much the peseta was worth versus the dollar. But I figured it out. Remember, stupider people than you travel all the time, and do just fine.