Las Vegas on a Budget
by Marco den Ouden
Las Vegas! The name alone conjures up images of lavish hotels, big expensive shows and high rollers. If you’re going to Las Vegas, you better take a wad of cash!
Think again. You actually can visit Las Vegas on a budget. It’s just a question of taking advantage of opportunities and setting your priorities.
Las Vegas is a fascinating mélange of contrasts. On one side of the street you’ll find the new Wynn Hotel and Casino, opened just over a year ago. It was the most expensive privately financed building project in the United States coming in at a cost of $2.7 billion. By comparison, estimates for reconstruction of the World Trade Center site are $1.7 billion. Walk into the Wynn and you are in a world of opulence and luxury. Polished marble floors, detailed woodwork, lush gardens, a waterfall and pond and even a Ferrari-Maserati dealership. And it has one of the poshest nightclubs in Vegas, the Tryst.
On the other side of the street sits the old Frontier Hotel with Gilley’s Bar. The big sign reads Gilley’s – Cold beer….dirty girls. Not what you think…they have regular mud wrestling tournaments. The real dirty girls are advertised in flyers in street boxes all along the strip and on billboard trucks with signs reading “Hot Babes Direct to You”.
At the Frontier you can get a Margarita for $1.99. At the Wynn it will set you back $12. So there truly is something for every budget and taste in Vegas.
But let’s look at a real budget holiday. My wife and I just came back from a week there and saved money in myriad ways. First off, we are owners of a timeshare exchange program (RCI), so we exchanged our points for a week at the Hilton Grand Vacations on the Strip. This new hotel is located at the north end of the strip, just a block from the Sahara and the Stratosphere. Cost – just $160. Paying full price for this luxury one bedroom suite complete with full kitchen and washer and dryer would have set us back between $1000 and $2000. Strip rates for four star hotels at Expedia.com run from C$185.52 at Treasure Island to C$352.85 at the Wynn. Three star hotels run as low as C$63.24 at the Sahara. Two star hotels are even cheaper. And of course, these are hotel rooms and do not include the kitchen and other amenities of a timeshare exchange.
One of the advantages of a timeshare, of course, is the kitchen. You can save a bundle by preparing your own meals. In our case we just cut down to two meals a day, breakfast in our room and dinner out.
Our next big savings came on air fare. We used Air Miles. Just 4200 points and the taxes, which came to $268.26.
So far we have air fare and accommodations for under $500. Not too shabby.
After arriving at McCarran Airport, fifth busiest in the US and ninth busiest in the world, you have to get to your hotel. Depending on how many people in your party, the cheapest way may be taxi. We took a shuttle to our hotel at $5 each or $10 total. We took a taxi back to the airport when we left and it was just $12.95. Three or more people would save by using a cab and you might even save on a cab with two people if your hotel is on the south end of the strip which is much closer to the airport. Both cab and shuttle drivers should be tipped.
The north end of the Las Vegas strip is undergoing extensive reconstruction. The Wynn Hotel and Casino fills a spot formerly occupied by the Desert Inn Golf and Country Club. And with the first tower complete, work has begun on a second tower just beside it.
Just beside that are vacant lots where the Algiers and the El Rancho once stood. The El Rancho, the very first hotel and casino in Las Vegas, is being replaced by Turnberry Place, a condominium complex. Across the street and beside the Hilton Grand Vacations Club, Sky on the Strip, another condo development, is well under construction towering above the street.
Condos and timeshares, in fact, seem to be the big thing in Las Vegas these days and our first excursion down the strip to the Wynn brought us in contact with one of many hucksters trying to promote timeshare presentations. We had walked into a Grand Canyon Tours hole in the wall along the strip and the fellow there quickly moved from the Grand Canyon to selling us on checking out a timeshare….which brings us to the next money saving idea in Vegas – go to a timeshare presentation.
No really! We already own one so we were a bit hesitant but the fellow just kept adding on free gifts…two shows…four buffets at the Sahara…and finally we buckled when he threw in a $50 gaming chit at the Luxor. He also gave us some good advice. When you present the chit at the cashier window, he said, don’t let them give you slot machine coupons. Ask for silver dollars. Then you can cash them and be up on the game. He also asked us for a $20 non-refundable deposit because he was giving away so much. I balked but paid it. In retrospect I should have said no just to see if he would give us the offer without a deposit.
So here’s the deal…resist the offer and see how much they will add. Ask specifically for gaming dollars if they’re not offered. Another timeshare flogger tried to sell us on his deal and wanted us to switch and see his timeshare instead. But he said he couldn’t match the deal we got, which he admitted was pretty good.
I should mention that not all shows are offered. The really big shows, Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion and Le Reve are not offered. But there is a good variety to choose from. We picked something called V: the Ultimate Variety Show at the Aladdin and the Platters, Coasters and Drifters at the Sahara. Even at half price discounts, the tickets would have cost over $100. And the shows were very entertaining.
The timeshare presentation was interesting and we attend them occasionally just to keep on top of the market and see what current prices are. They actually made us a pretty good offer but we weren’t in the market for more RCI points as we have enough already. If you are not in the market for a timeshare but are an easy mark for a sales pitch, don’t go. But if you are able to say no with equanimity, by all means, go. Spending two to three hours at a timeshare presentation is worth two free show tickets for two, a few free meals and fifty bucks in my book.
And if you are, in fact, in the market for a timeshare, Las Vegas is a prime location to buy in. According to travel writer Wendy Croix, Las Vegas timeshares average US$11,000 compared to a national average of US$14,000 (that would be for one week and one bedroom).
And if you can handle more than one presentation, you can spend a whole week seeing free shows. There are several timeshare groups offering gifts for taking in a presentation. One was all we were in the mood for, but if you’re on a tight budget, take in several. You have to qualify for most by having a combined income of over $75,000, in some cases just $50,000.
True to their word, the timeshare folks picked us up at our hotel and after the presentation we got our vouchers and asked to be dropped at the Luxor to cash our gaming chit. We asked for $50 in silver dollars (they give you Luxor dollar tokens) and we gambled away $10 and cashed in the rest.
Which brings me to the next money saving tip – don’t gamble. Or if you must, gamble with their money. Besides getting gaming money from the timeshare presenters, many casinos offer free gaming if you join their Gaming Club. It’s free to join. I joined one at the Riviera because they advertised “up to $1000 in free slot play” by joining their players club. I signed up and got a card much like a credit card as well as a key chain and deck of cards. I was told I could use the card at any machine that was marked that it would take the card (which was nearly all of the slots there) but had to play it all at the same machine. Turns out my card was only worth $2 and after gambling that I was up fifty cents. Not worth cashing in so I gambled that away too.
The Casino Royale, which occupies a building that looks like a row of Victorian houses between Harrah’s and the Venetian, offers $50 in slot play and more to join their club. Other casinos have their offers too.
But if you enjoy gambling and want to take a chance on winning some big money, consider these words of wisdom from one comic we saw. Who are the losers in Las Vegas and who are the winners? Look at the size of your house. Now look at the size of the casinos. Yep! You know who the winners are, baby! And it ain’t you!
The odds of winning big are miniscule. Sure, each casino has a wall of winners….a couple of dozen people pictured, but consider how many people walk through their doors and drop their money on those tables or down those slots and you know the odds are very much against you. So if you must gamble….here’s my next tip.
Bet pennies or nickels. One thing I noticed on this trip is the large number of slot machines taking pennies or nickels. They were rare in Vegas a few years ago but are quite common now. And many of the penny and nickel machines are progressive slots. A progressive slot is one that is tied electronically to a lot of other similar ones in casinos around town. Because lots of people are feeding lots of machines, the big jackpot prize grows ever larger until the jackpot is won. Even the penny slots often have jackpots in the tens of thousands of dollars. Your odds of winning at a penny slot are just as good as winning at a quarter or dollar slot. So pick a progressive penny or nickel slot with a large jackpot and go to town. Because you can get more spins of the wheel for the same amount of money with a penny or nickel slot, your odds of winning are actually better on a dollar for dollar basis.
Sure, you might kick yourself if you win the jackpot because if you had been betting dollars instead of pennies you would have won a couple of millions instead of $200,000. But what are the odds?
Some casinos gaming club memberships offer rewards. The Wynn does and so does the Total Rewards program offered by Bally’s, Harrah’s, the Flamingo, Caesar’s Palace, Paris and the Rio (all owned by Harrah’s). Called the Great Gift Wrap Up (www.greatgiftwrapup.com), you use your membership card whenever you gamble at one of these casinos and build up Gift Points which can be redeemed at the end of the year. You can order your gifts by mail too. If you’re going to gamble your money away, you might as well get something back in return!
My next money saving tip is to use coupons and half price ticket sellers. Wherever you go on the strip, you’ll encounter people giving out coupons and guide books. The guide books all have coupons too. The handiest little book I picked up is something called 24/7 Magazine (www.247vegas.com) It’s pocket sized and includes extensive listings of shows, restaurants, buffets, gaming, late night and shopping. We consulted it often.
Other good guides include Las Vegas Magazine (www.lasvegasmagazine.com). It has much of the same material but in a magazine format. And What’s On (www.ilovevegas.com) is also similar. All have show reviews, listings by category and coupons galore, many of them two-for-one offers. What’s On is the easiest magazine to find as it is in racks at various stores and casinos up and down the strip. But the other two are harder to find. 24/7 was given me by a guy handing them out on the street but I never saw it anywhere else. It might be worth visiting their websites before you go to Las Vegas to see what’s currently showing and plan your trip accordingly.
One way to see a show at a discount is to visit one of the two half price ticket companies in town. Tickets 2Nite (www.tickets2nite.com) is located at the giant Coke bottle next to the MGM Grand. Tix4Tonight (www.tix4tonight.com) has four locations, the Hawaiian Marketplace, Fashion Show Mall, across from the Stardust and downtown on Fremont Street. Both companies offer tickets for same day shows up to 50% off. And both add $2 a ticket in handling charges. The good news is you can find coupons worth $2 a ticket for these vendors almost anywhere.
The discount ticket vendors usually do not have tickets for the really big shows such as Cirque du Soleil or Celine Dion. However they did have tickets at 25% off for Le Reve, the fabulous show at the Wynn. We bought tickets for that show, still pricey, but a penny saved is a penny earned and $50 saved is $50 earned. Our hundred dollar tickets cost us only $75 (plus tax for $81.50 each).
Le Reve is a must see show. It is in the same league as the Cirque du Soleil shows, a dazzling spectacle of acrobatics, synchronized swimming, diving and comedy much like the Cirque’s “O” show at the Bellagio. “O” and Le Reve were both created by the same man, Franco Dragone. The Wynn, being at the north end of the strip, is a bit out of the way for folks staying at the south end of the strip where there are more hotels and so Le Reve often does not sell out. There were discount tickets available almost every day we were there.
Another show worth seeing which we, unfortunately, did not have time for, is Rick Thomas at the Stardust. A master magician, Thomas was called the “best magician in Vegas” by Millionaire Magazine. But you don’t have to be a millionaire to afford tickets. Just $12.50 at the discount ticket sellers.
But there is also a lot to see and do in Las Vegas that is absolutely free. We spent many hours just enjoying the magnificence of the luxury casinos. Walking into the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, the Wynn or Mandalay Bay is to transport yourself into another world of glamour and glitz, wealth and luxury. If you appreciate superb craftsmanship, these casinos have it. Fabulous woodwork, art, and fittings abound.
And entertainment! The biggest draw is probably the Fountains of Bellagio. One thousand synchronized sprays dance across an eight acre artificial lake in front of the hotel in time to music. Some of the jets can send water flying 250 feet into the air. Four thousand lights accent the display. Every fifteen minutes a new song and new show can be seen. Music varies from classical to pop. I don’t know how many songs are in the repertoire but we watched five and each was different.
Inside the Bellagio is a fantastic piece of art embedded in the ceiling. Called the Fiori di Como, it consists of 2000 hand-blown glass flowers. Walk under the Fiori to the back and you’ll find a conservatory and gardens which contain models of famous buildings, including the Bellagio, made of twigs. Miniature railroads run by the buildings and through mountains and over trestles.
Next door at Caesar’s Palace you can enjoy giant sculptures depicting Roman mythology. Wander through Caesar’s Forum Shops and you’ll find a tableau called the Fall of Atlantis. Every hour on the hour animatronic figures, fire and fountains show the sinking of the lost continent.
Other free attractions include the lions at the MGM Grand, big top acts at Circus Circus, a simulated volcano at the Mirage, a battle between two pirate ships with live actors at Treasure Island or watch the gondolas at the Venetian. You can actually ride the gondolas for a fee. Off strip a bit is the Rio where the free Masquerade Show in the Sky runs seven times a day. The show features live performers entertaining you from themed floats suspended on a track from the ceiling. For a small fee, you can don a costume and join the performers on one of the floats.
And if you’re into the nightlife scene, the Tropicana has a free pool party every Saturday night with a live band. The evening includes swimming and dancing, swim-up blackjack and a bikini contest. 14 ounce Miller draft is just $2. Most of the night clubs have a cover charge
Of course, we have to eat. Many of the hotels feature buffets ranging from $9.95 and up. Even the $31.95 buffet at the Wynn is a bargain when you consider what you get. An amazing selection of food that includes everything from pizza to king crab legs, sumptuous desserts and non-alcoholic beverages make for a tasty feast. And the restaurant has a lush décor and ambience, a fine location for a dinner out.
One restaurant which is not mentioned in the guidebooks (must be fairly new) is Maggiano’s Little Italy in the Fashion Show Mall. It features authentic Italian cuisine with large portions. Our waitress encouraged sharing and so we ordered a chicken breast dinner and a side pasta. More than enough for the both of us. With drinks, the meal set us back just $35. A bargain for a fine dinner for two.
The strip, we discovered, is 6.3 miles from the Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere. We found that out after we walked almost the whole darn thing one day. An easier way is to use the Deuce. Las Vegas’s double decker bus system is excellent and for $5 you can get on and off as often as you like for 24 hours. Your feet will call it a bargain and thank you!
If there is a downside to Vegas, it is the sleaze factor. Besides the newspaper style boxes with promotional flyers, there are hucksters out every night handing out what I call “Hooker Trading Cards”, about the size of a baseball card with a picture of a scantily clad woman on one side and contact info on the other. The fellows handing them out (my wife and I wondered if we should refer to them as pimps, associate pimps or pimps in training) seem to be a bit clueless and will even try and hand them to men obviously walking with their wives. Heck, one even tried to give my wife one.
If that wasn’t bad enough, most people toss them right away and the street is littered with hooker flyers and cards. The strip’s hotels really should get together and hire permanent clean-up crews to pick up the litter. Especially since Vegas has become a family getaway destination and there are lots of children out with their parents.
That said, Las Vegas is a great place to visit and doesn’t have to be a strain on your wallet. Viva Las Vegas, baby!
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