The first time I visited Las Vegas I was in awe. It was actually before I had even traveled internationally, so I was blown away with what I could get for my money. Super-cheap meals, free drinks at the $2 bet casino tables, room prices too low to believe—it was cheapskate heaven.
I returned with my wife for New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium. We partied like it was 1999. And things were still quite a bargain.
Over the years, Vegas has become more and more upscale. Sure, there were always extravagant suites for the high rollers and always lots of millionaires cavorting around. But as the casino companies consolidated (three companies seem to run most of them in the city now) and MBA grads starting designing the new ones going up, the “inefficiencies” in the system evaporated. Restaurants are no longer loss leaders: they’re showpieces for celebrity chefs. You can get lost in the shopping malls adjoining some hotels. Table limits have risen at the strip hotels and you need a big bank to be in the game.
So is Vegas still a value?
Well it can be if you’re smart and patient. The first thing to realize is that we’re still in a recession and that the city has a tremendous number of rooms to fill. Because of that, midrange travelers can go nuts when it comes to hotel choices. You can often find a decent room on the strip for under $50, especially weekdays, and for under $125 you’ve got half the city to choose from. Watch those sneaky resort fees at the MGM hotels though. The Caesars/Bally’s ones don’t reach in your pocket twice and are a better bet if you’re not there on business.
You can find deals on any of the big booking sites, but if you go to SmarterVegas.com you can end up with some bonus action. Like if you book at the Venetian through them you get upgraded to a suite, get breakfast for two, and get a bunch of credits and discounts. Here’s my favorite cheapo deal: book two nights at Luxor for $38 each (plus the pesky resort fee) midweek and get two complimentary buffet meals at any MGM resort. You almost get your whole room rate back on that one.
Shows in Vegas are not cheap by any means, but if you need your Cirque de Soleil spectacle fix or want to see the Blue Man Group—great fun—there’s a day-of ticket discount place on the strip where you can get cheaper tickets for shows that aren’t sold out. Or arrange it in advance online and save 25-40%.
For big savings in Las Vegas though, you need to get off the strip. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a blackjack table with a minimum bet under $10 at a strip casino, even during the daytime, except for the Casino Royale and Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall around the corner (near Treasure Island, Venetian, and Mirage). And some of them have snuck in alternate rules that increase their odds. But step off a bit even a block and it can be a different story entirely. In general you also need to get off the strip to find full-pay video poker machines or high-odds allowances on line bets on craps. Again, apart from the Casino Royale on the latter.
Getting off the strip is easy for locals with a car, but for savvy gamblers without one it’s best to catch a public bus to downtown Las Vegas. ($7 for a 24-hour pass.) I like this area a lot more anyway if I have the time to get down there because the whole area is walkable and still has some of that old-timey feel to it. It’s less glitzy and more down-to-earth. No reality TV shows are making these bars famous. Plus the cool Fremont Street light show is free.
If you’re good at poker though, that can be the best bet on the strip for having fun without losing your shirt. Even at Mandalay Bay where I was staying for a conference there’s a Texas Hold-em tournament running several times a day with a $40-$50 buy-in depending on the time of day. They give you $3,000 in chips for the tournament so you feel for a while like you’re rich. I came in 5th out of 20 and so was out of the money, but I got two hours of enjoyment out of it and a few stiff drinks. Not much damage to the wallet and I knew my potential losses up front.
Last, this is a city that is awash in old-school coupons. Casinos still hand out lots of free bet coupons to lure you like a hit of crack and you could spend a whole week taking advantage of 2-for-1 meal deals, free drinks, discounted meals, or “buy a beer, get a shot” bar specials. Grab a stack of different ones, plow through them in your room, and then go on a cashing-in spree. Happy hunting!