This article and advice will not be for everyone; for those of you with fantasies of giggling and tumbling around in the back of a limousine with big haired and stillettoed beautiful strangers, being surrounded by stacks of $100 chips, champagne, and cheering onlookers at the craps table, or just getting lucky in all its various guises-well, I haven’t been to that Vegas. And, frankly, I can’t imagine how much money one would have to spend in there to exist outside the touristy kitsch and burrow into authentic luxury and glamour. I could spend an entire article making a case for diving right into that kitsch–it’s rather the entire point of Las Vegas.
A car certainly isn’t necessary in Las Vegas. Most of the hotels have free shuttles to and from the airport. Even when we drive, we end up purchasing all day bus passes. They are an unbeatable bargain; five bucks takes you from the furthest Southern tip of the Strip, and all the way north down to Fremont Street. It’s easy too-there are bus stops on almost every block, and busses arrive about every five or so minutes. An all-day bus pass is the best way to explore the entire strip. Plan it all out with one of the ubiquitous brochure maps available at all hotels, or just ride and stop on your whim. And finish your drinks before you board–no food or drinks are allowed on the bus.
If you plan on exploring Fremont Street, do yourself a favor and plan to reserve an entire day and/or evening. The bus ride, although only about a mile or so, seemed agonizingly long for just a whimsical jaunt. Plus, once you’re there, you realize it’s somewhat of a time investment anyway, with all the amazing old grand casinos, cheap drinks, and general spectacle.
If you do have a car, stay off the Strip as much as possible; it gets very congested and is a huge waste of time and gas. Having said that, It’s generally a pretty car-friendly city away from the Strip. Parking at most off strip casinos such as The Hilton is easy and free. There are many nominally priced, nearby side trips, and if you are there for more than two days, it can be good to get away from the lights and noise. I recommend a self-guided tour at Hoover Dam at Lake Mead, and the Liberace Museum and his supposedly very haunted Italian style restaurant, Carluccio’s Tivoli Gardens (located in the same strip mall type area.) Both choices are fun and quite economical.
In general, the free shows offered at hotels are the opposite of entertaining. And the major entertainment attractions such as Cirque de Soleil, Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Blue Man Group and the like are super-duper pricey. As many times as I have been to Vegas, I’m proud to say I have never been to a traditional show. The only Vegas entertainer I would pay that kind of price to see is Don Rickles, but he’s never there when I am, and I can never remember if he’s still alive anyway.
There are other entertainment options that are far less expensive, and way more fun. The Star Trek Experience at the Hilton is an absolute must for anyone who has even a remote hint of trekkiness in their character. And for full blown trekkers, it’s a reason to go to Vegas in itself. $5 off coupons are available in many different brochures, bringing the price down to under $40. Admission includes a Borg invasion ride, and a Klingon encounter variety. The History of the Future Museum is beyond fascinating, and for geeks like me, can provide literally hours of fun. The Star Trek Experience is highly recommended.
Through September 3, 2007, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit is being hosted by the Tropicana hotel and casino. There’s a beautiful reproduction of the iconic grand staircase, and the salvaged objects on display carry an enigmatic and profound, almost supernatural energy. Tickets are a mere $22.00, and worth every single penny.
Just two blocks east of the strip is a small hotel casino called Greek Isles, home of the Haunted Vegas Tour. Anyone interested in the paranormal, crime, and the general darker side of history will find this tour delightful. All information on the web describes a pre-tour viewing of a show called Haunted Vegas, but luckily, that is no more. If I want to watch TV, I’ll turn on History Channel in my hotel room for free, thank you. Instead, the pre-tour event was a somewhat cheeky yet atmospheric magic show demonstrating Victorian era spiritualism techniques.
The tour is conducted in a large comfortable bus, with a knowledgeable guide. There are opportunites to get out as a group and (quickly) explore some haunted areas including the wedding chapel at the Flamingo casino, and a very haunted picnic area in nearby Henderson. Although paranormal diehards may roll their eyes at all the talk about capturing orbs on camera, the tour is geared for those unversed in the ghostly and generally a fabulous opportunity to get the scoop up close on Sin City’s most haunted sites.
$48.00 a ticket may be pushing the boundary of cheap, but as a fellow tightwad, I say it’s a lot cheaper still much cheaper and more entertaining than Ms. Dion. Skip the strange and rather opportunistic pre-tour photo with the guide ($15 if you decide to purchase the photo) and the ‘VIP’ seating, which gets you nothing more than cheap dowsing rods (which can be made out of wire coat hangers for free) and some other memorabilia (near-future curbside recycling material) in a manila folder.
Vegas is known for it’s cheap buffets, but it’s fairly a misnomer. The cheapest on the strip are found at Circus Circus and Sahara. They’re both pretty terrible-unless you enjoy hospital-style food service, that is. The only buffet I can recommend is found at Main Street Station right off Fremont Street-and while it may be an indulgent treat at around 15.00 for dinner, it isn’t cheap. So-plan on treating yourself once here, but aside from that, forget the buffets.
On the strip, there are several places to get healthy, real food inexpensively. Inside the Riviera, there is a food court which houses a restaurant called La Salsa. The food here is fresh Mex, and it’s very good. I got an absolutely gigantic veggie burrito for $5, and I was so full I didn’t even eat dinner that night.
There’s another and larger food court on the top floor of the newly opened Fashion Show Mall that has several great and cheap options. Sushi and Japanese food lovers will be happy to find Ichiban. I ordered 9 Florida veggie rolls and it was under $5.
Next door to Circus Circus is Slots-o-fun, and although the ambiance here is akin to a bad truck stop in Oklahoma, there are many food and beverage bargains. There are $1.99 margaritas and beer, a Subway restaurant, and best of all, free doughnuts and coffee for patrons between 6-10 am.
On Fremont Street, there are a Starbucks and Krispy Kreme, both centrally located. Indulging in a couple doughnuts and coffee will only set you back a couple bucks. For an inexpensive, full menu breakfast, I suggest the restaurant at Golden Gate. Be prepared to stand in line though-the food is good, and the prices are right-my breakfast of coffee, two eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes and toast was about $5.50.
The best places to score those famous free cocktails
There are several casinos still offering the 99 cent margarita on Fremont Street. They’re all about the same, and they’re all pre-mixed and frozen. At the tiny Mermaids casino, you can sample from about 15 different tropical style frozen drinks.
One of the best things about gambling in Vegas are the free drinks. To take advantage of this, you need only to park yourself at a slot machine or other gaming area until a cocktail waitress rolls through calling ‘cocktails…..cocktails…!?’ The drinks are free, but tips are expected, especially if you would like to continue to drink.
Some casinos are better than others; in general, the waitresses come around more frequently at the smaller establishments. On Fremont Street, Le Bayou, the sister casino of Mermaids, it’s difficult not to trip over a waitress taking cocktail orders. But my advice is to stick with draft beer or shots here-many of the drinks are made from mixes and can easily double as window cleaner. The Bloody Marys are literally unpalatable.
At Main Street Station, the waitresses serve all varities of the beer made by the in-house brew pub, 777. I highly recommend the Belgium Ale and the Porter. It’s a very welcome break from the standard Miller Lite and Bud offerings on tap at most casinos. The El Cortez may be the best place to get tipsy, however. The waitresses here are jaded and practically run through the slot aisles throwing drinks at you, and we have had waitresses in such a rush they didn’t even stop long enough to take the tip. Unfortunately, they may have learned not to expect them here. Try to tip anyway.
On the Strip, we never did see a waitress come by the penny slots at Circus Circus or Treasure Island. The best bet for free drinks is at Slots-o-fun, Sahara, and Riviera. Sahara’s retro Keno area is a great place to relax and spend as little as a buck a game, and score a ton of free cocktails. Viva Las Vegas.