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Vegas thoughts…not a trip report

Posted by jrswift on February 26, 2010

OK,  just a quick summation and a number of fairly random thought on my trip and Vegas in general.  Spent four nights (Saturday through Tuesday) in town, 2 at the Palms and 2 at the Gold Coast.  Flight was on SW.  Gambled quite a bit for me and probably played more slots on this trip than any other.  Probably ended up down $100-150 so not bad.  Weather was borderline cold and it rained on Sunday night.  Generally a light jacket was perfect most anytime so that was fine.  Just from my personal experience, I would say that it was pretty quiet.  Walking traffic most places seemed down about 20-25%.  Saturday night was busy but the rest of the time was not.  Obviously, the economy is really hurting Las Vegas.  So let’s start the random thoughts.

Several nice “scores” on this trip:

Definitely recommend the SW Early Bird checkin:  best $10 you’ll ever spend.  Was A-16 and A-32 and had a nice window seat near the front both ways.  I’ll do it again.

Had always wanted to stay at the Palms and found a great deal on Orbitz well below what they were asking on the Palms website.  Ended up using a promo code I found (Google is your friend) and got it knocked down another 10%.  With all taxes and fees, ended up paying less than $200 with one of those being a Saturday night.

Second score at the Palms was a complimentary upgrade to a Junior Suite.  Was trying to do the $20 trick though I was bumbling it badly when she told me there were no upgrades.  I put away my $20 and she then decided she could put me in the Jr. Suite with a great view of the Strip.  Room a bit dated but big and comfortable.  Was on the SE corner so had two windows.  Between them, you could see  the entire Strip.

Also did well at the Gold Coast as my room was comped.  They put me up high on one of their remodeled floors.  Room still a bit small but the decor was very modern.  On checkout, it turns out they waive the resort fee when you’re comped so my total cost was zero.  HDTV actually had some HD channels and had a pretty good view of the north end of the Strip and downtown.

I’m pretty sure I hit a jackpot of sorts on a penny machine.  I wasn’t playing max coin or I think it would have been like $1000.  As it was I won like 5600 pennies on one spin which is definitely the largest number of any sort of coin I’ve ever had.  Walked away up $60 which is awfully hard to do on one of those machines.

The Good:

Gold Coast buffet for breakfast is always a winner in my book and still no exception.

Palms on a Saturday night is simply off-the-hook.  People everywhere and some of the best looking women you will ever see.

Ghostbar was pretty cool.  Would have been cooler if it wasn’t so damned cold outside but an unbelievable view and the people there were very nice, even though I was no VIP, by any means.

Casino coffee:  Ordered a coffee each morning while playing the machines.  Both the Palms and GC make a darn good cup of coffee.  For a $1 tip, it beats the heck of paying the price at the foo-foo coffee bars.

City Center is visually stunning.  I’m not an architect but the design is extremely creative.

Wynn/Wynn Encore.  Very classy place in the good sort of way.  Everyone perfectly attired and professional.  I accidentally walked away from a machine without cashing out, remembered a couple minutes later and a security guard was standing there watching and waiting.  He didn’t say a word but I knew he had seen what happened and was protecting my measly $11.  Two thumbs up.  Oh, and the Wynn has simply the most stunning Cocktail Waitresses anywhere in the city.

Palazzo  is also stunning.   It is what the Venetian was 10 years ago.   I have never walked into a casino before and felt relaxed but something about the design of this place just works without being over the top.  Most every other casino in the city seems to be trying to overstimulate but this place seems to want to make you comfortable.

Tickets and ticket-redemption machines:  how did we ever play the old way?

24/7 Cafe at the Palms:  Not a big fan of the hotel coffee shops at full price but it was late and I was hungry.  Good service and a huge plate of good food I could barely finish.  Was worth it.

Two cocktail waitresses, one at the Palms and one at the Gold Coast:  After breakfast the first day at GC, I played one of my favorite slots and ordered a coffee with cream and no sugar.  I went back the next morning and one other day and, when the waitress walked by, she just said “coffee with cream?”  Color me impressed.  Still Crysta or maybe Crystal at the Palms is the winner for the week.   Saturday night at the Palms was packed with people partying and playing.  I was perched at a nickel video poker machine for several hours, mostly just grinding away, hardly the profile to get great service.  Lovely blonde waitress walks by fairly soon after I arrived and I ordered my standard Budweiser.  Came by fairly quickly the second time.  After I ordered a third time, she seemed to disappear and I was getting a bit annoyed.  When she finally made it back, she apologized but said the bar had run out of Budweiser and she had a hard time fighting through the crowds.  Was a Bud Light OK?  I said sure.  She came back with a Bud Light and a Budweiser and wouldn’t take more than a $1 as tip.  Then she came back with two more Budweisers and refused any tip at all.  Very nice.   Did I mention she was awfully pretty too?

And, of course the Fountains at the Bellagio.  Always.  3 PM show.  Bocelli and Brightman and always a few tears in my eyes when it ends.

The Bad:

What did I ever do to you Dean Martin?  Except love and respect you and your music!  Well, you and your damned Dean Martin’s Wild Party slot machine must have stolen over $100 from me with one measly bonus round!  I honestly think I might have come out ahead for the trip if I had been able to avoid this machine but it kept sucking me in.

Le Village Buffet @ Paris Las Vegas.  I’m sorry, not a win.  It was the one big superbuffet on the Strip I had never eaten and so I tried it out.   OK, the decor is pretty cool.  They either seat you “outside” or in these little rooms that are like a couple of tables in a house.  Well, executed.  Food not so much.  Maybe I just wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try some of the peculiar items available but the things I did try just weren’t very good.  I kept thinking I could have eaten better food for half the price.

Casinos.  OK, not all of them but most of them.  They are looking so tired and uninteresting, even the ones I used to like.  Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Monte Carlo,  MGM Grand, Excalibur and I go could go on and on.  I guess I’m jaded but they are just so tired and worn down.  I’ve never particularly liked NY NY or Paris but at least they are still trying to execute a theme and do it reasonably well.  Planet Hollywood and Luxor seem to at least be trying to look somewhat modern and aren’t terrible.  And not just older casinos.  Aria is just as awful on the inside as it is stunning on the outside.  Why so freaking dark?

The Cab Driver who “tunneled” me from the airport to my hotel.  I’m sure he figured me for some midwestern rube who didn’t know what he was doing but I did.   Did I complain?  No, I probably should have but I really hate starting my vacation by arguing with people.  I have found being agreeable with people in the service industry makes my life (and theirs) much easier so the arguing would have spoiled my mood.  OK, the tunnel probably was slightly quicker and, on a Saturday, the surface traffic might have slowed us down enough to bump up the fare but he still basically ripped me off for $5.  Yes, I even tipped the bastard but not much.  Gee, I’m such a sucker sometimes.  (OTOH, all the rest of my cab drivers were very cool.)

Traffic.  I took the bus from the Palms a couple of times out to the Strip and even beyond.  I honestly think I could have walked to the Strip faster than this bus could drive it.  The Rio shuttle drivers took the most ridiculous roundabout trips just to avoid Flamingo and they had to.

Drink service.  Other than a couple of shining exceptions mentioned above, drink service was pretty bad.  I would see cocktail waitresses but they appeared not to see me.   I know you are busy but when you walk by two or three times and don’t even try, I find it annoying.  Your loss.  I always tip you, even if you aren’t pretty or particularly fast.

This one is on me because I am lazy but I didn’t make it to downtown, the Hard Rock, Caesars, the Orleans or any number of other interesting places and I just barely touched some of the Strip casinos.  I was just too comfortable in my own little corner of Vegas to venture out much but I should have forced myself to do so.  Oh well, that’s why I have to go back again this summer.   🙂

The Ugly:

The Luxor.  No, it isn’t ugly.  The Pyramid is visually stunning and I actually like what they’ve done in remodeling but give it up with all the one word names for everything.   The buffet is More, the steakhouse is Tender, the bar is Liquidity.  And on and on.   Fantasy, LAX, Noir, Flight, Aurora.   OK, we get it.  You’re so cool.  No truth to the rumor that the Criss Angel show will now be referred to as just Lame but maybe there should be.

Sad to say but Las Vegas is looking pretty rough around the edges.  Oh, it is still shiny and pretty most everywhere you look but, if you look just off the beaten track, things are not good.  The streets, the buildings and the people are looking pretty tired and you can tell that things are not going well.  The economy is really hurting a lot of people out there.   Some of them did it to themselves but a lot of them are (more or less) innocent bystanders who got hit hard.  Everyone you see who is working looks nervous and I can understand why.  I’m sure that things will bounce back at some point but what will have been lost in the interim?  Once a person or a business or a dream is gone, it isn’t going to be back.   The reality is that one day Vegas will just be another strange, abandoned place that future generations will look back on and try to understand.  I honestly hope that I don’t live to see that day.

Well, that is enough thoughts for now.  Maybe more later.


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Vegas tips for virgins

Posted by jrswift on July 13, 2008

So here it is…ten tips for first time Vegas visitors.

1. Go on a weekend.  Ideally, make it a 3-day weekend and fly out on Thursday and back on Sunday.  Normally, I’d recommend spending more time and choosing a less-crowded time but the first time should be crazy so just do the weekend.  I’d still avoid special events when things will just be too crowded or expensive to enjoy your time properly.

2. Stay on the Strip but don’t spend a lot on a hotel.  Pick a decent hotel somewhere in the middle of things (Wynn to Mandalay Bay.)  Some good choices would include Flamingo, Harrah’s, Bill’s, Monte Carlo, Luxor.  Staying downtown or off-strip is a great choice for the Vegas veteran but you want to be in the middle of things.

3. Don’t try to do too much.  Almost everyone I’ve ever gone to Vegas with has ended up going back.  You’ll never accomplish everything you want and you’ll get frustrated.  On the off chance that you don’t feel the need to come back, you probably aren’t going to miss anything you wanted to see very badly.

4. Don’t rent a car.  You won’t need one.  You are going to want to drink and party and the last thing you want to be doing is driving under those circumstances.  If you want to visit outlying attractions, extend your trip a few days, rent the car only for those day trips and then turn it back in.  You are mostly going to be walking up and down the Strip so a car is a waste of money.  A few cab rides aren’t going to break you and it will be worth the trouble.

5. Pick a couple of things you really want to do and plan your trip around them.  Whether it is a restaurant, a show, an attraction or whatever, make plans to do them.  It is too easy to just spend your whole trip wandering around, gambling away your money and drinking yourself into a haze so having a couple of specific things to do will keep you (slightly) focused.

6. Bring a friend but not a posse.  You want to have someone to hang out with.  You don’t want to spend your whole trip trying to coordinate things with a half a dozen other people.  A significant other is fine.  A best friend might be better.  On the other hand, you need to know this is someone you can put up with for a few days.  If you’ve never travelled with them before, be cautious.  People reveal a lot about themselves when they are on the road.  You may not like what you see.

7. It should go without saying but don’t gamble away all your money.  Most people have been to a casino before so you should know if you are one of those folks who are likely to blow all your cash in a few hours.  Budget yourself and stick with it.  If you haven’t gambled before, the worst thing that can happen to you is to win.  Better to drop a couple hundred dollars fast than to win a couple hundred dollars fast.  The latter person usually ends up being the one who comes home with their tail between their legs.  If you must play, there are ways to do it without risking so much.  Play keno, bet the ponies or hit the penny slots.  You’ll still get some action but you won’t be risking as much.

8.  Go a little crazy.   This is Vegas so enjoy it.  Rent a limo for a few hours and drive up and down the Strip with a bottle of Patron.  Go to a fancy club and get bottle service.  Hit a strip club and get a few lap dances.  Drink too much.  Dance in public.  Hit on a girl (or a guy) you normally wouldn’t.  Don’t get arrested but push it a little bit.  This isn’t Disneyland.

9. Wander.  The best attraction in Las Vegas is Las Vegas.  Since this is your first time, everything is new and there is so much to see.  You could easily spend your whole trip just checking out all the casinos and you could do worse.  Comfortable shoes are a must.  It is not just the casinos but the people and the spectacle of it all that are must-see’s.  So see them.

10. Don’t worry about sleeping.  Plenty of time to sleep when you are dead. 🙂  This trip isn’t to rest.  Take an extra day off if you think you’ll need some time to recover.  Oh…and start planning your next trip.

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Las Vegas…again

Posted by jrswift on May 29, 2008

So I went to Las Vegas again at the start of this month and I haven’t really blogged about it at all. Maybe I don’t have a whole lot to say or maybe I’ve just been lazy. It is probably a little bit of both. This was the 15th trip in the last 12 years and change and I don’t have a whole lot to add to my earlier remarks about the city. Nonetheless, I’ll post a short trip report with some highlights.

Did the whole Sunday through Friday trip this year for the first time in several years. This pretty much completely skips the expensive Vegas weekend hotel rates but potentially exposes you to some pretty crowded airport/flight conditions and isn’t always conducive to getting the cheapest airfares either. I was able to book far enough in advance to avoid the latter problem and I just dealt with the former. One of the flights was literally full and the other one was pretty close so that wasn’t too comfortable, especially ending up in the back row next to a smelly guy on the way back.

Went with my friend JT and we spent a little time with our mutual friend Jason as he was there during the same time we were. JT likes to gamble and can spend hours on end at the tables so this was probably the closest thing I’ve had to a solo trip in quite some time. I still had someone to go eat with and share a room with but I could go off and explore on my own without feeling like I was leaving him out.

We stayed at the Gold Coast for the first three nights and then moved to the South Point for the last two nights. Cost was very reasonable and the rooms were nice. The South Point is way the hell south of the Strip though it is on Las Vegas Blvd but it is still very new and the room was on a par with most anywhere else I’ve stayed and had a nice 42 inch TV which is biggest I’ve ever seen in a hotel room. They also have a strip shuttle and a free shuttle to the airport which saved us a pretty costly cab ride. Got a lift from the GC to the South Point from Jason and his mother which was very cool and so our transportation costs were quite low for the trip.

As far as food, we did try a couple of new places. We ate at both the buffet and the coffee shop at the South Point and it was decent for the price. Neither place would be worth making a special trip but are fine if you are staying there. Also ate at both the buffet and coffee shop at the Gold Coast and they were also fine. Had the T-Bone steak special at the GC and it was quite good as well as being very filling. As for fine dining, I guess that would be our trip to the Wynn buffet. We have gone to the Bellagio each of the last 3 years and are big fans of the buffet there and, after trying the Wynn, I think I still prefer the the Bellagio. That being said, the Wynn buffet is very nice. The setting is relaxed and quite attractive, the staff was very attentive without being intrusive and the food is excellent. Definitely the best cheesecake of the trip but few of the other selections stand out in my mind. Like the Mirage or TI, I thought it was good but not spectacular and I doubt I will make a special effort to visit again unless I am in the area or with a friend who wants to check it out. Otherwise, it was mostly little snacks here and there and a couple of nights my dinner was essentially Budweiser. Oh well…it is Vegas.

Along those lines, I was never out particularly late and I never slept in on the whole trip. I actually ate breakfast (in the morning) three of the five mornings and was actually up one day at 6:30. It may have been partly that I was tired when I arrived and so I got into the habit of crashing early. It is also true that we really didn’t go out and drink to excess any of the nights we were there. Along the same lines, there were several things I didn’t do on this trip which are usually required activities. No trip downtown, no trip to see the Bellagio fountains, no trip out to the Hard Rock and, for the second year in a row, no trip out to the Orleans.

Did however see a few new casinos so I’ll give my impression. Got a ride out to the Summerlin area and spent some time at both Red Rock and the Suncoast. Red Rock is a beautiful casino and I could definitely see myself spending some time there in the future. Didn’t gamble much there except for a few games in the keno lounge which is very nice but walking around you can see that they put a lot of money and thought into the place. Attractive cocktail waitresses and clientele and just all-around beautiful place. The Suncoast (not surprisingly) is just another Coast-style casino like the Orleans or Gold Coast which means that, while I generally liked the place, it is not really a destination, just a comfortable place to stay and gamble. Also visited the new Pallazzo at the Venetian and was quite impressed. Didn’t just look like another generic high-end hotel/casino which is nice. And, of course, we spent a fair amount of time at the South Point. Another of the Coast-style casinos but maybe a little nicer. Had a fair amount of good luck playing the machines there so I spent quite a bit of time doing it over the last two days. Good drink service and a large (though not huge) variety of machines and gambling options. The Race/Sports book was nice though I didn’t gamble there.

As for gambling, I did what I usually do. Spent a little time playing keno (no luck at all this trip) and the rest split between penny slots and nickel video poker. Didn’t have that much success as my big win was $30 off a brief visit to a quarter video poker machine. Finally spent that afternoon betting the ponies this year (at TI) and I have to say it was quite enjoyable and a good way to kill some time. Didn’t really lose much money though we didn’t have any good wins either and the cocktail waitress was very attentive once she realized we were tipping.

Overall it was a fairly relaxing trip and I didn’t really spend much money. I’d say the cost per person with airfare, hotel, transportation, parking was only about $400 which is very good indeed for five nights. It was probably the least “touristy” trip I’ve ever had but, when you’ve been as many times as I have, there isn’t all that much you are just dying to see. I keep thinking I might finally make it back this year on my birthday but who knows. I could definitely see reducing the trip length to 3 or 4 days the next time as I think I usually pace myself the first couple of days of the trip anyway and, with a shorter stay, I could just skip that part. Anyway, I don’t think this was all that entertaining but now you’ve been brought up to date. Have a good one.

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And Vegas too…

Posted by jrswift on March 10, 2008

Bought the plane ticket to Las Vegas for this year’s Spring trip. Will be flying out May 4 and heading back May 9. Didn’t get quite as good a fare as last year but I don’t feel too bad about $200 which is approximately what I paid. Don’t know who (if anyone) is going to be joining me this year but I honestly wouldn’t be that crushed if I had to do a solo this time. While it does get a bit lonely sometimes, it is a lot more relaxing. 🙂 Now it is time to start checking the hotel prices. Shouldn’t be too bad as I’m doing the Sunday through Thursday trip this year. Might be back at the Gold Coast. Enjoyed my stay last year and I see they have rooms for $52 a night during the time I’ll be there. We shall see. Stay tuned.

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Some thoughts on the Vegas trip

Posted by jrswift on April 17, 2007

I’m not going to post a full-fledged trip report here because not all that much happened last week that is all that interesting unless you were there. I thought I would post reviews of some of the places I went and things I did.

The Flight: Another trip on Southwest. Usually always go that way because they fly nonstop out of Kansas City and I prefer to spend my time in my destination, not in airports along the way. Checked in online and got the coveted “A” boarding pass on the way out. Window seat right over the wing and a pretty good trip. Cloudy most of the way but a nice fly over of the Grand Canyon. Pretty darned big hole in the ground. Flight back was a “C” pass but still ended up with an aisle seat. Very amusing crew on the way back and a good trip. I’ll give Southwest a B+.

The Hotel(s): Stayed at the Gold Coast. No real complaints about the hotel. Room similar to but a bit smaller than the Orleans. Bathroom a bit small and felt smaller because the door opened in, not out. Free coffee in the room, free local and 800 calls from the phone and a 32″ LCD TV mounted on the wall. Decent selection of cable channels and the bed was comfortable. Ended up with room 911 (I don’t think that’s lucky) but had a nice view of the Palms hotel and most of the South Strip. I’m only giving them a B- because the package I booked online said I would receive several free buffets and I didn’t get them. Called to complain and they swore there was no such package available. Still $50 a night ain’t too bad.

Also spent Friday night at Harrahs and the room seemed pretty nice. Good view of the Mirage and part of the Strip from the window and a much bigger bathroom. Don’t know about the beds as I slept on the floor but not a bad place if the price is right, which it usually isn’t. I’ll give it a B for quality and a C for value.

Places I visited for the first time included five casinos which aren’t new but were new to me. Checked out four smaller casinos a bit off the strip as well as the (fairly) new Hooters Casino. Ellis Island is decent but not very elegant with cheap food and gambling and I enjoyed my time there. The Tuscany has a smallish but very neat and tidy Casino not too far from the Strip and they gave me $5 in free play when I signed up for their slot club. The Westin Casuarina is probably a nice hotel to sleep in but the casino was pretty lifeless and I wasn’t impressed. Also got around to visiting Terrible’s Casino. It was a bit like Ellis Island in being pretty busy and obviously appealing to locals as well as visitors. I kind of liked it. Hooters was OK. Yes, there were Hooters girls but they weren’t any more attractive than the waitresses at any other casino. Still, the place is a lot nicer than it was when it was the San Remo so I guess it is an improvement.

Ellis Island: B

Terrible’s: B –

Hooters: B –

Tuscany: C

Westin Casuarina: D +

As for food, I ate at three buffets. The Gold Coast breakfast buffet was pretty good and cheap ($7) but how much can you screw up breakast (C +), the Bellagio for lunch was outstanding as always and even at $20 a pop is an easy “A” and highly recommended and the Flamingo for lunch was just so-so. We had coupons so it was $8.99. At that price a solid “C” but at the the regular price of $13.99, it is a “D +” at best.

Ate at four coffee shop-type places as well. The Terrible’s cafe had very slow service but my $6.99 Chicken Fried Steak was pretty good and, there was so much of it, I couldn’t eat it all (B -). The Ellis Island restaurant was not bad at all. The service was decent though it took a while to get my check. The food (I finally had the $4.99 Steak Special) was pretty solid and a heck of a value at that price. I’ll give it a “B +”. Had the Graveyard special at the Gold Coast coffee shop and it was quite tasty. Good solid Steak and Eggs and I’ll give it a “B +” as well. Finally, had a late dinner at the Harrah’s Coffee Shop and it was very tasty. On food quality alone, it would be an “A -” but the service was slow and price was about twice what it should have been. Overall, a “B -” Otherwise I just snacked. The Pizza place at the Palms was overpriced (big surprise) but the snack bar Mermaids downtown was pretty good and you can’t beat a 99 cent hot dog.

Other observations. The walk from the Gold Coast to the Strip isn’t bad at all. Easier to take the shuttle but it isn’t too far to walk if it isn’t too hot or cold. Still like the Palms. Didn’t have much luck there playing quarter video poker but I played penny slots for an hour and a half and actually came out ahead. Drink service was good and, for my money, they have the best-looking cocktail waitresses in town. The Rio just doesn’t do it for me. Never got a chance to try the Seafood buffet but nothing there makes me want to stop and gamble, eat or anything else. The La Bayou downtown now makes an even larger “yard drink” and it is over the top. I had one and wished I hadn’t the next day. I swear the drink weighed 5 pounds. At $17, it was a good deal as I didn’t need to drink again for two days. LOL The El Cortez has definitely tidied itself up a bit. Much cleaner, less smokey and it is now one of the nicer places to play (and probably stay) downtown. The Bellagio and the Wynn took out their Keno lounges. They were so nice too, so “boo hiss” to these places who are now “too cool” for keno. Caesars still has a nice keno lounge and the Gold Coast was pretty good too. The El Cortez wanted a “drink ticket” so they kind of suck too.

I played a little bit of live keno and had no luck. Played Deuces Wild video poker and consistenly lost. Had good luck at the old “Jacks or Better” video poker but bad luck playing “Bonus Poker” this time. Played “Caveman Keno” on the machines quite a bit and actually won 900 nickels once so I came out ahead on that game. Also found a couple of places with my favorite penny slot: Little Green Men. Played quite a long time overall and came out a bit ahead. Tried the new “Deal or no Deal” penny slot but it ate my $10 very fast. Everyone else seemed to be hooked on it though.

So that’s about it. A pretty good trip as I didn’t lose too much, had some good times and made it back alive. I’ll probably start posting here on some other topics in the weeks to come. Don’t know how frequently but I hope some of you will find your way here and check out what I have to say. Take care.

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Twas the night before Vegas… (Gambling 101)

Posted by jrswift on April 8, 2007

…and, all through the house, not a creature was stirring.  Ahhh…forget about it.  You didn’t think I had managed to come up with a full Las Vegas version of that little poem, did you?  On the other hand, tonight is the night before Vegas.  I really hate the day before a trip begins.  You have to actually pack things and make sure you remember to do certain things and the next 18 hours or so will be filled with far more tedium than fun.  Not only that, but the anticipation associated with any event is essentially gone.  I find that I get almost as much pleasure planning a vacation as actually going on it (maybe I should have been a travel agent) and the weeks of fun counting down the days are now over.  And tomorrow I have to get up relatively early (which I don’t like), drive to airport (which I don’t like) and then deal with the hassle of flying all the way there (which I don’t like) and that is going to take the better half of 6 or 7 hours.  Oh well…better than taking the bus.  In any case, I should be in sunny Las Vegas in about 17 hours so don’t expect any clever banter on this site for a week or so.  I will attempt somewhat of a “trip report” when I get back and maybe I’ll get around to that next Sunday.

I did actually want to talk about a Vegas-related topic for a bit tonight: gambling.  I guess that is the one thing that Las Vegas is known for more than anything else, though it hardly differentiates it from most of the rest of the US,  as most of us now live within a reasonable driving distance of a casino.  Still people do imagine going to Las Vegas and winning a lot of money.  A few do.  I never have,  though I suppose at some point I could.  (This week would be a nice time for that.)  Frankly most people who win a lot of money are usually the same people who also lose a lot of money.  In general you have to bet big to win big and I won’t be doing that.  On the other hand, I do enjoy a bit of wagering and tonight I share my personal secret for making your money last and getting the most out of it.

First of all, ignore everything else you’ve ever seen written about gambling.  OK, maybe not all of it since most of it is technically true, but that doesn’t mean that it is going to be remotely relevant to you on your Las Vegas trip or your trip to any other casino.  The most important thing to remember is that you aren’t going to win.  OK, you might win but will you win enough money to just stop playing and go home?  Probably not.  Most gamblers have at least a few nice hits on a machine or a good run or two at the tables but then they turn around and give it all back.  The question you need to ask yourself is at what point you would be satisfied with what you won and stop.  Be realistic.  Now figure out the odds of winning that much money playing the games you normally like to play.  Now your chance of “winning” drops from maybe 30-40% to much less than 5% or at least that’s the way I’m spinning this.  And for you veteran gamblers, honestly, what percentage of the time do you leave a casino feeling ecstatic about how much you just won?  I think that 5% number is a lot closer than the nearly 50/50 shot most gambling books seem to try and sell you.

Once you realize that you aren’t very likely to win, the question then becomes how can I lose slowly and still enjoy the perks of playing and free drinks, etc.  That is a very different question than the question of how can I win.  It has a very different answer.

Most gambling books will tell you to play Blackjack and will teach you all the proper ways to play your hand.  They will tell you that, if you chose the right game, your odds of winning are nearly 50/50 and they are technically right.  Of course finding that game may be difficult or impossible.  These casino bosses aren’t idiots.  They’ve introduced all sorts of “enhancements” that make most blackjack games a good deal worse than the ones described in the books.  Worse yet is the “card counting” scam.  The number of people who can learn to do this and learn to cover it up properly while playing under the bright lights of a Las Vegas casino is very low.  And, if they catch you, they’ll ban you from the game.  Besides, that sounds like a lot of work.  Unless you are planning on gambling for a living, why would you want to do that much work.  And, if you are going to be a professional gambler, why would you want to spend your vacation in Las Vegas.  You should already live there.

But you say, in the long run, Blackjack is still a good game.  Even if I have to play with a continuous shuffle machine and only get paid 6/5 for a blackjack, it is a lot better than playing slots or roulette or keno.  Well, yeah.   If you play long enough, you can get a pretty close approximation of those good odds.  But what is “long enough?”  Is it a couple of hundred hands a couple of times a day?   If you believe that, go ahead and invest the bankroll and try it.  Now you will break even some percentage of the time but you’ll also have days you lose everything and days where you win quite a bit.  The “long run” is an awfully long time statistically and it isn’t a 3-day junket to Sin City.  And, if you chase your losses time and time again, figuring that the “law of averages” is on your side, you’re a damned fool.  Now, to be fair, blackjack is a pretty good game as far as “volatility” goes.  Volatility is how wide the swings of variance are in a particular game.  It is better than the nickel slots…no question about it.  Actually it is better than any slot machine or video poker machine that anyone would actually drop on a casino floor.  But you can still drop a couple of hundred pretty fast at a $5 or $10 table if you aren’t careful.  In short, blackjack isn’t a bad game if you have the bankroll to play at the table stakes you’ve chosen.  But, again, you will lose all of it a much larger percentage of the time than you will turn it into a small fortune.

(That reminds me of a good Vegas joke:  How do you come home from Las Vegas with a small fortune?  A:  Go there with a large fortune.)

Craps and Baccarat are also sold as really good games if you want to have a “fighting chance” to “beat the casino” but these games are even more volatile and are usually going to involve putting a lot more money at risk to get those “good odds.”  Baccarat is usually a minimum of $25 a hand and, even at a low stakes craps table, most gamblers will have at least $15-$25 riding on each throw of the dice.  You can win a good deal of cash fast in these games and you’ll do it more often than playing Roulette, but you are still more likely to suddenly lose $250-$500 than you are to win big.   If you are fortunate, you will be able to grind away for quite a few hours and a lot of times you can.  But you will also get wiped out a significant percentage of time so keep that in mind.

Now let’s turn to slot machines.  They are usually awful bets.  The big sell on most of these machines in how you can win a $1 million or a new BMW.  In order to subsidize those huge prizes, those machines are going to have to take a little bit of money from a lot of people.  They aren’t going to pay out as many small jackpots, the kind that keep you playing for a while.  If you must play, play a low denomination machine that has a small jackpot.  But, you protest, that is boring.  I want to win big!  I think we already covered that.  If you want to try and “win big,” be my guest…but expect to lose big a lot more often.

I frequently play video poker and, while it is far from a perfect game and simply bores some people to death, it isn’t a bad choice.  It does help to learn the strategies and the the pay tables to look for,  as it will improve your odds of hanging in there and occasionally winning a bit.  If that sounds like no fun to you, feel free to skip it.  Again, a video poker machine that advertises a lot of really big payouts for four aces or any unusual hand is not very likely to be the one you want to play.  It will be more volatile than other more boring looking machines which aren’t as exciting.  You can still lose quickly at video poker but it is less likely than playing slots and you can frequently get some nice little payoffs to keep you going for a while.

This brings up another rule that I use that seems to conflict with much of what I’ve said so far:  always play the number of coins (or credits) that you have to play to win the jackpot.  This is the “avoid kicking yourself” rule.  Even if you are playing a low denomination, low volatility machine with a relatively small jackpot, you could conceivably hit it and you don’t want to be kicking yourself because you didn’t play max coin.  Better to step down to a lower stakes machine and play max than play one at a time and miss out on your “once-in-a-lifetime” win.

Now we reveal the secret to losing small in the casino and it conflicts with every expert you’ve ever read before:  hit the keno lounge.  What you say?  Keno has absolutely atrocious odds and you’ll never hit those big jackpots.  Are you nuts?  All of those things are true.  But you can also play a game of keno for a $1 most anywhere in Las Vegas.  Even if they squeeze in 15 or 20 games an hour, the most you can possibly lose is $15-$20.  You’ll get your money back or win a few bucks often enough that you won’t lose that much.  And you get to set down in a relatively comfy chair and relax a bit.  Oh…and the cocktail waitresses hit the keno lounges most places like clockwork.   In most cases, you won’t be able to drink fast enough to keep up with them.  Oh…and those huge jackpots you want to win?  They have them in keno too.  So you can keep playing your 7-spot all night for very little risk, with great cocktail service and still have a (remote) chance of hitting for some big bucks.

Other interesting choices for people so inclined might be bingo or betting on the horses in the race/sports book.  Again, for a fairly small investment you can play a long time and have at least a small chance at a nice prize.

In conclusion, you aren’t going to win so you should figure out how to lose slowly to maximize your gaming time.  You play at relatively low stakes (how low will depend on how much gambling money you have), you play games with fairly low volatility and games with fairly small “jackpots,” more or less insuring a number of smaller hits.  You play games that move slowly (keno, blackjack), not games that move fast like slots.  You accept that you are spending money to be entertained by the experience and the small chance of a big win, not “investing” in some scheme that will make you big money.  People who sell those schemes are the only ones who win.  Well…they, and the casino who take big money off the suckers who try it.

So that’s my final thoughts on Las Vegas.  I hope that you all had a wonderful Easter and will have an enjoyable week.  I’m certainly going to try.


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Eating in Las Vegas

Posted by jrswift on April 3, 2007

Back for another fabulous post on fabulous Las Vegas.  In just six days, I’ll be enjoying some time in this fair city so I thought I’d talk a little bit about food.  Now I like food and so, when I’m in Las Vegas, I tend to eat a bit.  On the other hand, we’ve already established that I’m a bit of a, shall we say, frugal traveller so I’m obviously not spending my evenings dining at the many very fine restaurants that are available.  So, what do I eat?

Well…now that the legendary (and rather disgusting) one pound hot dog at the Westward Ho is no more, I’ll have to find another way to fill up.  It isn’t quite as easy to eat cheap in Las Vegas as it used to be but you can still chow down, sometimes on some very tasty treats, while you are vacationing.

We’ll start with breakfast which I rarely eat at home but occasionally indulge in while on the road.  One good thing about breakfast is that it is usually the least expensive meal of the day and another is that it is one of the hardest to screw up.  Even I can cook scrambled eggs and bacon and pancakes and they taste pretty good so most any place you go can probably do the same.  It is rarely worth seeking out any place special to enjoy this “most important meal of the day” so you might as well chow down wherever you happen to be staying.  A lot of times I might just want a cup of coffee and a bagel but that is likely to run you $4 or more at your local “foo-foo” coffee stand.  On the other hand, you might be able to get an entire breakfast for $6 or $7 at your hotel buffet.  Now I’ve eaten some pretty crappy breakfast buffets (how I miss late nights at Shoney’s but that’s another story) but, if you can’t find $6 or $7 worth of food at one of them, you are at one sorry buffet.  Since Vegas hotels rarely offer free coffee or a free continental breakfast, you might as well spring for the buffet.  If you are hungry enough and like breakfast foods, you could just load up for the day.  You might be able to get by eating only one more big meal and a snack somewhere along the way and that can make it a very good choice.  Even if you aren’t that hungry and just want a little something, the buffet is still going to be a better choice than the hotel coffee shop or even McDonalds so you might as well go for it.  On the other hand, if you’ve been up half the night (or maybe all of it) and sleep late, you can take advantage of the best deal in Las Vegas:  the lunch buffet.

Why is the lunch buffet such a good deal?  Because it often has most everything the dinner buffet has and, if they decide to call it brunch, it might also have most of the things you want out of the breakfast buffet as well.  And, if you eat an enormous meal sometime between 11 and 2, you probably aren’t going to be hungry for quite a while.  Not only that but lunch is often much less expensive than dinner.  Now you might get prime rib or crab legs or something special if you go to the dinner buffet but, unless you can’t live without those treats, it isn’t worth it.  Dinner also tends to be more crowded at most buffets so you might as well eat your “big meal” earlier in the day.  Besides, if you are going to be having a few cocktails (and most of you will) it pays to have them on a nice full stomach.

That being said, what are the best buffets in Las Vegas?  Is it worth it to go someplace nice (and expensive?)  My answer is yes.  My favorite buffet is the Bellagio and it will set you back close to $20 for lunch and closer to $30 for dinner.  Why is it worth it?  Because the food is well-prepared and seasoned and interesting.  Where else can I sample leg of lamb, wild boar and roasted duck for that price?  Now if all you want to eat is turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, some sort of salad and a cookie, don’t bother.  The joy in the Bellagio buffet is trying unusual tasty treats and deciding you like them.  Combine that with a very comfortable dining area and good service and I think you’ll find that what you get is worth the price.  Another excellent buffet is the Aladdin (soon to be Planet Hollywood) which is a bit less expensive than the Bellagio but also offers a wide variety of foods which are very well-prepared.  Not quite as many unusual options but still a good variety and well worth a visit.  I have not tried the Paris or Wynn buffets (perhaps this visit) but they also receive excellent marks from most visitors and will also set you back a good bit of coin.

Other good buffets on the strip include the Mirage (Cravings) and the TI (Dishes) which both sport a very modern room with a somewhat more limited but still tasty selection of food at prices close to that of the superbuffets I just mentioned.  I also liked Mandalay Bay which has a very nice dining room and Harrah’s.  Most of the other strip buffets are serviceable but not spectacular.  Don’t go out of your way to try them.  I’d steer clear of the Excalibur, Imperial Palace and Circus Circus buffets though some people like them.   The Riviera buffet is awful and, while it is good and cheap, the Sahara buffet can rarely be called good.

Downtown’s best buffet is at Main Street Station.  Very inexpensive and suprisingly good.  The Golden Nugget also does a small but tasty spread.  The rest of the downtown buffets are going to be edible at best.  I’d avoid them if you can help it.

As for the off-strip choices,  the name that always comes up is the Rio.  It was arguably the first “super-buffet” in Las Vegas and it spawned all the others.   On the other hand, it just isn’t that great.  Decent food and a pretty good selection but not on a par with the best buffets and often very crowded because its reputation remains high among many visitors.  I have not tried the Rio Seafood buffet but it gets mixed reviews.  An awful lot of seafood but it is the priciest buffet in town and so it may or may not be worth it to you.   Again, I do hope to try it some day so I can offer a more informed opinion.

As with their hotel rooms, most of the off-strip buffets offer a great value and some are pretty good.  Most of the Station casino buffets are at least pretty good and one of my favorite buffets in town is at the Texas Station.  It is a bit off the beaten path but the food is very good.  They have a large selection of food, including a good BBQ section.  Haven’t been in a couple of years but both of my visits were very satisfying.  The Orleans is also pretty good but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit just for the buffet.

One good rule is to only eat one buffet a day.  More than that is just too much.  There are plenty of ways to recharge your engines inexpensively without going back to the trough.  I won’t even begin to try and list all the food specials available in the city but I’ll highlight a couple.  If you are downtown, you must go to the Golden Gate and have a 99 cent shrimp cocktail (or maybe have two.)   The shrimps are a bit tiny but fresh and delicious and make a great snack.  A trip to Vegas just isn’t complete without at least one.  The other legendary Vegas meal special is the $4.99 Steak Special at Ellis Island.  I must preface this by saying that I haven’t had it yet but I think I might make it up there this trip.  Ellis Island is a small casino attached to an enormous Super 8 motel and it is far from glamorous but they give you a full steak dinner with all the trimmings and, by all accounts, it is quite good.  The special is 24 hours a day and it isn’t on the menu.  You have to ask for it.  If you try it, let me know how it is.

One of my favorite food strategies in Las Vegas is the late-night special.   These aren’t quite as special if you are on the Strip but most anyplace downtown or off-strip will have one.   You just can’t beat a plate of steak and eggs at 2 in the morning, particularly when it costs you less than $5.  Why eat breakfast when you wake up if you can have it before you go to bed?  Now this won’t be the best steak you’ve ever had but, most of the time, it is pretty good.  I’ve enjoyed this treat for as little as $1.99 but $4 or $5 is more typical.  If you don’t want the steak, you might do even better with some of the ham and eggs, bacon and eggs or pancake specials you’ll encounter.  This is food you’d pay three times as much for at your local Perkins but you can have it here for a song.  Not for everyone but, if you’re up that late, you might as well try it out.  Most of these special deals are going to be in the hotel coffee shops which, most of the time, offer overpriced food but are worth checking out anytime to see what special deals they might be offering.

Now, I do have to mention the fact that Las Vegas has a lot of amazing restaurants and, if you are so inclined, you should definitely try them out.  We keep meaning to go visit the Mesa Grill (Bobby Flay fans here) but most any celebrity chef is going to have a restaurant in Las Vegas and the food (and prices) are often out of this world.  Again, lunch will be less crowded and less expensive than dinner so it can be good way to sample some of the nicer restaurants.

And, of course, Vegas has all of your usual fast food but why in the world would you travel all the way there just to eat at McDonalds?  Don’t.  Take advantage of where you are and enjoy some of the many food treats that the city has to offer.  Until next time, have a great day.

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How to find those Vegas hotel deals

Posted by jrswift on March 28, 2007

I promised in the last posting that I would talk some more about where to find great rates for Las Vegas hotels so I’ll spend some time discussing the places I look and have had good luck with.

First off, it never hurts to join the casinos’ slot clubs. These clubs typically issue a “credit card” like card that can be used when you gamble. They help track how many dollars you are wagering and can potentially earn you cash back or free meals or even free or discounted hotel rooms if you play enough. Even if you aren’t a big gambler, being a member can sometimes get you a few dollars off the hotel’s rack rate and can lead to mailings or emails that contain special room offers for particular dates. I probably have a collection of over 100 slot cards, some from casinos that no longer exist and many of which are no longer valid, but a few have generated some pretty interesting offers for such a low roller as myself. The most bizarre of which appeared a couple summers ago when I received a mailing from the new Wynn Las Vegas offering two free nights and a $50 food credit. What? I had never even visited the place before but some signup somewhere put me on a list that generated that rather impressive deal. Truthfully, those kinds of offers are the exception rather than the rule unless you gamble a great deal at a particular establishment but signing up for a card doesn’t take long and it can save you cash. Even if you haven’t been to Las Vegas before, many hotel web sites will allow you to sign up online. Do it. If they ask you about wanting to receive email about special offers, do it. If you don’t want to wade through so much mail all the time, you might set up a special email account just for your travel needs so that, when you are looking for deals, you can find them.

That brings us to option #2 and that is the hotel’s website. In order to compete with the big travel booking agencies, many hotels now offer their best rates online and some will even match prices that you find elsewhere. The great thing about booking through the hotel itself is that you are not typically required to pay for everything up front but need only put down a deposit for the first night of your stay. The other great thing is that there is rarely any kind of penalty if you need to cancel though make sure to read the fine print. Also, many hotels will adjust their rate down if you call them later and inform them about a lower rate that you’ve found. No guarantees but it is worth a try.

Another choice that can be worth it for some people is to look at air-hotel packages. Most any airline or travel web site and even some hotels themselves are more than happy to sell you one of these packages, complete with other goodies like a rental car, show tickets and even travel insurance. Sometimes you will find a good deal. Many times it only seems to be a good deal. To know for sure you have to figure out what the hotel and flight would cost separately and then compare. Also travel packages are typically nonrefundable so if something comes up and you can’t make the trip, you may have to eat most, if not all, of the cost. Travel insurance can alleviate that concern but will also drive the cost of the package up to the point where it may no longer be worth it. Just remember that there’s a reason all these websites, travel agents and airlines push package deals. It is because they make money on them and because they are easy for them and presumably easy for you. If you are the sort of person who wants to do things the easy way, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog. So, while you should never rule out a package deal, you should look at it very carefully before you commit.

One side note on sites that sell packages. They can occasionally be the source of a really good deal if you are patient and can afford to wait and pounce. Many sites buy and resell blocks of rooms they are allotted by the casino. At a certain point, they have to either sell the rooms or potentially eat the cost. Even if they are allowed to release the rooms back to the hotel with no penalty, not selling their allotted rooms may very well limit their future ability to deal with that hotel. So they need to get rid of them and, if they aren’t selling and it’s getting late, the only way to move them is to discount them, sometimes dramatically. I once ended up with two nights at the Plaza for about $25 including tax by using this strategy and booking at the last minute through Funjet. (One might argue that that is about most you should pay to stay at the Plaza but we won’t quibble.) There is no guarantee that this will work, particularly if you are visiting at a busy time, but it is something to consider.

The same sort of economics that can sometimes get you a good deal through a package provider can also work for you on one of the many hotel discount sites out there, many of which specialize in Las Vegas. They are almost always reselling blocks of rooms and are often more aggressive about discounting earlier on because they need to move the merchandise. These sites won’t normally have a bunch of great last minute deals but a month or so out, they can be a great resource. The discounts may not be as deep but a drop of 25-30% on some hotels is pretty common. I am not sure I can even begin to list all these sites but I’ll hit a few of the ones I check out the most. I’m not going to post their web addresses. That’s what google is for so use it.

Travelworm, Hotels.com, Vegas.com, i4vegas and TripReservations.com are, I think, the best ones and I’ve actually used Travelworm before and can recommend their service. Most other sites that offer to sell you Las Vegas rooms end up linking to one of these pages anyway so just check them out yourself. Again, there is no guarantee that these sites will always offer the cheapest rooms but it should be part of your room-rate arsenal.

I have had mixed success using the what I’ll call the “mega-search travel” sites. Kayak and Sidestep are a couple of examples but there are others and you can look them up if you’d like. I think many of these sites are more helpful finding hotels in other cities than in Las Vegas. If you are using one of these sites, keep in mind that not every search will include all the travel sites that you might use and might omit some of the best deals. Try them if you like…they are kind of fun to watch as they churn away and might find you the room you want.

Another strategy that I am not fond of is the one employed by the travel site Hotwire. They will sell you a (supposedly) discounted room at a mystery hotel which is described only by its general location and a star rating they provide. I’m here to tell you that most of the deals aren’t. It isn’t too difficult for a Vegas veteran to figure out which hotels are which on their website and they are rarely giving you a rate you couldn’t get otherwise and rarely offer much more than 10% off at best. I look at their site every time I travel to Vegas and I’ve yet to find a deal that impresses me much.

If all this sounds too daunting, there are resources available to make it a bit easier. One which I really like is a site called Travelzoo. In addition to sending out a weekly email with their picks for great travel deals, they also have a website that lists the current hotel specials they’ve found for any particular city. They look at a lot of the same sites I’ve mentioned above and can be a great shortcut if you are trying to get an idea of what might be out there. Again, there are other sites that will do the same thing but this is the best one and I’d recommend subscribing to their email.

I’m not going to talk much about sites like Priceline where you bid on mystery hotels by area and star rating. There is a site out there called “Bidding for Travel” and these people are a much better resource than I for beating the system this way. It can work but it is a gamble and I’d rather save my gambling for Las Vegas. I think this is another case where the deals you might get tend to be better in other cities where business travel predominates and not so good in resort areas.

Perhaps the best (and maybe worst) resource online is other Vegas travellers. There are a lot of bulletin boards out there dedicated just to Las Vegas and most of them have a number of helpful people who might know something you don’t. They’ll often post room offers or deals they’ve received or stumbled on somewhere online and you might be able to take advantage of some of them. Remember that using an offer or promotional code that wasn’t originally intended for you may not work. You might discover upon checking in that you will end up paying full price for the room you thought would be a great deal. That’s not how you want your trip to start. So use caution when using this resource.

So that’s it…that’s what I do. And I do it over and over again week after week until I find what I want or decide that I never will find what I want. For a lot of people, all that legwork just isn’t going to be worth it but I find it enjoyable and it has rarely failed to find me a good room at a great price.

We’ll probably take a bit of break from blogging the next few days but there will be more Vegas information here from time to time so be sure to check in. I think maybe next time we’ll talk about one of my favorite things: The Infamous Las Vegas Buffet. So stay tuned.

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Las Vegas Hotels Part 2

Posted by jrswift on March 27, 2007

So when last we left our hero (that would be me) we were still hunting down a place to stay in Las Vegas. As we had decided against a fine luxury accomodation on the Strip, that left only some fringe properties on the north end of the Strip, Downtown or that nebulous category usually defined as “off strip” to choose from. We finally chose an off-strip property so I thought I’d spend a bit of time discussing some of them before revealing the final choice.

Off strip casinos began to spring up about 20-25 years ago as Las Vegas started its remarkable growth. They were originally thought of as “locals” casinos and many of them still owe most of their success to the locals market. While it turns out that Las Vegas residents really do like to gamble, most of them would just as soon avoid the touristy areas of the city as much as possible. Traffic, high prices, poor gaming and the presence of rowdy out-of-towners make places like the Strip and Downtown somewhat less than desirable to the resident Las Vegan (is that even a word?) than to visitors.

Early entrants into this market included Sam’s Town, Palace Station, the Gold Coast and the Rio. They were tremendous successes and even began to draw interest from more seasoned Vegas visitors as they seemed more focused on good customer service, good gambling and reasonable prices than their Strip counterparts.

The Station casinos grew and grew and grew and now dominate the locals market with both luxury options (Green Valley Ranch and the new Red Rock Station) as well as budget offerings (Palace and Boulder Station and the Wild Wild West) and became well-known for their quality buffets (if the word Station is in the title of a buffet, it is probably quite good) and good value gaming. They even bought out other locals casinos like the Santa Fe, Cannery and Fiesta and it is pretty hard to swing a dead cat in any part of Las Vegas outside the Strip without hitting a Station property. Most of the hotels are fairly small but they do allow non-residents to stay there and many do.

Palace Station is still the largest with their enormous tower of nearly a thousand rooms lighting up the sky at the corner of Sahara and I-15, visible from most any part of town. They also cater more to the tourist trade with their proximity to the Strip and large room inventory. I can say that I have stayed at Palace Station and it is a pretty good base of operations. Like many other “off-strip” casinos, they offer free shuttle service to various locations on the Strip for their out-of-town customers. If you have a car, it is in an ideal location, well connected to the rest of the city by its proximity to the freeway. Rooms are pretty good though be sure to book a tower room. The Courtyard rooms are old-style motel rooms not directly connected to the casino and are pretty basic accomodations, though they are very cheap. Don’t expect any fancy shows or free spectacles for these prices, just a good solid place to stay.

The other Station properties are quite a bit further from the Strip and really require a car to be a viable option. Outside of the newer luxury properties I mentioned earlier, none of them really stand out compared to your nearest local casino. These places would all fit nicely in St. Louis or Kansas City or Tunica and you’d never know the difference.

Two of the other major players in the locals market are Boyd and Coast casinos. Interestingly enough, Boyd bought out the Coast casinos a couple of years back though they seem to function as a relatively independent operation to this day. Boyd is quite a versatile operation, running Sam’s Town as well as several downtown properties and, until recently, the dearly-departed Stardust. Coast recently sold its only Strip property, the Barbary Coast but still runs the Suncoast, Gold Coast and Orleans, each a viable option for the out-of-town visitor.

Sam’s Town was one of the earliest and most successful locals casinos and, while it has faded a bit with all the new properties, it remains a major player in that market. Located quite a ways off the strip on Boulder Highway, it sports a western theme and also runs its own RV Park. Rooms here can be truly dirt cheap (about $40) and, from my understanding, are not bad at all. Though Sam’s does run a number of shuttles to the Strip and Downtown, it is still pretty isolated and likely not a good choice unless you have your own vehicle.

The Coast properties are a mixed bag. The Suncoast is located off in the Northwest part of town and is not a good choice for the tourist unless they just want a relaxing weekend in a nice hotel and proximity to some good golf. The Gold Coast and Orleans are fairly large properties (the Orleans has over 1700 rooms) and make a greater effort to appeal to the tourist trade. Both run free shuttles to the Strip and offer good accomodations and food at good prices. The Gold Coast has a nice location, just a mile or so off the Strip and is wedged between two quite glamorous off-strip properties, the Rio and the Palms. The Orleans is a bit more isolated but has large, comfortable rooms (I know…I’ve stayed there three times) and a casino filled with most anything you might need to enjoy a few days of gambling.

That brings us to a final category of off-strip properties that have begun to emerge in the past 10 or 15 years and the one which has attracted the most attention from the travel media, the one I’ll call the “Strip off-strip” hotel-casino. From its earliest days, the Rio stood out from its off-strip competitors. It offered huge luxurious rooms with a view, nice restaurants (including a buffet so large and impressive, it helped change the nature of that business) and their famous, scantilly clad cocktail waitresses. It didn’t take long for visitors to begin to dominate the scene here and the Rio can now, in no way, shape or form, be described as a locals casino. It even offers one of those free Vegas spectacles, a Mardi Gras parade in sky that flies over the casino, amusing you while you play.

Oddly enough, the other two big players in this particular market are both aimed squarely at the young, MTV-generation. The Hard Rock Hotel draws a young, beautiful (and some might say obnoxious) crowd to its fairly small casino. A huge collection of Rock n Roll memorabilia, regular concerts and a decadent pool and party scene help keep this place hopping. If you look like you should be on the latest episode of the Real World, this might be the place for you. Otherwise, it is probably best just to stop by, ogle the place and the patrons for a bit and move on.

The Hard Rock may once have been the trendiest hotel in Las Vegas but no more. That title belongs to the Palms. It not only caters to the MTV-crowd but actually hosted the cast of Real World Las Vegas, a marketing move which clearly worked. Ever since, celebrities and celebrity wannabe’s have been darkening its doors. Oddly enough, the casino itself is well-regarded by serious gamblers for its excellent video poker inventory and so the place often appears to be just a fancy locals hang out, at least until the party starts. It sports several top-notch restaurants and clubs so if you are in the mood to party, it might be the place for you.

This article only begins to scratch the surface of what’s out there. From luxury to budget accomodations with parking for RV’s or Truckers, off-strip casinos pretty much have it all. You may have to look around a bit to find these diamonds-in-the-rough but it can be worth it. Many are destinations of their own and can more than hold their own with their Strip neighbors. Others are just a good place for a meal, a game of blackjack or a night’s sleep. They are worth looking at for any veteran Vegas visitor.

Oh…so where am I staying? This year I chose the Gold Coast. I found an excellent deal online through their website which (for exactly $50 a night) gave me a room and several free buffets. It is close enough to the Strip that the occasional cab ride won’t break anyone’s bank and it offers a free shuttle if you don’t mind waiting around a few minutes to catch it. It also has some pretty exclusive neighbors with both the Palms and Rio next door. I have never stayed in that little area before so that was part of the appeal. On the other hand, I’ve stayed at several Coast properties through the years (Barbary Coast and Orleans) and like them very much. So there…that’s my choice. When we next chat about Las Vegas Hotels, we’ll talk a bit more about how to get the very best deals. Until then, take care.

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Las Vegas Hotels

Posted by jrswift on March 26, 2007

As a preface, let me say that I finally booked a room over the weekend and am very happy with my choice. I’ll keep you in some suspense as I walk you through my selection process and hopefully some of what I do can help you.

As you may remember, this is largely a “cheapo” trip to Vegas. I have stayed in a few very nice places over the years. Last year, we spent three nights at TI (Treasure Island) which is pretty upscale and I’ve also stayed at the Aladdin and the Hilton which are pretty fair properties with some very nice amenities. No visits to the Bellagio or Wynn or the Venetian and I doubt there ever will be as I have a hard time justifying spending $200 or more for a single night’s lodging. Typically $100 is about the most I want to spend but this year I was trying to do it for about $50! But can you really stay someplace “decent” for those kinds of rates? Well…depends on what you call decent.

Las Vegas has well over 100,000 hotel/motel rooms with more on the drawing board so it would seem that there would be something for just about everyone. To a large degree that is true. Of course most of those rooms are concentrated along a 4-mile stretch of South Las Vegas Blvd known as the “Strip.” And a large percentage of those rooms are in the $100 and up range so it is not the best place to look for bargain fun in Sin City. Now, to be fair, $100 a night is not a bad deal when you consider the surroundings and the amenities available and I would encourage any first time visitor to bite the bullet and pay that and maybe more so much of my advice here is not focused on that first time visitor.

(As an aside, here is my advice for the first-time Vegas visitor about lodging. Stay somewhere on the strip between the Wynn on the north and the Mandalay Bay on the South and ideally somewhere between the Mirage and NY NY. That is going to give you the easiest walking access to the places you are going to want to be. Avoid the north Strip as there is not as much to do and anything south of Mandalay Bay can hardly be called the Strip at all. Most any hotel in this area will do as you really won’t know any better. I’d probably steer clear of the Imperial Palace or Excalibur if I were you but even those places aren’t totally awful…just mostly. Find a decent price and take it. That’s it…all the advice you need.)

To get a room for $50 or less, you are going to have to compromise both room quality and location. Even the worst room on the good part of the Strip is usually going to cost you more than that amount. That means accepting the fact that you’ll be off the main tourist area and, after a few trips to Las Vegas, you may not think that is such a bad thing. The crowds and nonstop chaos can be pretty tiring after a while and it is nice to be able to retreat to a slightly more laid back setting.

One option is the northern part of the Strip. That option may not be there for long. In the last couple of years, we’ve already lost reasonably priced accomodations at the Stardust and the Westward Ho. The Frontier may be the next to go and Circus Circus and the Sahara may not be far behind. These hotels will be replaced by far more expensive and exclusive places. The only advantage of this is that the “good part” of the Strip will grow farther north. But really, how much further can you wander and how many more “fabulous hotels” can you walk through and gamble in? I, for one, will miss the old school places and their old school prices. Right now you can still get a pretty good deal if you are willing to stay in one of these places. Frankly, I’ve been there and done that. In addition to being a good place to sleep and a good base of operations, I actually prefer that a hotel provide me with some decent gambling, entertainment and food or at least give me easy access to those things. I don’t really feel that any of these places do that. The Stratosphere is a fairly fun place and I actually enjoy gambling there but it is kind of “out there” so it isn’t for everyone. If I had to chose one of these places, I’d likely pick the Sahara. It is very nicely located for someone with a car and the rooms are decent for the price. Even if you don’t have a car, it is a stop on the Las Vegas monorail so it is fairly easy to get to the good part of the Strip. On the hand, the Sahara has pretty lousy food, pretty lousy entertainment (unless you are huge NASCAR fan) and a casino that feels tired and worn out and always makes me feel the same way. So you pick your poison.

The other traditional budget option is to stay Downtown. Other than having a number of casinos bunched together and some neon lights, Downtown is really nothing like the Strip. The only real attraction is the Fremont Street Experience, a overhead light show which is fairly interesting if you haven’t already seen it a dozen times. On the other hand, there is a lot of good gaming available and usually at much lower stakes than you’ll find elsewhere. There isn’t as much gourmet food but you can eat cheap and eat well here if you aren’t too picky. And the rooms tend to be dirt cheap, even at the nicer places. The other bonus is that it doesn’t matter nearly as much where you stay downtown because most all the hotels are within easy walking distance of one another. It takes more time to navigate through the MGM Grand than it does to walk all of downtown. Not surprisingly, the clientele is older and poorer and a lot less “beautiful” than the crowds down at the Bellagio but that also isn’t always a bad thing. I looked at a number of downtown properties this time but chose not to stay there. One reason was that I didn’t want to change hotels this trip and spending 4 or 5 days downtown is probably too much unless you are absolutely in love with the place. One or two days is more like it.

Most all of the downtown properties have some warts but that is one of the reasons they are more affordable. Even the nicest hotel downtown (which everyone agrees is the Golden Nugget) can sometimes be had for significantly less than $100 midweek. It is really one of the best values in town and a genuinely classy hotel and has a very loyal clientele because of it. At the other extreme is a place like the Gold Spike which just barely escapes being a transient hotel and has, shall we say, some very colorful patrons. While rooms here can be as little as $20 or $30 a night, it probably won’t be worth it for most people.

Beyond those places, most of downtown lacks a distinctive personality. The Boyd hotels (Main Street Station, the Fremont and particularly the California) attract a very large Hawaiian clientele which can sometimes make rooms there harder to come by and more expensive than at other places and they are probably worth a bit more. The Plaza is just big and you’ll either love it or hate it. I lean more toward love but you probably want to see it before you sleep there. Its sister property the (Las) Vegas Club is smaller but pretty similar and actually attempts a kind of sports theme though pretty half-heartedly. The Golden Gate is a tiny casino with tiny rooms mostly known for their fabulous 99 cent shrimp cocktails and some other good food specials. Might be an OK place for a single traveller who isn’t too large but not a good first choice.

Binions is a legendary casino that is past its prime. The hotel is much the same and they tend to charge more than hotels that are a better choice. Fitzgeralds makes some effort to play off the whole “luck of the Irish” theme and has some pretty good rooms at pretty good prices but is hardly an exciting place to stay and has really bad food. The Four Queens used to be known for a giant slot machine and blackjack table that were practically in the street. They draw a lot of people off the street with promotions and draw a few travellers in with their reasonable rates and might be a good middle of the road choice. They even have a genuinely “nice” restaurant tucked away in the basement if you are feeling romantic. A couple of blocks down the street is the venerable El Cortez. It is a little isolated and the neighborhood is not what it used to be (or maybe it never was) but it is safe and clean. Arguably the best rooms for the money downtown are in its tower. If you can get past the location, it can be an excellent choice.  Most all of these rooms will fall somewhere between about $40-$60 dollars midweek and a bit more on the weekend.  If you see a cheaper rate, it is likely an older or more threadbare room so investigate closely before committing yourself.

So if I didn’t choose to stay on the Strip or Downtown, where did I go? For many people those two areas are all they will ever see of Las Vegas and, in my opinion, that’s a shame. There is a whole world of hotel/casinos out there in that great big place referred to as “Off Strip” and, in our next episode, we’ll take a look at a few of them and narrow down our choices to one.

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