Downtown Las Vegas: Cheap Rooms, Strong Drinks, Cheap Gambling
Las Vegas isn’t just for those high rollers you see in the Bond films. If you’re low on cash but still want to experience the thrill of Las Vegas, consider booking a trip to the underrated, Fremont Street area.
I’ve been frequenting Vegas for a few years now and I always set aside at least one night during my trip to stay in one of the casino hotels in the Downtown Las Vegas – Fremont Street area. For those of you who are not familiar with the general geography of Las Vegas, I’ll break the main attractions down for you into four specific zones. These are the areas you’re most likely to visit during a trip to Las Vegas:
The South Strip includes properties such as MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Tropicana, Hooters and others. This is the second most popular “zone” in Las Vegas. Generally speaking, hotel room rates are moderate to high and gambling minimums are around 15-20 dollars for a hand of blackjack (these generalizations could fluctuate majorly depending on the time of year or days you are visiting).
Mid Strip is the most popular zone in Las Vegas. Major hotel casinos include but are not limited to: Planet Hollywood, Paris, Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, Mirage, Flamingo, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn and Encore at the Wynn (opening January 2009). Hotel room rates in this zone can be anywhere from moderately priced to disgustingly expensive, (depending on the property and the time of year) and gambling minimums can be anywhere from $10, to $100 on a crowded weekend. This is the Las Vegas you’ve come to know over the years through television and film. You are more than likely going to have to shell out a substantial chunk of cash if you want to stay at one of these swanky joints. As with most things involving Vegas, there are exceptions, but we’ll talk about those another time.
Sadly, this zone has become a bit of a wasteland recently. Halted development projects and aging resorts make this area off limits for a young or first time Vegas visitor, in my opinion. Hotel casinos in this zone include: Circus Circus, Sahara, Stratosphere, Las Vegas Hilton and Riviera. The only one of these hotels that’s worth your time is the Las Vegas Hilton but even that choice is questionable as it’s not truly on “The Strip”, and at least a mile from the other quality resorts. Room rates in this zone are generally cheap, but again, I wouldn’t bother.
Let me preface this section by saying – Downtown Las Vegas is NOT for everyone. If your ideal Vegas vacation includes sipping on a twenty-dollar Cosmo with Paris Hilton in a hot new nightclub, you are going to be miserable staying downtown. Also, if it’s your first time to Vegas, you want to be in the middle of the action and you have some money to spend, don’t worry about staying downtown. If you’re a broke college student – you shouldn’t be going on vacation, but hey, that’s never stopped you in the past. Downtown Las Vegas is affordable, fun and without all those high class pretensions you’ll so often find on the Strip. Room rates in this zone range from “essentially free” to moderate and gambling minimums usually start around $5, depending on the property. Hotel casinos in this zone include: Plaza, Golden Nugget, Main Street Station, Fitzgerald’s, California, Binion’s, Four Queens and Fremont.
Why should I stay Downtown if all of the action is on the Strip?
Ultimately it depends on what kind of action you’re looking for. If you’re going to Las Vegas to shop for Prada bags or buy a new Armani suit, you’ll want your home base to be on the Strip. If you’re going to Las Vegas for cheap rooms, cheap gambling, strong drinks, a great steak dinner and a good time with your boys, you should consider setting up shop Downtown.* Don’t forget that just because you’re staying Downtown doesn’t mean you can’t pack your crew in a cab and journey out to the Strip. Depending on your destination hotel, the fare should be about $15 each way on average.
I’m interested in Downtown – Where should I stay?
There are three classifications of casino hotel in the Downtown area:
* The Golden Nugget
* Acceptable properties
* Places that smell like 700 people smoking inside a septic tank
Guess which ones you’re going to want to stay away from?
Golden Nugget – If you do any online research you’ll find that Golden Nugget is universally referred to as “the class of downtown”. While this doesn’t say much about the quality of the property, the Nugget is certainly the best hotel with the best amenities in the Fremont Street area. Rooms are large with quality furnishings and the casino is very clean. With the good comes the bad however, as you’ll pay a higher rate at this hotel than any other property in the area. You should expect rates of around $150 a night on Friday and Saturday with rates dropping substantially during the week.
Acceptable Properties – There’s room for interpretation here, but in my opinion the following properties’ hotel rooms are acceptable: Four Queens, California, Main Street Station and Fremont.
With the exception of Four Queens which is currently owned and operated by Terry Caudill, all of these properties are owned and operated by Boyd Gaming. These hotels offer clean rooms, moderate amenities, decent restaurants and a suitable casino. Room rates for these properties should be below $100 a night at most times, (major travel holidays and conventions are the exceptions) and occasionally deals are available for less that $50 a night. Use the rates at these hotels to your advantage. If you were planning on splitting a room with two or three other friends, you may want to take advantage of the low rates and have everyone book their own rooms. If privacy isn’t a big deal, go with the split and end up paying next to nothing for your room each night. Always remember, extra cash in your pocket = more fun while you’re on a Vegas vacation.
Places that smell like 700 people smoking inside a septic tank – Vegas is always changing so there may be hope for some of these properties down the road, but at this point you should definitely avoid staying at any of the following properties: Plaza, Golden Gate, Binion’s, El Cortez, Fitzgerald’s, Vegas Club and the truly horrid Gold Spike.
Now, it may be a bit unfair to group all of these properties together as some of them are far worse than others, but in an effort to avoid confusion, let’s just think of all of these properties as places to avoid when choosing where to stay. The rooms in these hotels are usually shabby and pretty threadbare. The casinos are smoke filled wonderlands and the on site amenities are typically pretty poor. I’ve seen rates at these hotels as low as $23 a night so if you’re really looking to save a few dollars and you’re a fairly adventurous person, give one a try. If I were forced to recommend one of these hotels I’d have to go with the El Cortez, which actually has decent, newly remodeled rooms available.
I’m staying Downtown! Now what?
Fortunately, (or unfortunately depending on your outlook on life) these two things really are the star attractions when staying Downtown. If you’re not a big drinker and you don’t really feel comfortable gambling, you shouldn’t be anywhere near downtown and you should really reassess the reason you decided to visit Vegas in the first place.
When it comes to choosing where to spend your time downtown, don’t limit your choice to one casino. With all of the casinos in such a close proximity to one another, it’s easy to spend a day casino hopping. All properties are fair game when it comes to casino hopping; just because a particular hotel may not be fit to stay in doesn’t mean they can’t pour a quality bourbon and Coke in the casino. Generally, the crummier the property, the cheaper the gambling, so be sure to use this to your advantage. If you find that your gambling budget is getting squeezed, look for some $3 blackjack at one of the lower end casinos. If things get really bad, put a couple of bucks in a penny slot at the Plaza and get the cocktail waitress’s attention every chance you get. If you slip her a five dollar tip on your first round she’ll be sure to return with strong drinks for the remainder of your visit.
One final thought –
I want to stress again that Downtown Las Vegas isn’t for everyone. If you think you’d be more comfortable staying on the Strip but don’t feel like spending a fortune on your hotel room, don’t worry – there are plenty of affordable hotels available.
Good luck on your next Vegas vacation.
* I’m making the assumption that all the ladies out there wouldn’t be caught dead staying in a place like Downtown Las Vegas. Feel free to prove me wrong ladies; Downtown could use a woman’s touch.
By Mitch Tobias