Hitting the Strip on a Budget: The Best Ways to Extend your Dollar in Sin City
The Las Vegas Strip is considered expensive for most people, let alone a couple of college students, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid the area altogether. Smart spending will give you an opportunity to experience some of the best Vegas has to offer without sending you home penniless.
Budget Tip #1 – Choose the correct hotel.
Throughout the duration of this article I am going to operate under the assumption that you are going to be travelling with a group of four guys (or gals) or less. You’re pushing it if you’re planning on cramming more than four people into the standard Vegas hotel room, so make sure to leave the fifth wheel at home or find three more wheels to make two groups of four. Travelling to Vegas with more than eight people in a group is generally regarded as a bad idea, but we’ll talk about that another time.
Without a doubt, the most important thing to consider when planning a Vegas vacation is deciding at which hotel your group is going to stay. For trust fund babies, the decision is easy; they will book a room at either Wynn or Bellagio (except for the occasional hipster who books a room at Mandalay Bay). For the rest of us the decision gets a little more involved. The optimist among us would consider this a good thing however, as we have more choices from which to choose. Personally, I fall in the middle; part of me wants to just get the planning over with and book a $300 room at Wynn, (if I could afford it) and the other part actually enjoys searching for the best deal at a hotel that suits my needs. If you’re not up to doing a little research, you shouldn’t be the one planning the trip in the first place.
Hotels to Avoid
It should go without saying that some of the resorts on the strip are just going to be out of your league. If you want to do Vegas on a budget you should forget about staying at any of the big boys. Bellagio, Wynn, Mandalay Bay, The Venetian and Caesar’s Palace (usually) are all going to be out of your price range so you should go ahead and cross those off your list right away. If you do end up staying at any of these places you’re going to find out very quickly that they aren’t too concerned about a group of low rolling college kids. These resorts were very expensive to build and therefore they want people with deep pockets hanging around the place. You should definitely plan on visiting these resorts during one of your sightseeing tours, but for a group of budget travelers such as yourselves, these gambling palaces are out when it comes to choosing your home base.
Conversely, there are resorts you should avoid either because of their location or poor accommodations. Circus Circus, Stratosphere, Sahara and Riviera should be avoided at all times. These hotels are simply too far away from the quality areas of the Strip. If you’re having problems finding a room at an acceptable rate, you may want to look at Riviera, as they’ve recently spent some money updating some of the guest rooms – only as a last resort however.
Choosing your Price Range
After eliminating the best and worst, we’re still left with a broad list of hotels from which to choose. At this point it would be a good idea to get your group together and discuss a nightly hotel budget. If there are four of you sharing a room and you’re each willing to spend $50 a night on the hotel room, you’ll be able to select just about any of the remaining hotels on your list. The best properties left on the list: Paris, Planet Hollywood, The Mirage and MGM Grand, should all have rooms available at, or around, $200 a night. Out of these I’d choose the one with the best location, which means I’d be choosing between The Mirage and Paris. If you’re having problems deciding, look at a map and note the proximity of each hotel to the things you want to see or do while you’re in town. If pressed, I’d choose The Mirage, but you can’t go wrong with either in my opinion. Do some research and look at what each hotel has to offer before making your final decision. Check customer reviews, visit the hotel websites, read any trip reports someone may have posted online that include a recent stay at the hotel in question; just try to gather as much information as possible.
If it’s decided that $50 a night is too expensive, you still have plenty of suitable options available. Places like Luxor, Monte Carlo, New York New York, Treasure Island and Flamingo will almost always have rooms for around $150 or less (much less in some instances). For around $30 a night per person, your group of four should be able to get quality Vegas accommodations. Make sure you do your research before booking however, as all Vegas hotels were not created equal. If you have some serious poker players in your group and they want to stay in a hotel with a decent poker room, for example, be sure to not make reservations at Paris – their poker room was recently closed.
If you’re noticing that rates are abnormally high, there’s probably a big convention in town for that week or it’s a high priced holiday (Fourth of July, Memorial Day, etc…). If you run into this problem you may want to consider changing the dates of your trip if possible. If a change is out of the question, be prepared for massive crowds.
Budget Tip #2 – Choose your non-walking transportation wisely.
Here’s something a lot of first time Vegas visitors overlook: the Vegas Strip is REALLY long. Walking from one end to the other is a fool’s mission and a waste of precious vacation time. Don’t do it.
Since you’re most likely travelling in a group, splitting a cab is going to be your best option most of the time. Your most expensive cab fare is probably going to be to and from the airport. Depending on where you’re staying, this fare should be around $18-25. In my opinion, it’s only worth it to find alternative transportation if you’re flying solo somewhere, as cabs can get pretty pricey if you have to shell out the entire fare + tip yourself. Las Vegas offers other, perhaps less reliable, transportation if you decide to break away from your group while in town. Your best option is probably the local bus system known as “The Deuce”. You can get a ride on The Deuce from one end of The Strip to other for a couple bucks. There are some drawbacks however, as the bus tends to be extremely crowded and makes frequent stops, increasing your travel time. Your other option is the Las Vegas Monorail. You can find a map of the monorail at http://www.lvmonorail.com/. Each trip will cost you $5, but it’s considerably faster than taking the bus (as long as your destination coincides with a monorail station).
Budget Tip #3 – Don’t go crazy on food.
Las Vegas has some of the best restaurants in the entire world. Unfortunately, most of these restaurants are way out of your price range. The good news is Las Vegas has plenty of affordable restaurants that are more than capable of making you a quality meal.
Coffee Shops and Buffets
Coffee shops and buffets will help your food budget stay within reason while you’re in town. Most of the resorts on The Strip will have an above average coffee shop where you can get breakfast for less than $15 a person. Le Café Île St. Louis at Paris or Planet Dailies at Planet Hollywood are both good examples of quality resort coffee shops. It’s usually a good idea to do a little food research before your trip. You’ll find that there’s basically a surplus of information about Las Vegas dining, and that’s a good thing because the last thing you’ll want to do while on vacation is endure a horrible dining experience.
In addition to coffee shops, buffets are a great place to get a quality Vegas meal on the cheap. Choose wisely, however, as a bad buffet experience can do more than simply ruin a meal. Quality establishments include: Le Village Buffet at Paris, Spice Market Buffet and Planet Hollywood, Bellagio and Wynn (both real pricey – but worth it) and Cravings at The Mirage. When dealing with buffets it’s always important to remember that you get what you pay for, and the phrase “how bad could it be?” doesn’t really apply when speaking of buffets in Las Vegas (the answer to this question is typically “worse than you could possibly imagine”). Do some buffet research before you go and if you notice one that gets consistently poor reviews, (Circus Circus) do yourself and your stomach a favor and stay as far away as possible.
The Big Dinner
If you’re anything like me, you’re going to want to do at least one decent dinner with your crew while you’re all in town together. This doesn’t have to be a bank breaker, but it should be at an above average restaurant, one of the many decent steakhouses in town will usually work just fine. Stay away from the ultra high end gourmet places and instead opt for one of the moderately priced steak houses found in almost every mid-level Strip resort. You’re going to have to make reservations so while you’re looking for the phone number, check the menu prices listed on the restaurant’s website. The Range Steakhouse at Harrah’s is a very good steakhouse with moderately priced entrees. You should be able to get out with only spending around $50 a person, which for a quality steak dinner in Las Vegas, is a downright bargain. Other solid choices that won’t leave you begging for change in the parking lot include: Steakhouse46 at the Flamingo, Bally’s Steakhouse at Bally’s and The Steakhouse at Circus Circus.
Budget Tip #3 – Gamble wisely.
Surefire way #1 to have a bad Vegas vacation – blow your entire gambling bankroll the first night. Trust me when I say this, your vacation is going to suck big time if you lose all of your money the first night. Before your trip you should budget how much gambling cash you’re willing to lose and then set aside a daily allotment. Once your daily allotment is spent, move onto another activity to pass your time, like stealing all of your friends’ free drinks.
Avoid Rogue Gambling
If you enjoy gambling with your friends, the last thing you want to do is feed your daily allotment into a Wizard of Oz slot machine at 10 in the morning. Set aside a specific time to gamble with your group and stick to the schedule as best you can. Gambling is more fun in the evening anyhow. Spend your day sightseeing or hanging out by the pool if the weather is good.
Avoid Gambling in the Fancy Joints
I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but it’s better if you find out now – the fancy casinos are trying to attract big time gamblers. If you’re trying to do Las Vegas on a budget, don’t expect to be able to afford the gambling at Bellagio or Wynn. The table minimums at the most expensive resorts in town are almost always going to be out of your range – you should expect $25 and up at the real fancy places (Bellagio, Wynn, Venetian).
If you took my advice and booked a moderately priced hotel, you should be able to afford the gambling at your home base. If you take a look around and it looks like the gambling is still too expensive, you may want to try one of the lower end casinos on the Strip. Casino Royale (next door to Harrah’s) has $3 craps and $1 bottles of Michelob if things get real bad. The Riviera also has some low limits on craps and blackjack. Still not cheap enough? Herd your group into a cab and head downtown. The casinos in the Fremont Street area have low limits and cheap booze; just don’t expect to find any sorority girls walking around.
Bonus Tip – Sign up for the casino slot club card.
Take a few minutes when you arrive in Vegas and sign up with the “players’ club” at your home base casino (or wherever you plan on doing a majority of your gambling). With the recent economic downturn, Vegas is hurting for business and they may just reach out to you for help in the future. In order for a casino to contact you, they are going to need your information, so be sure to give it to them. Requirements for room offers and meal comps change constantly, but with gaming revenues continuing to plummet, don’t be surprised if they send you a free room offer in the mail a few months later.
By Mitch Tobias