Budget Guide 2013: Las Vegas

If the thought of Las Vegas conjures up images of flashy clubs, glitzy shows, an endless parade of limousines and eye-wateringly high table limits – you’re not entirely mistaken. This is a city where high rollers come to play and $3000-a-glass cocktails or $40,000-a-night hotel rooms are on offer for those with cash to burn.

However, the good news is you don’t need to have deep pockets to enjoy Las Vegas. The city has experienced a recent surge in hotel room capacity because of a series of new properties that opened during the depths of the recession. That timing means they’ve had to discount rates in order to keep occupancy up and other hotels have followed suit.

Downtown Las Vegas – which has traditionally offered better prices than the Strip – is also drawing more visitors thanks to its ongoing renewal. Trendy bars like The Downtown Cocktail Room, The Griffin and recently opened prohibition-style lounge Commonwealth have been growing in numbers much to the delight of hipsters. Decent bang for the buck also makes them a great draw card for the budget traveler.

Hotels

When choosing a cost effective hotel, be sure to factor in the amenities and entertainment as well as the price, and remember that even upscale hotels offer excellent deals from time to time, making them a great value for the money.

A few more points to keep in mind when booking accommodation:

Hotel rates in Vegas vary dramatically depending on when you’ll be staying and when you book. Mid-week stays will be markedly cheaper than weekends, as long as there are no major conventions or events going on.

For the uber budget conscious, note that while Vegas does boast a handful of hostels, they tend to be in out of the way or in somewhat unsavory areas. So rather than paying $10-15/night for a dorm bed, share a room with friends at one of the hotels below for not much more.

To get the best rates, do a thorough search on online booking sites like Expedia and Kayak and then call the hotel to check current rates. Most will match a cheaper deal you find for their establishment online, and some will even knock off 10 percent of that price.

Beware that many hotels in the city charge a daily resort fee – it’s not always clear when booking but it can add a significant amount to your final bill, so always ask.

Here are a few options:

Main Street Station. Located just two blocks from Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, this train-themed hotel is heaven for the history buff. Packed to the brim with antiques, the hotel even has a piece of the Berlin Wall – although ladies will have to enter the men’s restroom to see it. The hotel’s microbrewery and restaurant, Triple 7, serves up award-winning brews and a free shuttle service whisks guests to and from the Strip. The hotel doesn’t have a pool, although guests are welcome to use the facilities at the neighboring California Hotel. From $38. No resort fee but a $9.99 charge for Wi-Fi. mainstreetcasino.com 200 North Main Street, Las Vegas, NV. 89101.

The Stratosphere. This 1149-foot tower situated past the north end of the Strip just spent $20 million revamping its décor, restaurants and sky-high bar. The hotel is a bit out of the way of the action, but what it lacks in location, it makes up for in price. Guests still have relatively easy access to the rest of the Strip via bus, which stops outside the hotel; monorail, which is a short walk away near the Sahara Hotel; or by driving and making use of the free valet parking. Hotel guests are allowed free visits to the observation tower, which provides great views of the Strip. They also have access to two pools and a fitness center, but will have to pay for Wi-Fi. From $31 plus $7.50 daily resort fee. stratospherehotel.com 2000 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV. 89104.

Luxor. This three-star hotel in the shape of a sleek black pyramid is located at the southern end of the Strip and offers a great value for the money. Guests at the Egyptian-themed resort receive free pool and gym access, two free drinks per stay, Internet access and free parking. The hotel also boasts a newly revamped food court and a new interactive center for sports fans. Rooms are located in either the pyramid itself (complete with slanted elevators that provide access to the higher rooms) or the adjacent towers, which are newer. From $38 plus $18 daily resort fee. luxor.com 3900 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV. 89119.

Eat and Drink

Tacos El Gordo. This chain, which started in Tijuana, Mexico, is known for their authentic street-style tacos. Fillings include spicy pork, carne asada and carnitas, as well as tripe, tongue and brains for the more adventurous foodie. Tacos are small but cheap at $2 each and are topped with onions, cilantro, guacamole and various sauces. You can also grab a quesadilla, tostada, or fries loaded with guacamole, sour cream and your pick of meat. Bottomless soft drinks are also on offer. Don’t expect table service here – you’ll be ordering food at various meat “stations” and then paying at the cashier. The restaurant has a location downtown as well as one on Las Vegas Boulevard in a strip mall just north of the Wynn Hotel. The Strip location is open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, making it an ideal spot to grab some late-night munchies.

Secret Pizza. Inside the swanky Cosmopolitan Hotel you’ll find a cheap and unassuming pizza place sure to satisfy late night cravings. Hidden away down an alley on the third floor of the hotel, the signless restaurant serves up New York-style, thin-crust pizza to hungry clubbers. The hidden pizza joint serves up pies and slices with a range of toppings, including white pizza, homemade meatballs, cheese and pepperoni. A slice will set you back around $5.

Buffets. We couldn’t talk about eating in Las Vegas without mentioning the buffets. There are more all-you-can-eat dining options in this city than you could possibly work your way through, with just about every hotel offering at least one buffet. As a general rule, buffets are cheapest earlier in the day (so breakfast or lunch will be a better deal than dinner). If you’re eating downtown, you’ll find plenty of lunch buffets around the $7 mark, and dinner buffets for about twice that price. One notable option on the Strip is the Buffet of Buffets. This is a day pass offered by Harrah’s that gives you access to buffets across their various properties (which include Paris, The Rio, and Planet Hollywood among others). For $50 you can eat as much as you like over 24 hours. Just beware that some of the premium buffets like the over-the-top one at Caesar’s Palace will add a $15 surcharge on top of the pass.

Activities

Pool Partying. Without a doubt, gambling is the number one activity in Las Vegas, but if you’re looking for other ways to have fun, hit up one of the city’s many pool parties. These daylong parties feature sizzling beats, bronzed bodies and typically, very pricey booze; however, the good news is you can often get into the parties for free. Some of the bigger venues include Rehab, located at the Hard Rock Hotel, and Wet Republic, at the MGM Grand. A more budget-friendly (and relaxed) option is the Venus Pool Club at Caesar’s where you can throw back a beer for around $8. Admission costs $10-30 depending on the night, but ladies will almost always get in free and men are often handed free passes too.

See a half-price show. Vegas has countless shows taking place every night, including comedy shows, concerts, dance performances, magic shows and acrobatics. Popular shows include The Jabbawockeez, Absinthe and various Cirque du Soleil performances, but there’s really something for everyone. You can buy tickets for half the box office price by visiting tix4tonight, which has a number of locations along the Strip.

Free entertainment on the Strip. There’s no shortage of things to see on the Strip, and wandering through the various themed hotels is an activity in itself. Experience the canals of Venice, see the Sphinx, or take your photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Nature lovers can enjoy the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio – the horticultural displays are constantly changed to suit the season. You can also see flamingos, along with a variety of other birds in the Flamingo Hotel’s wildlife habitat. Vegas hotels also put on a number of free performances to draw in the crowds. At Circus Circus, the world’s largest permanent circus comes alive at 11 a.m. daily, where you can see new world class acts like the Ethiopian foot juggler or the aerial silk artist from Italy. In front of The Mirage, a giant volcano erupts every hour from 5-11 p.m. The Sirens of TI is a 20-minute show featuring hip-swinging sirens and swash-buckling pirates that’s somewhat risqué. It takes place nightly in front of Treasure Island. For something tamer, take in the fountains at the Bellagio, which dance to music every 15 minutes from 7 p.m. onwards, and every 30 minutes during the afternoons. The Bellagio has begun adding new “dances” to the fountains’ repertoire.

Take a Stroll Downtown. If you venture downtown, check out the Fremont Street Experience. The historic street is home to the largest LED screen in the world in the form of a giant canopy over a pedestrian walkway. Visitors can watch a dazzling display every night on the hour, and the light show is usually accompanied by music and other live performances. While you’re downtown, don’t forget to check out the Neon Museum featuring original neon signs that once glittered across the city’s casinos. The museum is made up of several components: the Downtown Gallery at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard displays restored, illuminated signs; while the Neon Boneyard is an outdoor museum home to donated and rescued signs. The Neon Museum is just the start of a grand plan to revitalize the downtown area (after Zappos relocated to the city, it set up the Downtown Project, which aims to completely transform Vegas’ urban core) so keep an eye out for more arts, music and cultural developments in the months and years to come.

Get Around

To get to and from the airport, you can take bus routes 108, 109, or the Westcliff Airport Express. A single ride costs $2 – buy your ticket at the bus stop vending machine before boarding. Alternatively, a number of shuttle services ferry passengers between the airport and hotels on either the Strip or downtown. Most cost $7 for Strip hotels and $8.50 for downtown destinations. A taxi from the airport will cost around $15 depending on the route.

Las Vegas is well served by public transport and most visitors will be able to get around sufficiently on the double decker bus known as The Deuce. The bus runs between downtown and the Strip, making stops at most major hotels. The Strip and Downtown Express Bus (also known as the SDX) runs along a similar route but is much faster due to the limited stops. The Deuce runs 24 hours a day, while the SDX starts operating after 9 a.m. Both run every 15-20 minutes. Passes can be purchased at the vending machines located at bus stops. They’ll set you back $6 for two hours, $8 for a one-day pass, or $20 for three days.

A pricier option is the monorail, which runs from the MGM Grand on the south end of the Strip to the Sahara at the north end. The line runs behind the hotels and casinos (rather than along Las Vegas Boulevard) and takes 15 minutes to complete the route. Tickets cost $5/single, $12/one day, $28/three days, or $43/five days.

Budget Tips

Free Wi-Fi. If your hotel charges an extravagant fee for wireless Internet access, it’s worth knowing that the various MGM properties provide free Wi-Fi to the public. The hotel group offers complimentary service in its casinos, pools, lobbies and restaurants – and you don’t need a password or room key to access the network. At the time of writing, Wi-Fi is already available at the Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand and is being added to the Monte Carlo, Luxor, New York New York and the Excalibur.

Day passes to hotel pools. You don’t have to be a guest at one of the upscale resorts to use their amenities. For as little as $10 per day you can gain access to the pools of many of the hotels along the Strip. It’s great if you’re trying to save on accommodation costs but still want to be able to enjoy some of the luxe facilities the city has to offer. You can see a list of pools open to the public here. A particularly notable pool is The Tank at the Golden Nugget, which boasts a 200,000-gallon shark tank with a water slide that runs through it before dumping you in the pool. Cover charge for non-hotel guests is $20.

Drinking on the cheap. One of the cheapest places to drink in Vegas is in a casino, since most of them serve free alcohol to gamblers whether they’re high rollers or only playing 1-cent slot machines. Just remember to tip the server $1 per drink or the service will quickly dry up. Many bars and vendors along the Strip also sell cheap frozen daiquiris by the yard glass – since you’ll rarely be prevented from taking a drink from one casino or bar to the next, it can be a cheap way to have a big night.

Room upgrades. Want to score a better hotel room than the one you paid for? Try the $20 trick. Simply slip the hotel receptionist $20 when handing over your credit card and ask if any upgrades are available. If you’re staying at a budget hotel, you may get away with tipping significantly less. You can read more about the success rate of this strategy at various Vegas hotels here.


[Photo credit: Flickr user David Stanley]

The New Reno: Yes, Virginia, There Is Gentrification

renoI’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that Reno has historically not been one of my favorite places to visit. But I spend a fair amount of time passing through, because my brother and his family live nearby, in the ski town of Truckee. Flying into Reno is convenient for anyone wanting to visit Lake Tahoe.

For years, my brother, Mark, has been telling me that Reno is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, what with the implementation of Wingfield Park – the city’s kayaking park that runs through downtown – and the Truckee River Walk with its galleries, cafes, and brewery. But don’t worry: Reno is still The Biggest Little City in the World, rife with the requisite prostitutes, crack houses, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and all the unsavory characters one would expect to find.

Yet, I discovered a younger, gentler, hipper Reno over Thanksgiving when I was in Truckee. Reno is trying to dial down its hard-core gambling, all-you-can-eat, come-all-ye-societal-fringe-dwellers rep. The most noticeable change is the gentrification underway along the South Virginia Street Corridor, the major north-south business artery. The street is paralleled to the east by a mix of decrepit and charmingly restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Housing, Mark says, is ridiculously affordable.

I did a book signing over the holiday off South Virginia at a bustling new cheese shop, Wedge. A lovely addition to the area, Wedge has an excellent selection of domestic and imported cheese, as well as house-made sandwiches, specialty foods and primo charcuterie. Want a good, affordable bottle of wine, some soppressata, and a hunk of award-winning, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin? Wedge has it.

When Mark and I arrived at the shop, he commented on how much the area was changing, citing the soon-to-be-open wine bar, Picasso and Wine, next door. The employees cheerfully agreed that there were lots of exciting developments underway, but that “there’s a crack house just two doors down.” They weren’t joking, either. We were parked in front of it.renoClose to Wedge is Midtown Eats, an adorable, farmhouse-modern cafe, and Crème, a sweet breakfast spot specializing in crepes. Get lunch at popular soup-and-sandwich spot Süp, imbibe (and eat) at Brasserie St. James brewery, Craft Beer & Wine, and mixology geek faves Reno Public House, and Chapel Tavern (over 100 whiskeys on shelf!). Making dinner in your rental ski cabin or condo? Visit the Tahoe area’s only Whole Foods.

If you’re in need of some sweet street-style, hit Lulu’s Chic Boutique or Junkee Clothing Exchange. If it’s your home that’s in need of an inexpensive upgrade, Recycled Furniture is the place. As for those tats and street drugs? You’re on your own.

Future plans for the South Virginia Corridor include greater emphasis on facilitating more pedestrian-friendly walkways, public spaces featuring art installations, fountains, and benches, and street-scaping. Gentrification may not always be welcome, but for Reno, it’s the start of a whole new Big Little City.

[Photo credits: Reno, Flickr user coolmikeol; bike path, VisitmeinReno.com]

Reno’s ‘Cheese Truck’ Subject Of Quirky Documentary

“Reno, Nevada. The Biggest Little City in the World. Famous for our casinos, quick divorces, and legalized prostitution.”

So goes the opening narration to “The Cheese Truck,” a funny little documentary made by Jason Spencer of Storm Front Productions. The 26-minute film follows what amounts to a day in the life of GourMelt owners/drivers/cheese geeks Jessie and Haley, as they feed Reno’s hungry masses.

This gem of a film caught my attention for three reasons: I just flew in from Reno last night, after spending a week in Lake Tahoe visiting my brother and his family; I work in the cheese industry and did a book signing at Wedge, Reno’s new (only?) cheese shop, six days ago, and I couldn’t believe someone had made a movie about Reno’s on-trend food scene. Ouch.

“The Cheese Truck” may also gently poke fun, but its objective is to show viewers how much work goes into operating a food truck, as well as highlight Reno’s Renaissance. As my experience at Wedge also showed, there are a lot of fun things popping up in the Biggest Little City, especially the South Virginia Street Corridor neighborhood.

Look for more details on the second coming of Reno next week. I’ll tell you where to find a great bottle of wine, used combat boots, and handcrafted soppressata, amongst the tattoo parlors and crack houses.


Macau: China’s First And Last European Colony

macau Macau, one of only two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China, features a unique blend of architecture, culture and heritage.

Walking the streets, it will become immediately clear the region makes a lot of money off gambling; however, through the architecture you’ll also be transported back and forth from Europe to Asia, and from the 16th century to the present. The city is a former Portuguese colony, and is China’s first and last European colony. While today China is responsible for the region’s military defense and foreign affairs, Macau is quite autonomous with its own police force, currency, laws, customs policy and immigration policy.

With such a diverse history, it’s no surprise a large section of Macau is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 25 buildings being deemed to have historical and cultural significance. Well-known sights like the Guia Fortress, Senado Square and the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral are on the list, and many of these elected sights can be seen via the Macau Heritage Walk circuit.

For a more visual idea of Macau, check out the gallery below.

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[images via Big Stock]

Atlantic City Is a Hard Place to Love

Somewhere around Indiana and Pacific avenues, I had a sinking feeling. Atlantic City seemed to consist entirely of strip clubs and skin dens, convenience stores and empty store fronts. The beach was a few blocks away, true. But would a sparkling bit of ocean be enough to make the uneasy feeling in my stomach subside? This seaside resort, stacked with casino resorts dwarfed by their cousins in Las Vegas, did not look promising as I drove up to my hotel.

It was a dive of a place, recommended to me by a fellow travel writer, and someone I think of as an Atlantic City aficionado. He told me to try the Inn at the Irish Pub, a spot perched precariously above a dark watering hole, emphasis on the hole, that’s open 24 hours a day. The hotel is the sort of place that charges a deposit of $5 when you’re handed a brass key fastened to a plastic yellow diamond, stamped with a number.

I hiked up the stairs to my room, whose bathroom connected to the room next door, and flopped on the lumpy bed. I needed to call my friend, Robert Reid, and ask him if he’d set me up for an elaborate travelers’ joke, sending me to the inn to see if I’d actually go.

Traveling the American Road – Trying to Love Atlantic City


I told him, “This place is a dump,” to which he replied, “Oh no, I love that place!” I still didn’t believe him. “I wonder if you got a bad room,” he said. “I mean, it’s old, I know. I had fun there… You don’t like the room?” I mentioned that while I’d stayed in worse, that’s not really saying much, coming from a guy that’s slept in a hammock in a garage in Nicaragua, among other less-than-luxe places. “To me, you know what, it’s one of my favorite hotels in America.”

He explained: “Most of my hotel stays are forgettable, cookie-cutter experiences. My room was totally fine. It was clean, this kind of mixed-matched random old furniture, slightly slanted floors, the window with the lace curtain blowing, the people are hilarious. It’s just like, ‘Why does this exist?!'”

Robert’s interest in the hotel was unique, though, being informed by his Monopoly quest. See, the street names in the real estate game were drawn from Atlantic City, and last year, he set out to learn the stories of the avenues that we all know from the board. His trip-and resulting video-gave me high hopes for AC, even if they would soon be dashed.

For those not on a Monopoly quest, like me, it’s a tough place to visit. There are vacant lots, disused by everyone except a lone golfer I saw, swinging an iron simply because he had the space. There’s the grime you’ll find at any casino resort, set a little deeper and in need of a month-long scrub. There’s unemployment, too, bad and deep and forecast to last for many more years.

The boardwalk is a dimly bright spot. Even on a weekday evening, it was busy with families and couples, the famous pushcarts carrying tourists north and south. (There’s a big billboard advertising Boardwalk Empire, the HBO show that’s at least putting the name Atlantic City in people’s homes again.) The casinos, with Wild West, Roman, Mughal themes, do have visitors, if only a few. As my friend told me, “It just isn’t quite Vegas. It’s not even quite Reno.”

Robert insists–and I believe him–that the people in AC are proud of their hometown. But for those not interested in where Monopoly comes from or cheap blackjack tables, it’s a tough place to love. At least you can still get unbelievably good sandwiches at White House Sub Shop on Arctic and Mississippi. I took mine to go.