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 Best Places In The US To Celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year – or Spring Festival as it’s also known – is a Chinese celebration that marks the start of new life. Each year is associated with an animal from the Chinese zodiac and 2013 will welcome the year of the snake.

New Year is the most important holiday in China (a lot like Christmas is in the West), and Chinese families celebrate by buying gifts, food and clothing. However, it wouldn’t be a Chinese festival if there weren’t a few activities designed to bring in good luck, so families will thoroughly clean their houses – sweeping out any bad luck and making way for good fortune. They’ll also decorate their homes with red paper lanterns, which signify luck, wealth and prosperity.

For Westerners, though, the most prominent part of Chinese New Year has always been the colorful parades put on by local Chinese communities. Lion dances, giant dragon costumes, floats, music and fireworks are all part of the festivities. Want to join in? Read on to learn more about what you can expect at some of the top Chinese New Year celebrations in America.

San Francisco

San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown in the United States, and Chinese New Year Parades (see image above) have been taking place there since the 1860s when Chinese immigrants to the area decided to showcase their culture. The event has grown into the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, drawing nearly a million spectators each year. It has even been recognized as one of the best festivals in the world by the International Festival and Events Association.

San Francisco’s evening procession is one of the few illuminated parades left in the country. So in addition to colorful floats, dance groups, bands, stilt walkers and drummers, expect to see lots of lights. The pièce de résistance? A 268-foot golden dragon, which will require a team of 100 people from the martial arts community to carry it through the streets.

San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade takes place on Saturday February 23 at 5:15 p.m. The procession kicks off from Second and Market St. and makes its way to Chinatown where it concludes. You can get route and visitor information here. In addition to the parade, the city will also be hosting a Chinese New Year Flower Market, a Miss Chinatown USA pageant and a Chinese New Year Run.

New York City

At nearly half a million people, New York has the largest Chinese American population of any city in the U.S. – so it’s not surprising that the Big Apple puts on several different events to mark Chinese New Year.

First up, there’s the Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival. Here you can enjoy drumming and dance performances, and munch on Asian fare from one of the many food stalls. However, what you’ve really come for are the pyrotechnics – in previous years, the event organizers have set off more than 600,000 firecrackers. The festival is not just about celebrating the New Year with a bang, however – the loud noises from the firecrackers are believed to chase away evil spirits. The Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival takes place on Sunday, February 10 from 11 a.m. at Sara Roosevelt Park.

Next up, there’s the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. This event, which is in its 14th year, boasts decorated floats, performers in elaborate costumes, marching bands and more. The parade takes place on Sunday, February 17 at 1 p.m., starting in Little Italy and winding its way through the main streets of lower Chinatown.

And finally, don’t miss the Chinese New Year Flower Market. Filling the home with flowers and food is a traditional part of Chinese New Year. At this flower market, you’ll find arts and crafts, as well as plenty of blooms to bring prosperity into your new year. From February 8-10 at Columbus Park. For more information about New York’s festivities, click here.

Chicago

Chicago‘s Chinatown is a vibrant community home to 10,000 people and 400 businesses including ethnic shops and restaurants. The neighborhood celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, which it marked with a massive Chinese New Year festival. This year’s event is sure to be another great one.

Previous year’s parades have featured marching bands, colorful floats, lion dancers and the obligatory dragon dance – a team of skilled performers who bring life to the 100-foot-long dragon costume. The dragon is believed to represent power and nobility, and like many things that take place during the New Year celebrations, it is a bearer of good luck.

Chicago’s Lunar New Year Parade will take place on Sunday, February 17 at 1 p.m. along Chinatown’s Wentworth Ave. See here for more information.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Robert Raines, Howard Brier, and Yenna]

How To Get The Most Out Of A Short Vacation

Americans have never been ones to take long vacations. That’s not exactly surprising – after all, the average employee only gets 14 days of paid time off each year. Still, the amount of time we spend on vacation has been dwindling over the years, and now our average vacation is just 3.8 days long.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to take more than four painfully short days off in a row, but if not, never fear. You can still have an amazing getaway as long as you know how to maximize your time. All it takes is a bit of planning and preparation to ensure your short vacation feels like a long one. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Don’t fly too far. It goes without saying that if you try to fly half way around the world, you’re going to have next to no time to actually enjoy your destination. If you only have a few days of vacation, you might want to stick to domestic cities (or nearby international ones, like Montreal). The longer your break, the further afield you can venture.

2. Don’t cross too many time zones. Unless you want to spend your entire vacation feeling groggy and jet lagged, avoid crossing multiple time zones. This means only going short distances in an east-west direction. However, if you travel in a north-south direction, you won’t have any problems. This makes destinations like Central and South America ideal.

3. Travel carry-on only. Who wants to waste precious vacation time standing at baggage claim? Or worse, filling out forms and hunting down essentials because your checked luggage went missing? There’s absolutely no reason you can’t live out of a carry-on bag, especially on a short trip.4. Take internal flights. If you’ll be visiting multiple cities during your vacation, consider taking domestic flights to get from one city to the next, rather than buses or trains, which tend to be cheaper but slower. You’ll have to do the math to see which option is better (since flying involves arriving at the airport early enough to go through security), but don’t rule out flying altogether.

5. Take taxis. Once you’re at your destination, don’t waste time being lost or trying to navigate complicated bus routes. You’ve only got a short time to enjoy your vacation, so spend a few extra bucks on a cab and get to your sights and activities faster.

6. Eat quickly. Eating is one of the great pleasures of travel so I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your meals. However, if you’ve only got limited time, don’t waste it on a three-hour lunch when you could be out sightseeing instead. Make breakfast and lunch quick meals and save the long, leisurely feast for dinnertime when all the attractions are closed for the day.

7. Group your sightseeing. A little bit of research can go a long way towards saving you time when it comes to sightseeing. Figure out what you want to see in advance, locate those attractions on a map and then group sights and activities that are located close to each other. By visiting one group of attractions at a time, you’ll prevent yourself from running back and forth all over the city.

8. Book tickets to popular sights in advance. If there’s one thing popular attractions have in common, it’s a long line at the ticket counter. Don’t be a fool and waste your short vacation standing in line. Many museums and galleries will let you book tickets ahead of time so you can bypass the long lines and head straight inside. Check the attraction’s website to see if this is an option available to you.

9. Get outside and meet people. Don’t spend your entire vacation in museums. Talk to locals, wander down side streets, and really see a place without the tourist goggles on. It’s the little adventures you have that you’ll really remember once your trip is over, so try to have as many as possible.

10. Allow time for relaxation. It’s tempting to see and do as much as possible but remember that the point of a vacation is also to get some R&R. Make time to do something relaxing each day, whether it’s a massage, a soak in the jacuzzi, or a cocktail by the hotel pool (there’s nothing like a drink with an umbrella in it to make you feel like you’re on vacation). By working some downtime into your schedule, you’ll give yourself the chance to recharge before the next round of sightseeing.

[Photo credit – Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

How To Avoid The Flu Epidemic While Traveling

You’ve probably heard reports about the flu epidemic that’s spreading across the country crippling hospitals and leaving thousands of people suffering through the debilitating symptoms of the virus. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention says this year’s flu season is likely to be one of the worst in 10 years. It’s not even the peak of the flu season and already 47 states are experiencing widespread outbreaks.

For travelers, the chances of catching the flu are already higher than normal – all that time spent in crowded and confined spaces with people from all over the globe leaves them vulnerable to picking up the illness. So how can you avoid catching the flu during your travels? Here are six precautions you can take to keep yourself healthy.

1. First and foremost, get a flu shot. While not guaranteed to stop you from getting sick (the current flu shot is said to be 62 percent effective), it’s still the best defense we have. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, the good news is that the flu shot administered in the U.S. will protect you from most major strains of the virus around the world.

2. Get vaccinated in advance. We’ve written before about how many airports have set up clinics offering flu shots to travelers, and that’s a trend that’s continuing this year. However, it takes some time for the flu shot to take full effect. So if you really want to ensure that you’re protected from the flu, you need to get vaccinated at least two weeks before your trip.

3. Avoid flying out of airports known for spreading disease. With so many people from all over the world milling about, it’s no surprise that airports are a prime place to pick up the flu. However, certain airports are much more dangerous than others when it comes to spreading illnesses, due to factors like travel patterns, connections to other airports, and the amount of time passengers sit around waiting for flights. The most germ-laden airports are not necessarily the biggest or busiest, although JFK and LAX do top the list. By flying out of alternate airports, you can at least lower your chances of being exposed to the flu virus.4. Use a nasal mist on flights. If you’ve ever had the experience getting the flu after a flight, you’re not alone. A study by the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that the dry cabin air on flights was what led more people to catch colds and flus while flying. Basically, when humidity levels are really low, the mucus in your nose and mouth change, making you more vulnerable to viruses. While there’s not much you can do about the cabin air, you can try to keep your airways moist by using a nasal spray. Drinking hot beverages and staying hydrated in general could also help.

5. Wash your hands often, using soap. Hand washing is a simple and effective way of keeping the flu at bay, so as a traveler, it’s a good idea to carry hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes so you can clean your hands even when you don’t have access to water. It’s especially convenient when you’re about to eat a meal on a flight and don’t have access to a lavatory because the food service cart is blocking the way.

6. Wear a surgical facemask. There’s doubt as to whether a facemask can really prevent you from catching the flu – some experts say that facemasks are good at stopping sick people from spraying the germs they cough up but may not stop you from breathing in air particles that could make you ill. However, wearing a mask can’t hurt, so if you’re really worried about catching the flu during your travels, you might want to don one when you’re in crowded or confined areas. At the very least, it’ll stop you from touching your nose and mouth, which is how the flu often enters your body.

[Disclaimer: Information in this article should not substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional. Please speak to your doctor before starting any new course of treatment. For more information about the flu see www.flu.gov]

[Photo credit: Flickr user Bob B. Brown]

Looking At The Stars In Austin

It’s a long trip from Alaska to Austin, Texas, but my childhood friend had finally arrived. She had taken a ferry to Seattle and from there, she had purchased a car for a few hundred dollars and embarked on a swift summer swoop to the south. She and two friends she picked up along the way, one of which was a mutual hometown friend, pulled up beside my house one steamy August afternoon wearing only swimsuits, soaked in sweat and desperate for a shower. The car she purchased in Seattle didn’t have air conditioning. Austin saw over 70 consecutive days of 100+ degree weather and she happened to arrive during that scorching window.My house in Austin had been built in 1910 and without any insulation beneath the old floors we could see the sunbeams showering the crawlspace through the cracks in the wood flooring. The walls let the ants in, the closed windows let the breeze in, and nothing could keep the heat out. We kept the air conditioner on full-blast at all times as a desperate combative measure, but the house never cooled below 82 degrees. I welcomed them and we walked through the gravel driveway leading to my home, as I offered apologetic warnings all the way. It was reprieve they were seeking and I knew they would find it in my home, but only moderately so. I chided them for visiting Austin in August. Once the guests had showered and returned to a relatively more natural body temperature, we embarked on a night of showing them around Austin.

After dining at the food trucks on east 6th street and weaving in and out of a few bars, we shared a collective desire to shift gears for the night. My friend expressed interest in seeing the stars in Austin; she wanted to go to where we could see them the best, somewhere out in the country. You can see the stars from Austin’s city limits of course – the city isn’t yet too illuminated for that. But when you drive beyond Austin and into the barren Texan rural landscape, the night sky opens wide; it becomes the mouth of the universe, baring its starry teeth and mysterious surrounding dark matter. It’s the kind of mesmerizing scenery you can get lost in. It’s the kind of escape from which you don’t always feel a need to return. It’s dangerous like that.

We drove east down Martin Luther King boulevard without a specific destination in mind. All semblance of civilization grew distant behind us and the road was nearly invisible ahead, swallowed by the tar-thick blackness. We drove for over an hour, listening to Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major. It was already well after midnight when we spontaneously turned left and followed a dirt road around its curve, which led us to an unknown paved road. We parked the car on the side of the road and got out.

When we turned off the music, the silence had a robust presence, thoroughly pronounced in each rest I’d normally expect to be occupied by sound. My friend lay down in the middle of the street, writhing on the hot pavement in gratitude beneath the vision above. I sprawled out on the roof of my van. We stared up toward a heavy sky that seemed ready to collapse. The dark further illuminated the light specs and we were dizzy under the hypnosis of it all until the silence broke. Coyote howls cracked and screeched in what seemed like a furious brawl, an early morning rampage. They sounded close. I envisioned them finding us all out there, lying on the street and the car like carcasses awaiting consumption. We conceded to the anxiety and retreated to the car, eventually finding our way back to the dirt road and then the main drag back into Austin, where we were so far from those stars; so far from Alaska.

Seeing Stars Outside Cities