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]

Off The Beaten Winter Path In Colorado: Backcountry Dining At The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

“We’re going to ski in to this place where you get lunch served in a yurt.”

My Colorado friends know what it takes to get me excited about life; combine an outdoor pursuit with eating and I am almost always game. I didn’t even need to know the details of where we were going. The fact that I was going to a restaurant in a backcountry setting was good enough.

Near Leadville, Colorado, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is the kind of place for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and away from more common places like Aspen and Vail. From here you can snowshoe and Nordic ski on over 25 kilometers of set track trails (hike them in the summer of course) and if you want an experience with a little more speed, spend the day on the downhill slopes of Ski Cooper.

We arrived at the Nordic Center mid-morning, kicking things off with a thermos of coffee as we rented skis and boots.

“The trail is a little bare in spots, but you’ll be fine,” instructed one of the owners.

Apparently she assumed our nordic skiing skills were a little more fine tuned than we knew they were; nordic skiing on flat, green routes is one thing, slogging uphill on icy trails is quite another, even for those used to skiing downhill. But the sun was out, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere to be except for at a yurt at 1:30 for our lunch reservations.

In the winter, the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, which really is a full-scale restaurant in a yurt, is open for lunch and dinner, reservations required. As they put it, it’s “fine dining… backcountry style.” Is there anything better for the outdoor enthusiast?

The cookhouse is well equipped with a long list of wines and a few local beers. In the evenings, they serve up a four-course dinner for $80, and if you want to extend your backcountry experience, you can stay in one of the nearby sleeping yurts. Lunch is a little more low key, with entrees ranging from $10-17.

We skied the mile-long trail to the yurt, cresting over a hill and ending up with an overlook of the valley and the mountains behind. There are certainly worse places to eat lunch in the world.

“Who wants a beer?”

That seemed to be the appropriate choice, and with the help of a few extra layers that we had packed in, we took a seat on the yurt porch, outfitted with hefty picnic tables and torches made out of upcycled wine bottles. There are worse places to eat lunch.

A Cutthroat Porter (brewed by local Fort Collins Odell Brewing Company) was the perfect pairing for a cold day. And what goes best with a porter? A buffalo burger stuffed with feta cheese of course. I pulled out a dark chocolate bar for dessert (for outdoor adventures, it’s important to always have one on hand). After an hour of sitting outside, we warmed up by the stove inside the yurt, mentally prepping ourselves for what we knew would be an icy downhill for our return.

After looking at the map, we opted for Willa’s Way, which would take us on a loop trail, as opposed to skiing back on the trail we came in on. The main access trail to the cookhouse is frequented by staff driving back and forth on snowmobiles, meaning harder packed snow, and in the recent cold spell, very icy. We made a concerted effort to avoid Griz, marked in black as the most difficult course. Even those of us that like a challenge have our limits.

Willa’s Way meant a winding path downhill – challenging even for my expert downhill skier friends who are used to wider, more stable skis. But there is entertainment in challenge, and a few spills were merely cause for laughter. It’s hard not to feel good when you’re in the woods on a clear day. But that Willa … she’s a wily one.

Back at the Nordic Center, more coffee and one of Roxanne’s Cookies – a local favorite of the Tennessee Pass crew – for good measure. Lesson of the day: say yes to backcountry eating experiences, bring an extra layer, avoid Griz and always get the porter.

Tawlet: Lebanese Locavore Love

tawlet

On my first visit to Beirut’s Tawlet, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper directions. “Tawlet?” she verified. I nodded. “C’est très bon,” with a delicate flutter of the fingers accompanying her très, before she pointed me in the right direction. I’d heard great things about Tawlet for quite some time. The shopkeeper’s gesture was the icing on the cake. I knew the way I know my own name that this meal was going to be exceptional.

I found Tawlet at the rather inauspicious end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an exciting slate of new shops, some of them quite innovative.

It was still on the early side but I couldn’t wait. I walked into Tawlet before the restaurant opened for lunch and sat patiently for the wait staff to finish setting things up. A Saudi television crew was taping interviews of the day’s chefs. Just when my hunger had reached epic proportions, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer, a distinguished looking man approached me in English and told me I could begin to eat. He carried himself like a proprietor. And as it turned out, he was Kamal Mouzawak, the head honcho. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.

Mouzawak has pioneered and tended a food revolution in Lebanon. Souk El Tayeb is the umbrella organization behind his efforts. It has spawned the Beirut Farmers Market, founded in 2004, Dekenet, a farmers shop, established in 2006 and regional food festivals, which followed in 2007. Tawlet, interwoven into the other Souk El Tayeb endeavors, opened its doors in 2009.The restaurant is an emporium of fresh, organic, and very local food from all over Lebanon. It is set up essentially as a farmers table. Different individual chefs or cooperatives host the buffet every day, working with a few permanent kitchen support staff. The result is essentially home-cooked food that reaches a clientele far wider than most home-cooked food tends to do. The presence of different chefs means that every lunch is different. (I didn’t think twice about returning for a second lunch the day following my discovery.) Including VAT, the buffet costs 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). Water and dessert come with the meal. Not included are regional wines, some very good.

The chefs-for-the-day come from all over Lebanon, bringing local variations in recipe and ingredients to the attention of a wider audience, elevating local regional culinary traditions to national attention. Tawlet publishes weekly menus online, which detail upcoming menus and chefs. On occasions Mouzawak himself does a turn as guest chef. Tawlet also offers brunch on Saturday.

What Mouzawak has done with Souk El Tayeb has major far-reaching implications. He has established a blueprint for encouraging and supporting local food traditions, for transforming vernacular food into recognition-deserving “cuisines” and for giving a wide range of cooks and chefs exposure to larger markets. This blueprint is broadly applicable to other countries and territories. It is a model for championing sustainable local food traditions.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

The World’s Best Gyros?

gyrosThe Italians have their pizza, Mexicans have tacos, America is the home of the cheeseburger, the Germans dig their sausages and the French eat crepes. In almost any country there is one ubiquitous food staple budget travelers can count on for inexpensive sustenance. I recently spent six weeks in the Greek Isles, where the Gyro is king.

By my own informal calculation, I think I ate about 30 gyros while in country. I’d hate to have my cholesterol checked, but I’d guestimate that my level went from 210 to about 250 while in Greece. So my arteries might be very clogged, but I had some awfully good gyros and never spent more than €2.5 anywhere. In fact, I’d say the average price of a gyro in the Greek Isles is a paltry €2, making them a must eat treat for anyone traveling on a budget in Greece.

I got sick of eating gyros at times – I even resorted to eating at a couple of crap Mexican restaurants – but if you want something fast and cheap on the Greek Isles, there aren’t a lot of other options. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one gyro place from another but there was one establishment called Thraka (charcoal in Greek) in Chania on Crete that stood out from the pack.

I knew I had to try it the first time I walked past the place, which is located just past the Old Town on busy Chatzimichali Ginnari street, just down from a pet shop. While every other place had a smattering of customers, Thraka was packed with locals devouring gyros, souvlaki and kebabs. Aside from the cheap, mouthwateringly delicious gyros, you can also get a three skewer plate of souvlaki for €5 and kebabs for a ridiculous €1 each.

What makes the gyros at Thraka special? For me, it’s the quality of the pita, the meat and the tzatziki. And the fact that you leave full after spending €2 is an awfully nice bonus. My vote for world’s best gyros actually goes to a place called Samos, in Baltimore’s Greektown, but like all gyros in the U.S., they go for twice the price you pay in Greece. Check out the video but be forewarned – you’re going to want to run out and get a gyro when you see it.

Think Globally, Eat Locally At Culinary Backstreets

culinary backstreets - Istanbul fish restaurantBudget-savvy and food-loving visitors to Istanbul have found an excellent resource in Istanbul Eats for several years, and now can find more authentic and off-the-beaten-path tips in Athens, Barcelona, and Shanghai, with Mexico City on the way. Culinary Backstreets was launched this week as an extension of IstanbulEats.com, a blog reviewing Turkey’s best street food, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and unique dishes. Founded in 2009 by two American expats, Istanbul Eats launched a book in 2010 (now in its third edition, and available at nearly every bookshop in Istanbul and online, in English, Turkish, Greek, and even Korean!) as well as culinary tours through the Old City, Beyoglu, and even cross-continent. Istanbul Eats has garnished a devoted fan base who’ve been wishing for “an Istanbul Eats-like guide to restaurants in every city,” hence the creation of Culinary Backstreets.

Culinary Backstreets is a site for travelers who eschew tourist menus, ask cab drivers where to dine, and frequently find themselves the only foreigner in a cafe. Each city will be covered by local food writers who regularly comb the streets in search of the tastiest tidbits. So far, each city has posted a “State of the Stomach” guide, outlining the current food scene, the eats locals line up for, and practical tips for following your stomach to the traditional and the trendy restaurants. Culinary walks are currently being offered in Istanbul and Shanghai, with more cities coming soon.

Get hungry at CulinaryBackstreets.com.

[Photo courtesy of Yigal Schleifer]