Shel Horowitz’s Monthly Frugal Fun Tip, December, 2007
That giant sucking sound is the rush of money being pulled from tens of thousands of tourist wallets at once. Where a pair of shoes can cost
$625, a night at the Hugh Hefner Sky Villa costs $40,000, and a 16,000-square-foot condo on the Strip can run $20 million (prices reported in “What’s On: The Las Vegas Guide”, September 24-October 7, 2007, pages 42 and 46)—is it possible to have a frugal vacation?
The answer, surprisingly, is that it’s not only possible, it’s downright easy. However, a word of caution is in order. If you go nuts with bright flashing lights, lots of rock and roll and general noise, cigarette smoke (which seems to permeate many of the nonsmoking spaces, drifting up from the huge casinos)—or if you have low resistance when you’re given the opportunity to gamble—do yourself a favor and stay home. Vegas is a smoky, noisy, flashy, and exciting place, and people come here deliberately to be completely overstimulated.
One nice thing: the airport is close, very close. The south end of the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard), by the Luxur and Mandalay Bay, actually borders the airport. Mountains come close to the airport in several directions.
Staying on the Strip might cost several hundred dollars a night—but I’m staying in the Tuscany Suites, less than ten minutes walk from those expensive and massive hotels where the casinos can be measured in acres (and several more of those in various stages of construction in a several block radius of the Strip). While compared to those ultra-glitzy establishments, the Tuscany as a whole is simple, laid back, and a little bit tired, it’s actually one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in. I’ve got a huge room with two double beds, several feet between and on either side of them, a living room area in front of the beds that in itself is bigger than some rooms I’ve stayed in (it easily holds a full-size couch and a large armchair, and there’s eight or ten feet between the chair and the bed, another five feet or so to the far end of the couch. Plus a mini-kitchen with sink, refrigerator, four-seater dining room table, and coffee maker (no stove), separate tub and shower, and plenty of storage all around.
The facility is attractive: a bunch of three storey buildings in Spanish mission style, with a beautiful outdoor pool and hot tub, and decent conference facilities. Really, my only complaint is that the fitness center has only three exercise bikes and I had to wait for one—but that’s more than some have, and they also have treadmills, weight training, and other stuff.
This suite is costing my hosts $95 per night (I’m speaking at a conference)—and it’s far nicer than $200-$250 per night rooms I’ve stayed at in New York and Chicago.
If I were paying my own way, I’m sure I could find something even cheaper. I saw listings online for about half that rate.
With the help of the above mentioned What’s On magazine, and also the bargain pages of vegas.com (among them http://www.vegas.com/restaurant/specials.html and http://www.vegas.com/attractions/freeattractions.html), I was easily able to locate very reasonable dining and fun cheap things to do.
This is what I chose to see and do:
Sky Masquerade show at the Rio. Cost? Zero. A brief but exciting display of large-cast virtuoso dancing, on multiple levels including several floats that circle the room, preceded by individual jugglers and clowns on the floor. If you want to put on a costume and ride one of the floats, it’s $12.95. Hourly during the daytime. The Rio is quite a bit farther than it looks from the map (Vegas blocks are BIG!). I walked there, and it was about two miles from my hotel; on the way back, I took a free shuttle bus to the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Boulevard, the heart of the Strip and an easy walk to my hotel. (There’s also a very decent public bus system in Vegas, for $1.25 per ride, and the monorail going up and down the strip, at $5 for a single ride, but only $9 for an all-day pass.)
Amazingly enough, a single resort (the magnificent Bellagio) fills the entire space between Las Vegas Boulevard and I-15, and Caesar’s Palace fills most of the other side. But even after you cross the highway, it’s still another five minutes of walking to the Rio, and not a very nice walk. Take the free bus from Bally’s or Harrah’s.
Water fountain show at the Bellagio: Cost? Zero. A lovely display of water and light, easily visible from the bridge between the Bellagio and Bally’s, which seems to be the only way across the Boulevard at that corner. There’s also a connecting bridge going the other way, across Flamingo from Bellagio to Caesar’s. Both bridges attract several homeless people, of which Vegas seems to have quite a few—but the beggars keep a low profile and the crowds provide safety.
I was told by a local that the cops are quite strict on misdemeanors, and a six-month jail term for jaywalking is not uncommon; this is somehow supposed to cut down the numbers of homeless beggars.
The museum shop at the Bellagio Art Gallery. Cost? Zero. The gallery itself costs $17, but the gift shop, of course, is free. The exhibit during my visit was of ceramics by Picasso. The gallery had only 30 of them, but there were four or five in the gift shop, for sale if you’ve got a spare $27,000 to $35,000, plus a free brochure about the museum exhibit.
The very dramatic volcano at the Mirage. Cost? Zero. Eruptions every hour in the evening, full of steam and fire.
Inside the Mirage is a tiger habitat, open only in the daytime so I didn’t see it. Next door is Treasure Island, with a no-cost pirate show, “Sirens of TI.” Unfortunately it was closed on this particular evening due to high winds.
On the other side is Caesar’s. Walk in through the Forum shops, walk a long distance following signs for “Moving Statues,” and settle yourself against the fountain when you finally get there. Or go around the fountain to see the small aquarium, the sports cars on display of Exotic Cars (one Ferrari in the lobby, dozens of other exotics if you want to pay $5 to enter the showroom, $250 if you want to rent that Ferrari for the day), and the stunning and expansive gallery of seemingly 3-dimensional landscape photography, as well as a racing Porsche in the front room of the gallery—and then go out to the fountain. While you’re waiting for the show, enjoy the play of light on the real statues that surround the fountain. Then, the lights change, the marble statues descend to the pit, and the “moving statues”—actors—rise up from the depths. The script is dumber than dumb and the acoustics are poor, but the special effects are worth watching. Cost? Zero.
People-watching and window-shopping in the malls and casinos of several of the big hotels, and along the two main streets: Cost? Zero—and this is the only place I’ve ever been where the gamblers actually looked like they were enjoying themselves. In Atlantic City and in every small casino I’ve ever walked through, I see people looking tight-lipped and grim as they fed the machines. In Vegas, some people look bored, a few look engaged and excited, and the majority look so relaxed that they appear to be stoned on pot. I saw no one with the usual clenched face.
I strolled through the Bellagio (where I did stop at the elegant gelateria to enjoy a very tasty $5 cup of chocolate amaretto gelato, and could have gotten a similarly priced pastry from the elegant café across the corridor). I stepped out onto the terrace to admire the beautiful and massive swimming pool. The attendant let me take a photo from the balcony, but you need a room key to go downstairs. I also walked through Bally’s, the MGM Grand, with its live lion habitat, and Caesar’s Palace, with its wonderful slippery marble floors, elegant but edgy shops—Agent Provocateur may be the raciest lingerie shop I’ve ever seen, and that includes New York’s West Village, New York’s Christopher Street district, and San Francisco..
Vegas during my early October stay had perfect weather: in the 90s during the day, but feeling much cooler (plenty of shade and no humidity), and dropping to the 60s or 70s at night, and breezy. No, make that windy. I’d neglected to bring either sun hat or sunglasses, and didn’t find that a problem in spite of the bright sun.
I did one splurge activity: a $75 ticket ($69 plus tax) to see Cirque Du Soliel’s “Ka.” Yes, this was an indulgence, but it was well worth it: one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen, and finally a chance to see this group, which I’ve wanted to see for over a decade. (See review at http://www.frugalfun.com/cirquedusoleil.html ). And there were lots of other entertainment choices, ranging from free to over a hundred dollars per ticket. Many of them are discounted in the various coupon books and magazines that you can pick up all over town.
The Strip monorail: Cost? $5 for a single ride, $9 for either a family ride or an all-day pass for a single rider. I took it just one stop because, having walked about half an hour to the MGM Grand for the Ka performance, my feet were tired and this cut the walk in half–especially because the monorail station inside the casino was at least half a mile closer to the theater than the street entrance. The pattern at all these hotels seems to be to concentrate entry and exit into one area, so the traffic can be directed through the casino in order to get anywhere else.
Another observation: there’s a lot of imitation of far-away travel. Several of the hotels have Italian themes, and others simulate Paris, New York, Egypt, etc. Personally, I’d rather have the real thing. Ersatz cities don’t do much for me, but they do make for a very distinctive streetscape.
Finally, I hate to put this under the attractions category because I still don’t see the attraction—but at the airport on my way out, I put a dollar into a four-plays-for-a-buck slot machine. A quick and very boring way to part with a dollar, but I felt I shouldn’t leave Vegas without having the experience. Still, I’d have rather given it to a street musician.
Although around the corner from me is the Ellis Island, where you can still get a steak dinner for $4.95, I’m a vegetarian so I didn’t sample it. Instead, I went to…
The Tuscan Garden, located in the hotel I was staying in (and chosen by other people I was dining with). Entrees as low as $12. Food was okay, but nothing special.
Gandhi, on Paradise just off Flamingo. Great Indian lunch buffet, $15. The spinach was particularly excellent, and everything was good. I also had a superb mango lassi. There are four or five Indian restaurants with lunch buffets, including one right on the Strip near the MGM grand, in a palm-covered courtyard that also included Filipino fast food.
La Salsa, Mexican cantina next to M&M World on the Strip. I had a very decent enchilada plate for $11, including chips and salsa and a chance to practice Spanish with my very friendly Latina waitress.
There’s actually at least one place in Vegas that sells pizza by the slice: $2.50 for cheese and in the $3s for slices with toppings. The pizza is competent, but it won’t win prizes. The potion is pretty generous, though. Between Harrah’s and Casino Royale on the Strip, in a little food court that also has Chinese fast food, a Chipotle, and upstairs, McDonald’s. For bargain hunters, that’s the place to be—or cross the street to Caesar’s Palace and try the Stage Deli, a New York-style emporium that had several vegetarian/dairy offerings under $10 (a few dollars more for meat). I saw it after my pizza, so I didn’t try it—but I wanted to!
Of course, in such a short stay, I didn’t begin to sample what’s possible, either in entertainment or eating on the cheap. For one thing, I never strayed beyond walking distance (by my Native New Yorker standards—two miles or so) from my hotel. For another, the timing didn’t work for some of the attractions I’d have liked to see. And finally, I had more than enough dose of cigarettes without stepping into the lounges, many of which have free entertainment.
Vegas and Sex:
Prostitution is legal in Nevada, and Vegas, nicknamed Sin City, has a reputation for flaunting the female body. But actually, I found far less in-your-face assault on the erotic system here than in some other places I’ve been: Amsterdam, where at 16 I encountered a district of topless prostitutes, New York’s Times Square, the red light districts of many American cities. Maybe Vegas has its own sleazy district and I just didn’t happen to stumble on it—but since all the tourist dollars are flowing either in and around the Strip or downtown (which I didn’t see), I kind of doubt it. There’s too much money to be made on gambling, liquor, and live entertainment to push the tourists away with sleaze, and I saw no reference to such an area in all my browsing of tourist materials.
Of course, if you’re looking of that sort of thing, it’s easy to find. There are numerous rows of newspaper-dispenser style boxes along the sidewalks, offering catalogs of hookers who will come to your hotel room. Some are specialists: 50+ (nice to see in our youth-obsessed culture), Asians, Latinas.
Also, there are several topless revues, a smaller number of male revues, and little titillators like the area of Caesar’s casino where dancers in black underwear gyrate in cages while waitresses in police hats and electric-blue halter tops serve drinks. And while the fashions in those elegant casino malls are certainly sexy, it was mostly about sleek outfits, high-fashion shoes and endless handbag stores. Other than Agent Provocateur, I didn’t see any store that couldn’t fit in on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Even Victoria’s Secret seemed pretty tame.