For years, I suspected Las Vegas might be just the place for a gluttonous cheapskate like me. I’m not a big gambler, but I feel a deep, spiritual connection to any place where booze is cheap, steak and eggs go for $2.99, and $20 will buy you unlimited access to a mountain of crab legs and prime rib. I also assumed I would love soaking up the free attractions that make Vegas great—over-the-top architecture, priceless artwork, exploding volcanoes, opulent fountains, and animatronic Greek gods praising the high-end fashions and incredible values at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace.
When I arrived at the Las Vegas airport, I was greeted by a sea of Wheel-of-Fortune-themed slot machines and a Moe’s Burritos. Things were off to a great start, but it wasn’t long before I realized that everything in Vegas is a crapshoot.
For starters, there is a fast way and a slow way to get to the strip from the airport. One involves a series of tunnels that almost double the distance of the trip (and the cab fare) while the other can take a bit longer (particularly during rush hour) but typically saves passengers around $10. Of course, your driver might or might not mention the fare difference when offering to take the faster route. Mine did not. Nor did he or anyone at the airport explain that there is an extra $3 fee if you request a cab that accepts credit cards. As a result, the ride from the airport was almost $25, while the fare on the ride back was just over $13.
Things began to look up once I checked in to my hotel. I decided to stay at the brand new Vdara Hotel and Spa, an MGM property that is connected to the Bellagio and is a part of the new City Center development. Vdara is an all-suite hotel, so even my bargain-priced room was incredibly spacious. All rooms include a kitchen, a massive bathroom with a huge soaking tub, a living area, and a bed with super-soft linens and a mattress that was more comfortable than the one I have at home (which is no small feat). I also managed to get a room on the 43rd floor with incredible views.
The suite included a lot of small touches that impressed me. The shades were operated electronically by a touch pad on the wall. The main room had a dividing wall with two massive LCD TVs, one facing the bed and one facing the living area. There were two cordless phones—one by the bed and one in the living space—plus another phone by the toilet. (I’m not sure what this last phone was for. Perhaps for urgent toilet paper refill requests?) The kitchen sink included a garbage disposal. The microwave also doubled as a convection oven. Even the two-burner hot plate was a high-end Gaggeneau.
There was a touch pad by the door used to activate the do-not-disturb option or request housekeeping service. Pressing one of the buttons changed the color of a small exterior light just below the room number, so there was no need to open the door and fumble with a hanging sign. (Granted, an old-fashioned hanging sign isn’t much of a hassle, but the row of little lights added to the hipness of the modern hallway decor.) The stainless-steel, under-counter fridge was twice the normal width, with one side reserved for the mini bar and the other left empty for guest use. This was a relief to me, since I get nervous about moving or removing items in the mini bar to make room for a box of leftovers or a bottle of water. I always expect some siren to go off or a pre-recorded female voice to calmly state, “Thank you for purchasing: (cue robotic voice change) two…ounce…macadamia…nuts. Twenty-seven dollars (end robotic voice) has been billed to your room account.” Another Vdara feature I found charming was the option to request a complimentary set of dishes. Although I’m sure tourists don’t do a lot of cooking while in Vegas, it was nice knowing I could heat up leftovers and eat them with a real fork.
My first night in town, I decided to splurge on the gourmet buffet at the Bellagio. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Bellagio buffet price goes from around $26 to $36. For the most part, the extra charge is to cover the added costs of delicacies like Kobe beef and exotic meats such as ostritch, elk, and buffalo. The buffet was amazing, but I quickly realized I might have enjoyed it just as much on another night when it’s about $10 cheaper.
The following morning, I decided to pinch a few pennies and hit up the Imperial Palace buffet, which costs around $13. On paper, the Imperial Palace seems like a great deal. It’s very centrally located and the rooms and restaurants are among the cheapest on the strip. Unfortunately, this is one hotel where you clearly get what you pay for. First, the entrance is hidden away behind a souvenir shop/bar that seems to attract the most haggard tourists in Vegas. To enter the hotel, you have to go down a narrow, unmarked walkway until it opens up into a dingy carport that reeks of exhaust fumes. The carport is home to some of the best mullet-spotting on the strip and there’s no shortage of Flava-Flav lookalikes. (And no, none of them are intentional celebrity impersonators.)
Once inside the “palace,” you’ll want to take shallow breaths until you find the escalators that go up to the buffet. The buffet itself is somewhat charming in a Denny’s-that-time-forgot sort of way. The beverage dispensers proudly serve Growler’s brand juices. I’m not sure if Growlers still exists or if they just haven’t replaced the dispenser since the company went under, but the layers of Scotch tape used to secure the apple juice button would indicate the latter. The salad bar featured what looked like pink pudding and all of the worst mayonnaise-based salads any grandmother has ever brought to a potluck lunch. As I forced down a few cold sausage links and soggy French toast wedges, my only consolation was that I had resisted the temptation to stay at the Imperial Palace and spent the extra $25 per night to get a suite at Vdara.
After the Imperial Palace brunch debacle, it was time to head to Hoover Dam. The dam was as impressive in person as I expected it to be and the tour was interesting. It’s definitely worth the $30 for the full tour, but I’m not sure I’d spend the extra $50 or so that most tour companies charge for transportation. It’s a short drive and a fairly cheap outing if you already have a rental car.
After taking way too many photos and exploring the bowels of the dam, it was back to town for a non-buffet dinner. I picked Chin Chin, a Chinese restaurant in New York, New York. The food wasn’t awful. I’d say it was similar to mall-food-court Chinese at P.F. Chang’s prices. By day three, I finally found a decent non-buffet restaurant in the Ile St. Louis Café in the Paris hotel. It felt a lot like a decent Disney World version of a French restaurant and the prices weren’t too out of control. My final full day in Vegas, I got last-minute tickets to see Love, Cirque Du Soleil’s Beatles-themed show. It was definitely entertaining and had only a few moments of awkward French-Canadian mime antics that made me want to check my watch.
Overall, I enjoyed my first Vegas adventure, but I’m not sure if I’ll head back any time soon. If you’ve never been, here are a few tips to help you learn from my mistakes and get the most out of your time there:
1. Do your homework. It’s very easy to find online reviews of every casino buffet and for the most part, you can rely on the guidance offered. Traditional sit-down restaurants are another story. In general, their prices will often be comparable to what you would have paid for similar quality food at a buffet.
2. You get what you pay for. No matter how tempting it might seem to save a few bucks staying in one of the centrally located, shockingly cheap hotels, spend a little more to stay in a nicer place on your first visit. Once you have a chance to explore some of the bargain-basement hotels in person, you can decide for yourself if you’d rather stay in one of them next time around. The only exception I can think of to this rule the $85-per-person champagne brunch at Bally’s. It’s supposed to be an orgy of caviar and high-end booze, but if neither of those things appeal to you, you might be just as happy with a brunch buffet at one of the high-end casinos like the Bellagio or the Wynn.
3. Location matters. Everything on the strip is incredibly far apart and in some areas, you might have to walk a few hundred yards to find a place to cross the street. (Las Vegas Boulevard is usually fenced off with very few crosswalks to deter tourists from crossing at ground level.) Add to that the time it takes just to get from your room to the street and suddenly a simple trip to Starbucks or CVS can easily take half an hour each way. Staying in a casino that offers a tram or shuttle and/or indoor connections to neighboring properties can make a huge difference in how much time you spend trying to get from A to B. Also, check the restaurant listings for your hotel. Vdara has only one restaurant and it’s not cheap or casual. While Vdara is close to the Bellagio and Aria, neither of these hotels offer any cheap, chain restaurants where you can grab a full meal for $5 or $6. That means long trips to get to Monte Carlo or another neighboring hotel with a food court.
4. Don’t get an all-day buffet wristband until you’ve tried the buffet at least once. Many of the lower-end (e.g., Imperial Palace) and mid-tier casinos (e.g., Luxor and Mandalay Bay) promote full-day rates that allow you to visit their buffets as often as you like. The problem is most of the buffets that offer this option are not the same buffets that get rave reviews. The only thing worse than an awful breakfast buffet is committing yourself to that same awful buffet all day long.
5. Don’t get sucked in to a deal that isn’t really a deal. Vegas is overflowing with kiosks where you can purchase discounted tickets for shows and meals. Make sure to ask what the original price was and where your seats will be. The staff should have seating charts, so don’t be afraid to ask to see them. Take your time in making a decision and don’t buy tickets for any restaurant that you haven’t researched. (I made this mistake when I bought tickets to the Flavors buffet at Harrah’s on the recommendation of the ticket kiosk sales girl. Next time, I’m only listening to the reviews on neutral resources like Trip Advisor and Yelp.)