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Staff Favorites: Las Vegas

John Deiner

When people ask me how many times I've been to Vegas, I like to answer as honestly as possible and say "Las what?" Actually, I've been there dozens of times, and I've seen it change a lot through the years. That said, let's dispel a few myths first:

1. Las Vegas is great for families. No, it's disgusting for families. The place has ramped up the raunch factor in the past few years, and many activities that are fun for kids (the tigers at Mirage, the sharks at Mandalay, etc.) are reachable only by going to the casino resorts. Even if you're just walking along the Strip, you'll be accosted by people throwing porn at you. Keep the kids home.

There's nothing like the shimmer of "the Strip." (Bloomberg News)

2. Las Vegas is always cheap. No, it's can be horribly costly, particularly if you go at the wrong time. The nicest hotels easily exceed $200 a night midweek (which is often off-peak), buffets can top 20 bucks, cab rides are ridiculously costly, club fees can leave you reeling. Then again, it's not true that . . .

3. Las Vegas is always expensive. No, it can be really a great place for the budget-wise. Stay at a non-casino hotel or downtown, eat at 24-hour resort cafes or non-casino restaurants, use coupons and look for deals, and it won't break your bank. But stay away from the slots, will ya?

Here are a few pointers:

HOTELS: My faves run the gamut. For high end, I love TheHotel (part of Mandalay Bay) and the Platinum, which is just off the Strip and offers beautiful apartments with balconies (a rarity). For mid-range, I've always been a fan of Luxor and I've just discovered the Flamingo, which sits mid-Strip close to everything. For cheapo, I defy you to find a better casino hotel option than Main Street Station, which is downtown, has large, clean rooms, a nice casino and great cheap restaurants (its brewpub and buffet are among my top spots for cheap eats). Off the Strip, I like the Palms and Red Rock Resort.

A few places I think are overrated: Bellagio, which is stuffy and overpriced, and the Venetian, whose rooms aren't as well maintained as other spots, and it has a terrible pool.

For good rates, I generally use various search engines to find what prices are running, and then book directly with the hotels, which often give a better deal. Always check back before you go -- I almost always rebook a place at the last minute because the rates have gone down, or a neat deal has surfaced (free spa passes, upgrades, etc.). Sign up for the casino affinity programs; even if you're not a big gambler, you'll get notes in the mail about special rates that could save you a bunch. Midweek is generally cheaper, unless there's a big convention in town, but search in another part of town -- the higher rates could just be in that one pocket.

FOOD: I'm not exactly a foodie, so I haven't tested many of the big-name restaurants (spending hundreds for a meal in Vegas just isn't my bag, but it's very easy to do). Instead, I often stick to the cafes in the casinos, which you can often get a three-course meal or breakfast 24/7. Love the cafes in Mandalay Bay and Mirage, and though they're a little beaten down, the cafes at Binions and the California downtown are terrific. Both have great late-night specials.

I find myself at the Border Grill at Mandalay Bay a bunch (great margaritas and interesting Southwestern fare), and Taqueria Canonita at Venetian, with good Mexican chow and superb viewing of the uncomfortable guests gliding by on the resort's gondolas.

For all-you-can-eat gorgefests, love the Spice Market buffet at the Planet Hollywood resort, and Main Street Station's buffet has a top-notch $9.95 champagne brunch.

POOLS: We get asked this a lot, and it's a good question. Everyone's favorite seems to be the massive water-plex at Mandalay Bay, but I hate it. Too crowded, never enough towels, not enough shade, lots of screaming, etc. Instead, I'm a fan of the watering holes at Bellagio, the Hard Rock, Red Rock and the Wynn. But I'm really digging the pool at the Flamingo as of late. It's got great bars, a nice vibe, a huge expanse of pool to play in, separate fun area for the kids.

GETTING AROUND: Used to be a big proponent of rental cars, but I'm not anymore. (That said, there's a new all-in-one rental car facility that's gorgeous, and convenient.) Instead, I cab around (still cheaper than renting). Another option is the Deuce, double decker buses that go everywhere you want to on the Strip and beyond -- and $5 buys you an all-day pass. Don't bother with the lousy, costly monorail, which goes behind one strip of casinos and just makes you walk a long way to get anywhere.

If you do drive, remember that you can park for free anywhere, and that valet parking only costs as much as you care to tip.

DAY TRIPS: It's another question we're asked often. Tons of choices around town -- museums, waterparks, etc. -- but I always point folks toward Hoover Dam. You just can't go wrong there, unless it's horribly crowded. A new bridge promises to alleviate much of the congestion. My second choice is farther away but worth it: Death Valley National Park. In the summer, it's breathtakingly hot and barren. In the winter, though, it's a hiker's paradise.

Otherwise, there's a wide range of natural attractions (including Valley of Fire State Park, which gets high marks from readers, and Red Rock Canyon). You can hike and ski on Mount Charleston, just outside of town. And the Grand Canyon, while not a day trip, is the No. 1 reason to stray from Vegas for a few days.

As far as info sources go, there are plenty of good sites, but don't forget about Cheapo Vegas, which is a funny, insightful guide to all things Sin City and a site that I turn to for accurate reviews.

Okay, now it's your turn. Where do you like to eat, sleep and party? I'm a fan of the free casino drinks (order wine or beer -- you'll get more for your free buck!), but any favorite bars out there? Do tell.

By John Deiner |  November 7, 2007; 6:35 AM ET  | Category:  Best U.S. Cities , John Deiner
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My girlfriend and I stayed at the Venetian
over July 4th for three days. Found the room spotless and very well maintained. When was the last time you were there bubba? The suite was in excellent condition and rivaled the best at the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons. Service to rival the Ritz Carlton or the Homestead. Had the best steak I have ever had out at Delmonico prime dry aged. Only steak that ebats Delmonico are the ones I get from neighbor prime dry aged 28 days, organic and humanely raised. Loved the pools they were great for relaxing and chilling in 117 degree heat. I dont need a vibe at the pool etc. The pool at Tao Beach was interesting but not worth the cover. The great thing about Vegas is the have a hotel for everyone. Shame they dont give comps for shopping too.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 7, 2007 8:48 AM

My husband and I tried the breakfast buffet at The Orleans last time we were in Vegas. I was amazed at the huge number of food options for $6.95/person! What a deal- we were stuffed until dinner, and the food was pretty good.

Posted by: surlychick | November 7, 2007 9:17 AM

I was in LV last May and hated it. You are so right that it is NOT for the kiddies. I was amazed at the number of people pushing strollers up and down the Strip given all of the pornographic images everywhere. The city is too over-the-top. I was stuck at the Mandalay Bay "Compound" for a convention, but I did get to see the fountains at the Bellagio and enjoyed that.

Yeah, what happens in Vegas can STAY in Vegas.

Posted by: Roamer | November 7, 2007 10:23 AM

love the restaurants in New York, New York - the carryout pizza shop is great and the America restaurant has large, affordable portions - big enough to share on most things and the decor is a conversation piece - big US map

Posted by: love vegas | November 7, 2007 10:25 AM

Great call on Main Street Station - a good value choice (but you have to know what you're getting into if you venture off strip, as downtown can be disappointing for a first-time visitor), and the brew pub is about as good as it gets in a surprisingly fancy/micro beer-unfriendly town. Best part, though - just past the skybridge in the Cal is a branch of Lappert's (Hawaiian) Ice Cream that serves huge portions of awesome ice cream dirt cheap. Across the way, too, is a good place to get filling Hawaiian locals food for cheap.

Posted by: dc | November 7, 2007 11:59 AM

The best place to stay in Vegas is MonteLago Village at Lake Las Vegas. You're away from the neon and noise, yet only 17 miles from the strip. Plus---the restaurants are not nearly as expensive as the strip (but Joseph Keller has two out there!) and the rooms are all condos w/ kitchens and balconies, but at 1/2 the cost of the strip!

Posted by: Abbi | November 7, 2007 1:03 PM

Went to Las Vegas for the first time just this last April. (I'm 50!)
I liked the Luxor too. Very quiet room. Also, the Burger Bar between Mandalay Bay and Luxor. Had a marvelous dinner at Border Grill and at Emeril's New Orleans Fish House at MGM Grand(expensive but good).
Hoover Dam is well worth a visit. We went when the desert was blooming. Gorgeous! And Boulder City is a cute little town to drive through. Stopped at a brew pub there for a pint on the way back.

Posted by: jp | November 7, 2007 1:27 PM

FYI, the Tigers are gone at Mirage. MGM/Mirage just announced yesterday that they are being removed for an upscale burger joint.

Posted by: EricS | November 7, 2007 4:17 PM

Vegas is a fun grown-up getaway. Here are some of my favorites.
Food and Drink: Love the Burger Bar in Mandalay Bay and Mirage Buffet for lunch, Belliago for Brunch the food quality is excellent. Spago in Cesars

Bars: Daytime: Spago for people watching, Belliago Lounge for watching the fountains, great music and resting tired feet before dinner, Venetian's Cafe Deluxe has great Mijitos
Nighttime: Light in Belliago, Hard Rock, Treasure Island, Mixx in the Hotel has the best view of the strip - Make sure you Get coupons for free nights

Stay: Bellagio - great beds and location, The Hotel nice rooms but far from the main strip ditto for Mandalay Bay, not impressed with the Four Seasons - Double Beds? Give me a break! Treasure Island is nice

Shopping - Everywhere!!!

Posted by: suntrvlr | November 7, 2007 4:37 PM

Not sure how recently you've stayed at Luxor, but the pyramid rooms have gone WAAAAY down hill, and even the tower rooms are starting to show their age. They were renovating the pool area last time I was out there so maybe things have gotten better, but it isn't the automatic safe bet for the cheapest-of-the-mega-themed-resorts that it was for a few years running.

In that price bracket, I find the Monte Carlo should not be overlooked. Their casino, spa, and poker room are all small yet friendly and well run, and the rooms are nice and clean for the price. The big down-side is that there is a major (multi-billion dollar) mixed use project going in next door, which extends right to the wall of the pool area. It may not be the most relaxing place to hang out by the water, so if you're looking for the pool experience I'd look elsewhere.

Posted by: Vega$ Baby, Vega$! | November 7, 2007 5:53 PM

the last time i went to LV was in 1994 my wife and i spent some of our honymoon their , we stayed in pyramid hotel it was just opoened , it was great and the price was about 50 dolars for DB , the food was good and cheap .

Posted by: yousef | November 12, 2007 2:36 AM

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