Staff Favorites: Las Vegas
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.
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.
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