Frugal travel: Vegas offers fun at low stakes (2023)

Things are noticeably quieter on the Las Vegas Strip these days, and casinos usually known to boast excess are dropping prices to cope with a bad economy that has hit Sin City particularly hard.

It might seem weird, since people generally think one thing when they come to Las Vegas: Big money. But enough inexpensive fun exists here to fill a trip without stinging stakes. Examples: $45 rooms at the Monte Carlo, slow-paced poker games, and free attractions, from lion-watching to a manmade volcano.

“It’s the whimsy — it’s just fantasy enough. It doesn’t take itself so seriously that you can’t have fun while you’re enjoying the entertainment,” said Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations for Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., and a former mayor of Las Vegas.

“You’re not supposed to be overtaken by the grandeur, you’re supposed to be captivated by the creativity,” she said.

GAMBLING: OK, so gambling and the concept of being “on a budget” don’t seem likely partners, but if you’re tired of blackjack’s big swings and don’t want to spend hours pumping slot machines for a penny a pull, try Pai Gow poker.

This table game, a variant of a Chinese gambling game played with dominoes, can be found at just about any casino with stakes starting at about $10 per hand, equal to or less than the cheapest blackjack tables.

Your goal is to assemble the seven cards dealt to you into two separate poker hands — one with five cards and another using two — in hopes of beating the dealer on both. A single joker in the deck can be used either as an ace or as a wild card to fill a straight or a flush.

Win both hands and win the bet, lose both hands and lose. Winning one hand but losing the other means the hand is a push — no money won or lost.

Because of the nature of the game, pushes happen more often than wins or losses.

The house gets its edge in two ways. First, it benefits from identical hands, so it would win a two-card showdown if you each held ace-king. Second, it charges a 5 percent commission on all wins. That means a $10 bet will get you $9.50 if you win.

If you’re confused, ask the dealer to assemble your cards the way the house would play them. Other players at the table likely will offer their help, too. Unlike blackjack, you can’t affect anyone else’s hand, so there’s no pressure of taking a bad hit and costing other players.

That makes this game a whole lot less tense than others — plus you’ll still get free drinks.

FREE ENTERTAINMENT: Lounge acts and good people-watching posts are plentiful on the Strip, but it’s tough to beat the beauty of the fountains at Bellagio.

Sidewalk space is free for people to gather and watch the water dance to whatever’s playing, whether it’s classical music, opera or popular tunes. Below the surface, the 8-acre lake holds some 1,000 custom-built nozzles and about 4,000 lights programmed to create complex choreography.

Showtimes are every half-hour starting at 3 p.m. on weekdays and noon on weekends, with shows every 15 minutes from 8 p.m. until midnight (except on windy days).

Beyond the fountains, free entertainment can be found just about anywhere.

The developers of the fountain show are also premiering a new volcano at The Mirage on Monday, with flames dancing for roughly five minutes to music from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla musician Zakir Hussain (every hour on the hour from dusk until 11 p.m.),

Off the Strip, the Show in the Sky at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino features a coed cast of singers and dancers taking over one side of the casino, riding floats on tracks from the ceiling and performing on the hour every hour from 7 p.m. to midnight,

There are animals to see for free, as well, including flamingos at the wildlife habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas and lions at the MGM Grand.

Those entertained by basic Vegas glitz and glam should simply walk through Caesars Palace and the Bellagio (including a stop at Bellagio’s seasonally changing botanical garden), the Venetian and Palazzo (through the Grand Canal Shoppes with its daily street performers) or the Wynn Las Vegas,

GETTING AROUND: Getting up and down the Las Vegas Strip on the cheap is easy — especially if you’re willing to walk a little bit.

Free trams run along the Strip 24/7 between Mandalay Bay and Excalibur, and between The Mirage and Treasure Island. Harrah’s runs another free shuttle for customers between its casinos, running every 30 minutes from Caesars Palace, the Rio, Harrah’s Las Vegas and Paris Las Vegas.

For $2 a ride or a $5 all-day pass, the round-the-clock bus service known as the Deuce could be the cheapest way to travel along the entire Strip without walking, all the way to downtown,

The monorail that runs from the Sahara Hotel & Casino to the MGM Grand is $5 one way, so especially if you’re with a group, it’s cheaper and faster to split a cab.

A little-known bonus for big-time savings (though it’ll take a long time): When you leave the airport terminal, catch the free shuttle to the airport’s rental car center. From there, you can catch the Deuce across the street and ride to your Strip hotel. The reverse works when you want to go back to the airport, too.

Not too shabby, considering cabs charge $1.80 on top of any regular fares just to pick passengers up from the airport.

If you’re adventurous (and use good judgment), there’s always another option as you deplane, wait for bags or stand in the long, winding taxi line: ask if anyone nearby is heading to the same destination, then split the fare. Cabs charge the same whether there’s one rider or five.

ROOMS: As with any resort destination, the best deals are midweek and offseason nights. Expect to pay more on weekends.

Check with the hotels, as they often offer the lowest rates themselves, especially in direct-mail offers to customers belonging to loyalty programs.

Overall, average daily room rates were down 9.2 percent for the first nine months of 2008 compared with the same time period last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Officials at MGM Mirage, which owns 10 hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, say the company’s resorts guarantee the lowest rates when booking online through the individual properties.

Like other companies, Harrah’s Entertainment — — uses an elaborate formula to price rooms at its casinos, and gives many away to customers through its loyalty program, Total Rewards.

That means that prices can range wildly — even day-to-day — as casinos operate under the assumption that they can’t make any money if a room isn’t occupied.

FOOD AND DRINKS: Buffets are a decent option. The Luxor dinner buffet costs $19.99; breakfast and lunch are less.

But a couple off-menu specials at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino might be worth a trip slightly off the Strip (a free shuttle runs there from the Fashion Show Mall). Ask for the steak and shrimp special, which includes an 8-ounce New York sirloin, three jumbo shrimp, a salad and garlic mashed potatoes for $7.77. Or, if you’re really hungry, the $9.99 prime rib special includes a salad, mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, along with all the meat you can handle.

At most clubs you’ll pay cover fees and premium prices for drinks — though if you’re among a group of young women, you may be able to talk your way in for free.

But casinos are filled with bars, and many offer lounge or club-like atmospheres without long lines or covers. Some notables include the eyecandy sound lounge & bar in Mandalay Bay, which has DJs spinning every night, and Napoleon’s in Paris Las Vegas, with its dueling pianos.

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