Monday, May 12, 2008

What Happens in Vegas....

I just returned from a family trip to Las Vegas and feel fortunate that what happened in Vegas came home with me- cash. I was lucky and won a decent amount on a slot machine. However, I don't recommend it for the cash-strapped or think it is a wise investment. Some people think investing in the stock market is a gamble, but this certifiably was a gamble. This was my first time visiting Sin City and I thought it was a great place to vacation. Despite promotional material that may say otherwise, Vegas is not the best place for those under 21, nor those under 18 actually and certainly not young children. I am already thinking about my next trip to the Strip, and while I am no expert on the city, here are a few tips I gleaned on saving money:

1. Gambling- Recognize it for its entertainment value and have fun with it. Put a limit on the amount you are willing to part with and don't gamble any more. One solution is to leave most of your cash in the hotel room (preferably in a safe) or with a friend, and only keep in your wallet what you are willing to spend/lose.

2. Entertainment- For top-rated (and generally the most expensive) shows, book tickets before your trip, far in advance if possible. You should definitely see at least one show and preferably one of the top-billed shows. We saw Ka by Cirque du Soleil and it was a fantastic and unbelievable display of dance, acrobatics, costumes and music. Tickets are expensive, but worth paying and these shows tend to sell out more often and more quickly than second-tier shows.

2.1 Entertainment- For other shows (and less frequently for the top-billed shows) a good budget-friendly option is Tix 4 Tonight, which offers tickets for the current day's show at up to 50% off, in addition to discounts at major restaurants. As I said, many shows tend to sell out (and if there is a show you really want to see, buy ahead), but this can be a great way to see a great show on the cheap. The company has 5 locations around Vegas and tickets must be purchased in person. According to the website, they open at 10 a.m. and it obviously makes sense to arrive early in the day. There is a service fee involved, but the website offers a $2 off coupon.

3. Food- Vegas can be an expensive town, where typical dinners can easily run $30-40 per person (plus the expenses of shows, transportation, hotel, etc.). Breakfasts and lunches usually aren't much cheaper. One fairly easy way to save a little (especially for a college student like myself not accustomed to a regular food schedule) is to skip a meal, usually lunch, and just eat a decent breakfast and dinner. If you think you'll get hungry, bring snacks with you from home to eat throughout the day. Vegas is the king of buffets, which are a great way to sample a ton of different food. Though officially frowned-upon, you can often sneak a banana or other piece of fruit for later. Also, see 2.1 for discounts on meals.

3.1 Drinks- Drinks can also be wildly expensive and drink prices vary an equally wide amount. At the bottom end are a few convenience stores sprinkled throughout the Strip, which sell liquor, beer, etc. at prices closer to what you might expect at home. Otherwise, it is not hard to find a bar and/or cocktail waitress to bring you drinks. Always look for drink specials and ask about prices before you buy. The same beer might cost you $6 at one place, but only $1 35 feet away. Often in casinos, if you play long enough, a waitress will bring you a drink for "free" (hoping for a tip, which is not a bad deal).

4. Hotels- Vegas has something like 140,000 hotel rooms, a number which is always on the rise. Hotel prices can be a tricky business but I picked up a few fundamentals. Obviously, avoid major holidays if you can. For instance, New Year's Eve in Vegas is big, but the middle of December is slow, so the same room on New Year's Eve might cost 5-10x that which you would have paid a couple of weeks earlier. Many hotel websites show calendars with room prices per day, simplifying a budget-friendly stay. Also, avoid the ritziest hotel/casinos if you are more concerned with value than luxury. The newest, fanciest hotel/casinos on the Strip can charge the most, but there are a number of older, less-expensive accommodations right next to the newer places. Check out older places like The Flamingo, Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon, and the Imperial Palace for more budget friendly rooms still in the heart of the action. Also, Vegas hosts some major trade shows every year, so look ahead at the dates and exact locations of these shows to work around them.

4.1- Rewards Card- You can sign up for a rewards card at nearly every major casino for free. When I signed up for one, I received a decent coupon book and t-shirt. Most people use them in slot machines when they play, and it tracks your winnings and losses, plus gives you rewards points. Honestly, I think you would have to play slots a lot more than I ever will in order to earn enough points to use, but I did find one good use for the cards (in addition to the shirt and coupons). On your next Vegas trip, you can usually get a slight discount off your hotel rate if you use your rewards card with the hotel/casino. If it is your first trip, ask friends to see if they have one. One note- sometimes, room prices can actually be cheaper without using a card, so always check prices with and without the card.

5. A note on coupons in general- Coupons are plentiful in Vegas, so get them and use them. People will often hand out coupons on the sidewalk and sometimes coupon books can be found in hotels (see 4.1). However, watch out for the swarms of people handing out what look like baseball cards (they usually operate in packs and flick the cards to get your attention). These cards are actually ads for call-girl/escort service, with naked women on the front. I'm not sure if they save you money on their services, but they definitely won't save you anything in restaurants and legit shows.

6. Airfare- I feel like books could be written (and maybe have) on the art of picking cheap airfare. There are many strategies people follow (a common one is using sites like travelocity and kayak to compare airfare) which I will not get into in this post. However, since we used frequent flyer miles to book most of our tickets, I thought I would share some wisdom I have found in that area. Nearly every major airline offers a credit card which allows customers to earn airline miles as they shop, usually 1 mile for every dollar spent. Most major airlines' cards also offer sign-on bonuses (at least they are now) just for signing up for the card. I have been compiling a list of offers, some more valuable than others, which I hope to post soon. The best deal by far is the current American Airlines Promotion with Citi. If you apply by August 31, 2008 and spend $750 within the first 4 months, American will give you 25,000 miles, enough for a free ticket in the continental US. Most airline cards usually carry an annual fee, but this offer waves the fee for the first year. So basically 1) get an AA frequent flyer number (if you haven't done so already, it is free to sign up) 2)spend $750 on the card in 4 months (shouldn't be too hard for most people) and 3)now you have a free ticket for yourself or a friend to Vegas or anywhere else. Of course, the usual frequent flyer difficulties still apply. I would probably cancel the card before the 1-year mark, in order to avoid the annual fee, unless you really like the card.

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