If you’ve never been to Vegas all I can say is go! So what if you don’t gamble! Who cares! Shopping, dining, shows and people watching. There’s so much to see and do you’ll never be bored. Vegas is one of the few places where you can take a five star vacation at three or even two star prices. If you know how to do it. Here’s how:
Nearly every airline flies to Vegas so it’s a competitive market and therefore has lower airfare from Chicago. See this article Save money on airfare. Generally the cheapest days to fly are weekdays: fly in Monday and fly out Friday. Your hotels may be cheaper also.
If you don’t want to burn up valuable vacation time you can always take a later (7pm etc.) flight on Friday and return Sunday. Any round trip airfare starting with a 2 is a good deal. Snap it up! A low $300 fare is good also.
Vegas doesn’t really have a “low” season. Some of the most expensive times to go can be: New Years Eve, the Consumer Electronics show, spring break (last week of March or thereabouts), March Madness, Memorial Day weekend, July 4th, Labor Day.
Some of the cheapest times to go can be: January after New Years through February, July-August (except around the fourth), Thanksgiving and Christmas.
December, January, February have the “coldest” weather and July and August the hottest.
Hotels (read this article Save money on hotels):
Vegas has 20,000 hotel rooms. We aren’t going to talk about the $19 a night rooms here. We’re looking for the lowest prices for the better or best hotels.
- MGM – Aria, Bellagio, Delano, Mandalay Bay, Mirage, Vdara
- Caesers – Caesers (avoid the older towers see below), Nobu, Cromwell
- Four Seasons
Resort fees hit Vegas years ago and are here to stay. These are a mandatory charge on top of your room rate. No hotel will let you get out of them so you just have to factor it into the cost of your room. They usually don’t include much just mostly slow and unsecured wifi and maybe a daily newspaper and sometimes some bottled water. As when you check in. All of the following resort’s resort fees are $29-35 per night (plus 12% tax).
The location of your hotel may matter to you. Distances in Vegas can be deceiving. Just because two hotels are next to each other on a map doesn’t mean they’re close. You may still have to walk a great distance to get between them. And you can’t just run across the Strip to get to a hotel, unless you want to get hit by a car. To get between two casinos across from each other may involve two or three pedestrian bridge crossings.
You have to decide what kind of vacation you want. If you’re never going to be in your room then who cares where it is and what view it has as long as it’s clean and in reasonably good shape. If you want to hang at one resort for a few days then try to get a room closer to the pools or food or whatever you plan to do there. Many resorts are so gigantic you never have to leave. The best one’s for that are: Wynn/Encore, Venetian/Palazzo, Bellagio, Manadalay Bay/Delano/Four Seasons.
Here are the hotels north to south (map):
SLS Las Vegas – This is the remodeled Sahara casino. It’s essentially in the middle of nowhere, currently, since all the closest casinos were imploded pre-2008 and nothing was rebuilt. I only mention it because it’s location makes for low room rates. If you stay here you will either have to do a lot of walking, take taxis, take the monorail (there’s an SLS stop) or take the bus. They recently converted one of their towers to a Westin if you are into Starwood points.
Wynn/Encore – This is a fantastic place to stay. Beautiful, classy and not gigantic. That’s another issue. Some hotels are so gigantic that it can take 20 minutes or more to get through the casino to the elevators (if you can find them) to get to your room (hello Caesers). Both properties are lovely and you can almost see the elevators when you enter the lobby. The restaurants can be pricey. It’s a quick pedestrian bridge walk over to the Venetian that has more reasonably priced restaurants.
Sign up online for a Red Card and you may get invitations for cheap rooms, in the mail. When searching for rooms online look for a “promotions” tab and click on that. Always log in to your account and lower rates may come up. Also try googling for promo codes. The Wynn is a bus stop on the Ace (northbound) and across the street from the Fashion Show Mall Ace stop (southbound) which I’ll get to later under “Getting around”. Resort fee $35 per day plus 12% tax.
Venetian/Palazzo – This is another great place to stay but it’s gigantic. Never stay in the Venezia tower at the Venetian. It’s miles from the lobby. I usually stay at the Palazzo (a separate tower) because it’s elevators are closer to the lobby and mall entrance. All the rooms are suites. The Palazzo rooms are slightly larger. I like the V/P’s central location. The northbound Ace bus stops between the Wynn and V/P. It’s one bridge to the Wynn and one more over to the Fashion Show Mall where you can catch the Ace (southbound). The pool complex is enormous and they have a ton of good restaurants at all price points. There’s a Walgreens attached.
The Venetian/Palazzo is independently owned but is partnered with Intercontinental Hotels. You can earn IHG points for your stay. Your IHG status does not transfer to the V/P. Sign up for their Grazie loyalty program and they will send you emails with deals. I’ve gotten good deals this way.
Mirage (MGM) – When this first opened it was a modern marvel. 25 years later it’s seen better days but you can’t beat the location. It’s almost in the center of things and the resort isn’t set too far back from the street. You can get some good room deals here. There aren’t really any notable restaurants but you can head to Caesers or the Venetian. See “Booking MGM hotels” below for more discount info. Resort fee $35 per day plus 12% tax.
Caesers – Caesers is a behemoth that you have to see to believe. It has six towers and some of them are almost impossible to find when walking through the casino. You can get some deals in the older towers (Roman (oldest), Forum, Palace, Augustus, Octavius (newest)). Don’t expect much from a cheap room. It may be facing another tower. The Nobu hotel is located in the old Centurion tower and is completely remodeled. Expect to do a lot of walking. See “Booking Caesers hotels” below for more discount info.
Bellagio (MGM)- This is still one of the top grossing casinos even though it’s been open for 15 years. It’s currently undergoing a room renovation. It’s large so never stay in the Spa Tower. It has a tram going to the Monte Carlo with a stop at City Center. You can definitely find some deals in the un-renovated rooms. The entrance is about a quarter mile from the street so use the people-mover on the south side of the resort to ingress and egress. Lake view room give you a front seat to the Fountains and the tv has a channel that plays the music that’s synchronized with the fountain show. This hotel is also a stop on the Ace bus (southbound).
Cosmopolitan – This is next to City Center but not part of it. The rooms are fantastic and the best part is that the entrance is right on the Strip. If you stay in the west tower (in the back) there’s a bit of a walk but not too bad. It’s much smaller and has excellent restaurants. Sign up for their Identity card. When you log in and search sometimes you get a better rate. You can earn Marriott points for your stay. Your Marriott status does not get you any additional benefits.
Aria (MGM) – This is the gem of City Center but it’s a haul from the Strip down a lonely stretch of Harmon Avenue. Take the tram from Bellagio to the City Center stop or a walk miles through the Crystals mall, directly on the Strip, to get to the hotel.
Vdara (MGM) – This is part of City Center and also accessed via the lonely Harmon Avenue walk. Or you can get there through a hallway in the Aria. It’s a non-gaming hotel so it’s quiet. It has one restaurant, which is really a takeway cafe, and one bar with limited hours. The rooms are like condo’s, with kitchens, as it was built to be a condo-hotel.
Cromwell (Caesers) – Completely remodeled, very small boutique hotel with a great location center strip and the entrance is right on the strip.
Mandalay Bay (MGM)- This is at the far south end of the strip. I stay here often because I like that it’s a part of a three hotel complex (MBay/Delano/Four Seasons) so it has many dining and bar options. Because it’s in “no man’s land” you can get some really nice, really cheap rooms. I just take the Ace bus and a tram back and/or forth to it. It sounds difficult but it’s easy. It has an amazing pool complex (see picture).
Delano (MGM) – This was formerly “The Hotel” now newly refurbished. I haven’t stayed here in it’s latest incarnation. The rooms are all two room suites and huge. I’ve seen some good rates but Mbay is usually cheaper.
Four Seasons – This is probably one of the cheapest Four Seasons in the chain. It’s a non-gaming hotel so it’s nice and quiet. It has it’s own separate pool that’s also nice and quiet. The Four Seasons website has a “Specials” tab that I’ve utilized.
Booking MGM hotels
You should sign up for an Mlife card. Even if you have no status when you log in and check rates you get a discount as a member regardless of status. If you have status with Hyatt you can link your memberships and you may have higher status with MGM which may get you upgrades and other benefits. You can elect to earn Hyatt points for your stay. None of your Hyatt benefits (like free breakfast) transfer to MGM properties.
Booking Caesers hotels
You should sign up for a Total Rewards card. When you log in and check rates you usually get a discount as a member regardless of status. If you have any status with Starwood you can link your memberships and you will may have higher status with Caesers which may get you upgrades and other benefits. You can elect to earn Starwood points for your stay. None of your Starwood benefits transfer to Caesers properties.
Online Travel Agencies (Expedia, etc.) – I always check the OTA’s and have found some very good rates. You do not earn any hotel points for bookings through an OTA. Also you may end up with a “run of the house” room which may be the cheapest room available. You may end up with a view of the air conditioners on top of the casino, a parking lot or something comparable. If you book with an OTA always call the hotel directly a few days later and confirm that they have your reservation. Also get the hotel reservation number because if there’s any problem later the hotel won’t be able to find anything with the OTA confirmation number. See if they can email you confirmation to you.
When I book my room I always put in the “Special request” box that I would like a room close to the elevators. Or I call and add it to my reservation. They may or may not accommodate you. Most resorts are so large that the walk from the elevator to your room can be very, very long. That is on top of the long walk from the entrance of the hotel to the elevators.
As with all hotel rooms I sometimes book and rebook my room because rates drop. Most Vegas hotels have a 72 hour local time cancellation cut off so read the rules carefully. Once you’ve booked your room keep checking back and rebook and cancel your old reservation or call to get the new rate when it goes down.
Getting to and from the airport
The fastest way to and from the airport is by taxi. It costs $20 if you aren’t “long hauled”. Vegas taxi’s are notorious for taking you the long route “through the tunnel” that doubles your fare. If you take one announce to the driver that you go there often and that he should not long haul you through the tunnel.
The other option is the shuttle. The shuttles run 24 hours and are $8.00 each way/$14.50 round trip. These can take a long time. The trick is once you buy your ticket don’t just get on the first shuttle they attempt to put you on. I go to the podium or the person with the clipboard and ask what shuttle I’m being put on because I don’t want to be put on a shuttle that is stopping all over the place. I’m looking for a shuttle that’s going to the proximity of where I’m staying. The shuttle company’s goal is to get people on shuttles and get them out. I don’t want to be on the shuttle for an hour stopping all over the place if I can avoid it. You do need to know where the hotels are in order for this to work so study your map.
If you’re in a big hurry or there’s a few people in your party take a cab.
When you book the shuttle to leave they will pick you up two hours before your departure. Since you have no idea how long the shuttle will take this is an unfortunate downside to the shuttle. Sometimes I’m at the airport in 20 minutes sometimes an hour.
As I said earlier the distances between hotels can be great. Walking from Mandalay Bay to the Wynn is around 2.5 miles. Be prepared to walk long distances.
I don’t take too many taxis in Vegas because they can be a ripoff as mentioned previously with long hauling. Most drivers are honest. Don’t let them take you down the Strip. Other than the middle of the night it’s a parking lot. However at night or if it’s 100 degrees by all means take one. You must always catch a taxi at the taxi stand at a hotel. You cannot flag them down on the street. If the hotel valet offers to let you skip the cab line for a fee that is against the law.
There’s a battle going on now because Uber is trying to get into Vegas. Uber is in Vegas now. Maybe cab service will improve.
Another option is the monorail. The monorail runs on the east side of the Strip from the SLS to the MGM. It runs behind the hotels so you have to walk through the casino to the back of the hotel often as far as the employee parking lot to board and when you arrive you have to walk all the way to the front of the hotel to get out. It’s generally faster just to walk. A single ride is $5, 24 hours $12, 2 days $22, 3 days $28.
There are three trams on the west side of the Strip. One runs between Treasure Island and the Mirage. This one isn’t hard to find but you can walk it between these hotels. The tram itself moves very slowly.
Another tram runs between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo with a stop at City Center. It’s a long walk to board at Bellagio but it’s faster than walking.
The final tram runs between the Excalibur-Luxor-Mandalay Bay. If you start at Mandalay Bay it stops at Luxor then Excalibur. If you start at Excaibur it runs express to Mandalay Bay and you have to back track if you want to stop at Luxor. They are generally fast but it’s a long walk from Mbay to the tram. Still its faster than walking.
The last mode of transit are the buses called the Ace and the Deuce. Both run along the Strip to downtown. The Ace bus is a single level and gold color. It has limited stops along the Strip so it’s much much faster. The Deuce (doubledecker and green) makes every stop and takes forever. A 2 hour pass $6, 24 hour $8, 3 day $20. You have to buy your ticket in advance from a TVM (ticket vending machine) located along the Strip. TVM locations are listed on the route map links above.
Food and Beverage
Once upon a time food in Vegas was terrible. Now there are an endless number of great restaurants at every price point. Vegas earns 63% of its gross revenue from non-gaming: food and beverage, nightclubs and shows. If you’re gambling drinks are still free. If you’re a big gambler you may get comped for food and more. We’ll assume we’re going to be paying.
All of the larger resorts have enough dining options that they cannot be covered in one trip. As an example the Venetian/Palazzo has 37 restaurants. Therefore I cannot list every option at every resort. You’ll have to do some homework on your own. Most resort restaurants have menus online that include prices. Some happy hours are on the websites also.
Many restaurants are on Opentable. Use the app so if you’re walking by and decide to stop you can earn points.
Restaurant.com has three deals for Vegas restaurants: El Segundo Sol and Strip Burger (both on the outside of the north end of Fashion Show Mall) and Hussongs Cantina (Mandalay Bay).
Most resorts have a lower cost cafeteria style breakfast option. If you aren’t a breakfast person grab some fruit etc. at Walgreens or CVS. If you want to spend extra for breakfast try dining al fresco at the pool at some of the resorts such as the Pool Cafe at Bellagio, Overlook Grill at the Cosmopolitan, Border Grill at Mandalay Bay (walk downstairs for poolside), the Mandarin Oriental Pool Cafe and Veranda at the Four Seasons. On Saturday and Sunday most pool offerings are brunch versus ala carte.
A little known secret about Vegas is that many restaurants have happy hour deals. Most run from 3-6pm and some restart at 9pm or later to close. Some are posted on their websites. Check the restaurants at your resort before you go and always ask if they have any happy hour specials (you may want to stop by later). Happy hours can be used as a cheap option for a late lunch, an early dinner or snacking.
Buffets – Vegas has some excellent buffets but it’s a lot of food. If you’re into gorging you might get value from a buffet. If you decide to tackle one you may be able to use your loyalty card to get get a discount (Caesers Total Rewards) and to get past the long entrance lines. If you see something called Buffet-of-buffets that gives you unlimited access to some resorts buffets for 24 hours.
If you need soda, bottles of water or snack food there are Walgreens and CVS stores along the Strip. Skip the hotel gift shop.
Take a walk through the shopping areas at various resorts. There’s not much that a frugal living person would buy at most of these malls but they’re beautiful and great for people watching. You can just wander through and stop for a drink and a snack here and there all day long.
The Esplanade at Wynn/Encore mall is much smaller than the Forum Shops with stores like Givenchy and a Chopard.
The Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian/Palazzo are fun to walk through with street performers and the singing gondoliers. For more info see below under “Free and cheap things to see”. For cheap drinks try Canonita M-F 3PM-6PM;9PM to close for $5 margaritas. They have some good cheap options under appetizers.
At the Forum Shops check out the free and newly remodeled Fall of Atlantis campy animatronic show every hour on the hour Sunday-Thursday 11AM-10PM and Friday and Saturday 11AM-11PM. There’s also a 50,000 gallon aquarium built into the base of the show. For cheap eats try Border Grill M-F 3PM-7PM $5 margaritas, $5 quesadillas, $2 tacos, $1 tamales.
The Linq Promenade has shops and restaurants with outdoor seating. Chayo Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar has a decent happy hour. All well drinks are 2-for-1, draft beers are $4 during daily happy hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Taco Tuesday specials include $3 tacos and 2-for-1 house margaritas. Late night happy hour is from 9 p.m. to midnight Friday & Saturday. Chayo has a great view of the High Roller.
Walk through the Grand Bazaar shops outside Bally’s. The Bazaar opened in late February new shops and restaurants are still opening. Every night there’s a light show at 9PM and at 12AM they drop the giant Swarovski Crystal star New Years Eve style.
The Fashion Show Mall is a 2 million square foot mall on the Strip across from the Wynn. It has standard stores you can find anywhere. It’s currently undergoing a renovation on the Strip side. El Segundo Sol is a good reasonably priced Mexican restaurant with nice outdoor seating. There are two outlet malls in Vegas that can be accessed via bus. The better outlet mall is the Premium Outlets near downtown. You can take the Ace bus there which takes about an hour.
You can get a 20% spa discount year round from nearly every hotel spa in Vegas by using Spafinder gift cards. You can pick up $100 Spafinder gift cards online at Costco for $79.99. These can be printed almost immediately after purchase.
If you don’t have access to a Costco membership you can buy discounted gift cards through giftcards.com or other gift card resellers. More info on buying discounted gift cards here.
As of this writing the following Vegas spas accept Spafinder gift cards. Always confirm ahead that they are still accepting Spafinder as that can change without notice. Also confirm that you can use Spafinder for the specific services you want.
Qua Baths & Spa at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
Sahra Spa & Hammam at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
BATHHOUSE Spa at Delano Las Vegas
Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino
ESPA at Vdara
Canyon Ranch SpaClub at The Venetian at The Palazzo
The Spa at Wynn Las Vegas
Cultural tourism never caught on in Vegas so there aren’t any real museums. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is a tiny museum that has exhibits from time-to-time. The Venetian used to have tiny art museum, The Hermitage Guggenheim, but it closed years ago.
Martin Lawrence Galleries at the Forum Shoppes has a wall of Andy Warhol pieces.
CityCenter has a fine art collection on display throughout the complex indoors and outdoors. Here’s the map.
Free or cheap things to see
- Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes street performers – Listen to Gondoliers singing as they propel people on the gondola ride. Gondolier March — 9:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m. Living Statues (located outside Ann Taylor): Noon – 8 p.m.; St. Mark’s Square: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. The Venetian Trio: a 15-minute performance of opera and Italian folk music at St. Mark’s Square: 6:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Ann Taylor: 6 p.m. – 6:15 p.m. Carnevale di Venezia — St. Mark’s Square: Noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Barney’s New York: 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 5 p.m. 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
- The Mirage Volcano erupts nightly on the hour from from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
- The Mirage 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium behind the front desk. Have a drink in the Lobby Bar at the tropical atrium under the 100-foot dome in the lobby.
- The Forum Shops at Caesers Palace and the Fall of Atlantis animatronic show (see details under shopping).
- People watching Strip-side at Serendipity 3 at Caesars Palace.
- The Linq Promenade has the world’s tallest observation wheel, known as the High Roller topping out at 550 feet. Tickets are $25-$35 and I haven’t found a way to ride it at a discount. It must be popular. Inside the Linq on the 5th floor is a free museum filled with 250 vehicles including a ’57 T-Bird and a ’29 Rolls-Royce Springfield Phantom.
- Flamingo Hotel Wildlife Habitat a 15-acre wildlife habitat with Chilean flamingos, swans, hummingbirds, pelicans, and parrots.
- The Fountains at Bellagio Monday – Friday: every half hour from 3 p.m. – 8 p.m. and every 15 minutes from 8 p.m. – midnight. Saturdays, Sundays, holidays: every half hour from noon – 8 p.m. and every 15 minutes. Tip: dine on the terrace at Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris Las Vegas across the street in the evening for a great view. You can’t reserve terrace tables so call for availability or go at an off time like a Tuesday evening or when it’s a little cold. People don’t realize they have giant gas heaters out there.
- The Chihuliy sculpture, Fiori di Como, hanging from the ceiling in the Lobby by check in..
- The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Garden – The conservatory changes themes regularly for the seasons and for various holidays such as Chinese New Year and Christmas. Displays are made from tens of thousands of flowers and are quite stunning.
- The Cosmopolitan – The hip and happening casino. Have a drink in the Lobby Bar level of the Chandelier Bar (okay not cheap). Get a cheap and delicious slice at “Secret Pizza” the unnamed and unmarked slice joint located down the record-lined hallway to the left of Jaleo on the third floor.
- Head up to the Mandarin Bar or the 23rd Floor Tea Lounge (both on 23) at the Mandarin Oriental to check out the view. A pot of tea or a drink won’t be cheap (around $15-$20 with tax and tip) but this is the one of the best best Strip view’s in Vegas and you don’t have to pay a cover charge.
- People watching at Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas.
- People watching at patio Cabo Wabo Cantina at Planet Hollywood.
- Hang out at the pool at your resort. You can bring your own water in but you’ll have to buy everything else. Most pools have full service. Try to get there early if it’s nice out or all the chairs may be taken. Keep in mind that the sun can be scorching hot so scope out if you’ll be in the shade at high noon.
Vegas has fantastic shows. Most Vegas venues are relatively small so there generally aren’t any bad seats. Check the seating map. Every show runs 90 minutes. There’s no reason to pay full price if you do some work. The exception are the big name shows that always sells out like Celine Dion. You probably won’t find any deals for those shows.
Many casino’s offer deals as it gets closer to show date. First stop is the casino website. Many take you directly to Ticketmaster. Check out the seat price ranges and the locations. The first 15 rows of the main floor may be $150 but the row 26 may be $115. Same for mezzanine. Check prices. Then head to Goldstar.
Some casino’s sell their tickets directly. As it gets closer to show time prices may drop. It depends on how sold out it is. I’ve bought tickets in my room and headed over to the show a few hours later. Some don’t sell online that close to showtime. You can also head to the box office when it opens. Once you’re signed up for resort loyalty programs they may send you deals on their shows so check those emails.
So there you have it. Let’s recap:
- Pick a less popular time to go.
- Shop for airfare well in advance. Any airfare from Chicago in the $200 range is a good deal.
- Shop hotels early. Join each casino’s loyalty program and shop as a member.
- Once you’ve booked your hotel keep checking back and rebook if the price goes down.
- Skip taking a taxi to/from the airport. Take the shuttle and look out the window.
- Skip taking cabs along the Strip. Utilize the public bus and the free trams. And walk.
- Research your dining options ahead of time. Find all the happy hours in the areas you’ll be in and use those to save a bundle on lunch or dinner.
- Check show prices online ahead of time and at the last minute. Go directly to the box office and ask if they have any last minute deals.
- Stock up on beverages and snacks at Walgreens and CVS rather than the hotel gift shop.
- Walk through the casinos and window shop, admire the architecture, check out the free and cheap things to see and people watch.
Have a great trip!