Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Four days and three nights - what to do in Vegas

Somebody recently asked what to do in Vegas when coming for the first time (thanks me). A while back I listed a bunch of things to do around town if you were looking for something different, but have never suggested what to do on a short first visit.

First suggestion - DO NOT BRING THE KIDS. Circus Circus still may be theme oriented, the Excalibur has jousting and most casinos have a video game gallery to keep kids busy, but it is NOT Disneyland. Perhaps an adult Disneyland, but not a kids version. The MGM closed it's big amusement park, most places have scaled back kids' stuff, even the Pirates battle is now pirates fighting a ship full of scantily clad Sirens, and the Thunder from Down Under is at Excalibur.

Second - spend as much as you want. If you shop around for rooms you can get by for about $100 a day for two, depending on where you stay and what you eat (that's hotel and meals). For a good time it might be best to budget around $300 per day for a couple as a low figure, giving you money for a fairly nice hotel and some good eating. If you want the Wynn or Bellagio and great eats then perhaps $800 - $1000 per day per couple, plus gambling money might be better. Most Vegas shows now start at $60 per ticket, even for such stuff as a standup comic. Celine and Elton can be up to $300 per ticket, the Cirque shows can also get to $200 if you want to sit close.

Hotels vary their rates for the same room based on how full they are. Looking at the Luxor reservations calendar a pyramid room varies from $69 to $239 per night, (the same room) depending on when you are coming, weekends are always higher. TI has rooms from $79 to $279 based on the day. The Frontier is not as fancy, but it is on the Strip across from Wynn right next to the Fashion Show, and has rooms from $45 going up to $75 on the weekend.

If you are coming to Vegas for the first time then you really have to do some of the things that are associated with this town. I mean, if you don’t want to go to the casinos then why come here? There are lots of prettier places. I would suggest first that you stay at a hotel on the strip – that’s the place to be. You can save some bucks by going to one of the hotels on Paradise, but then you are a cab ride away and not as apt to wander. Almost all of the hotels are nice – some are downright gorgeous. So where you stay depends on how much you want to spend. For a first trip I’d suggest the Luxor – when reserving ask for a room in the pyramid. The views are nice from any side, but I liked the west side and watching the sunsets. (ask for the side when you check in). Get a room around the 9th or 10th floor. You are up high enough, and still have a nice look down into the inside from in front of the room. You get big windows that follow the angle of the pyramid, and you get to ride up those neat elevators that travel sideways. (no elevators in the middle, these start at the corners and follow the angle of the roof as you go up, feels really strange) The Luxor has absolutely the best look of any casino when you walk in the front door – looking up twenty floors inside the pyramid past those big statues. If you’ve got big bucks, the Bellagio is usually rated pretty highly. But it’s about four or five times the cost of the Luxor.

Arriving – when you fly in you really don’t need to rent a car. Everything is relatively close, and it’s cheaper to get a cab and be dropped off right out front. Don’t get ripped off by the cab driver – we read about them taking long trips all the time. In Nevada the driver has to drive the way you want him to, and because of all the problems they cannot take the long way (the ‘tunnel’) without asking you first. It might be phrased as ‘the quickest way is the freeway, ok?” Don’t fall for that line. When you take a cab from the airport say “NO TUNNEL”. The airport is right at the south end of the strip. If you are in a strip hotel then they can drive right out the front of the airport, travel up Paradise and hit any of the hotels rather quickly.

The alternate route is for the driver to take the tunnel under the runway, which heads south away from the strip. They then turn right on 215, loop around the airport, go north on 15 and take off on Flamingo or Sahara and back to the strip. This adds an extra $5 or $7 to the bill. And, depending on when you arrive, since these are the only two freeways in the area they are usually jammed with commuters, causing additional charges and delays. If you are at one of the downtown hotels then this route is the quickest, but if the driver wants to take you up 95 ‘because of the traffic’ then you will be paying an extra $20 or more because of the distance. Look out the north facing windows of the airport – you can see almost all of the big hotels from there. If the driver goes in a direction away from them then you are being ripped off. This isn’t unique to Vegas – cab drivers all over the world do it.

After you arrive – get out of the room! Come on, a hotel room is a hotel room. If you want to stay in the hotel then check in one near your home, and save the travel hassle. This is Vegas, go outside! It doesn’t matter what time of year you get here, the weather will be great! We only get three inches of rain a year, so odds are the sun will be shining. It is cool in winter, but it still will be up around 70f in the afternoon, nighttime lows can be in the thirties so bring a light jacket. You’ve heard about the summers – over a hundred from June through September. Nights are still warm – the temp drops 35f from afternoon to night, but that still means 80f or so.

If you are here for three nights, then select from these:
1. Go downtown. See what the older casinos are like, and look at what they have done to Freemont Street. Hang around for one of the light shows on the ceiling – they changed to smaller lights for a more hi-def image. (Freee . . . )
2. See one of the Cirque shows. My favorite is O at the Bellagio, but Mystere at TI is still doing great. If you see O, I recommend sitting in the top row – the theatre isn’t that big, and you get a great view underwater to see what’s going on. You can book tickets in advance on the internet for almost all Vegas shows. ($60 for Mystere, $99 for O per ticket)
3. For a bit of old Vegas, hit one of our two ‘feather’ shows – Jubilee at Ballys or the Folles Bergere at the Tropicana. The Tropicana still does ‘topless’ at the late night show, but hurry as the place has been sold and rumors are going around about a tear down and rebuild. Ballys has an afternoon matinee some days also. ($30-$50 per ticket)
4. A romantic dinner – some of the best restaurants in the world are now in Vegas. My favorite for atmosphere is Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay. With advance reservations or early seating try to get one of the smaller intimate ‘rooms’. About $100 per person for dinner and wine, but it is great. The Bellagio, MGM and Wynn all have wonderful food, but the setting is not as romantic. You can get seating at some of the Bellagio places on terraces overlooking the lake and fountains if you would rather have a view. Mix on top of Mandalay and the Eiffel Tower at Paris both have great strip views.
5. See one of the regular shows – book ahead and see Celine or Elton or Barry or one of the other headliners. (these will run $100-$300 per ticket)

For your daytimes, stay on the strip and visit all the big casinos. This alone can take you three or four days, depending on whether or not you gamble much. Walk a little and then sit and watch the crowd. These casinos are BIG, and each one can take an hour to wander through if you look for all the corners. The Wynn is especially challenging, the way it’s laid out. Find the back alleys at Mandalay Bay, look at the fancy restaurants and be sure to make it back to Shark Reef and look down at the swimmers in the wave pool. See the tigers and big fish tank at the Mirage.

Ride the double decker bus down the strip. Catch the Deuce at one of the corner stops, ride it south all the way to the SSTC (South Strip Transit Center). You might have to get off and pay again, but then ride it all the way north, and you’ll be first one on, to get that top deck front of the bus seat. You might do this first so that you can see all of the places you want to go to.

People watch. Get a coke at one of the lounges – I like the two inside of the Bellagio – you get to sit up a few steps, have a comfy chair, rest your feet, and take time with that drink. Every casino has a small lounge that looks out over the casino floor. Get a coke or cup of coffee – it’s worth the $3 for the views. And after all the walking you need a break, and some caffeine.

Catch the afternoon shows or lounge acts. The Sahara has the Casbah lounge, where for the price of a drink you can catch an act. Or the Stratosphere has some nice afternoon shows. For $10-$20 you get to see some of the older Vegas styles.

Have lunch at one of the buffets – lunch prices are usually half of what dinner prices are, and the food is just as good. Try one of the buffets – my favorite is at the Rio, but I’ve heard the MGM buffet is also great. Skip the one at the Bellagio – we tried it and were not impressed. My son likes the Orleans, because they have crawfish and he can eat four or five plates piled up. Vegas buffets are pretty impressive. Even a "Cheeseburger in Paradise" at Margaritaville is an experience.

Have lunch one day at the outdoor patio at Paris; make sure to get a seat outside, even if you have to wait. Even in the summer, there are misters to cool things off a little. No better place to munch on a sandwich and pomme frittes and watch people and traffic on the strip. And it’s right across the street from the Bellagio fountains. Make your espresso last.

Wander through the shopping malls. Caesar’s Forum Shops have been revamped, look at all the $$$$$. Walk slowly and wait for Cleopatra and company to wander through, watch the fountains talk, look at the fishtank. Walk through the Desert Passage at the Aladdin (changing over to the Planet Hollywood) and watch rain fall from the ceiling at the docks (it only rains inside in Vegas). Take your time at the Fashion Show Mall, and watch a fashion show. The shops at the Wynn aren't all together mall style, but you can buy a Ferrari or a $5,000 tiny purse.

Look down on Vegas. Hit Mix the Mandalay just after 5, take the glass elevator up to the 50th floor, have a drink on the outdoor patio and enjoy the view (see my pics below). If you wait until dark the prices go up as does the wait, but go right after they open and you’ll be the only ones there. Go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower at Paris. At the north end go up to the bar at the Stratosphere – if you hit the bar it’s just the price of a drink, if you go up to the observation deck you pay more for just the view (unless you want to try the rides up there). Try the top deck bar at Margarittaville. It's only up three floors, but you can still look down at the people crossing the street to get to Caesar's.

If you are a party person then go to one of the "Ultra Lounges" that are now popular. Dance the night away. Every big casino has one or two, they usually open at 10pm and keep going until you leave for breakfast. Jeans might be fine for daytime wandering the strip and the casinos, but plan on dressing pretty or they will not let you in. Even big name celebrities are turned away if the show up without the right clothes. We read about the turn aways every day in our local paper gossip column.

Pretend you’re Grissom on the early CSI and try to hit all the roller coasters. From New York New York on the south up to the Sahara. Sorry, they took the one off the top of the Stratosphere – the cars are now over on the roof at Dr. Hammargrin’s (again, pics below).

Catch the free shows – the Bellagio fountains are worth a daytime and nighttime view. See the Sirens at TI. The Rio has an overhead show in the casino. The Tropicana has a stage in the middle. You can see Anthony and Cleopatra and guards wandering through Caesar’s. Circus Circus still has high wire acts and clowns.

Get married (again?)! Almost every casino has a wedding chapel, but the fun ones are the little stand alone chapels near downtown. You don't need a license to just renew your vows, and you can even have Elvis officiate! (or have Elvis pick you up in the limo, or sing a song for you, or . . ) If it's the first time you'll need a license. Bad news - the city license bureau is not open 24 hours any more. They close from midnight to eight, so plan ahead. No more drunk at 4am let's get married and then get it annulled when you sober up and get back home things like Brittany.

At least gamble a little. You can take a roll of pennies and make them last for several hours at the penny slots – most casinos have them now. Don’t get fooled into playing the max – that raises a penny slot up to a two dollar slot. You aren’t going to win the big one anyway, just enjoy yourself. Find a dollar craps table, or a dollar blackjack table and play some. If you don’t know how then almost every casino has afternoon classes in how to play the games. Take a few hours and have a professional teach you how to play craps or blackjack, even if you don’t intend to drop thousands, or especially if you do.

Enough to keep you busy? If not, email me and I can help you come up with a specific itinerary. joeinvegasATjoetheprogrammerDOTcom

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