LAS VEGAS - Celebrities, high rollers and the world's wealthiest people are among those who like to escape to Las Vegas for a getaway, but you don't have to be a high-roller to enjoy at least a few days in the City of Lights.
Vegas wasn't built by giving away money to people who come to gamble. The chance to win big is a key attraction, of course, but the house always has the advantage, and that's why billions upon billions of dollars are invested in these mega-resorts in the desert. It's a huge investment that will pay off when tourist come to spend - or lose - big bucks.
Yet, if you play it smart, a visit to Las Vegas can be a fulfilling escape from reality for anyone. There's plenty to do and even more to see ... even if you're traveling on a tight budget.
People who come to Las Vegas plan to spend money, regardless of how much money they plan to spend. It's a good idea to plan on spending or losing a certain amount of money each day you are there. Like any vacation, a sensible budget is key. Budget only what you can afford, and stick to the budget.
Vegas can quickly drain a visitor's wallet and leave them broke as a joke. But that's not the most desirable outcome for the gambler or the casino. The casinos don't want people to lose their shirts and not come back. They would prefer that visitors come out with a certain amount of money to spend, enjoy themselves, and want to come back in the future to do it again.
While there are many pitfalls behind all those fancy lights, there is also a wealth of opportunities. The beauty of Las Vegas is the fact that there are so many things. When it comes to deciding how and where to spend your time - and your money - the options are virtually endless, and the array of Vegas businesses know this. If you are going to spend money, each place you visit would love for you to spend your money there, and they will compete for your dollar. This competition helps drive down prices, presents great deals and benefits the tourist.
Flights to Las Vegas can be hit or miss. Booking early can save some bucks, but prices tend to change day-to-day. Last-minute deals are rarely a treasure when it comes to flights, which are often overbooked. In fact, if your schedule is somewhat flexible, there's a good chance you will be offered a chance to give up your seat for the flight you book, be reassigned to a later flight and earn a free round-trip ticket on a future flight.
Direct flights can be much more expensive than connecting flights, but some connections to Las Vegas can really be out of the way. Airlines will offer flights from Pittsburgh to Newark, N.J., then on the Vegas, or return flights from Las Vegas flying west for a layover in San Francisco, then on to Pittsburgh.
Tip: For those flying Continental, United or other major airlines that offer in-flight movies, be aware that everyone can view the movie, but they charge $3 to rent earphones. You are permitted to use your own headphones or earbuds, but the airline's system has two separate audio inputs, so if you don't want to listen to a movie with the sound coming through one ear only, bring two sets of earbuds or invest in an adapter with two prongs. (Who knows who used those rent-a-headphones before you? Surely they are cleaned, but you still can't help imagining that the previous wearer suffered from head lice, radiation exposure, etc.)
There are many options for staying in Vegas. From swanky $6,000-per-night suites to low-budget, $29.95-per-night rooms off the strip. These are the deals that can come at last-minute. Hotels that have rooms available will want to get them filled.
Visitors need to know ahead of time what they plan to do and where they plan to visit before they determine the best option for lodging.
For those who want to be in the heart of the action, it's a good idea to stay close to the Strip. If an off-strip or out-of-the-way hotel costs $35 more per night than a site near the Strip, remember that taxi rides anywhere can add up and get expensive. Staying within walking distance from places you plan to visit can be much more convenient and affordable in the long run.
Upon arriving, it's a good idea to sign up for a player's club card regardless of if you are staying at the particular resort or not. You can sign up for free player's club cards at any resort. Remember to use the cards anytime you gamble or make a purchase on that particular property. This is an incentive program that encourages you to spend your money and time on at a particular resort or resort chain. When you sign up for a card, you will likely receive a huge coupon book full of discounts and great deals, free play tickets at the tables, free drink certificates and discounts at shops. Your player's club card can also get you shortcuts in buffet lines, and the more points you earn on your card, the more complimentary kick-downs you can receive.
Bigger groups of people can soften the blow of cab service by traveling together and splitting the cost. Hotels also offer concierge service that will hook you up with rides as well. These drivers show up in suits and drive vehicles like Lexus SUVs or Escalades. Tips for these rides can be comparable to the cab fare.
There are special deals available for transit as well. You can buy day passes or multi-day passes for buses or shuttles, which travel regular routes all over the city, all day long.
The trams also run along many of the major hotels along the trip. The tram used to be free, but now charges a nominal fee.
Certain establishments also offer free limo services to their clubs with no catch. Just tip the driver and save big bucks off the cover charge for taking the swanky limo.
Some of the world's top chefs are based at Las Vegas resort restaurants. If you're on a tight budget, it's not likely you'll be sampling their cuisine, but that won't stop you from eating like a king.
Most of the major resorts have huge buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner available for reasonable prices. There are also endless deals all over town. You just have to keep your eyes peeled and ears open for super deals like $4.95 steak and egg breakfasts. You can plan to splurge on one big, fancy meal, and still strike a deal on it. For example, seafood lovers can visit the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet at the Rio, which is not a bad deal from the start, but cash in the $10 off coupon from your player's club coupon book and be living large.
Dining options are truly endless. With just a little bit of research and effort, great deals can easily be found.
Night clubs, restaurants, casinos, shows and pretty much any attraction in Vegas offer great deals.
Regular prices can be quite high in many cases. Legal beverages can often range in price from $7-9, but can be as high as $14 or more at certain clubs. Look around, and some places that yearn for your patronage can offer huge deals.
Carnival Court outside Harrah's is a big circular, outdoor bar featuring flair bartenders and a party atmosphere all day long. When the party gets hot - with hundreds of people on hand - they go all out and buy rounds of shots for everyone - for free. On Saturday afternoon, with three bachelorette parties going and house band Wonder Boogie throwing down the dance music - free shots for about a thousand people were handed out in 20 minute intervals.
Other happy hour specials for drinks range from $1 bottles or drafts to buckets of beer for reasonable prices.
The deals are there, you just have to look around, ask around and keep a nose out for them.
Las Vegas has a huge array of entertainment, and it's a good idea to catch a show or two while you are out there.
Old school Las Vegas still lives, with Elvis impersonators, Rat Pack reviews and showgirls. But there is also an endless list of celebrity performers, magicians, comedians and shows of all kinds from which to chose as well.
Cirque du Soleil offers eight shows in Vegas at various resorts, including a variety of signature Cirque shows, as well as "Chriss Angel: Believe," "The Beatles: Love" and "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour."
Blue Man Group also has regular performances.
Celebrities like to make regular, long-term stints in Vegas. Currently, Celine Dion, Garth Brooks, Donnie & Marie, Barry Manilow and others singers and musicians all have regular shows, as do comedians Carrot Top, George Wallace, David Spade, Frank Caliendo and a list of funny men and women. Magicians Penn & Teller perform regular shows, as does former Hugh Hefner girlfriend Holly Madison with "Peepshow."
The options for high quality entertainment abounds in Vegas, it all just depends on what you like. Many shows can be pricey, but being entertained at a world-class show can also be less costly than sitting in the casino losing the same amount of money ... or more.
There are also museums and attractions such as Madame Tussauds was museum, M&M's World and others exhibits.
For those looking for free entertainment, these are plenty of options as well. Checking out the eye-popping architecture is one way to spend time and see some unforgettable sights.
Everyone must visit the amazing fountains outside the Bellagio. The Fremont Street Experience is also free and unforgettable. Other free attractions include the Sirens of TI outside Treasure Island, the shark tank inside and the volcano outside the Mirage, artwork inside the Venetian, statues at Caesar's Palace, Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand, and plenty more.
Just sight seeing, marveling at the amazing resorts and checking out all the tourists and crazy street performers can be enough to keep anyone entertained.
For those with additive personalities, a trip to Las Vegas may not be the best idea. Compulsive or addicted gamblers, alcoholics and other addicts should stay away from a place that can amplify their vice.
For those who bring a few bucks to gamble, there are options that allow you to enjoy yourself, give you a chance to win money and have fun for a long time without losing your shirt.
Most major casinos have sports books, and you can bet on virtually all aspects on any game. Betting on sporting events is a way to stretch out your wager over a couple of hours.
Another potentially long-term game is blackjack. For a few bucks, if your luck is right, you can play blackjack for literally hours without going bankrupt. If your having at least fair luck, you can go up and down and at least break even if your are disciplined enough to walk away before you take a loss. A new game called "Blackjack Switch" has started to take off in some Vegas establishments. Wagered play on two hands gives you the option to switch cards and build better hands, which makes the game even more fun, exciting and winnable.
Remember - what goes in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Just make sure it's not your life's savings.
Ayres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.