Las Vegas on the cheap: Deals and steals in Sin City

The fountains of Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel and

The fountains of Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel and casino dance to the music. (Dec. 3, 2008) (Credit: AP)

As the old saying goes, if you want to make money gambling, buy a casino -- the theory being that even those gamblers lucky enough to start off winning are destined to get greedy and eventually give it all back -- and then some.

But as recent history has shown, even big-time Las Vegas casino owners are not immune to a little avarice.

In the late 1980s, Vegas began betting heavily on the dot.com and housing bubble boomers, scrapping the more family-friendly atmosphere of the 1970s in favor of glitzy, over-the-top mega resorts replete with celebrity restaurants, full-service spas and high-end shopping arcades.

For about 15 years, they raked in the profits. But then came the global recession, and Vegas effectively "sevened out." Visitor numbers -- especially those all-important conventioneers -- headed south, taking casino revenues with them. Confronted with sustained losses, Vegas had little choice but to come down off its high-rolling horse and deal the average Joe back in. So if you thought you couldn't afford the new Vegas, think again. As the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's new national ad campaign attests, it's definitely a buyer's market now, especially for those with flexibility, patience and willpower.

Timing counts

Nothing is more conducive to saving big bucks in Las Vegas than going during the so-called "off season" -- from November to June -- when airfares, room rates and rental car prices all bottom out, and the savings can be significant.

Airfares: With more than a dozen airlines and three airports to choose from, New Yorkers are luckier than most when it comes to finding low-cost options. Flexibility is key -- be prepared to take an early morning or evening flight midweek and put up with connections and perhaps the dreaded red-eye return. If you can handle that, you can probably find something in the low $300 range all the way through May.

Room rates: The good news is that the average room prices have dropped 22 percent (from $108 to $84) in the past five years. But you still have to shop around, with the best deals generally to be found on the Internet. And the sooner you start looking, the better, since it gives casino hotels the opportunity to send you targeted ads. Three weeks before I traveled in November, I checked prices, which were already quite decent, at a handful of downtown hotels. Several days later, the Las Vegas Club made me an offer I couldn't refuse -- a suite in their north tower for only $30. If you still don't find something you like at a property you fancy, don't hesitate to call them directly and ask: You'll be surprised how often they are willing to deal if there's a good chance the room will go unclaimed.

But look out for those notorious "resort fees" -- mandatory per diem charges (as high as $25) for amenities such as in-room Internet access, access to pools and fitness centers and local phone calls that you would assume come with the room. Designed to increase revenue without sacrificing "amazingly low rates" marketing, resort fees are often so well hidden that guests never notice them -- until they check out. The silver lining: Hotels that don't charge resort fees now clearly highlight that fact.

Cheap food and free entertainment

The fastest way to a gambler's wallet is through his stomach, or so goes the theory behind legendary alimentary lures such as the Golden Gate's shrimp cocktail (now up to $1.99) and the $9.95 prime rib dinner at Binion's Café. While deals such as these still exist -- especially downtown and off-Strip -- they're definitely harder to find. There are plenty of all-you-can eat buffets, both of traditional (mediocre food but lots of it, dinner prices $15-$20) and upmarket (gourmet items and individual preparation stations), such as those at the Bellagio, Paris and Wynn (dinner prices $30-$45). The best bargains tend to be breakfast and lunch, so load up and then skip the next meal.

In the old days, free lounge shows (with a two-drink minimum) featuring name entertainers were the casinos' way of pulling potential pigeons inside. In 1968, Circus Circus blazed a bold, new trail by offering absolutely free indoor circus acts. Thirty years later, The Mirage took the concept of free entertainment to new, outdoor heights with its 50-foot erupting volcano. Not to be outdone, Treasure Island launched a pirate stunt spectacle (sexed up as Sirens of TI in 2003) while the Bellagio went sky-high (240 feet, to be exact) with its dancing fountains. All three draw large sidewalk crowds for their regular nightly performances.

Crowds will not be a problem, however, at downtown's Fremont Street Experience, a five-block-long canopy LED light and laser rock spectacle with hourly "performances." For something more traditionally Vegaslike, there's "The Show in the Sky," a half-hour mini-revue in the Mardi Gras vein at the Rio. And, of course, there's always just good, old-fashioned people watching.

Discounted show tickets

Though a mainstay in New York for decades, day-of-performance discounted ticket outlets were latecomers to the Vegas party. But they're now standard operating procedure with Tix4Tonight's 10 prominent locations dominating the market (Tix4tonight.com). Despite their "half price" logo, prices aren't always that low, and there is a service charge of $3-$6 a ticket. Tickets, available for most ongoing shows (but not headliners), exhibits, attractions and a few restaurants, go on sale beginning at 10 a.m. (queues form before then) and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. So have several choices in mind before you get in line.

Stay informed

New deals can pop up overnight, so check the Internet frequently, especially comprehensive websites such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's visitlasvegas.com or independent operators such as vegas.com, cheapovegas.com and smartvegas.com. (By far the best of the lot is Anthony Curtis's Las Vegas Advisor, lasvegasadvisor.com, but membership -- $37 a year -- is required.) And once you've arrived, don't overlook all the discount coupons in those ubiquitous visitors' magazines. They're not just for bottom-feeders anymore.

Know when to quit

With a little patience and perseverance, two people can easily knock several hundred dollars off the price of a Vegas vacation. So why then turn around and give it all back? The key to holding on to all the money you have saved is willpower at the tables or slots. Set your limits (both losing and winning) and walk away -- promptly and decisively -- when you hit them. What stays in Vegas, after all, shouldn't be too much of your money.

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