Budget Las Vegas: how to save on Sin City fun

·Christy Karras

 As countless amateur gamblers and weekend partiers have learned the hard way, the cash we spend in Vegas stays in Vegas. But even as Sin City increasingly caters to high rollers with plush new rooms, top-notch entertainment and gourmet restaurants, it can still be surprisingly inexpensive — if you play your cards right.

I’ve been visiting Las Vegas since childhood. My brother is a longtime resident, having spent the last 20 years building and overseeing maintenance of casino pools (his tip? Stay away from pools known for hosting big late-night parties. Chlorine can only do so much).

Things you could buy for a little in the old days ($2.99 breakfast buffet, anyone?) now cost a lot. But savvy Vegas veterans have a few secrets on how to enjoy classic Sin City pursuits without losing your shirt — unless you want to.

Time your bets.

Many of the best money-saving tricks boil down to timing. A big one: Avoid weekends, when room prices can easily double.

Same thing for big conventions. Las Vegas has an astonishing 150,000-plus hotel rooms, but a big convention like the Computer Electronics Show (each January) or a betting-heavy sporting event like the Super Bowl can nudge occupancy rates toward full capacity — giving hotels zero incentive to offer bargains.

But it’s not just a day-of-the-week thing. In a place where most everyone plans to stay up late, the early bird gets the deal. A lot of visitors seek the same holy grail: cheap tables at nice casinos. It doesn’t happen — minimum table bets at upscale casinos run at least $25. But tables may have lower minimums in the morning, when fewer gamblers are wandering the floor. Some of the nicer casinos offer surprisingly low minimums, so it pays to check around before settling in to gamble. It’s easier to find a seat during the day, too.

Consider casino alternatives.

When most people think Vegas, they think brightly lit sprawling high rises along Las Vegas Boulevard (“the Strip”). But those glitzy casino hotels are the city’s most expensive places to stay. Consider a non-casino hotel. A number of them are just off the Strip or offer shuttles to it. Rooms at the Platinum Hotel & Spa include kitchens, potentially cutting way down on restaurant costs, for about half the price of a basic room in the middle of the Strip (about $175 compared to $350) one block away.

Stay off the Strip.

If you want the in-house casino experience without high prices, consider those off the Strip. These properties may be a little out of the way, but for crowd-averse travelers and families, that can be a good thing. Off-Strip casinos are an especially appealing option for folks with cars (also see “Get out of town,” below).

The Eastside Cannery Casino & Hotel, about 15 minutes from the Strip by car, gets top marks among budget options on Travelocity, with one commenter describing it as “Away from the busy, heavy traffic loaded and crowded strip but still with that Vegas-feel to it.” Midweek rates can be as low as $50 a night.

Experience Fremont Street.

Downtown Las Vegas is where the casino craze got its start before mega-resorts mushroomed on the Strip. The rise of the Strip sent Downtown into a decades-long decline, but Lady Luck has returned, first with the Fremont Street Experience’s live music and light shows and more recently with Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s $350 million Downtown Project.

“It’s now THE most happening place in Sin City,” Matt Villano, a contributor to the Fodor’s Las Vegas guidebook, told Yahoo Travel in an email interview. “Because it’s Downtown, however, an area historically known for being cheaper/more affordable than the Strip, bargains abound.”

Rooms, restaurants, tables, souvenirs and booze are all cheaper Downtown. During my last visit, I had a tasty steak at the Top of Binion’s Steakhouse for about half what it would have cost on the Strip. Bonus: on the venerable old-Vegas casino’s top floor, the steakhouse throws in great city views for free. (Reservations recommended.)

Villano points to Happy Hour on Park’s giant outdoor patio, and the “treehouse” slide at Downtown Container Park. Performance stages dot Fremont Street, surrounding pedestrians with live music from the afternoon through the wee hours. Grab a drink at one of the (cheaper than the Strip) sidewalk bars along the way and watch the free Fremont Street Experience light show.

Be smart about entertainment.

Seeing a show is a must-do activity in Las Vegas, where entertainment options abound. But ticket prices can leave you gasping — and it can be hard to find seats at all for the most popular shows.

If there’s an act you really want to see, buy tickets as early as possible. If you’re flexible, consider heading to one of the red and yellow Tix4Tonight booths along the Strip and Fremont Street. You might not get the hottest show in town, but there are so many good shows all over Vegas that you might end up loving something you didn’t even know was an option. Turn up early for best results (most of the kiosks open at 10 a.m.).

One budget option for night owls: the new Vegas Nocturne show at Rose.Rabbit.Lie in The Cosmopolitan, which has “cantos,” or performances, each night at 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight. “The Midnight Canto is the shortest and cheapest, but you can avoid paying any fees at all if you enter the venue around 11 p.m., head for one of its two bars, kill time until 11:30 p.m., then wander over to the performance area when the doors open there,” Villano said. “If you’re already in the venue when these doors open, they won’t charge you to stand at the bars in the performance room and watch the midnight canto.” You’ll pay for drinks, but the entertainment is free.

Leave your room before sunset to enjoy reasonably-priced daytime attractions like the Neon Museum ($18 for adult admission) and the Mob Museum ($20). Ride the High Roller, the new 550-foot observation wheel at Caesars’ LINQ shopping and entertainment district, “before Caesars realizes how underpriced it is,” Villano says. “Rides currently top out around $40; this is literally one half what it costs in U.S. dollars to ride the London Eye. I expect prices to be in the $60 range before the end of the summer.”

If you’re down to a few small bills, check out the city’s random sidewalk performers, who run the gamut from professional musicians to “Hangover” lookalikes. Give them a couple bucks in exchange for a tune or a photo and they’ll be thrilled.

Las Vegas is also one of the world’s best places for people-watching. Observing the ever-flowing stream of vacationing humanity can be highly entertaining in itself.

Seek cheap eats.

While steakhouse splurges and buffet bonanzas are rightfully on many travelers’ agendas, keeping those to a minimum can save a lot on food expenses. As in another pricey place, New York, a deli can be your best bet. There’s the Carnegie Deli in the Mirage, Greenberg’s in New York New York and my favorite, the Earl of Sandwich in Planet Hollywood, where I recently had delicious sit-down soup and salad for about $10.

Feeling adventurous? Inexpensive local restaurants are within blocks of the Strip, especially on the north end. As TV-show traveler Anthony Bourdain recently discovered when he stopped in at Lotus of Siam on Sahara Ave., some off-strip ethnic eateries are both delicious and wallet-friendly.

Take the bus.

This could start the moment you get off the plane and discover that your hotel or casino doesn’t offer an airport shuttle. No problem: Route 109 on a regional transit bus will pick you up at McCarran International Airport and take you right to the Strip. Headed Downtown? Route 109 also connects with the Strip & Downtown Express Bus. Costs range from $2 for a single-use pass to $8 for a 24-hour pass ($20 for three days), which you can use to travel up and down the Strip and to and from Downtown for the rest of your trip. Buses come frequently and run most of the day and night (some are 24 hours).

Get out of town.

Some of Las Vegas’s most enchanting experiences are nowhere near the Strip and have nothing to do with gambling — and you’ll spend more in calories than you will in dollars.

Find respite from the crowds and noise in the red-rock desert formations at Valley of Fire State Park or the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, each within an hour’s drive of town. After a couple days of losing money at the slots and tables, a hike in the desert feels like the perfect palate cleanser.