Two Tiers of Entertainment
If you don't want to hang with the 1%, this city certainly has the widest range of shows in the world. Can't afford $320 for good Elton John seats? You can go see the "Australian BeeGees" or the "Country Superstars Tribute." Not enough cash left to splurge $200+ each on Lionel Ritchie tickets? You can see two shows devoted to Motown instead: the Hitzville show with actual black people singing, or the four white guys in Australia's Human Nature, billed as "The ultimate celebration of the Motown sound."
When The Mob ran Vegas, the Rat Pack ruled the stages. Now we get marimba bands playing sanitized versions of "My Way" next to the wave pool at one of MGM's 14 local hotels. The ongoing show listings seem equally tired. Vegas is where fading performers go for one last big burst of cash, shining in their glory like the grand finale of a fireworks display. The money is so tempting that it lures many out of retirement, like Garth Brooks and Celine Dion. It takes many historic footnotes in music trivia and turns them into superstars again. Could Barry Manilow sell out expensive shows for years on end anywhere else in the world?
Looking at the upcoming slate of music performances during my most recent visit, I got flashbacks to my formative years, listening to 8-tracks and then cassettes in my parents' cars—their music and mine. On tap were Little River Band, Pure Prairie League, Firefall, Styx, Melissa Manchester, George Thorogood, Alan Parsons Project, Tanya Tucker, Merle Haggard, Jon Anderson of Yes, and Ace Frehley of Kiss. With a crowd like this, the Guns n Roses billing seemed almost contemporary.
There's still a place for those experiencing ephemeral fame in the here and now though. A few weeks after I left, Kim Kardashian was being paid a six-figure fee for showing up at a huge dance club at The Palms for New Year's Eve and the event was expected to sell out. "Does she sing or something?" I asked my wife.
"No, she's just getting paid to be there and look pretty," was the reply. There's the real sign of aspiration gone amok: people will pay a day's earnings or more (before drinks) to possibly catch a glimpse of a famous person who's famous for…being famous. The faker meets the city of fake.
Digging up Bargains
I was happy to find that many of my old strategies to stretch the budget still work. I joined a poker tournament with a mere $40 buy-in, at Mandalay Bay no less. That buy-in got me stacks of chips to act rich with and I played admirably for an hour and a half before my cards started coming up all deuces and sevens. I got eliminated out of the money as the 5th place finisher, but I hung in there long enough to at least enjoy a few cocktails on the house. Unlike the guy who lost on the very first deal of the cards. He went all in with a pair of kings and got beat by a man with three eights. "Well, that was fun," he said sarcastically and slinked away.
The casino player card is still a great way to cash in. By giving up less info than you give Google and Facebook every day, you get a coupon book full of free table bets, free slot machine play, and free drinks at the bar (a good idea when you need to stop gambling). I'd plow through one of them, then move on to the next casino and start over.
Regular coupon books still abound as well, whether it's the multitude of free ones given out all over the city or the higher-value ones in books like American Casino Guide. From 2-for-1 hotel nights and dinners to cheap happy hours, these handouts can make the difference between credit card maxing and a cheap vacation.
As usual though, the internet has added a new twist. A contact at Smarter Vegas provided a sampling of what they could deliver, getting me 20% off dinner at Venetian's Bouchon Bistro, scoring a private helicopter ride with Papillon for $74, and getting me prime Blue Man show tickets for 2/3 of the regular price.
The Blue Man performance was just as fun as the first time I saw them in New York, in the East Village in the 90s, when that was their one and only performance space. Nearly two decades on, they've wisely avoided mucking up a good thing. The gags, the music, the toilet paper, and the effects are mostly the same. Now they just get a bigger theater, a bigger band, and better lighting.
The true budget traveler—and budget gambler—knows the key to really sniffing out a bargain in Vegas, however, and it's not going to the corporate fast food chain sections now a fixture in the corporate Strip hotels. It requires a change of scenery. Most gamblers who live in Las Vegas seldom come to The Strip. You can find them in the more humble casinos on the periphery, places like Boulder Station and Green Valley Ranch. There the table minimums are lower and the restaurants are less ambitious. But those are car places. A better bet for tourists is staying (or at least gambling/eating in) the downtown district. It's just a short bus ride away, but is a different world than the glitzy zone.
Next time I hit Vegas, when it's for fun instead of a conference, I'm heading back to Fremont Street, the Golden Nugget, and Four Kings. I won't get gourmet food artfully arranged in a way that's begging for a photo, but I can get a room at what used to be Fitzgerald's (now revamped as "The D") for $29 a night, get a steak and eggs for ten bucks or less, and watch the trippy Fremont Street Experience light show for free. Old school value, with no aspirations.
There's a new kind of gamble going on in old Las Vegas—Zappos moved its headquarters to this area—so the long-predicted renaissance of the original Sin City may finally be in the cards. Meanwhile, I can still find low-minimum blackjack tables and 100x odds on craps pass line bets. For those of us not ashamed to admit we're firmly grounded in the 99 percent, it feels like home.
Tim Leffel is the editor of Perceptive Travel and co-author of The World's Cheapest Destinations. See his regular rants on the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
All photos by Tim Leffel except the Gold Spike one, Flickr Creative Commons photo by Grrrrl
Lure of the Cards by Jen Leo
Travel by the Glass in America by Chris Epting
The Going-to-be-Wonderful World of Disney by Gillian Kendall
A Tale of Two Music Cities by Tim Leffel
Other United States and Canada travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: