Las Vegas for the 99 Percent
By Tim Leffel

It was once America's clear winner for the tourism value crown. But with every new business seemingly aimed at the luxury crowd, can normal people still find cheap joy in Las Vegas?

Las Vegas hotels

"I've been up all night, I ate two dinners, I'm still drunk, and I'm only down $80."

Those were my first words over the phone to a co-worker two time zones away the morning before my flight out of Las Vegas. I was there on business, in a very hot desert summer of my youth. Those were the days when you could find $3 blackjack tables up and down The Strip and I hit eight sets of them in succession. My marathon casino tour took in the jugglers of Circus Circus, the pirates of Treasure Island, the knights of Excalibur, and the babes of Bally's. The drinks kept flowing and so I kept playing. One generous-feeling pit boss even handed me a comp dinner coupon. I staggered back at sunrise, down far less than I'd budgeted (a good quarter of that having gone to hot waitress tips).

Screw the haters, this place was cheapskate paradise.

When I returned many years later, I partied like it was 1999. Because it was. Vegas seemed like the perfect place to spend New Year's Eve, at the turning of a century and a millennium. A thousand years before there were no playing cards with kings and spades. A hundred years before, almost nobody had light bulbs. For this turning of the clock, my sister had filled a pantry with canned goods and water, sure that the Y2K switchover would bring weeks of mayhem.

Apart from one clock on the strip displaying the wrong time, Y2K was just a party theme. We drank, we gambled, we ate, and in the end won enough money on video poker and blackjack to buy my wife a new dress. Something out of nothing, which turned out to be appropriate. Nine months later, our first and only daughter was born.

I've been back to Vegas several other times, each one following the opening of newer, more expensive hotels. Newer, more expensive nightclubs now fill half their space with VIP corners. Whereas the restaurants were once a cheap draw to get you to walk through the casinos, progressively more of them now seem to treat the casino as an afterthought, bringing people in with big photos of chefs seen on the Food Network.

Las Vegas nightclub

What Happens in Vegas…is Complicated

Seen from different angles, the Vegas Holidays prism presents many facets. It's a convention city with 19 of the 25 largest hotels in the world. It's a bachelor/bachelorette party draw and host to more than 100,000 weddings a year. It's a place to take in spectacular shows, or a place for addicted gamblers to lose track of time.

There's one kind of customer, however, that's gone from the fringes to the top of all marketing plans: the aspirational free spender. In the eyes of the mega-corporations that now control the city, we are all either luxury travelers or those who desire to be. As the Bellagio magazine ads say, "Got it. And flaunting it." If we haven't got it, we're supposed to act like it anyway. There aren't enough "whales"—the high rollers with their own jets and $1,000,000-plus credit lines—to fill all those 3,943 rooms at the Bellagio alone.  

The Las Vegas hotel ads now tout a world of luxury suites, celebrity restaurants, VIP club lounges, and haute boutiques. My former $3 table minimums of the 1990s have more than outpaced inflation, starting at $15 or $20 in most strip casinos. Dinner and a show for four can easily top a grand . The people who can really take advantage of all this for nights on end without breaking the budget are rare, of course. They're the 1% of America's population that can really blow through five figures or more on a short vacation without breaking a sweat.

Can people of normal means still get a thrill in the City of Lights? Is there anything left in Vegas for the 99 percent?

Las Vegas Paris Hotel

Bargain Hunting and City Imitations

After seeing The Strip so many times from sidewalk level, I wanted to see this crazy city from the air, so I booked a city skyline ride with Papillon Helicopter Tours. My stunning pilot was the type you would complain about if she were cast as in a movie as someone who really knew how to fly a helicopter: young and beautiful, with perfect proportions, a ready wit, and perfect teeth. "Do you want me to point out things or play the cheesy narration?" she asked me over the mic as we got airborne. I could listen to her talk all day, but in the interest of journalism, I thought I should hear what the normal passengers hear.

"You don't need to travel around the world to see the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower, or pyramids of Egypt," said the chirpy narration. "Just check into the Venetian, Paris Hotel , or Luxor!" I immediately thought of an old episode the Tonight Show where Jay Leno interviewed ditzy 20-somethings struggling to name the capital of France—while standing on the floor of the Paris Hotel and Casino.

helicoptor Vegas strip

Still, it was hard not to watch in awe as so many ambitious plans turned into reality glided past the helicopter windows: the improbable green golf course in the desert at Wynn, the improbable amusement park rides in mid-air around the Stratosphere's tower, the crazy castle of Excalibur next to a giant glass pyramid. A miniature Manhattan skyline with a roller coaster going over it. But here the outlandish is normal and doing anything less than outdoing your neighbors isn't worth doing.

There's plenty to bash about this fake city, a place where everything is an illusion and overstimulation is a an expected part of every landscape. But as a cheapskate traveler, I've long had a soft spot for Vegas. Despite the rush to the top, it's still a place where you drink all night for free while breaking even (or better) at blackjack, craps, or baccarat—the games where the house doesn't have such a big edge. It's a city where you can splurge for a suite and spend less than a hundred bucks. If you work at it, the bargains are still there.

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