I THOUGHT I WAS A PRETTY SAVVY Las Vegas traveler.
I've had the foie gras as big as a football at Picasso's, the five-star gourmet room at the Bellagio. I've listened to a Nevada lieutenant governor belt out torch songs at her ristorante just outside of town and partied with card sharks at the World Series of Poker.
Frankly, it's nothing to brag about. Go to Vegas 50, maybe 60, times during the course of 25 years and stuff happens.
But my most recent trip, where the challenge was to do Vegas over a weekend for $500 -- including airfare, hotel, food, entertainment and gambling -- required breaking new ground, even for a far-too- frequent flier to Sin City.
For starters, forget the old myth about Las Vegas being an easy touch for inexpensive meals and hotel rooms because the casinos gladly use food and lodging as loss leaders to get the chumps to the tables. All that evaporated at least 15 years ago as corporations took over stewardship of the gaming industry. Today, Las Vegas can be just as pricey as any major tourist city in the world.
Dinner for two can run $300; weekend room rates can reach $500; and tickets to top shows are easily more than $100. Looking for $5 blackjack at, say, Caesars Palace? Try 7 a.m., maybe. Better yet, take a time machine back to 1985.
But as daunting as the task may seem, a resourceful traveler on a budget can do just that: Turn back the clock and do Vegas today with a 1985 bankroll. I did, and here's how:
The key was finding airfare and a hotel room for two nights for less than $350 because I figured that would leave enough cash to do some creative merrymaking over 48 hours.
I scheduled my trip for early December. At that time of year, the city is bustling with the professional rodeo championship, which gives Las Vegas a real cowboy flavor but also buoys room rates. Planning the trip in early November, I landed a flight on Southwest from Baltimore for $218.40. Departure was Saturday morning, and return was Monday afternoon. Nonstops.
That was the first coup.
Next, I needed to score a hotel. Along the Strip, a handful of famous older resorts that have lost some luster offer budget rates. And then there are the downtown hotels. Some are, to put it tactfully, a little frayed but they do put you on the honky-tonk Fremont Street corridor, which has its own charm -- in a fried Twinkies sort of way.
Using Orbitz, I found two nights at the Sahara, one of those older Strip hotels, for $97.41 total, taxes included. Making the Sahara all that much more of a find is that it's the northernmost stop on the Las Vegas monorail, which would be key in making the trip work because it provided convenient transportation. So with plane tickets and hotel reservation in hand, and $184.19 burning a hole in my pocket, I was off to take a little cash from the guys with the good haircuts and tailored Italian suits working the gambling pits. Or, at least try to make it through the first afternoon without having to hock my luggage.
When I landed in Vegas, I was immediately reminded of the recuperative benefits of a getaway to a good-weather destination. Leaving behind bone-chilling 30-something-degree temperatures in Baltimore, I was greeted with a mostly sunny, 60-degree welcome.
Getting from the airport to the hotel was no problem. Round-trip fare on a shuttle service, Bell Trans, was $9.50 and the ride took just 30 minutes. I checked in at the Sahara and found the room clean and comfy. Then it was time to have some fun.
A friend had told me about the Riviera Hotel & Casino's Hound Doggie's, a 1950s-themed snack bar with red-tile walls, photos of Marilyn Monroe and counter seating along the wall. Sure enough, there was a menu loaded with 99-cent items: chicken and meatball sandwiches, pizza slices, shrimp cocktail, tea, chili and, of course, foot-long hot dogs. For another 49 cents you can get the chili on the dog. I went with the chicken sandwich, a shrimp cocktail and iced tea. Surprisingly, the drink was the only item that didn't pass muster.
Next, I wanted to try the Las Vegas Strip's dueling mass transit systems, the monorail and a double-decker bus called the Deuce. Introduced last fall, the Deuce runs a route from south of the Strip to downtown Las Vegas. The test was a one-way trip between the Sahara and the MGM Grand, a little more than three miles. The monorail took 13 minutes going south and cost $3. The Deuce took 50 minutes going north and cost $2.
Frankly, the Deuce was intolerable because the bus idled for long stretches loading crowds of passengers. The monorail has since increased its price (it's now $5 for a single ride), which has made it almost as expensive as a rental car, especially if you're traveling with a companion. Plus, the walks from a few stations (such as the one at the MGM Grand) to the casino's front door take longer than the entire ride.
By default, the monorail wins, especially if you are staying at a hotel with a station, such as the Sahara.
Saturday night, I made a pilgrimage to a Las Vegas shrine - the Horse-A-Round Bar at Circus Circus, immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With carousel horses spinning around the bar, a lithesome Lithuanian performing a balancing act about 20 feet away and fanny-pack totin' tourists hammering away at the slots a floor below, it's understandable why gonzo journalist Thompson had difficulty separating his drug-induced hallucinations from reality at the Horse-A-Round. The $4 beer was a bargain.
Back at the Sahara, I tangled with a $3 blackjack table, losing $20, and when I woke up Sunday, I still had about $140 left.
Breakfast with bubbly
Sunday is champagne brunch day in Las Vegas. Just about every hotel lays out a buffet spread with the lure of free bubbly. I once splurged on the Bally's Hotel & Casino Sterling Brunch, which includes lobster and caviar and costs $65 plus tax.
This time, it was the more-modest $12.92 buffet at the Sahara, with reasonably appetizing carved roast beef, turkey and ham, plus an omelet station, crab legs and chocolate cream pie for dessert. There were even unlimited glasses of a sparkling white wine that was palatable when freshly poured.
The rest of the day was spent with a budget grand tour of the Strip using an all-day $10 monorail pass.
At the Flamingo at center Strip, a free tropically landscaped fish and fowl wildlife habitat was terrific for mid-morning strolling and photo-taking. Penguins, turtles, koi, swans, cranes and the hotel's trademark pink flamingos posed for tourists.
Across the street at Caesars Palace, the upscale Forum Shops mall provided some of the most exotic window shopping in the world, including a multi-story FAO Schwarz toy store and a free animatronic show depicting a melodramatic, and noisy, sinking of Atlantis. In the newest part of the mall, a tiramisu gelato at Ferrara's Cafe - a desert branch of the original in New York's Little Italy - proved irresistible for $4.30. And nearby at the Bellagio, the outdoor dancing fountains and the winter wonderland-themed botanical conservatory (more picture-taking) were two more free attractions.
By afternoon, I was resting in the Bally's sports book bar and lounge watching the second half of four football games and sipping a $5 beer. (I thought about slowly feeding nickels into a slot machine until I could coax a free cold one from a cocktail waitress, but the Ravens' ultimately futile struggle with the Broncos was too strong a draw.)
Catch a show
Next stop was the same-day, half-price show ticket shop at the Showcase Mall at the south end of the Strip at a service called Tickets2Nite. Don't expect to find any Cirque du Soleil or Celine Dion ducats here, but comedy club and R-rated revue tickets were plentiful. I spent $17.90 (including service fees and admission to a nightclub) for the standup comic show at the Riviera.
There was just enough time to see the free lion exhibit at the MGM Grand and catch the $7.95 prime rib special at the Sahara's Caravan Cafe (4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.) before a stroll down to the Riviera for the 8:30 p.m. show. A $5 tip to the maitre d' netted a seat front and center for some old chestnuts ("In most places, people wandering around penniless and destitute are called homeless; in Las Vegas they're called tourists"), as well as some fresher material on comic favorites, such as dating and marriage.
Back at the Sahara, I tried my hand at Texas Hold 'em, the poker game that's become a television phenomenon. Playing conservatively for about 90 minutes, I finally hit a full house and made my move for what turned out to be a $14 improvement over my initial stake. With my hard-won booty in hand, I immediately rushed to a craps table (read: money pit), where I teamed with a rodeo cowboy sporting a fresh cast on his ankle. We whooped our way to a tidy profit until - with our chips making a brash mosaic on the green felt layout - disaster struck, wiping out the poker spoils.
So with about $55 left Monday, I decided to go highbrow - or as highbrow as it gets in Las Vegas - and taxied to the new $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas.
Casino impresario Steve Wynn is an avid art collector, and a visit to the resort's museum featuring 14 pieces from his own collection, including works by Renoir, Picasso and Degas, cost just $6. With an afternoon flight approaching, I treated myself to a $30 late-morning repast at the casino's casual patisserie and sandwich shop.
Before I left the Sahara, I signed up for a player's club card, which gamblers insert into slot machines so that their play can be recorded and rewarded with free food and rooms. The card provided $10 of free slot machine play and I came away with a bonus of $15 after going through the free credits. That late rally made my total trip expenditure $481, taking into account tips, a few short cab rides and a nominal hotel "energy surcharge."
By the time I boarded the plane to Baltimore an hour later, the guys with the good haircuts and tailored Italian suits still had their piles of cash. Me, I still had my luggage. I call it even.
Here's a look at some free attractions:
Bellagio fountains. One of the most iconic image of Las Vegas, the dancing fountains put on a show every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the time of day.
Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. Spectacular botanical display that changes seasonally.
Fremont Street Experience. As close as I ever hope to come to the Rapture. Imagine thousands of people looking upward, agog, watching cartoon images on a canopy five football fields long while music thunders out of nowhere. Shows every hour after dusk. Visit vegasexperience.com/viva3.cfm.
Sirens of TI. In front of the former Treasure Island, now simply TI. Temptresses overpower sinewy but obviously wimpy pirates. Several times a night. Visit treasureisland.com/pages/ent_sirens.asp.
MGM Grand Lion Habitat. I once saw an attendant playing keep-away with a big ball with one these lions.
Masquerade Show in the Sky. At the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Similar to a Mardi Gras parade with overhead floats. And for $12.95, you can ride in a float, throw beads and be heckled by your fellow tourists.
Wynn Resort Lake of Dreams Show. Musical show at Steve Wynn's new resort featuring images projected onto a waterfall to create ethereal vignettes.
Mirage volcano. After 16 years, still blowing its top nightly.
Opera at the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes. A personal favorite. In this casino's shopping mall, talented street performers perform snippets of opera in St. Mark's Square several times day. Makes you feel a little guilty that you're not dressed better.
One common-sense caveat applies to most of these attractions: Whenever you are in a crowd watching any performance, keep track of your valuables.
If you go
Southwest Airlines offers daily flights from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, including some nonstop. Fares can vary, so plan in advance and check for Internet specials.
WHERE TO STAY
Sahara Hotel and Casino, 888-696-2121; clean, affordable lodging that's also close to transportation; saharavegas.com.
Riviera Hotel and Casino, 800-634-6753; www.rivierahotel.com.
Stratosphere Tower at north end of the Las Vegas Strip. Affordable luxury; stratospherehotel.com.
Monorail, $5 single ride; $15 unlimited for 24 hours. Four-mile, driverless trains arrive about every four to 12 minutes. Go to lvmonorail.com for route maps.
Deuce bus, $2 single ride, $5 unlimited for 24 hours. For maps and information, go to www.rtcsouthernnevada.com/deuce.
Airport shuttles, about $5 one-way, mccarran.com. Some casinos have free shuttles between sister properties.
WHERE TO EAT
Hard Rock Cafe, 4475 Paradise Road, 702-733-8400. Try Mr. Lucky's steak and shrimp "not on the menu" special, $7.77. Just ask.
Golden Gate Cafeteria, 1 Fremont St., 800-426-1906. It advertises more than 25 million served and at these prices, I believe it. Shrimp cocktail is 99 cents for regular and $2.99 for large.
The Flamingo, 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 800-732-2111. Paradise Garden Buffet, brunch, $12.95, daily, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ($2 more on weekends includes champagne). Ask for a table overlooking the wildlife habitat.
For inexpensive, last-minute tickets to various Vegas shows, visit tickets2nite.com.
Hilarious tour-de-force of doing Vegas inexpensively, cheapovegas.com. The official tourism site is lasvegas24hours.com