At four thirty a.m. last night I finished wolfing down my table-side omelet, racked up my chips, cashed in, left Bellagio's poker room, and headed to the airport for a red-eye back to San Francisco. I've been to Las Vegas more times than I can possibly count, and absolutely love it. When people tell me that they hate Vegas, my knee-jerk response is to tell them that they're doing the wrong things in Vegas.
So this is my quick and dirty guide to Vegas. And let's be honest. what other sort of guide to Vegas could possibly exist?
You should stay on the strip, preferably in the middle or South. I like the Bellagio hotel because it has a great location and is where I spend most of my time anyway. If you're going to stay there, call and ask for the "poker rate". It should be around $110 a night (they don't check to make sure you play poker, but you should live up to your end of the bargain and play). Another top choice is The Signature at MGM. Every room has a jacuzzi and a full kitchen (with pots and pans), so you can actually cook your own food. Healthy food is VERY hard to come by in Las Vegas, so this is a good option.
I would also gladly stay at the following hotels: MGM, New York New York, Treasure Island, Ceasar's Palace, Paris, Venetian, Wynn, Encore, anything in City Center, Luxor, or the Mirage. I may be forgetting a couple places. On any given night, you should be able to get a room for $60 or so at one of those hotels.
When you check in, do the "20 dollar trick", which has an 80%+ success rate in Las Vegas. Put a $20 bill in between your license and credit card, and hand it over to the checkin person. Ask if there are any complimentary upgrades. Many people get lucky and get upgraded to huge suites for free.
If you're staying for a week or longer, try renting a condo. There are a lot of them very close to the strip. Check craigslist.
There is no better city in the US to rent a car than Las Vegas. Rates are around $15 a day after taxes, and it will save you a $12 round-trip shuttle fare to and from the airport. Every casino has free parking, both valet and self-park. Distances are deceptive in Las Vegas-walking from one casino to its neighbor might take 15-20 minutes. There is a monorail as well, but it's expensive, doesn't go everywhere, and stops running at 2 or 3am. Stick with a rental car and self park it.
As a former professional gambler, take it from me: you probably shouldn't gamble. You can't expect to win at any game other than poker against other players (side note: there is actually a Hold'Em machine now that is beatable if you're a GREAT poker player).
If you do want to play poker, I recommend playing the $4-8 limit game at Bellagio or the $3-6 at the Mirage. The best book on the subject is Winning Low Limit Hold'Em by Lee Jones. If you can fully digest and commit to memory the information in that book, you will be better than 95% of players you'll run up against. I'm a break-even player and I don't have the whole book down, yet.
I think learning Poker is a really valuable skill. It has a lot of parallels in real life and is very rewarding because of how much concentration and thought it requires to win. I also have this theory that if you spent a college-tuition equivalent on a poker bankroll, you would probably be making a lot more in four years of independent poker study than you would at a crappy entry-level job.
By the way, you get free drinks while playing poker. There's a much larger selection than they let on. Besides the usual alcoholic drinks and sodas, you can get orange or strawberry juliuses, hot chocolate, or tea. The Bellagio has a really solid green tea, which really shocked me. It's perfect for staying up late for that red-eye. You can also have food delivered to you at the table. It's expensive enough that you may as well just go to the buffet (ask for a line pass from the poker room to cut the whole line), but in a pinch it's a good way to eat without getting up from the table.
The best thing to do in Vegas is to see shows. Particularly Cirque Du Soleil shows. See "O" and/or "Mystere" first. Always get a discount on your tickets. Check online or with the front desk at the hosting hotel. It is very common to be able to get two-for-one tickets to shows. You can even call the box office and tell them you have a two for one coupon, and they'll probably book it without asking for any details. Vegas is a city built on comps and discounts.
I don't recommend Blue Man Group. I did really enjoy the Penn and Teller show. I haven't seen Zumanity. Love, or Viva Elvis. The Chris Angel Cirque show is supposed to be terrible.
There are also really cool exhibits in Vegas. Bodies at the Luxor is one of the best. The shark aquarium at Mandalay Bay is worth seeing. The Secret Garden at Mirage is surprisingly good.
Most casinos have free shows. None of them are real standouts except for the fountains at Bellagio.
I would have called this section "Food", but the truth is that 95% of my meals in Vegas have been at buffets. Nowhere in the world have I encountered such awesome buffets. They're expensive, but worth it.
Most buffets are truly awful, but the Bellagio and Wynn buffets are exceptional and about on par with each other. Wynn labels things as vegan, which is nice. At both you can expect high end items like crab legs, kobe beef, rack of lamb, and an assortment of fish and good vegetables. Neither consistently provides beans, which is disappointing.
The secret to buffets is to get there half an hour before the lunch-dinner switch. Pay the cheaper lunch rate, eat one plate of lunch food, and then for your second round, enjoy the more expensive dinner items. More variety, cheaper price.
At the Bellagio, you have to try the pesto mashed potatoes. I don't eat potatoes generally, but I always treat myself to a small glop of these suckers. Even the most skeptic of friends have been won over by the pesto mashed potatoes. Mmm.
That's about all I have to say about Vegas. It's such a cheap flight from almost anywhere in the US that it's a great place to meet friends from othter cities, or just go for a few days with your friends. Most people seem to agree that three days is the right amount of time in Vegas. I stayed for three weeks once and had a good time, but it's a different experience.
I took the header photo in 2000 on what was probably my second or third trip to Vegas. It doesn't seem as though I've taken many pictures there since then.
I'm back in SF for a while, planning on working, riding my motorcycle, and playing poker. Awesome.
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