Trip Coach: August 19, 2008
Sara Benson, author of "Lonely Planet Las Vegas," answered your questions about trips to Sin City.
Sara Benson: Hello! This is Sara Benson, and I'm thrilled to talk with you today about Las Vegas. Let's get started!
Belleville, N.J.: Sara, my wife and I have been to Vegas twice together, and naturally, we took a beating at the casinos both times! We may be going back again next month as my wife has to go out there for work, but I doubt I'll be seeing her much during the trip. Any recommendations on what I can do with my time alone, besides laying at the pool? (I'd like to try to avoid gambling in the casinos, since her company is paying for the room and I'd actually like to save the money I'm saving!)
Sara Benson: So, you're looking for attractions that are not too temptingly close to casinos and don't cost much, right? That pretty much eliminates the entire Strip!
That said, if you have enough willpower to resist stepping inside the gaming areas, there are plenty of low-cost attractions at the Strip's casino hotels, including free shows such as the Bellagio's dancing fountains, the exploding volcano outside the Mirage, the sexy pirate show at TI, circus acts at Circus Circus, celebrity-impersonating "dealertainers" at the Imperial Palace, the wildlife gardens at the Flamingo, the walk-through lion habitat at MGM Grand—the list just goes on, and on.
Off the Strip, you can peruse rock 'n roll memorabilia for free on the walls of the Hard Rock casino (though again, don't step up to the gaming tables!) or watch the cheesy sound-and-light shows downtown at the Fremont Street Experience, but it's located on Glitter Gulch's casino row.
If you don't mind paying for admission to a place where you can safely spend a few hours away from the ding-ding-ding of the slot machines, zoom up the Stratosphere Tower to test its high-elevation thrill rides. Then head off-Strip to the historical Atomic Testing Museum, the eccentric Liberace Museum or the eco-conscious Springs Preserve, a cultural and natural history museum complex with a "green" desert living center, outdoor xeriscape gardens and interpretive trails atop the original site of the natural springs that gave Las Vegas its Spanish name, "the meadows."
Portland, Maine: Hi, Sara! I am planning my first visit to Las Vegas coming up in early February. I will be traveling with my girlfriend to celebrate her 50th birthday, but we are not gamblers. I know there are some amazing sights, shows and shopping, and some great natural sights outside the city. But what are the "not-to-be-missed" sights for a first time visitor? Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to reading the chat at the end of my workday.
Sara Benson: You're right. Las Vegas has a lot more to offer non-gamblers these days. For starters, see my answer to Belleville, N.J., above. Other not-to-be-missed sights include the neon lights of the Strip at night and the half-scale Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas, which has grand Strip views from an outdoor platform high in the air.
When it comes to Las Vegas shows, tickets tend to be expensive and can sell out far ahead of time, especially for Cirque du Soleil spectaculars or a Broadway-style production like Jersey Boys at the Palazzo or Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian. If you're not too picky about which shows you see, you can score same-day discounts tickets at Tix 4 Tonight, which has five locations downtown and on the Strip, including at the giant Coca-Cola bottle, just north of the MGM Grand.
When it comes to shopping, just about every high-end casino resort, including the Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas, has a luxurious shopping arcade. The biggest shopping malls on the Strip are the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood and the Fashion Show, north of TI, but the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian are more better places to stroll while being entertained and doing some window shopping. The discerning Shoppes at Palazzo are anchored by Barneys New York department store. If outlet shopping is more your bag, head west of downtown to the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, the city's best budget-saving shopping pick.
For natural escapes from the urban jungle, Red Rock Canyon is just a 30-minute drive from the trip. It should be on everyone's must-see list, but fortunately isn't. The startling contrast between the Strip's artificial neon glow and the awesome natural forces of the canyon can't be exaggerated. A 13-mile, one-way scenic driving and cycling loop passes by panoramic viewpoints, while rugged hiking trails leading to seasonal waterfalls.
Even more popular for first-time visitors is the art-deco Hoover Dam, once the tallest in the world, and still an engineering marvel. Bus tours from Las Vegas are a good deal and guarantee a ticket for the tour, which lets you ride an elevator 50 stories down to see the massive power generators, then zoom back up to view the exhibit halls, outdoor spillways and the Winged Figures of the Republic memorial.