THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
Luxury for Less in Las Vegas
We sent intrepid writer Andrew Lincoln on a mission to see just how low some of the world's most over-the-top hotels would go. Turns out that, with a little ingenuity, these days you can get it all for the price of taking your family to the movies.
A man who works at a casino was sitting next to me in a restaurant not long ago. He had a watch that looked like a hubcap from a Bentley, except that it had diamonds on it. He'd worked for Bellagio, the hotel-casino that helped reinvent Las Vegas as a luxury destination for the masses in 1998. He'd worked for MGM Grand. He'd worked for Wynn. He would be going to Las Vegas in a week, he said, and he would be staying in a room that was 900 square feet, where you could talk on the phone and watch a flat-screen TV while you were in the Jacuzzi. The kind of room that even on discount websites goes for $900. Only he would be paying, if things went according to his plan, no more than $200 a night. And what was his secret? I asked. Because people who tell you stuff like this are usually dying for you to ask what their secret is.
"The thing people don't realize," he said, lifting his glass of pinot noir, "is that if you want a better price on a room in Vegas, all you have to do is ask. So I'm planning to negotiate. In Las Vegas, you just can't be afraid to ask."
Las Vegas has always been the place where Joe Six-pack could live like a high roller for a weekend. If you couldn't afford to go to Paris and stay at the Hôtel de Crillon, you could at least go to the Paris hotel in Vegas and have men in French sailor hats open the door for you. But in 2009, those of us on this side of the check-in counter find that the math is even more in our favor. Last year, Las Vegas added close to 9,000 hotel rooms to the existing 133,000. And in 2009, 14,000 more hotel rooms are scheduled to open. Meanwhile, you've got slumping demand: Last year tourism was down 4 percent compared with the previous year, and this year's numbers are expected to be even lower. That's why you hear about extreme measures. We're talking rooms going for $40 a weeknight at places like the Excalibur.
These days, there are simply too many ridiculous rooms with hot tubs and wet bars and views of the bright, gleaming desert floor to go around—and I consider it part of my patriotic duty to not let all those marble baths go to waste. So I will accept The Budget Travel Challenge: Spend three days in Las Vegas seeking out the most extreme luxury for as little money as possible, using any sort of bargaining techniques that don't require identity theft and can be reproduced by savvy travelers.
Having been to Vegas several times, I have identified what I believe are the six best luxury hotels: the Bellagio, the Venetian, the Palazzo, the Wynn, the Encore, and the Trump (there's the Ritz, too, but it's miles from the Strip, so it doesn't count for me). I want to stay exclusively in those hotels—and in the high-roller rooms at that. And that's just the beginning. I was going to test the man with the watch's theory and find how much you can get in Vegas simply by asking (and asking, and asking).
Method one: The Internet
The air just smells different in the Wynn Las Vegas. They pump in a fragrance that makes it feel like stepping inside the lint trap of a large, well-maintained dryer. The smell hits you as soon as you enter the atrium and make your way to the front desk, hidden, as all things in Las Vegas are, somewhere beyond the casino floor.
A woman dressed like a flight attendant from a superior society greets me at the front desk with a smile. I wait for her to see that I reserved my room through Priceline and realize that she doesn't have to kiss my butt. It's one of the 2,063 Resort rooms, the lowest grade. The rate for it on Expedia was $200, so I called the Wynn directly. The agent said she could do $189. I called back and told them I gambled a lot and wasn't very good at it. I told them I was going to stay at the Bellagio if they didn't give me a better price. Every time I called, I got a different rate: $209, $179, $129. But they wouldn't go under $109 (9 is apparently their lucky number). Then I went on Priceline and started the bidding at $60. I kept going up by $5 increments and ultimately scored at $90—a day before checking in.
I'm pretty psyched about the rate, but the thing is, once I'm at the front desk, I want to ask for more; after all, I'm just getting started with this challenge, and I have lots of tricks. My plan is to call downstairs when I get to my room and tell them something inventive—my room smells bad?—and see where that gets me. But the woman preempts me: "It looks like we're all sold out of our Resort rooms. You've been upgraded to the Tower Suites." My new room would have gone for $350 at full price. I have to admit I'm a little disappointed. It's that easy?
The Tower Suites section of the hotel, with about 300 rooms, has its own entrance and front desk and is even more elaborately marble-paneled, gilded, and flowered than the main section. And the room? Is it really better? Well, yeah, it's better. It's about 650 square feet, with cranberry-colored walls, remote control drapery, Warhol prints, and a phone in the bathroom (hurrah!). But the feature you'd be paying the extra $150 for is the view; my room overlooks the mossy puzzle pieces of the vaunted Wynn golf course, and beyond that the Las Vegas basin.