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.
North Vancouver, B.C.: Are there still buffets in Vegas that are a good value?
Sara Benson: Definitely. The days of $5 steak-and-eggs buffets after midnight are gone, though. You'll pay through the nose for a top-class buffet at the Wynn Las Vegas or Bellagio resorts, which charge around $15 for breakfast, $20 for lunch and $35 or more for dinner. For solid-gold value on the Strip, my personal favorites are Le Village Buffet for breakfast or brunch at Paris Las Vegas or the Spice Market Buffet for lunch or dinner at Planet Hollywood. If you're going to gorge on seafood, hit Asian-flavored Todai seafood and sushi buffet at the Miracle Mile Shops, next door to Planet Hollywood, or the Village Seafood Buffet over at the Rio casino hotel, west of the Strip—the latter is pricey, but worth it.
Port Richey, Fla.: My husband and I (50ish) will be staying in Vegas on September 11 and 12th. What is the best low-cost hotel (3 or more on strip or downtown) for a week and weekend day? I'm looking at Harrah's and Hooters at this time. Thanks!
Sara Benson: Wherever you stay in Las Vegas, weekend rates are going to be significantly higher than on weekdays. Weekends often required a two-night minimum stay (i.e., no Saturday check-ins). While it might be tempting to mix and match hotels by staying somewhere different each night to score the cheapest rates, I wouldn't recommend that strategy. Honestly, the hassle of changing hotels twice is not worth the cost savings.
Because you are leaving less than a month from now, you may find that the cheapest rooms are already gone at casino hotels. However, some of these rooms might be released again a few days before your departure date, if the casino hotel has many cancellations. That said, you probably don't want to wait until the last minute to book your hotel room and take a chance on having nowhere good to stay. Right?
Hooters has an inconvenient off-Strip location and a hurly-burly crowd. Harrah's is a reliable standby with a location smack dab in the middle of the Strip. You may be able to find cheaper rates almost next door at the Imperial Palace, although the quality of the rooms doesn't compare. Conveniently, these casino hotels—and many more—are owned by Harrah's, which means you can quickly compare rates for over a half dozen casino hotels, both on and off the Strip, with just one click of the mouse on Harrahs.com.
If all that matters to you is paying rock-bottom prices, try the Orleans, located west of I-15 but offering free guest shuttles to the Strip, and the Sahara, on the far northern Strip, but with its own monorail station. If you are willing to pay a little more to stay on the Strip, the Monte Carlo, which suffered a fire in early 2008 but has completely re-opened for business as usual, has been offering some good deals these days.
Last but not least, I've often found budget-minded Travelworm to be a better all-around source of Las Vegas casino hotel deals than some competitors like Orbitz.
Conroe, Tex.: We will be visiting Las Vegas for 3 days and 4 nights the first week in October for my birthday (#38). This will be our seventh trip there. The last time we were there, we had lunch at Bobby Flay's restaurant in Caesars. Is there any other place similar to this in food quality and price? We are not big eaters but we like good tasting food.
Sara Benson: Wow, what a question you've asked! There are so many restaurants to choose from in Las Vegas, one could write an entire book about them—in fact, some people have.
A few top picks on the Strip that you might enjoy: Olives at the Bellagio; Table 10 or Dos Caminos at the Palazzo; Social House at TI (Treasure Island); Tao or David Burke at the Venetian; or Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM Grand. If you take time to venture off the Strip, you'll often find better bargains serving outstanding food. I'm a big fan of Firefly, Origin India and Paymon's Mediterranean Cafe along Paradise Road east of the Strip. It's worth driving out to Summerlin, far northwest of the Strip, for long-standing locals' favorite Rosemary's Restaurant or newcomer Vintner Grill—but be sure to make reservations before you do, to avoid disappointment.
For the low-down on buffets, see my answer to North Vancouver, B.C., above.
Union City, Calif.: I am planning a road trip with my mother from Sept 23 thru the 26. My question is: My mother can out gamble me; she can stay up and out all night long. I would like to book a room where I can leave her in the casino and go to bed and not worry about her security. I wanted to spend less money on the room since we only need to sleep and shower but worry that security will not be very good. Also I hear there is some sort of ghost town on the outskirts of Vegas that I am interested in visiting. Do you know anything about this town?
Sara Benson: Thankfully, you don't have to sacrifice security to find cheap sleeps in Las Vegas. If you stay at just about any casino hotel, security guards are omnipresent and "eye in the sky" surveillance runs 24/7/365. For you and your mother, I wouldn't hesitate to reserve a hotel room anywhere along the Strip. For some of my favorite budget choices, see my answer to Port Richey, Fla., above. In downtown Las Vegas, casino hotels around Fremont Street can attract a tougher crowd, but the quaint neo-Victorian Main Street Station and the glitzy Golden Nugget are great choices, especially for women travelers.
Ghost towns? Nevada is full of 'em, but none are too close to Las Vegas. I'd recommend visiting Death Valley National Park, which has several Old West mining ghost towns. Just east of that national park near Beatty, Nevada, is the ghost town of Rhyolite, which has some impressive ruins, including a skeletal three-story bank and a historic miner's house made entirely of recycled glass bottles. But the place you might be thinking of is Calico Ghost Town, along I-15 east of Barstow, Calif., a convenient stopping point about halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It's he most expensive ghost town to visit, with most of the family-friendly activities such as gold panning and riding the historic narrow-gauge railway priced a la carte.
Byron, Minn.: We are planning a trip to Las Vegas September 4th-7th. Is a day trip to Death Valley worth the trip? This is specifically a hiking, nature-related weekend trip.
Sara Benson: Absolutely, although a day trip is really rushing it—make sure you get a very early start! Otherwise, an overnight stay in Death Valley will give you more time to explore and to soak up a fantastic sunset and sunrise. If you're a fan of desert scenery, there are great outdoor-oriented places closer to Las Vegas, such as Red Rock Canyon (see my answer to Portland, Maine, above) and Valley of Fire State Park. Just across the Utah border, Zion National Park is almost the same distance from Las Vegas as Death Valley, and can also be visited as a day trip. For first-time visitors who love hiking and the outdoors, the most popular excursion is to the south rim of the Grand Canyon—if you haven't been there yet, I recommend it highly. Although it's a significantly longer day trip than to Death Valley, there are organized bus tours that you can take, which makes the excursion a little less tiring, if you're willing to sacrifice your travel independence and just go with the flow (e.g., there probably won't be much time for hiking around or down into the canyon).
Shawnee, Kans.: How efficient and reliable is the public transportation in Las Vegas? If I want to fly in for a short trip, can I easily get from the airport to a strip hotel using the public transit?
Sara Benson: To get around Las Vegas without a car, you can rely on a combination of taxi, bus and monorail rides. Occasionally, it may be faster to just hoof it up the Strip, rather than waiting for a double-decker Deuce bus or wending your way through a purposefully confusing casino to the monorail stations hidden out back.
But that's only once you've already gotten to the Strip. Coming from the airport, public buses do not travel directly to Strip, although they do connect with a few inconvenient monorail stations and eventually downtown's transportation center. Your cheapest option is to take a free airport shuttle, if your hotel offers one. Otherwise, airport shuttle buses are relatively inexpensive (charging from $6 per person to the Strip), but notoriously slow. If you take a taxi to the Strip, expect to pay at least $15 to $20 or maybe more, depending on your destination.
Lincoln, Nebr.: What would you consider to be a good, reasonably-priced, central or accessible location for someone to stay if they don't plan to rent a car?
Sara Benson: See my answer to Shawnee, Kans., above. If you stay anywhere along the Strip, you won't need a car. Some off-Strip casino hotels such as the Orleans, Rio and Hard Rock provide free guest shuttles to take you to and from the Strip, although they don't run around the clock. Downtown casino hotels are another option, as long as you're prepared to take taxis or ride the slow double-decker Deuce buses south to the Strip.
Washington, D.C.: I am going with 5 other ladies in December for 4 nights/3 days. I want to stay at the MGM, but a friend of mine seems to think that the Mandalay Bay is the best of the 2. Can you tell me? I am going on a package deal (hotel/flight) but I want a nice bed (2 queen size), smoking, and separate shower/tub, which I see MGM has. Let me know what you think. It is costing us $532.00 for this package including transfers to and from the airport, which is also close, right?
Sara Benson: The airport is reasonably close to the south end of the Strip, where both the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay resorts are located. Which hotel is better is a moot point—what matters is the room type that your package deal is offering you. The most basic hotel rooms at the MGM Grand do not offer the same upscale amenities as the freshly renovated rooms that you'll find at Mandalay Bay. Both resorts have amazing pool complexes, but only Mandalay Bay has an artificial beach. In my opinion, the MGM Grand has better-value restaurants, including some designed by star chefs Wolfgang Pack, Michael Mina and Joel Robuchon. The MGM Grand also has its own monorail station and is closer to the rest of the Strip. Mandalay Bay has eclectic shopping in the adjacent Mandalay Place shopping mall, as well as sky-high lounge Mix, which has a glass elevator and sunset views of the desert and mountains.
So, which hotel is best? Pick either the one that has the most important perks for you personally, or the one that offers you the highest-class room along with your package deal. Hopefully, those will turn out to be the same place!
Montoursville, Pa.: In April '09, the World Cup equestrian competition (jumping and dressage) will be held in Las Vegas's Mack Center. I've got tickets that cost a mint and want to save as much as I can elsewhere. I'll be there for about a week. How can I "shoestring" my lodging, food, and transportation requirements?
Sara Benson: One of my favorite budget hotels these days is South Point, a short drive or free hotel shuttle ride south of the Strip. With its own equestrian events center, you'll find lots of rodeo folks staying here, too. Spacious, immaculately kept rooms with comfy beds go for as little as $50 on weekdays. If you sign up for the hotel's mailing list, special deals like stay-1-night-get-1-free coupons will be sent to you periodically. If you want to really scrape the bottom of the barrel, boring chain motels line Paradise Rd, east of the Strip.
When it comes to transportation, you usually don't need to rent a car in Las Vegas unless you're venturing outside the city limits. You can get around much more cheaply, if slowly using public buses and the monorail system on the Strip. That said, the Thomas & Mack Center is on the UNLV campus east of the Strip, so unless you're willing to walk quite a distance from the nearest bus stop, rent a car or plan on taking taxis a lot.
Saving money on food in Las Vegas? That's a tough one. At Strip casino hotels, you'll find a few inexpensive food courts like the Village Eateries at New York¿New York and Cypress Street Marketplace at Caesars Palace. Downtown's Fremont St has cheap, but not necessarily good eats. Some tastier locals' restaurants are found east of the Strip along Paradise Rd and in Chinatown, which sprawls in strip malls along Spring Mountain Rd west of I-15.
One last piece of advice about finding hotel rooms so far in advance (i.e., your trip isn't until April 2009). You should search around for a good deal now and make reservations, but also remember to search for bargain hotel room again a few weeks in advance of your trip. If you find an even better deal then, you can often cancel your first hotel reservation. Just be sure check the fine print carefully when you reserve that first hotel room, because some of the best room deals in Las Vegas these days are non-refundable.
Hunlock Creek, Pa.: Which hotels have the best view of McClaren Airport? I'm looking for a hotel from which I can watch the jets landing and taking off.
Sara Benson: Now, that's a question I've never heard before. While some high-rise casino hotels on the east side of Strip may have airport views, you can't guarantee that you'll get an upper-floor room facing exactly the right direction when you check in. However, if you love to watch jetliners take off and land, then I've got just the place for you. On the north side of Sunset Rd, east of the Strip between Paradise Rd and Eastern Ave., there's a plane spotters' parking lot that affords perfect views of McCarran's parallel runways. Enjoy!
New York City, N.Y.: How can I get the cheapest tickets for shows like Love and Bette Midler? I'll be in Las Vegas in early December. Thank you.
Sara Benson: Whew! You've named two of the most popular shows playing in Las Vegas now. It's unlikely that there would be same-day discount tickets available at Tix 4 Tonight (see my answer to Portland, Maine, above) during your trip, and you'd be taking quite a chance by waiting that long—you might miss out on seeing these shows entirely. To be safe, you should probably buy your tickets now and pay full-price. But check online to see if the casino resorts where these shows are playing (Caesars Palace for Bette Midler, the Mirage for Love) are offering any stay-and-play package deals that include discounts on show tickets. That might save you money, although take time to compare these special package offers with the cheapest rates otherwise available for online bookings at those hotels. Sometimes (but not always) Las Vegas casino-hotel packages turn out to be more expensive than the sum of their parts, booked separately.
Silverthorne, Colo.: We will be visiting Las Vegas on October 8 and 9, 2008. We have never been to a show there and will only have time to attend one. What suggestions do you have? We are three adults and it is a first visit for our adult son. Thank you!
Sara Benson: Personally speaking, I think that most shows in Las Vegas are overpriced, but you definitely get what you pay for. Skimp on tickets to a daytime variety show, and you'll probably walk away disappointed. If you're only going to see one show, go big—see a Cirque du Soleil production (Mystere at TI is usually the least expensive, and sometimes same-day discount tickets are available at Tix 4 Tonight—see my answer to Portland, Maine, above), a famous entertainer like Bette Midler or a Broadway-style production like Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, which has its own custom-built theater at the Venetian with an on-stage lake and special effects like fireworks and an exploding chandelier. If all of these shows are already sold-out, you can sometimes still get tickets to other Broadway musicals like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!. If you're looking for a vintage Vegas experience and don't mind a little kitsch, go see The Rat Pack is Back! at the Plaza downtown on Fremont Street—the Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonators are a hoot.
Silver Spring, Md.: Are there any shows for adults that are not R-rated, other than magic? I'd like to take my husband to see something musical that doesn't distract him from me!
Sara Benson: Fear not: topless girlie shows are only a small fraction of what casino-hotel showrooms and theaters offer these days.
If you like the music of the Beatles, go see Cirque du Soleil's Love at the Mirage. For traditional Broadway musicals, there's Jersey Boys at the Palazzo, Mamma Mia! at Mandalay Bay and Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian. You could also go see Bette Midler at Caesars Palace. For musical celebrity impersonators, Legends in Concert at the Imperial Palace is a less-expensive ticket.
If you just want to hear music without all the trappings of a show, check out what's playing at the House of Blues inside Mandalay Bay; the Pearl at the Palms, west of the Strip; or the Joint at the Hard Rock, east of the Strip.
Highland, Mich.: Other than the Golden Nugget, are there any other good places to stay in downtown Las Vegas? It always seems kind of "gritty" down there, compared to the Strip.
Sara Benson: I know what you mean, but I've always found Main Street Station to be a good deal, with well-kept rooms and a genial atmosphere. The two-block walk to Fremont Street can be a bit dicey at night, however. See also my answer to Union City, Calif., above.
Rockville, Md.: My husband and I are going to Vegas for our one-year anniversary. Is there any really good sushi on the Strip? Also, any romantic things you recommend?
Sara Benson: You've hit on two of my favorites things, food and romance.
I'm a sushi fanatic and I used to live in Japan, but until recently, I've found sushi bars in Las Vegas not to be on a par with places nearer the California coast, which makes sense. That said, I recently had one of the most fantastic meals of my life (and this is coming from a veteran travel writer, who always does restaurant reviews anonymously and pays her own way) at SushiSamba inside the new Palazzo casino hotel. They have both authentic Japanese sushi, sake and robatayaki grill dishes, along with South American fusion tastes, plus a vibrant atmosphere that's almost like a nightclub. I've also heard good things about Koi, an LA import at Planet Hollywood, but the place has been fairly empty both times I've stopped by to take a look, so I haven't personally tried it yet. Another under-the-radar sushi bar that attracts a lot of Asian tourists is Shibuya at the MGM Grand. If it's quantity that you're really after, try Todai seafood and sushi buffet at the Miracle Mile Shops, next to Planet Hollywood.
For romance, the possibilities are endless. I always find that "ultra lounges," with their exotic cocktails and super-cool vibes, really heat things up. Mix lounge atop THEhotel at Mandalay Bay has sky-high views of the Strip with all its neon blazing at night. Another thing that could heighten the romantic factor for your trip is to book a sexy suite—I recently stayed at the new Palms Place, west of the Strip, and loved the modern decor, Strip views, in-suite kitchen and uncrowded swimming pool and spa. Other romantic suites that I prefer on the Strip include the Venetian and Palazzo, the MGM Grand (Signature Suites or Skylofts), Wynn Las Vegas and THEhotel at Mandalay Bay. Downtown, the Golden Nugget's Gold Club Rooms are also fantastic, though they're not as roomy as suites, of course.
Arlington, Va.: Any recommendations on good reasonable restaurants—we are going in October. Thanks!
Sara Benson: See my answer to Conroe, Tex., above.
Garfield, Ariz.: We will be going to Las Vegas next month for a week. What hotels are the cheapest, but the cleanest? Age doesn't matter; I just need it clean.
Sara Benson: See my answers to Port Richey, Fla.; Union City, Calif.; and Lincoln, Nebr.; and Montoursville, Pa.; above.
Albany, N.Y.: My daughter and I are planning a trip to Las Vegas 11/13 - 11/16/08. She has a credit with Southwest that has to be used by January '09. We have never been to Las Vegas and were hoping to find a decent place to stay (with airport shuttle service) within our budget(flight and hotel around $1000.00). Your expertise would be very helpful. I really enjoy your magazine!
Sara Benson: You've started planning at the right time. Three months before any trip to Las Vegas should be enough advance notice to score some really good hotel deals. Because you're staying over a weekend, expect to pay upwards of $200 per night for a casino hotel on the Strip. You can get a pretty good idea of the going rates by plugging in your travel dates at Travelworm.com and re-ordering the search results by price. Then, pick a few casino hotels that fit within your budget and go directly to their websites to look for the "Special Offers" or "Package Deals" tab. Sometimes, booking directly with Las Vegas casino hotels can save you money, whether you reserve their cheapest online rates or book an entire package deal. By that, I mean a room with extra perks (e.g., discounted show tickets, casino dining credits) and not a flight-and-room combo, as it sounds like you already have your flights sorted out.
Some major casino resorts offer airport shuttle service, but if not, just take a taxi, which should only cost you $15 to $20, maybe a little more.
Sara Benson: Thanks to everyone for sending in their questions about Las Vegas today. This is Sara Benson, author of Lonely Planet's Las Vegas and Encounter Las Vegas guidebooks, signing off.