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.
Besides the high-end hotel room glut, there's another high-end glut in the food scene. Ever since the Bellagio opened its doors and introduced America to Le Cirque, casinos have been all about signing up name-brand chefs to open name-brand restaurants. In the Venetian alone, you will find Mario Batali's B&B Ristorante, David Burke's eponymous restaurant, Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse, and Wolfgang Puck's Postrio—and that's not counting the seven other fine-dining outposts whose chefs I do not immediately recognize. So what happens during a downturn? You get the tasting menu at Daniel Boulud Brasserie, in the Wynn, for $48 if you eat before 7 p.m.
It's actually not so bad eating at 6:50, which is when I'm seated on my first night and served a tasty glass of viognier. The meal starts with an amuse-bouche (a lobster knuckle on a cracker, topped with green-tea cream) and ends with a plate of petits fours. There's also a very fine piece of skate served with a brown-butter sauce over pureed potatoes and roasted cauliflower. I take a not insignificant pleasure in knowing how much money I'm saving on all of these delicious things—in this case, about $20.
Method two: The walk-up
It's Thursday. Tomorrow is the weekend, when Las Vegas will get more expensive, but for now the dream of the Scarface suite for $14 lives on. Today I'm going to test out the cash-in-hand theory. You may be able to negotiate on the phone from your hometown. But, logically, you should have more pull when you're standing there with your bills.
My strategy is to start with the Expedia rates so I know what I've got to beat. Then I'll go to all the hotels and see if I can do better at the front desk. First stop is the Encore, twin sister to the Wynn, which I want bad. There's no real reason, except that it's newer than the 4-year-old Wynn (it opened last year)—and the prices are generally higher online. Today, the rate is $239 on Expedia, and the woman at the front desk says she can give me a room for $219. Upgrading to a Tower suite is an additional $100.
"But I got the identical thing at the Wynn last night for $90!" I toss back.
Still, I am denied.
I'm quoted a great deal at The Palazzo Resort—$179 for the basic room, and the upgrade to the Siena Suite is only $100. That's $279 for a 1,283-square-foot room with a Jacuzzi, two bathrooms, and a living room that could very well be sunken, the agent says, if I am lucky. I try the Bellagio last. But when the deal isn't as good, I call the Palazzo from the Bellagio's lobby on my cell phone.
"That'll be $469 for the Siena Suite," the woman on the phone says.
"I was just there," I say. "The guy at the front desk told me to be sure to say I wanted the walk-up rate. It was $179 plus $100 for the upgrade."
"It's $469," she says flatly.
The "walk-up" rate seems to require just that. Because once I'm back at the front desk at the Palazzo in person, I'm quoted the $179 rate again—or $279 for the whole-shebang suite, which I go for, naturally. Having checked in, I seek out the fourth floor of the hotel, where, spanning the expanse between the Palazzo and the Venetian, is Canyon Ranch SpaClub, one of the largest known spas in the universe. I got nowhere bargaining with the folks at the Wynn's spa or the one at the Bellagio. Some of them are doing 20-percent-off deals for locals, but I think getting a counterfeit driver's license stretches the journalistic boundaries of this story. But Canyon Ranch is running an online special: $280 for a 50-minute massage, a 50-minute facial, access to the gym for the day, and a $20 gift certificate for lunch at Canyon Ranch's grill or café. All told, you're saving about $60. And, since I was able to convince the staff to tack on gym and spa access for the next day (normally it runs $40), it's closer to $100 I'm not paying. After three hours of hands-on services and pan-flute music, I emerge from Canyon Ranch in as relaxed a state as I've ever been in Las Vegas. Which lasts about 17 minutes.
Method three: The gamble
And that brings us to what is perhaps the craziest glut in Las Vegas: four separate shows of Cirque du Soleil. There is O, Love, and Zumanity, and the act I get tickets for, Kà. How are there that many people on earth who can put their own foot in their ear while bungee jumping through a flaming hoop?
Saving money in Vegas involves an awful lot of taxiing. A concierge at the Wynn tipped me off that the best ticket prices in town are found at the discounter Tix4Tonight, which has an outpost across from my hotel in the Fashion Show mall. I end up paying $100 for a voucher good for a seat that usually costs up to $150. To be issued the actual ticket, I have to haul myself back to the MGM, where Kà is performed, but the payoff, a 10th-row-center seat, makes the extra effort worth it.
After picking up my ticket, it's back to the Palazzo for my free day at Canyon Ranch. I do everything—the steam room, the Finnish sauna, some kind of herbal hot room that has a rock crystal fixed to the ceiling—and then I fall asleep in one of the relaxing chairs next to a naked guy reading a Martha Stewart magazine.
At dinner the night before—the $60 prix fixe at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand—I met a man who told me he works as a pit boss at the Bellagio. The pit boss is the guy who oversees blackjack dealers and the like, making sure everything is kosher and identifying high rollers in order to give them perks to keep them in the casino. We were both eating at the bar, having the winter tasting menu, which is a beautifully obscene amount of food: four appetizers, two kinds of steak, scallops, three side dishes (including a copper pot filled with Yukon gold potatoes pureed with at least 17 sticks of butter) and a cranberry crisp with vanilla ice cream. The pit boss told me that the best time to get a deal on rooms is at 8 p.m. At that point, all the rooms the pit bosses haven't doled out to high rollers are turned back over to the salespeople, who are deputized to sell them cheap.
I make the rounds of all my target hotels, step up to the front desks, and ask for deals. It's Friday night, so the prices have soared. The Encore is $750 online, and the staff won't go below $279 at the front desk. The Bellagio's best walk-up rate is $199 (about $50 less than the phone rate), but the woman at the front desk says there's no chance for an upgrade. At the Trump, though, the man on duty quotes me $169.
I pause and see if he'll take the bait.
"Sir, we can go to $129 if you want the best possible rate," he says, poker-faced. "Or we can do our 900-square-foot suite for $169."
"Sir," I say, taking out my credit card, "I am a 900-square-foot kind of guy."
I go to my room—a view of the pool and the Strip beyond, high-thread-count white sheets, and a kitchen with a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Then it's off to Kà, which basically blows my mind. I sit in my seat and mouth "holy crap" over and over (I am not exaggerating, sadly). Before the show, the couple next to me tell me they paid $150 each for their tickets. I give them the card for Tix4Tonight. Then I start boring them with all the ways I have learned to get luxury on the cheap. The man is polite for a while, but there's an exciting explosion on the stage that indicates showtime is approaching.
"Fireball!" he says, meaning "let's not talk any more." "Fireball!" I say. I refrain from telling him how much I'm paying for my hotel room.
Wynn Las Vegas
3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702/770-7000, wynnlasvegas.com
The Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino
3325 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702/607-7777, palazzolasvegas.com
Trump Hotel Las Vegas
2000 Fashion Show Dr., 702/982-0000, trumplasvegashotel.com
Daniel Boulud Brasserie
Wynn Las Vegas, 702/248-3463, wynnlasvegas.com
MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702/891-1111, mgmgrand.com
Canyon Ranch SpaClub
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702/414-3600, canyonranch.com
Six locations, 877/849-4868, tix4tonight.com