4 Days, 3 Nights in Las Vegas For $500

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Here's an hour-by-hour, dollar-for-dollar diary of some of the best times in your life

If you're strong enough to spend four days in Sin City without ever going near a roulette wheel or slot machine, you and your companion can enjoy the entire experience for a total of under $500. And I mean "enjoy"- visiting a dizzying variety of shows, museums, events, panoramas, and both man-made and natural wonders. And savoring tasty meals that leave you full and content!

We're going to assume a late-afternoon arrival and a decision to have dinner before you check in to your hotel: the spectacular Stratosphere Tower, whose midweek rates quite frequently go down to $35 a room per night. From the airport, my advice is that you begin with one of the bargain highlights of the itinerary: dinner at Ellis Island.

Day one

You won't find this casino featured in the travel guides, but its caf, serves the best meal deal in Las Vegas: a complete steak dinner for just $4.95. Though it's not on the menu, it's available 24 hours a day. Ellis Island is also a microbrewery, and homemade beers and root beer are just $1 if you buy them at the bar and carry them in (which you can do in most Las Vegas restaurants). Two steaks and two drinks: $12.

7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Take a Strip Tour/Then Check In: Take a left on Flamingo, then head to the Strip and one of the most famous intersections in the world. To the left is Paris and its 460-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, and Bellagio is across the street. To the right is the world-renowned Caesars Palace and the massive Colosseum, where Celine Dion plays nightly. Go right on the Strip. You'll pass the Mirage-catalyst for the "New Las Vegas" when it debuted in 1989-and the sprawling Venetian. Slightly beyond are the steel girders that will be the $2 billion megaresort Wynn Las Vegas (formerly Le Reve) when it opens in 2005. You've seen these places on TV and in the movies, now they flank you on either side.

As you reach the north end of the Strip, the older resorts have more familiar names: Riviera, Stardust, Circus Circus, Sahara. You'll have no trouble locating your hotel. Just look up; the Stratosphere Tower looms ahead. Check in, freshen up, and relax. Strip tour: $0.

8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Stratosphere Tower: Before beginning the evening, there are two things you need to do. First, call the Plaza Casino (702/386-2110) and make reservations for dinner at 6:30 on the final night of your trip at the Center Stage restaurant. And second, page through Showbiz magazine (available in your hotel room) to find the coupon for the Hard Rock Casino's "Six Pack," which is found in this periodical exclusively; you'll need it on Day Two. Now head to the Stratosphere's observation tower, clutching the funbook that's distributed to hotel guests. It includes a coupon for half off tower admission, which lowers the price to $4. Ride the high-speed, double-decker elevator to the 107th floor and spend an hour atop the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Of the two rides at the top, the High Roller (coaster) is a snore. But for adrenaline junkies, the Big Shot is an instant rush 1,000 feet up. It's $8 to ride. And why not do it twice, using the funbook coupon for a $1 re-ride?

Kick back and have a cold drink in the lounge on the mezzanine overlooking the revolving Top of the World restaurant. Drinks run from $4.25 to $7, but the funbook has a two-for-one drink coupon.

Finish the evening by taking in a free show in the Images Cabaret. Hang out, have a cocktail, and listen to some great music till it's time to call it a night. Tower, two rides, two re-rides, drinks: $41.

Day two

9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Breakfast: The trip to Hoover Dam begins at Tropicana and the Strip. Drive to the Tropicana, park in the casino's east lot, and walk next door to the San Remo for steak and eggs, served in the coffee shop for $4.95. There's also an excellent around-the-clock $4.95 prime rib if you're in the mood. Breakfast: $13.

10 a.m. to noon

Tropicana/MGM Grand: Walk back to the Tropicana and head to one of two free-pull slot machines located off the walkways from MGM Grand and Excalibur. The free spin can yield dinners, show tickets, even a new car, but don't count on those. You'll probably win two good perks: a free souvenir deck of cards with the Tropicana logo and tickets for the Trop's Casino Legends Hall of Fame museum (plus a coupon for a two-for-one drink that you'll use later).

The Hall of Fame displays 15,000 items from over 700 casinos (550 of which no longer exist), including matchbooks, a showgirl dressing room, videos of casino implosions, 13,000 gambling chips, and a fascinating look at the Nevada "Black Book" of excluded persons (mobsters and cheats). Regular admission is $6.95, but it's free with the coupon.

Time your museum exit for 10:50 a.m., then hotfoot it upstairs to catch the 11 a.m. exotic-bird show in the Tropics Lounge. The birds are stunning and the show is free.

Before going back to the car, use your coupon to grab a couple of drinks from the bar and take the overhead walkway to the MGM Grand. An escalator just inside takes you directly to the Grand's 5,345-square-foot, multilevel lion habitat. This is a 5-to-10-minute diversion; admission is free. Souvenir, museum, bird show, habitat, two drinks: $3.

Noon to 12:45 p.m.

Hard Rock: Head east on Tropicana, take a left on Paradise, and you'll run into the Hard Rock Casino. Rock-and-roll themed and packed with music-related displays and memorabilia, this prototype of the new breed of supertrendy Las Vegas casinos is worth a half-hour tour. Bring the coupon from Showbiz magazine to the Backstage Pass booth to get a great, free shot-glass souvenir. Tour and souvenir: $0.

12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Liberace Museum: Get back on Tropicana and continue east for two-and-a-half miles to the Liberace Museum. Liberace was a one-man walking advertisement for the extravagance, flamboyance, and uninhibited tastelessness usually associated with his adopted city, and his museum reflects it all. The $12 admission is reduced by $2 when you present the coupon that appears in the freebie magazines. Museum admissions: $20.

1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Lunch: Continue east on Tropicana for several miles to the freeway (I-515) and head south. The dam is 30 minutes from here, which leaves time for another only-in-Las Vegas dining deal. Take exit 64 and drive toward the marquee of Sunset Station. There's plenty of good-value dining in the Sunset Station resort, but not as good as in the dining room at the Gold Rush, the little casino next door. Everything on the menu is a bargain, but the best play is the giant hamburger with fixings and fries for $1.99. Two burgers and drinks: $8.

2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Hoover Dam: Get back on the highway and follow the signs to the dam. The sheer majesty of this construction marvel is worth the trip by itself, but there's also the tri-level visitor center featuring exhibits on the dam's history and engineering and a 25-minute movie chronicling the dam's construction. Since 9/11, visitors can no longer go into the dam on the traditional tour. However, a self-guided Discovery Tour has been substituted. Tickets are sold until 4:30 p.m., and the dam closes at 5. Getting there by 3 p.m. should allow you to see everything. Admission is $10 and includes the visitor center and access to the top of the dam. Parking is an additional $5. Total charges: $25.

5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Aladdin Slot Tournament: Retrace your route back to the city and stop at the Aladdin, the second casino you encounter after turning right onto the Strip from Tropicana. You're going to play a slot tournament.

Gamble? Well, yes, but there's a method to the madness. The entry fee for the Aladdin's mini-slot tourney is $25. You play a 15-minute round during which the $25 is the most you can lose. If you get lucky and score high, you can win cash prizes, including the grand prize: a free-pull on every dollar slot in the casino. But the real value is in the perks that come with the entry.

For starters, you get $10 in free-play on a real machine. Play the $10 and cash out what's left. You also get $20 in food credits, $20 off two show tickets, and two free desserts at Starbucks. Cost: variable, depending on slot-play return-$16 is the average outlay ($25 maximum).

6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Dinner and Show: After a long day of sightseeing and traveling, head to Aladdin's Spice Market Buffet, one of Las Vegas's top three, with abundant meats and fresh seafood, and sinful desserts. At $20 it's also pricey, but the $20 food credit chops it down to a bargain. The show, Society of Seven, is top-rate music/comic/variety, good for all ages and most tastes, and well priced at $35 before the discount. Time is a little tight here, since the show begins at 8 p.m. Send one person to get the show tickets, while the other gets a table in the buffet.

Get your free dessert after the show, then head back to the Stratosphere. Stop at any casino if you aren't yet ready for bed. Dinner, show, and desserts (after credits): $70.

Day three

9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Breakfast: Breakfast buffets rank among the best bargains in Las Vegas, and the best in town is at the Palms. Drive south on the Strip to Flamingo and make a right. In addition to the usual breakfast fare, the Palms' Fantasy Market Buffet features cooked-to-order omelettes, eggs Benedict, knishes, fresh potato pancakes, and a complete Hawaiian breakfast of Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice-all for a buck less than the norm, $5.99. Then stroll around the ultracool Palms and head back to the Strip. Two buffets: $12.

10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

South Strip Driving Tour: There are far too many casinos to visit in a single trip, but you can soak up the outside spectacle from your car. The intersection of the Strip and Tropicana Avenue may be the most visually stimulating street corner in the world. In the space of about a mile, there's a 4,000-room castle (Excalibur), a 5,000-room city-within-a-city (MGM Grand), the Manhattan skyline (New York-New York), a 30-story pyramid (Luxor), and a gold-tinted, glistening high-rise that literally sparkles beneath the desert sun (Mandalay Bay).

Take a leisurely up-and-back drive from Bellagio to Mandalay Bay, checking out the world-famous facades. Remember, look but don't stop. South Strip tour: $0.

10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Center Strip Walking Tour: Park in the big garage on the south side of Bellagio and go inside. Spend a half hour checking out this spectacular resort, including the colored-glass chandelier in the lobby, and the view of Paris's Eiffel Tower across the man-made lake.

Next, cross Flamingo Avenue to Caesars Palace. There are three entertainment options here. The Race for Atlantis ride is a high-tech motion simulator, coordinating motion with sophisticated 3-D graphics and stereo-headset sound. At $10 per ticket, this one is worth a splurge, and $2-off coupons are ubiquitous in the freebie mags. The other two options are free:

Festival of Fountains and Atlantis. The two run concurrently, every hour on the hour, so you'll be able to see only one-choose Atlantis. Not only is the sinking of the lost city by battling animatronic gods a superior production, it's also conveniently located next to the Atlantis ride.

Cross the Strip and head to the front door of the Imperial Palace to the best souvenir of the trip-a free photo set inside a classic automobile. The photo is available instantaneously inside the casino, but it's better to pick it up later. Get your claim check and go to Harrah's.

At Harrah's outdoor Carnaval Court, locate the show-ticket booth near the entrance to the casino and ask for discount tickets to the Mac King Comedy Magic Show (or get tickets by signing up as a first-time member of Harrah's slot club).

Center Strip tour, Race for Atlantis ride (with coupon), Atlantis spectacle, souvenir photo: $16.

1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Show and Margarita: Mac is the king of the city's new genre of bargain entertainment: afternoon shows, known as "nooners." The show's retail price is a low $16.65, but the discount voucher admits you for a one-drink minimum of $5.95. Catch the 1 p.m. performance for 60 of the most entertaining minutes of magic and comedy in Las Vegas.

Following the show, duck into the neighboring Casino Royale for frozen margaritas at the bar; they're $1 and available 24 hours. Show and margaritas: $14.

2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Venetian/Imperial Palace/Bellagio Fountains: The ultraposh Venetian is next door to Casino Royale. Be sure to see its lobby, with its gilded frescoes on the ceiling and geometric design on the flat-marble floor that creates an optical illusion of climbing stairs. If you need a snack to hold you until dinner, there's a value-priced food court upstairs in the Grand Canal Shoppes mall where you can lunch (next to canal and gondolas).

Head back to the Imperial Palace to retrieve your photo at the slot-club booth. Since you're going inside, check out the Palace's long-running automobile collection too. Pick up a coupon from barkers out front to save the $6.95 fee.

It's a five-minute walk from here back to Bellagio. Time your return for 4 p.m. to coincide with the fountain show's half-hour rotation. Watch the syncopated waters shoot 20 stories high from the rail bordering the lake, then retrieve your car. Venetian tour, snack, souvenir photo, auto collection, fountain show: $10.

4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Downtown Tour: No Las Vegas trip would be complete without a trip downtown. Turn left out of Bellagio and follow the Strip four miles to Fremont Street. Park free in the Plaza garage and take the elevator down to the casino. Dinner is set for 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza's Center Stage restaurant. This leaves about two hours to check out Glitter Gulch.

Unlike the Strip, the downtown casinos are stacked side by side, so two hours goes a long way. Check out the Binion family's display of customized firearms at the Horseshoe, a chunk of the Berlin wall in the men's room at Main Street Station, and the world's largest piece of pure gold on public display at the Golden Nugget. Casino tour, two beers: $3.

6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Appetizer and Dinner: On the way back to the Plaza, stop at the Golden Gate for an appetizer: the city's most famous (and best) 99> shrimp cocktail, a Las Vegas tradition since 1959.

The Center Stage is one of Las Vegas's classic "bargain gourmet" rooms, with great food, cheap prices, and a view that stares straight down Glitter Gulch. Full meals (nothing is a la carte; substitute the onion soup for the salad) start at $15. Dinner and two shrimp cocktails: $45.

8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Fitzgeralds Show and Fremont Street Experience: Be outside for the 8:30 showing of the Fremont Street Experience light show-a video projected on a canopy by two million lightbulbs and sound broadcast by more than 200 speakers. It's a six-minute presentation, which leaves plenty of time to get to Fitzgeralds for the 9 p.m. presentation of one of its full-fledged one-hour productions, where the price of admission is a one-drink minimum ($3). Note that two days a week there's a ticketed show ($12.95) in this time slot, so call ahead. Show and Experience: $6.

Day four

Tally Travelers, man your calculators! Total outlay in the itinerary is $325 for two people, all meals, drinks, shows, museums, slot tournament, and souvenirs. The room at the Strat will run about $100, the rental car about $60. The entire thing (minus air) is under $500.

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