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How to do Las Vegas on a budget: Part 2

TAMARA DINELLE, Contributor TAMARA DINELLE, Contributor

In Part 1, Tamara outlined her Vegas experiment: She has $1,000 to spend, of which $650 went toward a flight and $95 toward accommodations. That leaves her with $127.50 for meals and spending money each day. Here’s what happened:

Maddy and I meet up at the airport in Las Vegas and I decide to implement “the plan” immediately. There will be no expensive “bling bling” limo or even a taxi. The shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel is short, safe and — best of all — affordable at US$7 a ride. Within 30 minutes of touching down, the three of us meet up at our “free” Friday night hotel and officially start the weekend.

As we will be downgrading our accommodation the following night, we decide to take advantage of the swank hotel’s beautiful and, more importantly, free amenities, and experience the pool scene — thrashing techno and cocktails at 3 p.m.

Photo Credit: iStock

This is when I learn about one of Vegas’ greatest profit margins: liquid love. Our order of two sandwiches, a bucket of five beers and one bottle of water costs us US$80 — hardly cheap. In reviewing the receipt, I realize the one-litre bottle of water (with hotel taxes, surcharges and gratuity) cost US$14, which is 10 times the amount of a litre of gas in Toronto.

With the amount of liquid I take in, I’m going to have to figure out a way to cut costs in this area, so I decide to stop buying bottled water and drink tap water — cheaper and more environmentally friendly. I also decide to cut back on my caffeine habit and limit my intake of $5 lattes — a purchase I notice chews up my cash flow on a regular basis. Lastly, I acknowledge that my biggest potential budget buster is alcohol.

Drinking for ‘free’

In Vegas women have several options to drink “for free.” There’s gambling, where drinks are paid for while you play. However, given my complete lack of gambling smarts combined with the minimum bet on many of the tables, I feel this is a risky proposition. Do I want to spend $25 of my $125 daily budget on one — and most likely my only —round of blackjack in exchange for one rum and coke?

I figured I’d be much better off going to clubs where the general rule of thumb is that women don’t pay cover charge and drink for free. The odds were definitely better for me with the club scenario — where I am admittedly a veteran — than gambling. (It should be noted that I did try gambling at nickel slots on three separate occasions and wasn’t offered a drink. I gambled $7 and lost every penny, proving my hunch that I wasn’t going to experience a win-big gambling miracle to help with my pathetic cash flow situation).

Jennifer, Maddy and I work on being placed on several guest lists; there are no guarantees for getting into a night club unless you’re really connected in this town, so you’re best to sign up for as many guest lists as possible. After striking out at one of our selected destinations, we end up at a club in one of the bigger hotels, and within five minutes we’re ushered through the line to the bar and enjoying our “free” round of drinks.

We soon learn, however, that the comp’d cocktails only last until midnight. Therefore, I’d either have to sober up, pay my own way or rely on my feminine wiles to have my evening paid for. The latter option is definitely the least appealing to me; I’ve always paid my own way since I don’t want to compromise the quality of an evening with company that’s lecherous or even boring for the sake of a drink. But considering I have $40 on me and a round of drinks costs $35, it might end up being a short evening.

Tamara (right) with Jennifer after a night out on the town.

I look around and take in the scene in front of me. People are bumping and grinding to the music, and generally acting like they’re part of an all-night frat party. I look at the dozens of girls decked out in the Vegas-wear of tight spandex dresses and ultra-high stiletto heels, signature clutch purse tucked under arm.

I see the same number of men wearing their uniform of blue or purple checked shirt, blazer and designer jeans. Some are literally falling over drunk, discarding clothing items or systematically drinking themselves into oblivion.

It’s a combination of wild, incredible, horrible, sad and hysterical all at the same time. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m no prude and most of my friends could tell stories of some of my antics. But in this bar I didn’t feel like many of the people were genuinely having fun; the majority seemed like they were convincing themselves that they were.

Buying into a vacation persona

It’s during this high-powered people-watching session — one of the most interesting free activities that one can participate in while in Vegas — that I realize how this town markets to people based on the idea that in order to have the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” experience, you have to pay for it. It’s as though they feel they aren’t really experiencing Vegas unless they’re spending $70 on a round of shots or $300 on bottle service.

And while this happens to a degree in every place in the world, there seems to be an inordinate number of people in this city buying into their vacation persona. I think to myself: Who are these people in real life? Are some of them working on the human genome project when they aren’t spending their precious dollars on this experience?

I’ll never really know. But I start to understand where the roots of my own spending patterns are coming from and why I have stupidly spent $30 on sake in a Tokyo café: to be a person that is really “experiencing” a place. I have played the tourist, lured in by marketing and my own lack of discipline.

I realize that if I’m going to enjoy myself in this situation, I’m going to have to tune out my critical mind and stop taking this place so seriously. I buck up, swallow my pride and join the throngs of party-goers on the dance floor. And while the rest of the evening’s events will “stay in Vegas,” I did manage to come home with $5 and no credit card receipts in my pocket — nothing short of a miracle.

Vegas buffets: A good value?

The next morning we venture off in a haze to find a decent brunch. Since our arrival, we’ve barely eaten a full meal, nibbling away on the odd overpriced sandwich. With the city’s reputation as buffet capital of the world and our need of nutrients, a buffet seems like a good fit.

What we learn is that most of the buffets charge far more than an entrée — in fact, some of the buffets we find on the Strip are upwards of $50 for breakfast. We ended up finding one in the hotel we’ve relocated to for the second night, which is one of the original hotels on the Strip and definitely a step down from our Friday night stay. For $27 it works, but other than a salad bar with wilted lettuce, there’s not one healthy item on the menu, which offers up wontons, greasy sausages, bacon, a sweet cart and ice cream.

The free musical fountain show at the Bellagio. Photo Credit: iStock

While in recent years Vegas has expanded its restaurant offerings, if you want to eat healthy, you have to pay. As I roll away from this fat and carb fest, I decide I’ll spend the money for a decent dinner and cut back in other areas.

Sticking to a budget

Maddy and Jennifer have decided they must take in a show; at $150 a ticket this is definitely out of the question for me, so I set out on my own to take in the other “culture” that is available free of charge. With all of the Vegas glitz, there are plenty of great photo opportunities: art displays; free fountain and pirate ship shows; or experiencing elements of Europe in the desert (with real Europeans gawking in horror at the imitations).

I spend a few hours taking it all in, walking up and down the Strip, people-watching and snapping pics. I then find myself lost in one of the larger casinos. I had been told by friends and family who had come here how the casinos “trap” you, but brushed off their comments. I mean, how can a building trap a person?

But as I circled around one venue looking for an exit, their voices echoed in my head and I could see what they meant: the casinos are built like fortresses so you stay and spend money. The casinos offer it all: if you want to eat, drink, shop, swim and gamble, you can do so — but at a cost.

I watch one family leave a restaurant together; the father walks over to a slot machine while the mother takes the children shopping. Later that night as Maddy, Jennifer and I stumble home, I see the same man, still at the slot machines — thankfully without his kids — and wonder if he is trying to recoup his losses or keep winning? How much did this day cost him?

The weekend has come to an end and it’s time to leave for the airport. It’s 110 degrees and we are exhausted; I am in no mood for the shuttle so I decide to spring for a taxi. As we pull away from the Strip, I take account of my last few dollars. I am $17 over-budget — which is exactly what I spent on my overpriced water on Friday and the one indulgence latte I bought in my hung-over state.

In the end I realize everyone needs to set a budget when they go to Vegas — whether it’s $300 or $3,000. In a city that was literally established on the premise of “letting loose no matter what,” you need to set your own boundaries before you go and instill some discipline while there because there are many, many financial distractions to steer you off course. This town’s entire existence is literally banking on it.

Tamara Dinelle is a marketing communications professional based in Toronto. When she can find the time and the means, she is a passionate adventurer and explorer. Her favourite destinations to date include Saigon, Barcelona, Melbourne, Kyoto and New York City. This is her first (and probably last) trip to Las Vegas.


Date Added: September 1, 2011 | Comments (0)

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