Once upon a time, Las Vegas was synonymous with bargains. Then cheap buffets, lounge acts and inexpensive hotel rooms gave way to Michelin Guide star-rated restaurants, Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas and luxury suites at the Bellagio. But all is not lost, even in these tough economic times when gas prices alone may make you reconsider a Vegas trip. These 21 ideas, each for less than $21, show that Vegas is still the land of the cheap and home of the free, if you know where to look.
1. THE SUNBELT CLASSIC AND ANTIQUE AUTO MUSEUM
Jim Rogers, the owner of Sunbelt Communications, has more than 300 restored vehicles on display in his car barn. But he doesn't advertise the collection, and tourists can see it only by appointment. Call (702) 649-0110 to arrange a time or join a scheduled tour. The museum opens at 6 a.m. weekdays, except holidays, at 1420 Gragson St. Go to www.sunbeltcars.com for details. Free.
2. FREE STUFF AT THE MALLS
The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority offers the Shop Vegas Passport. Print out the coupon book from www.visitlasvegas.com/vegas /pdf/shopping_passport.pdf and redeem it at one of the seven malls listed on the book. Free.
3. WIRELESS INTERNET
The lobbies and casino areas of the Palazzo and Venetian are among the few spots on the Strip where you can find unfettered access. Power up and log on. Free.
4. DUELING PIANO COMPETITIONS
At three locations, pianists play and the audience chooses a winner by applause. Check out the Piano Bar at Harrah's Las Vegas (9 nightly) and the Bar at Times Square at New York New York (8 nightly). Free at Harrah's; $15 at New York New York.
7. TOUR LAS VEGAS HISTORY
Las Vegas City Hall has a historic walking tour, displaying such items as Mayor Oscar Goodman bobbleheads, a 1959 map of the city and the 1923 city budget. Ask the city clerk for a brochure for the self-guided tour. City Hall is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, except holidays, at 400 Stewart Ave. Free.
8. CASINO COLLECTIBLES ON THE CHEAP
To find great casino memorabilia, go to the Broadacres Swap Meet in North Las Vegas, a 20-acre, open-air market with 1,150 vendors. The meet runs 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at 2930 N. Las Vegas Blvd. Fridays, 50 cents; Saturdays and Sundays, $1; kids under 12, free.
9. BETTE MIDLER'S BAND
Instead of spending big bucks to see Midler's "The Showgirl Must Go On," you can hear six members of her band performing as Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns, a weekly act at the Lounge at the Palms. The band performs at 10:30 p.m. Mondays. Free.
10. THE BIRDMAN COMETH
Joe Krathwohl, a.k.a. the Birdman of Las Vegas, does astonishing bird tricks with a menagerie that includes Hawaiian cockatoos, Amazon parrots and the endangered Andean condor at 1 and 3 p.m. Fridays through Sundays inside the 80,000-square-foot Hawaiian Marketplace, 3743 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Free.
11. RIDE MT. CHARLESTON
Las Vegas Carriage offers 20-minute rides around the 11,000-foot mountain, about 40 minutes northwest of Las Vegas. Take a horse-drawn carriage in summer or a horse-drawn wooden sleigh during the winter. The rides start from the Mt. Charleston Lodge, 1200 Old Park Road. Call (702) 596-6715 for reservations. $20 per adult, $10 per child.
12. FLOAT ALONG WITH MASQUERADE SHOW IN THE SKY
Twenty-five members of the public can ride the floats during an hourly show of dancers and musicians who parade on elevated tracks over the casino floor at the Rio All-Suite Hotel-Casino. The shows run hourly from 7 p.m. to midnight Thursdays through Sundays. Make reservations at harrahs-web.vegas.com/rio/masquerade.html. $13.
13. WEEKLY BLUES CONCERTS
At 9 p.m. every Wednesday, the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay offers "Nothing but the Blues" concerts inside the Crossroads room. Bands change weekly, and there's no cover charge. To find out more, go to www.myspace.com/ nothingbuttheblues2007 or call (702) 632-7600. Free.
14. THE GAY DISCOUNT CARD
You don't have to be gay or lesbian to get a Q VIP discount card. Q Vegas, the town's major GLBT magazine, distributes the card, which provides discounts to the Atomic Testing Museum and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, among other places. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, e-mail address, mailing address, phone number and birth date, and the mag will send the card to you. Free.
15. THE PINBALL HALL OF FAME
This 4,500-square-foot storefront is a hidden treasure where you can play 200 or so vintage pinball machines. It's a nonprofit effort run by Tim Arnold, a former arcade chain owner with a collection that dates to the 1940s. The Pinball Hall of Fame is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at 3330 E. Tropicana Ave. For more information, visit www.pinballmuseum.org. 25 cents to 50 cents per game.
16.-17. EAT AT VEGAS COOKING SCHOOLS
If you hunger for an inexpensive gourmet meal, try one of the two local cooking schools where some of those vaunted Strip chefs trained. The Culinary Institute of Las Vegas currently serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays at Opus Too, 2350 Corporate Circle in Henderson (www.artinstitutes.edu/lasvegas/aboutus_facility.asp?facid=69). To confirm days and hours and make reservations, call (702) 369-9944. $9.95. Also try Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which has a 10,000-square-foot restaurant called Café Bleu (www.vegasculinary.com/onsite_restaurant.asp). It is open 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and 5:45 to 7:30 p.m. for dinner at 1451 Center Crossing Road. Call (702) 851-5322 for reservations. At both places, the students cook and wait the tables. $19 to $21.
18. LAUGH AT IMPROV STUDENTS
Aspiring comics training with the Second City comedy troupe perform at 9:30 p.m. Mondays at the Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave. The theater ( www.onyxtheatre.com) is behind a clothing shop called the Rack. No advance ticket sales. $7.
19. SUNSET VIEW OF THE STRIP
Rather than pay up to $13.95 to see the Strip from the Stratosphere observation deck, head to the bar at Mix atop THEhotel at Mandalay Bay before 10 p.m. for a better view. Free.
20. VISIT THE FISH
A major tourist draw in Vegas is the 50,000-gallon, horseshoe-shaped saltwater tank at the north end of Caesars Palace's Forum Shops that houses more than 500 colorful fish, including zebra sharks and cownose rays. During educational tours, you can handle live starfish and observe other sea life. The tours start at 1:15 and 5:15 p.m. weekdays near the Tower Records side of the aquarium. Free.
21. GET INTO VEGAS NIGHTCLUBS FREE
Grab free passes to two of the Strip's hottest nightclubs, the Bank at Bellagio and Jet at the Mirage, at such stores as Metro Park and Marciano at Fashion Show, Ted Baker and BeBe at Forum Shops and Marciano and BeBe at the Miracle Mile Shops. The passes can be worth $20 or more. Free.
Steve Friess' Vegas-centric celebrity-interview podcast, "The Strip," can be heard at www.thestrippodcast.com. Friess' daily Vegas blog is at www.vegashappenshere.com.
In Las Vegas, 21 ideas -- all under $21
For the budget-minded, the list of free or low-cost events includes Mandalay Bay's weekly blues concert, a carriage ride on Mt. Charleston and dueling piano competitions.
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