By Oskar Garcia
The Associated Press
It might seem weird, since people generally think one thing when they come to Las Vegas: Big money. But enough inexpensive fun exists here to fill a trip without stinging stakes. Examples: $45 rooms at the Monte Carlo, slow-paced poker games, and free attractions, from lion-watching to a man-made volcano.
"It's the whimsy - it's just fantasy enough. It doesn't take itself so seriously that you can't have fun while you're enjoying the entertainment," said Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations for Harrah's Entertainment and a former mayor of Las Vegas.
"You're not supposed to be overtaken by the grandeur, you're supposed to be captivated by the creativity," she said.
Where to stay
As with any resort destination, the best deals are midweek and offseason nights. Expect to pay more on weekends.
Check with the hotels, as they often offer the lowest rates themselves, especially in direct-mail offers to customers belonging to loyalty programs.
Overall, average daily room rates were down 9.2 percent for the first nine months of 2008 compared with the same time period last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Officials at MGM Mirage, which owns 10 hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, say the company's resorts guarantee the lowest rates when booking online through the individual properties. Some examples from now through March include: $64 per night at the MGM Grand (800-280-8271, mgmgrand.com) or $45 per night at the Monte Carlo (two-night minimum, 866-919-1960, montecarlo.com).
Things to do
THE BELLAGIO FOUNTAINS
Lounge acts and good people-watching posts are plentiful on the Strip, but it's tough to beat the beauty of the fountains at Bellagio.
Sidewalk space is free for people to gather and watch the water dance to whatever's playing, whether it's classical music, opera or popular tunes. Below the surface, the 8-acre lake holds some 1,000 nozzles and about 4,000 lights programmed to create complex choreography. Showtimes are every half-hour starting at 3 p.m. on weekdays and noon on weekends, with shows every 15 minutes from 8 p.m. until midnight (except on windy days).
THE (NEW) MIRAGE VOLCANO
Flames dance for roughly five minutes to music from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla musician Zakir Hussain (every hour on the hour from dusk until 11 p.m., mgmmirage.com).
ANIMALS & OTHER SHOWS
Off the Strip, the Show in the Sky at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino features a female student cast of singers and dancers taking over one side of the casino, riding floats on tracks from the ceiling and performing on the hour every hour from 7 p.m. to midnight.
Flamingos at the wildlife habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas and lions at the MGM Grand.
Those entertained by basic Vegas glitz and glam should simply walk through Caesars Palace and the Bellagio (including a stop at Bellagio's seasonally changing botanical garden), the Venetian and Palazzo (through the Grand Canal Shoppes with its daily street performers) or the Wynn Las Vegas (wynnresorts.com).
OK, so gambling and the concept of being "on a budget" don't seem likely partners, but if you're tired of blackjack's big swings and don't want to spend hours pumping slot machines for a penny a pull, try Pai Gow poker. This table game, a variant of a Chinese gambling game played with dominoes, can be found at just about any casino with stakes starting at about $10 per hand, equal to or less than the cheapest blackjack tables.
If you're confused, ask the dealer to assemble your cards the way the house would play them. Other players at the table likely will offer their help, too. Unlike blackjack, you can't affect anyone else's hand, so there's no pressure of taking a bad hit and costing other players. That makes this game a whole lot less tense than others - plus you'll still get free drinks.
Buffets are a decent option. The Luxor dinner buffet costs $19.99; breakfast and lunch are less.
But a couple off-menu specials at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino might be worth a trip slightly off the Strip (a free shuttle runs there from the Fashion Show Mall). Ask for the steak and shrimp special, which includes an 8-ounce New York sirloin, three jumbo shrimp, a salad and garlic mashed potatoes for $7.77. Or, if you're really hungry, the $9.99 prime rib special includes a salad, mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, along with all the meat you can handle.
At most clubs you'll pay cover fees and premium prices for drinks - though if you're among a group of young women, you may be able to talk your way in for free.
But casinos are filled with bars, and many offer lounge or club-like atmospheres without long lines or covers. Some notables include the eyecandy sound lounge & bar in Mandalay Bay, which has DJs spinning every night, and Napoleon's in Paris Las Vegas, with its dueling pianos. FREE SHOWS
Visit the lions at MGM or the Flamingo Habitat at Flamingo (of course). At Bellagio, visit the Conservatory where the theme is changed seasonally. At night, enjoy the fountain show every 15 minutes. In the Forum Shops at Caesar's there are two shows - the moving statues of gods and goddesses and the Sinking of Atlantis. There are street performers in St. Mark's Square in the Venetian, as well as an amazing living statue.
SUBMITTED BY Hope and Harvey Wile, West Hempstead
My husband and I love sushi and seafood, but just about all of those restaurants in the big Vegas hotels are very expensive. By accident, we came upon Todai Sushi and Seafood Buffet while walking around Planet Hollywood. What a find! Now, we go there once or twice during each visit. The buffet has a huge selection of fresh sushi, made right in front of you.
SUBMITTED BY Judi Weissman, Kings Park
BELLAGIO INDOOR GARDEN
The Bellagio Hotel has a really spectacular, larger-than-life indoor garden that offers a different side of Vegas. It's free to anyone who wants to take a look!
SUBMITTED BY Karen Rzonca, East Northport
My wife and I make Las Vegas a vacation spot every year. On Saturdays, we love to go to Bellagio's for their buffet brunch. For less than $25 each, we both leave the table as a winner. The array of food is fabulous - wood-fired salmon, crab legs, shrimp. I make out much better at the buffet than the blackjack table.
SUBMITTED BY Martin Bluberg
Getting up and down the Las Vegas Strip on the cheap is easy - especially if you're willing to walk a little bit.
TRAMS AND BUSES
Free trams run along the Strip 24/7 between Mandalay Bay and Excalibur, and between The Mirage and Treasure Island. Harrah's runs another free shuttle for customers between its casinos, running every 30 minutes from Caesars Palace, the Rio, Harrah's Las Vegas and Paris Las Vegas.
For $2 a ride or a $5 all-day pass, the round-the-clock bus service known as the Deuce could be the cheapest way to travel along the entire Strip without walking, all the way to downtown.
The monorail that runs from the Sahara Hotel & Casino to the MGM Grand is $5 one way, so especially if you're with a group, it's cheaper and faster to split a cab.
A little-known bonus for big-time savings (though it'll take a long time): When you leave the airport terminal, catch the free shuttle to the airport's rental car center.
From there, you can catch the Deuce across the street and ride to your Strip hotel. The reverse works when you want to go back to the airport, too.
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