Everyone knows this city is a budget traveler's utopia: The drinks are free, the food is cheap, and casinos all but throw hotel rooms at you. It's the land of milk and 99-cent shrimp cocktails.
Everyone doesn't know what he's talking about.
In reality, Sin City has quietly gone upscale. The drinks are still gratis, but foofy restaurants serving foofier meals with triple-digit price tags have become de rigueur, and one ticket for a blockbuster show like Siegfried and Roy will set you back a C-note. And about those hotels: With 124,000 rooms serving 36 million annual visitors, it's relatively simple to find lodging in Vegas. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the average price of a room last year was $74. Not bad, but you likely paid a whole lot more if you bunked at one of the newer mega-resorts, where a Friday or Saturday night stay can easily eclipse $200.
Do you have to spend hundreds to do Las Vegas right? What's become of the fabled $20 room?
For a June visit, I planned the ultimate Vegas progressive: staying at four properties on four successive nights, each room costing more than the previous. I would run the gamut from lowest of the low to newest of the new.
I had three rules:
* The room had to be in a casino hotel. (Non-casino budget hotels are scattered about town, but that would be like going to a rave and spending your time in the next room watching CNN.)
* Each hotel had to be either downtown or near or on the Strip, the two main gambling zones.
* My stay had to include a Friday and Saturday night, the busiest times.
I booked several months in advance, picking a quiet period (for Vegas, at least) in which I could get the most out of a small budget, and used the Internet, hotel discounters and reservations agents to snare the best deals. Then I conned my patient friend Dan into coming along.
$25 and Under
Our stay at the Gold Spike started inauspiciously at the airport, when the kid behind the car-rental counter asked where we were staying.
"Gold Spike? You'll move out of there pretty fast."
Great. I was already apprehensive about the place. After all, it was only $22 a night ... on a Friday ... including breakfast. Then the kid mentioned a recent fire ("People were jumping out of windows!") and I suddenly wanted to sleep someplace that hadn't been evacuated in the past month.
Turns out the Gold Spike is the Jack Benny of casino hotels: cheap and proud of it. There's a pesky two-night minimum on weekends, but even paying for two nights and staying only one, as I did, is a bargain.
Of course, you have to factor in lung damage from breathing cigarette fumes from the Spike's spectacularly foul-aired casino and diner. And on May 31 there was a fire on the third floor, which prompted more than a dozen guests to make an unexpected exit from their windows.
Our room, three stories above the fire zone, was the shocker. True, it looked out over a dusty construction site, but it was large, spotless, soundproof and didn't reek of smoke. An old air conditioner kept the room cool despite the 105-degree heat outside, and the TV worked fine. The sheets smelled fresh.
The bathroom was another matter. The tub had rust marks and didn't drain properly, the door was splintered, red lipstick (I hope) stained one towel, and there was no little basket of soaps.
Bottom line: I wouldn't take Mom to the Gold Spike and probably not Dad either. But if you just want to gamble and don't need many (or any) amenities, you could do far worse.
Gold Spike Hotel & Casino, 400 E. Ogden St.; telephone (800) 634-6703, Internet http://www.goldspikehotelcasino.com.
$25 to $50
A block and a half from the Gold Spike, Fitzgeralds is both the tallest and the most imposing of the old-time Fremont Street casinos, with an entryway guarded by a giant leprechaun. He's there for luck, I suppose, but I found him kind of creepy. No matter: Our room in the hotel (part of the Holiday Inn chain) was only $49, which I nabbed online through Hotel Discounts, a division of Hotel Reservations Network (http://www.hoteldiscounts.com). It was a good deal for a Saturday night; when I checked the hotel's Web site before departure, the tariff had risen to $90.
Fitzgeralds was, as could be expected, plusher than the Gold Spike, and the air in its several restaurants and multilevel casino was sort of breathable. Our room on the 28th floor was blandly decorated but freshly scented; it had two double beds with softish linens and a 25-inch TV with a portable remote (the Spike's was fixed to the night stand). Amenities included room service, a clock radio, an iron and ironing board and an in-room safe. The brighter, bigger, cleaner bathroom was a nice improvement, though the towels were cheap and the only freebie was shampoo.
Any shortcomings were made up by the room's expansive windows, which overlooked the Fremont Street Experience, a fabulous light show encompassing several city blocks, and sunset over the distant Spring Mountains. Bottom line: Fitzgeralds offers clean, pleasant rooms for a reasonable price, but don't expect the bells and whistles of the mega-resorts.
Fitzgeralds Casino & Holiday Inn, 301 Fremont St.; tel. (800) 274-LUCK (5825), http://www.fitzgeralds.com.
$50 to $75
I'd had enough of downtown, where the crowds are generally grayer, the din fades earlier and the hip quotient is nonexistent.
But that doesn't mean I was ready for the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which I'd always assumed would be a loud, kitschy mess, just like its namesake restaurants. In fact, the onsite Hard Rock Cafe isn't even connected to the hotel, which is home to a half-dozen cooler restaurants, like Nobu and the Pink Taco.
Actually, everything is cool at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The casino is dark, moody and circular, so you can see what everyone is up to at a glance. Chandeliers are fashioned from saxophones, rock paraphernalia adorns display cases and gold records decorate floor lobbies.
Even the people are cool--I felt like Pat Boone in a sea of Kid Rocks. Who cares? I paid $69 for our 11th-floor room, which I booked through the hotel's Web site. When we checked in on Sunday, the clerk told me that if I had walked in off the street, I'd be paying $325.
As for the room ... wow. With Berber carpeting, Dansk-esque furnishings and a marble bath with a big tub, our accommodations were more boutique hotel than Holiday Inn. The room's two platform beds had puffy corduroy spreads and leather headboards topped by a peculiar tilted mirror--an exhibitionist's dream.
I particularly liked the French doors that opened inward, providing us with an unobstructed view of the nearby Strip and fresh air. (What a concept!)
Below us sat the hotel's massive watering hole, complete with white sand beaches and swim-up blackjack tables. But we didn't spot any celebs, despite what I'd heard about young Hollywood flocking here.
Bottom line: The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino offers boutique-quality rooms, fab restaurants and a killer pool for a great price--if you book ahead. Even if you're hip deficient, you'll feel welcome.
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 4455 Paradise Road; tel. (800) HRD-ROCK (473-7625), http://www.hardrockhotel.com.
$75 and Up
A colossal gold lamp, the gaudiest fixture in a blindingly tacky space, is plunked in the middle of the Aladdin Resort & Casino. If I had Aladdin's lamp for only a day, I'd make a wish and here's where I'd stay: the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Opened in August 2000, the Aladdin is big, big, big. With 2,600 rooms, 2,800 slot machines, more than a dozen restaurants and a mall with 130-plus stores, it's a bad place to be if decision-making doesn't come easily.
I paid $80 through the hotel's Web site (discounters quoted more than $100), a great rate for a Monday night in the town's newest mid-Strip behemoth.
But even for that price, did my bed really have to look as if someone had just been bouncing on it? Shouldn't the rooftop pools be better landscaped, instead of the sea of concrete that awaits sun worshipers? Did check-in have to take more than half an hour with only a dozen other guests in line?
Add employees engulfed in 'tude and a confusing floor plan, and the Aladdin had us longing for the o'pleasantries of the Fitzgeralds staff and the simple, elegant design of the Hard Rock.
One major upgrade was the bathroom. While the sleeping quarters were tighter than those at our three previous hotels, the mammoth marble bathroom--with its thick towels, private commode, double vanity and glass-enclosed shower--rocked. I used the giant soaking tub twice. It was just the thing to work the kinks out after the 15-minute hike from the parking garage to our room.
Bottom line: The Aladdin--so packed with restaurants, shops and gambling options that you never have to leave--is the kind of place Vegas tourists are craving these days. But be careful what you wish for: You just might get it.
Aladdin Resort & Casino, 3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; tel. (877) 333-WISH (9474), http://www.aladdincasino.com.
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Beating the Odds for Cheap Lodgings How to find budget lodging in Vegas:
* Use the "Luxor method." To find out which weeks are less touristed (and cheaper) when planning a trip, go to the Luxor resort's Web site, http://www.luxor.com, and click on "reservations." A six-month calendar will pop up, displaying each night's room rates. Generally, weeks with the lowest rates will have comparably low rates at hotels citywide.
For example, Luxor rooms the week of Oct. 14 start at $139, while the week after Thanksgiving they're as low as $69.
* Stay midweek. Unlike big cities such as New York and Chicago, which are pumped up by business travel, Vegas is more expensive on weekends. You'll save a bundle if you can go Sunday through Thursday.
* Check hotel Web sites. Most casino hotels offer rooms online, and many sites have Internet-only rates. When I called the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, I was quoted $129, but I booked through its Web site, http://www.hardrockhotel.com, for $69. The Vegas tourism site, http://www.lasvegas24hours.com, has a list of hotels with links.
* Try a discounter. Booking services such as Hotel Discounts, a division of Hotel Reservations Network, tel. (800) 715-7666, Internet http://www.hoteldiscounts.com, or Accommodations Express, (800) 906-4685, http://www.accommodationsexpress.com, have blocks of rooms and can offer good deals. At the least, see what they're offering and then try to top it.
* Package it. Numerous tour packagers and airlines offer excellent deals, often with airport transfers or rental cars and coupon books included. Read the small print in those ads promising Vegas for a pittance; you usually have to leave midweek for the price shown in the big boldface type.
* Laugh and learn. Go to http://www.cheapovegas.com, where a cartoon character named Casino Boy leads visitors on a scathingly honest (and hilarious) tour of the major hotels, including bathroom amenities, what the pools are like and the quality of the free drinks.
* Consider a non-casino hotel. It's not in-your-face Vegas (which may be a plus), but dozens of clean, spacious budget motels litter the landscape. Many are suite hotels, so you can cook your own meals and bypass the buffets.
Budget Suites of America (http://www.budgetsuites.com), for instance, has seven locations in town with rooms starting at $49; each property has a pool and one-and two-bedroom units with full kitchens.
John Deiner is an assistant editor in the Washington Post Travel section.