Ultimate low roller's guide

The Times staff

IF hotel rooms in Glitter Gulch seem outrageously expensive, we have only ourselves to blame.

We just can't get enough of Sin City. Last year, a record 38.6 million people visited here, and the city is on track to best that record this year. That's good news for Vegas.

For those who want to come here to play, that's really, really bad news because finding an affordable room is about as likely as hitting a royal flush at video poker.

Which isn't to say it can't be done, because we did it.

The "we" in this case is the staff of The Times' Travel section. On the first Friday in November, we loaded up a van and headed up Interstate 15 on a mission to find the best hotel deals. Along the way, we also found some no- and low-cost deals on entertainment and food. (See related stories Pages 4, 6, 7 and 8.)

Our quest for a good night's rest for less than $200 yielded some impressive results as well as at least one so-so one and one that was so bad we chose not to write about it. As is always the case with Vegas, some caveats apply to our selections.

First, you won't be staying in the Bellagio or the Wynn on that kind of budget (unless you're such a high roller that you're comped).

Second, you won't have a view of the Strip from the 58th floor. The places we stayed don't have a 58th floor.

Third, our choices aren't always the most convenient to the Strip. Those of us who stayed downtown, though, found a $5 day pass on the Deuce bus a good and economical solution.

To those caveats, we add one more: Depending on when you come here, your hotel room will either mirror the city's average daily rate of $119 or so far exceed it you'll wonder whether we were sniffing glue.

We weren't. The city ordinarily enjoys more than 90% occupancy rates, which can make rooms pricey, but when there's a big convention in town -- say, the Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 8-11 that is expected to attract 150,000 people -- you're going to feel the pinch. And it's going to hurt.

Our advice: Come to Vegas after the National Finals Rodeo, which ends next weekend, but before Christmas. Or come in July, which also tends to be quiet. Or come in midweek, when rates are lower. Or, best of all, follow our suggestions on the road to savings.

*

Artisan Hotel & Spa

1501 W. Sahara Ave.; (800) 554-4092, www.theartisanhotel.com.

Coming in out of the midday sun, I blinked repeatedly. It was dark in the Artisan Hotel lobby, very dark. Candles flickered on tables. From her easel near the entrance, the Mona Lisa smiled enigmatically. Or was she laughing?

The family-owned 64-room Artisan, which calls itself Las Vegas' first "small, luxurious, non-gaming boutique hotel," is bizarre. For starters, there's the wall-to-ceiling art. Even the ceilings display reproductions of the Masters.

Through a pair of iron gates was the dining room, even at lunchtime dimly illuminated by candles, the tables laid with black cloths. Each table had a brown-at-the-edges lily in a vase.

Each guest room is named for an artist whose works (reproductions) hang there. Mine, 522, was the Kazimir Malevich Suite (a Russian abstract artist). It was all black and brown.

The Artisan calls itself the Artisan Hotel & Spa, but when I asked directions to the spa the desk clerk told me, "It isn't built yet."

Bottom line: This isn't a family destination, unless you're the Addams family.

Price paid: $198.61, including tax

Parking: $6.50

Amenities: Restaurant, room service, free WiFi throughout, outdoor pool, free breakfast, air conditioning, all nonsmoking rooms.

Pros: Complimentary wine hour in lobby. The 24-hour lounge is a draw, with live music on Wednesdays and Saturdays and a $19.95 Sunday jazz champagne brunch.

Cons: Rooms overlooking the oh-so-close freeway where it meets busy West Sahara Avenue are so noisy even the drone of the air conditioner doesn't help. Neighborhood is gritty. Bathroom was poorly lighted and water flow inadequate. Hotel is a mile from the Strip, and not a pedestrian-friendly mile.

Beverly Beyette

**

Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino

128 E. Fremont St; (800) 937-6537 or (702) 382-1600; www.binions.com.

I've never been a downtown kinda gal -- until now.

It wasn't really 366-room Binion's, where I stayed in Room 1219, that changed my mind as much as it was the intimate feeling of being downtown.

Binion's, which helped make tournament poker what it is today, has a long, rich history in Vegas.

My room reflected that past. Remember when people smoked and sometimes burned the furniture with their cigarettes? Check. Remember the mauves and turquoise and sea foam greens of an '80s dental office waiting room? Check. Remember when bathrooms were so tiny that the doors had stoppers about knee high to keep them from smashing into the toilet? OK, I don't actually remember that as a style, but it was part of this room.

Yet the king bed was comfy. Plus, I could see Fremont Street Experience from my window. And even though a woman was crawling around on the floor down the hall from my room as I walked in, I felt safe enough. I don't think she was praying. Still, a room for less than $90 a night in Vegas is something to get down on your knees for.

Price paid: $87.69, including tax

Parking: Free

Amenities: Restaurant, rooftop pool, room service.

Pros: In the heart of downtown, a more navigable place than the Strip. No huge casino lobby/maze to walk through.

Cons: The room decor was dated, and the TV was so old it could have been a museum piece. The shower wasn't any worse than mine at home, but that's not exactly a compliment.

Catharine Hamm

**

Carriage House

105 E. Harmon Ave.; (800) 221-2301 or (702) 798-1020, www.carriagehouselasvegas.com.

If you want to be close to the action, Carriage House occupies a sweet off-Strip spot. MGM's green glow is within sight, the fake rainstorms of Aladdin's Desert Passage shopping arcade are across the street, and the roar of engines at Harley-Davidson Cafe is a block away.

When the glitter and noise of the casinos enervate instead invigorate, Carriage House's location is a plus, because the nine-story "all-suite hotel," as it bills itself, is far enough away to allow recuperation in a soothing room whose beige and pastels are easy on the eyes.

Technically, the 30-year-old Carriage House is a time-share property, said manager Amy Lowell. But it typically rents out 30% of its 155 rooms to the public, she said.

I stayed in the smallest, a 300-square-foot studio, which held a king-size bed and a sparkling kitchenette. It had two burners, a mini fridge and microwave oven. A cupboard and drawers held pots and pans, serving dishes and cutlery and dinnerware for four, though four around the room's small table would have been tight.

The hotel's biggest rooms, about 700 square feet, contain a full-size kitchen, living room and separate bedroom.

Carriage House isn't at all flash, but it's close enough to dash to all that.

Price paid: $158, including tax. Rates for studio $89-$145. Larger rooms to $119-$185, excluding tax.

Parking: Free

Amenities: Fitness center, tennis court, pool, whirlpool, hair dryer, full-size iron and board, stocked kitchens or kitchenette, large closets and in-room safe. Coin-operated washing machines. Concierge 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays and 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays.

Pros: Secure building that's locked at night. Guests need a key card to enter building and activate elevators. Within walking distance of some of the Strip's finest casinos.

Cons: The hotel is sandwiched between two towering, high-profile properties. To the east, you'll see the cranes and construction of the 40-story MGM Grand towers. Mercifully, on the Saturday morning I was there, they were silent. In the studio, the bathroom, with tub and toilet, is tiny.

-- Vani Rangachar

**

Hooters Casino Hotel

115 E. Tropicana Ave.; (866) 584-6687, www.hooterscasinohotel.com.

This is the sort of post-collegiate playpen where the Owen Wilsons of the world come to play, flirt and make frat-boy fools of themselves while their pregnant wives wait back home. If that's your C-cup of tea, this loud, lively and intentionally tacky casino-hotel may be for you.

Be honest: Hooters is only marginally naughty to begin with. So in the bawdy context of Vegas, this casino seems almost sweet and all-American. The pert, friendly waitresses walk on their tiptoes like cheerleaders vying for homecoming queen. The Hooters girls, in fact, may wear more clothes than any other barmaids in town.

Hooters Casino, open since February (next door to the Tropicana), is trying to tap into the chain's reputation for sports and good, leering fun.

Rooms are casual -- orange lampshades, anyone? -- and beds are comfortable enough. You don't have to walk a mile to reach your room.

The casino floor is packed with the latest available games and also offers a sports book and poker rooms. There is a sort of beachy pool area that draws a decent late-afternoon crowd. Dan Marino's restaurant is the best of half a dozen restaurant options.

The ultra-casual Hooters Casino Hotel isn't for everyone. But, then, neither is Vegas.

Price paid: $165.79, including tax

Parking: Free

Amenities: 24-hour room service, 700 Hooterific hotel rooms (on site of former Hotel San Remo), spa, fitness center, poolside bar.

Pros: Relatively small as casino hotels go. Nearly walking distance to the airport, free easy-in, easy-out parking. With 200 to 250 Hooters Girls, it is said to be the largest such staff in the world. (This may be hype.)

Cons: The congested casino floor is tough to navigate. Good luck finding the elevator to your room after a few drinks. The parking garage is not well-marked. Yes, it's tacky. That's the point.

Chris Erskine

**

South Point Hotel Casino

9777 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (866) 796-7111, www.southpointcasino.com.

It isn't often you can brag about staying in a bargain-rate hotel room that features a 42-inch plasma screen TV. Mine had not one but two.

South Point (until just recently, it was called South Coast), advertises itself as "the gateway" to Las Vegas, but it is actually a 20-minute drive south of the Strip. It's too far from the action, and it's a $25 cab ride to get there.

But it's a great deal. It has an 80,000-square-foot casino with a 25-story hotel tower; rooms are big and plush; food is cheap; and the amenities are those usually found in pricier hotel rooms.

To top it off, when I checked in on a busy Friday night, all the standard rooms -- I had booked mine anonymously two months in advance -- were full, and I was upgraded to a suite, with a sitting room and two plasma TVs. The rooms were a sunny yellow and gold, the king bed was triple sheeted and a coffee maker offered a free java jolt.

The next morning, I checked out a few standard rooms: All had 42-inch plasma TVs (one, not two), plush bedding and free wireless Internet.

Price paid: $162.41, including tax

Parking: Free

Amenities: Casino, room service, six restaurants, business center, fitness center and spa, child-care facility.

Pros: Inexpensive and well-maintained. Large casino on site features inexpensive food. (A 16-ounce T-bone or 10-ounce prime rib dinner is $9.95.)

Cons: Five miles from Strip, but a free shuttle runs from hotel to airport and Strip (it stops at Mandalay Bay) from 6 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily.

-- Rosemary McClure

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