For years, Las Vegas was considered a value destination, the home of 99-cent shrimp cocktails and super-cheap hotel rooms. The desert city forged a not-so-secret agreement with visitors: Take your chances at the casinos and we'll take care of the rest.
But these days, Vegas doesn't need low prices to attract travelers. Even with the tough economy, the city welcomed nearly 39 million vacationers in 2011, over 4% more than in the previous year and close to the city's 2007 pre-crisis peak. And they're coming for reasons that often have little to do with gambling. Think plush resorts, big-name entertainers and celebrity-chef-helmed restaurants. Who needs a cheapo shrimp cocktail when you can dine with superstar cooks like Mario Batali or Bobby Flay, so to speak?
Still, at SmartMoney we love a value. So on a recent trip to Vegas, we went in search of deals of all kinds, covering everything from dining to entertainment to parking. We also sought out the few classic deals still available, a reminder of Vegas in all its swinging but bargain-priced glory. And guess what? We saved money -- big time. But we also found that a deal is only a deal if it's something you actually value. After all, a $10 steak dinner doesn't cut it if the meat is too tough.
With that in mind, join us on our Value Tour of Vegas, with 10 bargain finds that could leave you with a few extra dollars in your wallet. That's provided, of course, you don't lose it all at the casinos.
1. Comedy and magic (for the price of a song)
The deal: Sure, you can pay $100-plus to see Celine Dion or any number of Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas. But will such entertainment match up to Mac King ? OK, the name may not be familiar, but King is a star attraction in his own right -- a comedian/magician who does an afternoon show at Harrah's that's designed to please adults and kids alike. Tickets are $32.95. At least that's the official price. But it's fairly easy to find vouchers for semi-free admission (you still have to pay for one drink voucher, so the total runs about $15).
Worth it? Absolutely! King is a throwback entertainer -- part Houdini, part goofball in the Tim Conway mode. But his gags really do work (the "cloak of invisibility" bit is a hoot), and his magic tricks can absolutely astonish (where does that beer can come from?). Truth be told, we had a better time at this show than at a Cirque du Soleil one. And that's not even mentioning the fact that King stays on hand after the performance for autographs and photos.
2. Steak on a Spam budget
The deal: A steak dinner for under $10? Yup, they still exist in Vegas, mostly at the off-the-strip casinos that have to work a little harder to draw visitors (see this list of dining deals ). At the Ellis Island Casino & Brewery, the $9.99 special comes with a 10-once steak, potato, green beans and a beer. (As with many meal specials at the off-the-strip casinos, be prepared to ask for the deal -- they're not always on the menu.)
Worth it? Yes, with a caveat. The steak is a solid piece of beef, and cooked perfectly too. (This place knows that it's all about getting a nice crust on the meat.) Frankly, this meal would be a good deal at more than twice the price, especially with the quality brewski that comes with it. And if you want to pay extra for dessert, $4.49 will get you a delicious piece of cobbler that two can share. So, what's the caveat? Well, like many off-the-strip casinos, Ellis Island doesn't wow in the ambience department: The restaurant has a weird nautical theme (we're half wondering if it used to be a seafood eatery), and the casino is looking more than a little worn around the edges.
3. A bargain outing beyond the Strip
The deal: Since it's stuck in the middle of the desert, Vegas doesn't offer a host of natural attractions within an easy drive. But who's to say you can't partake of the desert itself? A trip to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area runs $7 for a carload of individuals and lets you experience the Mojave Desert up close.
Worth it? For the cost of less than a single blackjack bet (many casinos have a $10 minimum), you can experience one of the most surreal landscapes you'll ever see -- red-colored mountains, parched patches of land, cactuses of all kinds. But the best part is that you can do all this at Red Rock without leaving your car; there's a brilliantly designed 13-mile scenic drive that takes you into the heart of the conservation area and back. (Of course, you're still more than welcome to get out of your car, and there are some easy trails worth hiking on a comfortable day weather-wise.) The bottom line: This is definitely worth it, especially if you need a break from those blackjack tables.
4. Free parking
The deal: You read that right: free. In Vegas, perhaps the most ubiquitous deal is the free valet parking offered by the resorts/casinos. Of course, you're still expected to tip a few dollars for good (or even not-so-good) service.
Worth it? Given the low cost (just the tip) and the convenience, valet is almost always a better bet (no pun intended) than self-parking, especially since Vegas valets do a remarkable job of getting your car to you quickly, and most are remarkably helpful with driving directions. But if you're weighing skipping a car altogether and relying on public transportation to get around Vegas, the math gets a little trickier. A rental will run at least $30 a day, while a one-day pass on the Vegas Strip bus (known as the Deuce) runs $7, or a one-day pass on the Vegas monorail (with limited stops) runs $12. Our view: Nothing beats the convenience of the car, especially if you're traveling to Vegas during the hotter months, when waiting for public transportation can make your blood boil.
5. Renting time -- as in time-shares
The deal: Staying in a time-share in Vegas -- as opposed to a high-end resort -- for as little as $100 a night. Many Vegas time-shares essentially double as hotels, meaning they rent out unused rooms by the night. Of course, if you're a time-share owner, you may also be able to land in one of these resorts through a traditional swap via RCI or another time-share exchange company.
Worth it? If you want luxury without the sticker shock, this can be a great way to go. While rooms at the Bellagio may be had for more than $300 a night, rooms at the decidedly plush Hilton Grand Vacations Club on the Las Vegas Strip can be found at that magic $100 mark. (Actually, we even found a studio unit in October going for $80 on Expedia.com.) Keep in mind: This is just not a hotel room, but an actual apartment-style lodging, replete in some instances with a full kitchen and washer/dryer in your unit, so you're getting lots for your money. We stayed at the Hilton property through a time-share exchange and can attest it's a good find, especially if you snag an upper-floor room (we were on the 23rd level) with breathtaking views of the city.
6. Bellying up to the (soda) bar
The deal: An assortment of Coca-Cola products from around the globe, as featured at the World of Coca-Cola on the Strip. For $7, you can drink your way through 16 beverages, from the sweet (a watermelon drink from China) to the bitter (an Italian aperitif -- nonalcoholic, of course -- called Beverly).
Worth it? It's true that you can drink for free while taking your chances at the casino tables. But this is much more fun -- and much more educational. The sampler is not only a great value; the store is also one of the few truly kid-friendly places on the Strip.
7. Celine Dion -- on the cheap
The deal: How'd you like to partake of Vegas' No. 1 entertainer for absolutely nothing? No, it's not a scam. It's the famous Fountains of Bellagio. During the evening, the waters move in sync with the music -- a new song comes over the speakers every 15 minutes. On one of our many stops, we caught Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" (you know, the "Titanic" song). So, now we can say we heard the Canadian songstress in Vegas, without paying a cent.
Worth it? This is one of those rare instances in life where all the hype is justified. The fountains at the Bellagio qualify as one of the modern marvels of the world. The show is breathtaking (and different for every song -- our favorite was the display that accompanied the Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman duet "Time to Say Goodbye"). But while you're at the Bellagio, it's also worth checking out the garden display inside the hotel, which is free as well.
8. Fun for a fistful of quarters
The deal: Who knew that Vegas was home to the Pinball Hall of Fame? Sure enough, it is. Admission is free, but bring those quarters if you want to play the machines.
Worth it? If you're a pinball obsessive, this place is Nirvana. There are dozens of machines from the past 100 years, all in terrific working order and all playable for a quarter or two. There's no limit to what you can play, but after $10, your fingers will probably start to ache. For those less interested in this uniquely American pastime, the thrills may not be as great, but this is still an affordable diversion from the Strip.
9. All-you-can eat lobster and caviar
The deal: An only-in-Vegas spread of unlimited caviar and lobster tails, plus other fancy fare, from French Champagne to made-to-order crepes. It's there to be had -- for $85 -- at the Bally's Sterling Brunch (offered only on Sundays).
Worth it? Some make the case that the $85 spread is a bargain, since you can pretty much hit the got-what-you-paid-for mark with one bottle of Champagne, a couple of lobster tails and a spoonful of caviar. But we're not buying it, largely because the quality wasn't there: The tails were tough, the caviar was the inexpensive domestic variety and the rest of the offerings weren't all that remarkable (the sushi and dessert stations proved to be huge disappointments). Plus, the setting feels tired. It's basically an old steakhouse that's converted into a buffet every Sunday -- and the service can be a little brusque (especially the lady doling out the caviar). In a town with many terrific (and terrifically priced) buffets -- our favorite was the one at The Cosmopolitan -- this is certainly no value.
10: The cheapo shrimp cocktail
The deal: Ah, yes, the 99-cent shrimp cocktail -- a legendary staple of the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino in downtown Vegas. Except it's now $2.99. That's inflation for you.
Worth it? A $2.99 shrimp cocktail is still a relative bargain. But we were expecting big, fat shrimp, not a bunch of baby ones. Combine that with the fact that you have to order the cocktail through the hotel's coffee shop -- not exactly a hip and happening place -- and the deal doesn't feel like it's worth the fuss. We'd rather put those same three bucks into a slot machine and hope for a bigger payout.