The decision tree for a Las Vegas vacation can be so intimidating! The possibilities are almost limitless, so we get that it can be hard to decide what to do. But, the silver lining is that Vegas has something for everyone, even if you’re not a gambler (we aren’t). This article is one part trip recap and one part travel guide. As a bonus, we’re providing our actual cost breakdown for those who are curious.
Where to stay
The first big question is whether to stay on The Strip or somewhere else. We have stayed both on the strip and nearby, at vacation rental condos. We’ve never stayed in the downtown or Fremont Street areas. The hotels on the strip are some of the most luxurious we’ve encountered, and it’s possible to get a lot of bang for your buck anywhere in Vegas. Location matters, even on The Strip and a central location (think: Aria, Cosmopolitan, Vdara, Mandarin Oriental, Bellagio, Paris, Caesars Palace) gives you the most mobility if you want to move between properties on the strip. If you choose a place on either end, like Mandalay Bay or Treasure Island, you’re technically on the strip, but it will take longer to move between properties.
If you want to pool hop or visit multiple casinos or see shows with different locations, then a centrally located hotel might be perfect. The hotels on the strip are known to have the best pool scene, with each property offering a slightly different vibe–from party to chill. If you’re visiting during pool season and this is important, it’s worth doing some research to see what best fits your style.
As between remote strip locations (those on either end) and near-strip vacation condos, we’ve found there’s a lot to love about condos. These properties are close enough that you can get to the strip fairly easily, maybe even by walking, but more likely via a short ride share or drive. Condos typically offer at least a partial kitchen and coffee pot. This is perfect for Vegas where the tiny hotel room fridges are reserved for the mini bar and threaten a hefty fee if you store your own items. Two on-strip hotels we visited didn’t even offer free in-room coffee service. We’ll name names and tell you these three were Caesar’s Palace (which did have an in-room Keurig machine, but no free k-cups) and MGM Grand (no machine at all). We appreciate having at least a useable fridge to store some snacks and save leftovers. We are also coffee addicts who prefer having in room coffee service for a morning cup while still in our pajamas. A pot of room service coffee at the MGM Grand was $18, before taxes and fees! A kitchen saves calories and money, without diminishing the Vegas experience. Vacation condos tend to be more spacious than hotel rooms, but are likely more basic in terms of features. In exchange for that fridge and kitchen, you might be sacrificing a luxe marble bathroom and a fancy pool complex.
To drive or not to drive
This heading refers to whether renting a car is worth it. Our home is not within comfortable driving distance to Vegas. But some of the parking tips apply if you’re driving a personal car. Vegas isn’t the easiest city to navigate, and it encourages a lot of drinking (which is obviously incompatible with driving). Anytime we’ve rented a car in Vegas, we’ve always been able to find a pretty good deal. Now that parking is no longer free on the strip, consider carefully whether you need a car, how the total cost will compare with ride shares (or cabs), and whether you have any free parking options.
If you’re staying on the strip and don’t plan to venture far from your hotel, definitely skip the rental car. But, if you’d like to get outside the city or are staying off-strip and don’t plan to spend a lot of time on the strip, then take advantage of the rental deals! There are so many things to do in the Las Vegas area, and some people find these activities even more enjoyable than the strip. If we were driving a personal car to Vegas, we’d strongly consider staying at a place that offers free or low cost parking, even if that meant being off strip. We recommend using the money you’d otherwise spend on parking or dining out to hire a rideshare or taxi to take you to the strip during your stay.
We took advantage of a status match program and arrived in Vegas with Caesars Diamond status. Even with recent devaluations to the Total Rewards program, it was a great status to have and we took advantage of it. For part of this trip, we had a rental car and stayed in a near-strip vacation condo. Diamond status got us free valet at any Caesars property and did we ever use that while we had the car! We probably racked up what otherwise would have cost $150+ just in valet charges. Not having the free parking would have changed how we parked and drove, so maybe this isn’t real savings. But knowing we had that perk, we valet parked with abandon and did not investigate any lower cost alternatives. It was very convenient. The status also got us show tickets, we saw Penn & Teller (valued at $90 per seat) and we each received a $100 food voucher which we used towards a spectacular dinner at Gordon Ramsay Steak. In tangible value, we got at least $550 for on things we enjoyed.
Flashing that Diamond card generally got us nicer treatment, other discounts that we didn’t use, and allowed us to skip most lines. Because we had parking at Caesars properties, we often found ourselves using their pool complex, which we liked quite a bit. If you have any kind of status, or can match into it, it’s well worth the time to investigate the perks and what you get for them. At the very least, you’ll likely get discounted rooms or waived resort fees. Status was enough of a difference maker that we’re considering whether we can fit in a weekend trip to Vegas while we still have it.
Two of our traveling companions had mid-tier M Life status, which we found wasn’t as valuable as Caesars Diamond. If you have multiple statuses or match options, it’s worth considering which offers more perks, or at least better perks for you and your plans.
Keep in mind that open alcohol can be consumed on the street in Vegas (but not in private vehicles, including ride shares). Drinks in bars and at pools are expensive–a beer at the pool was around $8 for 12 oz at the time of this writing. Some pools will allow you to bring in food or alcohol. In our experience, the Caesars pool was more restrictive about bringing in alcohol, but also more lenient with bag checks than the MGM Grand pool complex. For the M Life property pools, alcohol was allowed in any of their refillable souvenir cups. We had a 22 oz and a 32 oz cup that we always filled with a drink before heading down to the pool. Even if you only bring in your first drink of the day, and then use the refillable cup to get discounted drinks from the bar for convenience, you’ll come out ahead. We also didn’t drink much more than one or two of the souvenir cup sized drinks at the pool each day. That helped with hangovers and cost savings!
Booze costs the most in bars, followed by convenience stores on the strip, then at off-strip grocery stores. If you have a car, we recommend stocking up on your alcohol at a grocery store. If you’re staying on the strip without a fridge and your preferred drink needs to be cold, buy a styrofoam cooler at a convenience store to fill with ice from the hotel. The coolers are overpriced, but at the cost of one beer in a bar, it is still a money saver. We also suggest bringing koozies from home (if you have them) and if you’re planning to drink anything in cans. Drinking on the cheap in Vegas often means trading legwork for money–making a couple of trips to the hotel ice machine instead of buying a bag of ice for example, or going back up to your hotel room from the pool to refill your drink instead of placing an order at the bar without having to dry off. It’s up to you to decide how best to balance this and enjoy your vacation. I did enjoy not having to wait in bar lines for a drink, though.
What to do
We’d intended on this trip to try hiking at Red Rocks National Park. But the trip came together in another way thanks to a last minute traveling companion. As a result, we spent almost all of our time on or near the strip. We love Vegas for the celebrity chefs, shows, pools and general festive atmosphere. We aren’t club goers or gamblers, although we will gamble with friends for entertainment.
Before we departed, we listed out the possible shows we wanted to see (based on what we could get with Caesars Diamond), places we wanted to eat, and what we could do for free. There is plenty of information out there about the free things to do in Vegas. Because we were traveling with a group (and because I opted to do quite a bit of remote work early in the trip), we had time for very little of what we might have done.
Most of our time was spent wandering through various casinos, people watching on the strip and Fremont Street, playing a little bit of Blackjack and Craps, and a whole lot of pool time. After our bleak and gloomy midwestern winter, this was fine with us!
On this trip, we also visited Fremont Street for the first time, including a couple of casinos in that area. What a different crowd from the strip. Fremont Street is one big party full of people who want to get wild and have fun. The Strip is also a big party, but it’s mostly people who care to see and be seen. Fremont Street offers arguably better gambling with lower minimums and sometimes better odds. Fremont Street is a car ride from The Strip, which we took via a ride share. There is ample parking at the area casinos, but it isn’t always free.
In any event, let your activities wish list guide you on the car rental decision. If you have a lot of off-strip activities planned or off-strip lodging (particularly with free parking), then a car can be convenient. But it isn’t necessary, especially if you’re not planning to move around much.
In a place renowned for excess and luxury, you can still have a reasonably priced vacation. It takes advance planning and (perhaps) some extra work. But we found the savings to be worth it. And as you can see, our budget allowed for plenty of luxuries. Here’s our cost breakdown for a 6 day/5 night trip for two to Las Vegas.
|Airfare (2 roundtrip tickets via Spirit)||$486|
|3 nights in vacation condo||Free*|
|2 nights at the MGM Grand||$527**|
|Rental car (3 nights via Avis)||$172|
|Other transportation / parking||$160***|
|Restaurants and bars||$272|
|Groceries (including alcohol)||$160|
|Net gambling loss||$80|
*We used our timeshare, but if we allocated a portion of our annual maintenance fee to this stay, that would amount to $217 in total. But we didn’t have any cash outlay specific to the stay and we’d incur the annual maintenance fee regardless of whether we use the points.
**Includes charges for resort fees, taxes, and tips on items charged to the room. We booked through Chase LHRC, which included food and beverage credits and a credit towards daily room service breakfast.
***Rideshares and airport parking