You can't visit California and not be drawn to the bright lights of Las Vegas, just a stone's throw across the border in Nevada. We'd managed to avoid it so far with our northern route through Yosemite but finally found ourselves driving down through those oddly familiar signs.
Vegas' main strip is, as I heard several people proclaim while we were there, "Disney for adults"; everything is artificial and seemingly made with purpose, even though that purpose may be to separate you from your money. There are plenty of other 'adult' attractions in the city too which we were reminded of by the 'dial-a-girl' billboards on vans and people on the strip handing out fliers for various escort services and strip clubs.
If you ignore some of the seedier elements of the city though, you can actually have a pretty good time, particularly if you are only planning to spend a few evenings there. I wouldn't however recommend it as a family holiday destination.
There is a risk that we have a highly rose tinted view of the city because of a few different strokes of fortune, but we had a great time there. We stayed for three nights at Planet Hollywood, one of the hotels in the centre of the strip. It seems to be that hotels off the strip are cheaper and normally provide a shuttle bus to get you to and from the main strip, but people recommend that you stay on the strip during your first stay in the city to get the full experience.
In an effort to keep our Vegas price tag low, we used Priceline's mystery 'express deals' which provides you with a rough location, star rating and a few other details but won't tell you the exact hotel until you book. Lisa had deduced that one of the deals would likely be either the Monte Carlo or Planet Hollywood and we were happy to discover the mystery hotel to be Planet Hollywood, the more central of the two.
One crazy thing about Vegas (other than the fact it isn't actually Vegas), is that the main freeway dumps you right onto the strip. There was a bit of chaos navigating through the multiple lanes and quick turnoffs but we managed to stumble our way into the hotel parking lot. Next bit of good news, room upgrade. No idea if it is because we subtly dropped the fact that we are a travel blog in an email asking about non-smoking rooms, or if it was just another lucky coincidence, but we were very happy to take it!
Our first night was a simple one - get a quick meal (Panda Express), FREE drink upgrade in McDonalds (almost as amazing as the room upgrade) and a walk down to watch the Bellagio Fountain which was just down the street. We were fairly tired so called the first night early to get some energy for the next day!
We decided to leave the hotel early the next morning to buy our tickets for our chosen "Vegas Show" - Mystere by Cirque du Soleil. You can queue and buy discounted tickets on the day of a show from a variety of booths scattered around the Strip. Tickets are available for most shows but just not the newest ones (for example 'O' by Cirque) and on a first-come-first-served basis so you need to head down for when the offices open at 10am. Most of our plans for Vegas were in the evenings so upon purchasing our tickets we decided to wander up to the Mystere ticket office at Treasure Island to get our seats assigned.
As we walked into the foyer of Treasure Island we didn't realise the masterful trap that was about to be sprung on us. Our plans of a lazy afternoon by the pool would be scrapped, but several hours later we emerged from our gauntlet with vouchers for two dinners, some play slot credits and tickets for a show. What happened in those proceeding hours? That story is worth a post of its own.
So, afternoon gone, now was time to get some free grub before we enjoyed a classic Las Vegas show - the original Cirque du Soleil, Mystere.
Our eatery of choice (free meal number one!) was a Gordon Ramsey outlet called BurGR which stuffed us with some tasty burgers and more chips than we could finish, then it was off to see the circus!
Sadly, as always, I couldn't take photos during the show but it was a very unique experience for us; Very surreal, with many incredible tricks which made Lisa's inner doctor flinch at the potential injuries that one loss of balance might result in. If there is a story to the show, we missed it. There are consistent characters who appear throughout a variety of acts but I'm not sure whether they were undergoing any narrative arcs or just adding some colour. The other thing mentionable about the show is the sheer amount of things going on in each part - there will be people climbing poles on the front of the stage while others interact high up in the background - this richness I think would bring a lot of repeatability to the show as it seems like you wouldn't be able to take everything in on your first sitting.
There were many incredible acts but I think our favourite was the "Hand-to-hand" act - a 2-person balancing act which looks like it takes a phenomenal amount of strength and control. I also enjoyed the 'clown's, but that feels a terrible thing to say given the skill required for the other feats performed.
Sufficiently 'wowed' we headed home via Casino Royale where we spent an hour or so firing our play credits from the timeshare freebies into slot machines - these slots aren't like normal slots in that you can only 'cash out' if you win a very small set of combinations, but they were a great, risk free lesson on both how slot machines work (they are a little more complicated than you think) and how improbable your chances are of making a return on them.
These particular slots, I noticed in retrospect, had a much higher win probability than normal ones - a likely sneaky ploy to make you think you might be able to get a repeat of some of the 'highs' on the real machines. Credits depleted, and ready for bed we headed home.
Our last big day in Vegas was planned for our real 'play in a casino' day. It was actually a really cool day and my favourite one for recommending how to 'do Vegas properly'.
The first thing we did in the morning was head down to the Venetian where they run daily lessons for a variety of the different games you see on a casino floor. Although we have gleaned a rough concept of how the various games are played through TV and film, the lessons are perfect to teach you the details, nuances and etiquette of the games. If I have one major recommendation from our time in Vegas, it is to do these - at the very least it may help you understand what is going on if you ever find yourself watching a game. The games we ended up learning where craps, roulette and blackjack.
Craps was clearly designed by a crazy person - the game is a labyrinth of rules, conditions and payoffs which are not at all apparent from looking at the board. Out of the three, even with our lesson in it, it was the least approachable by a considerable margin. There are some small aspects of the table that people can play (eg 'hard eight' bets) and I guess you could just learn some of these and play them, but I think I'd need another lesson before I was confident at the main game.
Blackjack was my favourite game; While the rest of the games are much more 'hit and hope' blackjack gives you the impression at least of having more control as time goes on. I also love all the gestures and the comfort of the slightly more computable probabilities (although I'm exactly like the guy in the movie 21 at it!). A very basic, but useful tip for a beginner offered by our teacher was to always assume that the cards you can't see (dealer's hidden card and the card that is about to be dealt) is a 10-card.
Roulette is by far the easiest and most approachable game from the start. Although there are some fun things you can do that aren't immediately apparent by the table layout (betting 'streets' etc) which the lessons were great to show us, the concept can be quite easily grasped just by watching a game - you bet on certain squares (numbers, colours etc) and get returns based upon where the ball ends up on the roulette wheel. The compromise for this approachability is that the game has one of the worst win probabilities in a Casino, so maybe not a great one to play in the long term!
Brimming with knowledge we headed back to the hotel to rest and prepare for the night ahead. We also cashed in our free meal with a huge all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet (eating tonnes of sushi in a desert - what could go wrong?).
We hung around the pool for a bit while I did some work and Lisa attempted a bit more travel planning, then to begin the night, headed for our early (free!) show for the evening; The Ultimate Variety Show.
The Ultimate Variety show was a bit gloomy - a small, not very enthusiastic audience watching some very talented but visibly weary performers. Several of the compère's jokes about having to do this every day and the monotony of his act coupled with poor earnings hit a little close to true feeling. The nail in the coffin was as we left at the end, passing the compère standing attempting to flog his DVD while the other acts stood off to the side, in what looked far too like a cage, barred off from the exiting audience who all seemed very keen to avert their gazes.
There is a terrible misconception around what will be the output of playing in a Casino. Although technically correct, I dislike to use the word 'gambling' - it evokes in my mind too much of an impression of potential success. As our 'teacher' from the morning's lessons eloquently put it; "If gambling paid out, there wouldn't be casinos". In my mind the most freeing (albeit less optimistic) way to view gambling in a casino is to consider the predictable decrease of your money as a payment for enjoying yourself and playing the games. If you consider your lost bets as a consensual payment for you to play and have a fixed amount that you intend to pay, then you can get on with enjoying yourself and playing the games as opposed to reeling with each loss.
Another thing to note is that the main games (blackjack, poker, craps etc) all have minimum table bets which are written at each table - you need to walk around (sometimes to different Casinos) in order to find a table with a minimum bet you could manage. We, again on a budget, weren't planning on spending a lot in the casinos but I really wanted us both to have had the experience really playing in a real Vegas casino. In the end, we set ourselves the paltry limit of $10 each to play a game of our choosing; For me that was blackjack and for Lisa, it was roulette. Because of our limits it took a bit of hunting to find tables with such a low minimum bet (they normally start around $15-20 in the big casinos) - finally we both found a table to play at in Bally's.
I got killed in 3 rounds (doubled my money on the first, then dealer got blackjack twice the next two times) but I loved the friendly bunch at my table who clearly where having a good time. Lisa's attempt at roulette however was, despite my pessimism improbably successful, tripling her money over several rounds. Happy to leave on a winning streak, she cashed out, enjoying rubbing my face in her super-roulette skills!
Having tried playing proper casino games we decided to spend a few hours at a more chilled pace, hunting for 'free' drinks at the slots in Caesars and the Bellagio. A top tip if you are thinking about doing Vegas on the cheap - if you sit on a slot machine in some casinos, waitresses will bring you free drinks (just be nice and tip them $1 or they'll spit in your next one!). We happily would stick a dollar in a slot machine and idly spin it, one cent at a time, while we kept our eyes out for a waitress. You name it and they brought it - my favourite new discovery were AMFs (or Adioses) but I think you can get most drinks there. We tried both the Bellagio and Caesars but the Bellagio on our night was way more likely to yield drinks. Also worth noting that they don't come at a massively fast frequency - I would say we got one drink every 30 minutes. Still fun! I think we ended up spending maybe another $14 on the combined slots and tips which was a pretty cheap night out in Vegas!
I ended our visit to each casino by going up to the cashier cage and swapping a dollar for a chip as a cheap but fun souvenir - in all 3 cases the cashier understood the implication of my request and was nice enough to search around a little and find me a nice one.
All in all - a very fun and successful night!
So that was a long post - here are some of my top tips:
Just in case you are in a rush - we normally can get back to you in less than a day!