Destination of the Week: Las Vegas
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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Nick Ewen gives us a tour of Sin City, which he called home for several years. We’re headed to America’s gambling mecca: Las Vegas.
WHAT TO DO
Las Vegas was officially founded as a city just over one hundred years ago, and since then has experienced incredible growth. The building of the Hoover Dam and legalization of gambling helped start a population boom in 1931, and the city hasn’t been the same since.
It’s no surprise that one of the key reasons visitors flock to Las Vegas is the gambling available throughout the city in venues that range from seedy to stunning. The centerpiece of this industry is the enormous hotels & casinos that line Las Vegas Blvd. (aka “The Strip”). These lavish resorts offer numerous games at a variety of price points, including blackjack, poker, craps, roulette, and slots, among others. Most of the table games have minimums that can get quite hefty, while the slots also have a variety of minimum bets.
Most casinos will serve free drinks while you are gambling, and I’ve found that (unsurprisingly) the more you are betting, the better the service will be. Since I know all TPG readers are always interested in point-earning opportunities, you’ll be glad to know that your gambling can accrue points in a number of different loyalty programs. M life is the loyalty program for MGM Resorts, whose Vegas properties include ARIA, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, and New York – New York. You can earn points for gambling as well as on-property purchases, so if none of the lodging options highlighted below fit your plans, be sure to investigate loyalty programs ahead of your stay.
To get an idea of “old school” Las Vegas, consider taking a trip up the Strip a few miles to Fremont Street. As the first paved street in the town, Fremont Street was the starting point of the gambling industry in Sin City, and many older casinos still line the pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. Many of the same games from the megaresorts on the strip are available at Fremont Street spots like the Golden Nugget, Binion’s, and Four Queens, all at lower prices, of course. Just walking down the road is an experience, with many street performers, vendors, and an overhead light show on the domed ceiling.
If gambling isn’t your thing, there are plenty of additional entertainment options around town to keep you occupied, including numerous shows that encompass “old Vegas” and many new and exciting shows that will delight audiences of all ages. The last true showgirl revue in town, Jubilee, can be seen at Bally’s (not for the youngsters, for obvious reasons!), or check out the numerous resident shows at casinos around the strip, including Blue Man Group at the Monte Carlo, Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace, Donny and Marie Osmond at the Flamingo, Carrot Top at the Luxor, or Penn & Teller at the Rio.
Numerous Broadway shows also come through Vegas and make one of the Strip casinos their home. Jersey Boys, for example, currently plays to packed houses in the Paris. Perhaps the most popular set of shows, however, are those created by Cirque Du Soleil. There are currently seven different shows spread across various resorts on the strip, and complete details can be found here. Most hotels can purchase tickets directly for you, and there are also several ticket resellers on the strip. My favorite site for procuring discounted tickets in advance is BroadwayBox.com.
For the fashionistas and foodies out there, Sin City can be paradise, with high-end shops and terrific gourmet restaurants scattered throughout the sprawling resorts on Las Vegas Blvd. While some chain stores will be familiar to the most casual of shoppers, many take luxury to a whole new level, with names like Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Hermes, and Prada. Simply strolling past them can be quite the people-watching experience. My top picks are the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, Le Boulevard at Paris Las Vegas, the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, and the Wynn Esplanade. by The Fashion Show Mall directly across from Wynn Las Vegas is more of a typical mall.
Dining options also abound both inside and outside the shopping strips, with most large casinos offering 10 or more different restaurants to fit all kids of budgets. The buffet is (of course) a quintessential Las Vegas experience; my recommendations are the Wynn or Bellagio for breakfast and the Cosmopolitan for dinner, but feel free to add your own opinions in the comments below!
For finer dining, Las Vegas truly is your oyster, with high-profile chefs providing many options at a variety of prices. Here are some of the main casino resorts on the strip and their “top” choice(s) for fine dining:
1) Wynn Las Vegas – One of the newer casinos on the strip offers an incredible collection of gourmet establishments, including SW Steakhouse (selected as “Best Steakhouse in Las Vegas by New York Magazine), Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (fresh Mediterranean seafood with options to dine both inside and outside), and Wing Lei (pairing Chinese cuisine from various regions with European and American ingredients for a truly memorable dining experience).
2) Venetian and Palazzo – It wouldn’t be Venice without Italian cuisine, and one of the top spots in Vegas is Valentino, offering traditional favorites and other unique creations. An alternate option is Bouchon, a bistro-style restaurant serving French country cuisine with a seasonal menu. For you carnivores out there, Brian already reviewed Cut from his 2011 Vegas trip here, but the Palazzo has another terrific steakhouse (Carnevino) as well.
4) Bellagio – Popular restaurants abound in the Bellagio, including Picasso (Chef Julian Serrano treates guests to a French- and Spanish-influenced menu surrounded by $50 million of actual Picassos on the wall) overlooking the Bellagio lake, Michael Mina (where the eponymous chef creates a dazzling array of unique menu items), and Olives (Chef Todd English creates an interesting blend of American and Mediterranean cuisine, also overlooking the lake).
5) Monte Carlo – Despite being one of the less glitzy hotels on the strip, the Monte Carlo houses a top eatery: André’s, where Chef André Rochat marries traditional charm with a contemporary twist on numerous French dishes.
6) MGM Grand – Though the MGM is almost ancient by Vegas standards (approaching 20 years old), guests can still take in numerous terrific meals from the restaurants on property, including Nobhill Tavern (a Michael Mina-created gastropub), craftsteak (where celebrity chef Tom Colicchio serves simple steaks procured from small family farms), and Joël Robuchon (an intimate setting where guests can choose from options like caviar, foie gras, or the 16-course tasting menu!).
7) Mandalay Bay – At the south end of the strip, visitors can choose from an eclectic mix of dining spots, including Aureole (Chef Charlie Palmer serves contemporary cuisine and has “wine angels” select your bottle from the restaurant’s four-story wine tower) and Fleur by Hubert Heller (offering tapas-style dining with an array of unique ingredients).
9) The Palms – Also just off the strip, the Palms isn’t a hot spot for celebrities for nothing. Check out their wildly popular restaurants, including Alizé (Chef André Rochat offers terrific French cuisine with an extensive wine list) and Nove Italiano (with flavorful Italian dishes served in a luxurious setting).
Other top spots not located in a major hotel include RA Sushi (in the Fashion Show Mall), Mundo (downtown in the Las Vegas Design Center), RAKU (just west of the strip), Golden Steer (an old-style Las Vegas steakhouse located just north of the strip), and Todd’s (southeast of the strip, in Henderson). Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris, styled like a Parisian bistro and located right on Las Vegas Blvd. is another of my top picks.
Once you’ve chosen a restaurant, be certain to check OpenTable (Spago and Olives, for example, are on there) so you don’t miss any point-earning opportunities! Please add your own recommendations (or comment on the above restaurants) in the comments section below.
Many visitors to Las Vegas take advantage of the numerous tour companies in Sin City, including helicopter flights to the Grand Canyon and day trips to the Hoover Dam. Fortunately, the Hoover Dam is easy to visit on your own, less than an hour southeast of the Strip. Visitors can choose from two tours: the power plant tour lasts 30 minutes and costs $11, while the more popular dam tour offers an up-close-and-personal taste of the inner workings of both the power plant and dam passageways for $30.
Despite its desert location, outdoor enthusiasts can also stay busy throughout their stays in town. Las Vegas is home to numerous championship-caliber golf courses, including some right on the strip! They (naturally) vary in their price and availability; a hotel concierge should be able to find a course that fits your budget and level of play. Feel free to do your own research as well. If you do find yourself tiring of the glitz and bustle of the strip, consider taking a short drive to the west and/or northwest and visit the natural wonders of Red Rock Canyon or Mount Charleston. Red Rock has numerous hiking trails and campgrounds, and a one-way 14.7-mile scenic loop allows car visitors to take in the majestic beauty of the desert southwest from the air-conditioned comfort of a vehicle. Mount Charleston, on the other hand, stands tall above the Las Vegas skyline at almost 12,000 feet and is located less than an hour from the Strip. As soon as you step out of your car, the hustle and bustle of Vegas seems hundreds of miles away, and the national recreation area includes many activities and facilities for the outdoorsman, including hiking, horseback riding, skiing, and one of the only pet-friendly hotels in and around Las Vegas, the Mt. Charleston Resort.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
McCarran International Airport is conveniently located just east of Las Vegas Boulevard and is a short taxi ride from the main hotels on the Strip. All major alliances are represented, with multiple daily flights on American, Delta, US Airways, and United from their various hubs and even some smaller focus cities (e.g. Delta’s direct MCO-LAS flight).
Southwest also has a major presence at McCarran, with a wide range of short- and medium-haul flights to numerous destinations. Other domestic airlines serving Sin City include JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit, Alaska, Frontier, and Virgin America. For TPG readers in smaller markets, Allegiant also offers direct flights from cities like Grand Rapids, MI and Shreveport, LA.
In June of 2012, McCarran officially opened Terminal 3 with a focus on expanding their international service, and TPG readers outside the US can get to Las Vegas from numerous worldwide gateways on airlines including AeroMexico and Korean (SkyTeam), Air Canada and Copa (Star Alliance), British Airways (Oneworld), Virgin Atlantic, WestJet, and Volaris, among others.
While the iconic casinos and resorts that line Las Vegas Boulevard are obviously the main draw for lodging in Sin City, there are nevertheless numerous options for point redemptions. Keep in mind that virtually every large casino on the strip offers free parking, so I’ve found that paying sky-high room rates (especially on weekends) and resort fees (the vast majority of the large strip properties require them) just isn’t worth it, especially when I can redeem my hard-earned points for hotels nearby.
Elara, a Hilton Grand Vacations Hotel: Located just off the Strip next to Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, this Hilton property puts you right at the center of the action. Elara offers a range of accommodations, from studios to spacious four-bedroom suites, each equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows, remote controlled curtains, and a 42-inch HDTV. A full fitness center helps you keep those exercise-themed New Year’s resolutions, while the tropical outdoor pool includes a bar, sundeck, whirlpools, and private cabanas perfect for relaxing the day away. Check out the 170+ shops and restaurants of the Miracle Mile via the adjoined walkway, and with City Center, the Cosmopolitan, and many of Las Vegas’s famous casinos just steps away, you’re guaranteed to have a plethora of things to do. Mid-week rates in February start at $79/night, while weekends begin at $143/night (no resort fees here!). Hilton Grand Vacations has their own redemption program, but interestingly enough, you can’t redeem points for their “standard” studio rooms. However, their junior suites are available as a “Premium Room Rewards” redemption in February for 36,119 points/night on weekdays or 58,519 on weekends.
In addition to Elara, the Tropicana Las Vegas is in the process of becoming a Doubletree and will also offer a terrific location toward the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard; the website claims that the hotel opened on January 10, but they are not accepting reservations. Other Hilton HHonors properties include the Embassy Suites Convention Center, the Embassy Suites Las Vegas, Hampton Inn Las Vegas North, Hampton Inn Tropicana, Hampton Inn Las Vegas/Summerlin, Hampton Inn & Suites Las Vegas Airport, Homewood Suites Las Vegas Airport, Doubletree Las Vegas Airport, Hilton Garden Inn Las Vegas Strip South, Hilton Garden Inn Las Vegas/Henderson, Hampton Inn & Suites Las Vegas-Red Rock, Homewood Suites Henderson South Las Vegas, Hampton Inn & Suites Las Vegas South, and three other Hilton Grand Vacations properties on or near the strip.
Hyatt Place Las Vegas: This is actually the only Hyatt in Las Vegas and is located about a mile off the Strip near the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas. It has the usual Hyatt Place amenities, including complimentary breakfast and WiFi, and guests can also take advantage of complimentary shuttles to and from the airport and Las Vegas strip. Rates in February start at $126.65/night; as a Category 3 hotel, free nights will set you back 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night.
The Cosmopolitan: One of Las Vegas’s newest properties, the Cosmopolitan strives for luxury and contemporary sophistication. The spacious rooms start at 460 square feet and include marble-floored bathrooms; many provide private terraces. Grab a drink at one of the five hotel bars, then indulge in one of the thirteen restaurants on property, including The Wicked Spoon buffet, which consistently appears on lists of the “Best Buffets in Las Vegas” (and has my personal endorsement for their dinner spread). With an extensive spa, salon, sports bar, casino, shopping, and three separate pool areas, you may find little need to venture off the premises. When you do, the hotel’s prime location (just south of the Bellagio on Las Vegas Boulevard) offers easy access to all strip attractions. Weekday rates start at $160/night in February, while weekends will set you back at least $200/night (these rates do not include the mandatory resort fee of $25/night). As a Category 7 property, Marriott Rewards members would need to redeem 35,000 points for a free night.
JW Marriott Resort: For those interested in a more relaxed off-Strip property, the JW Marriott is a luxury hotel & spa located on 54 acres in the western community of Summerlin. Enjoy one of the 548 guestrooms set against the rugged landscape of the Red Rock Canyon. The “standard” room checks in at a whopping 561 square feet, and all rooms feature stylish and comfortable furnishings, including marble bathrooms with whirlpool/Jacuzzi tubs and a separate shower. Golfers can take advantage of the resort’s exclusive partnership with TPC Las Vegas or have the concierge reserve priority rounds at nine other nearby courses, and the Aquae Sulis Spa provides sophisticated pampering for even the most discerning traveler. Choose from 12 on-property restaurants, bars, and cafes, or stop by the 11,000 square foot pool set among palm trees and private cabanas. If the resort’s casino doesn’t whet your gambling appetite, grab the complimentary shuttle to the Las Vegas strip. Rates in February begin at $127.20 (even on weekends), and the $19.99 resort fee is optional. Free nights at this Category 5 property require 25,000 points.
Other Marriott properties in and around Las Vegas include the Las Vegas Marriott, SpringHill Suites Convention Center, Residence Inn Convention Center, Courtyard Convention Center, Renaissance Las Vegas, Fairfield Inn Las Vegas Airport, Residence Inn Las Vegas Hughes Center, SpringHill Suites Las Vegas North Speedway, Fairfield Inn & Suites Las Vegas South, Courtyard Las Vegas South, Residence Inn Las Vegas South, Courtyard Las Vegas Summerlin, Residence Inn Las Vegas Henderson/Green Valley, SpringHill Suites Las Vegas Henderson, and TownePlace Suites Las Vegas Henderson.
The Venetian and The Palazzo: These properties are a part of Priority Club through their partnership with InterContinental and offer members terrific redemption opportunities right on Las Vegas Boulevard. While technically different properties, they share the same complex and numerous amenities. The standard rooms at these all-suite resorts cover an incredible 650-720 square feet and include luxurious furnishings such as roman tubs, separate showers, multiple HDTV’s, and a sunken living room tailor-made for relaxing. Guests have 16 fine-dining and 23 casual dining establishments to choose from, along with 9 bars and 3 nightclubs to drink and/or dance the night away. The on-property Canyon Ranch SpaClub covers an expansive 134,000 square feet and offers a variety of packages for guests, while three pools provide numerous additional ways to unwind. The casino includes a large separate poker room, and numerous high-end shops provide many ways for guests to blow their winnings. Visitors can even take a gondola ride along the property’s replica of the Grand Canal. Rates in February begin at $199/night (not including a $20 resort fee), and free nights for Priority Club members are 50,000 points. The Palazzo is also available on both Visa Signature Hotels and American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts; check out TPG’s review as a Royal Ambassador here.
Priority Club also offers numerous other options for point redemption, including Candlewood Suites Las Vegas, Holiday Inn Desert Club Resort, Holiday Inn Express Las Vegas/Nellis, Holiday Inn Express Las Vegas South, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Henderson, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites I-215 Beltway, and Staybridge Suites Las Vegas.
The Westin Las Vegas Hotel, Casino, and Spa: Located just off the strip on Flamingo Road, the Westin Las Vegas offers 826 comfortable guest rooms in contemporary, relaxing décor. Sink into Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed or take advantage of each room’s comfortable sitting area and flatscreen TV while you investigate the minibar. The on-site Casuarina Casino offers the excitement of Sin City without the crowds of the strip, while the Hibiscus Spa and outdoor heated pool offer tranquil escapes after a hectic day of gambling or a long evening spent exploring the city’s extensive nightlife. Weekday and weekend rates start at $139 in February. Free nights require 12,000 Starpoints; the property does have extensive Cash & Points availability for 4,800 Starpoints + $90.
There are two other Starwood properties in Las Vegas: The Element Las Vegas Summerlin offers an off-the-strip location in the upscale Summerlin neighborhood (very convenient to Red Rock Canyon), while the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa provides a more relaxed atmosphere in the Lake Las Vegas area of the city.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet
The Bellagio: Also a part of American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts, the Bellagio is often considered one of the most luxurious (and sought-after) properties on the Strip, despite the fact that several new megahotels have popped up since it opened. Towering high at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road, the nearly 4,000 rooms, suites, and villas offer guests a variety of accommodations to suit all needs. Each room is equipped with flatscreen TV’s, luxurious linens and robes, and an Italian marble bathroom with soaking tub and separate shower. Consider splurging for a fountain view room to take in the watery spectacle of the Bellagio’s famous fountains, or view them up-close-and-personal from right on the strip. The lobby, halls, and casino of the hotel are tastefully decorated to connote the luxury of an Italian villa, and numerous on-site restaurants and bars will satisfy all taste buds (my personal favorite is Jean-Philippe, with an elaborate chocolate fountain and terrific sweets). Visa Signature rates in February begin at $149/night (not including the mandatory $25 resort fee).
Red Rock Casino Resort: For a luxurious stay away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip, consider taking the short trip out to the Red Rock Casino Resort, located in the upscale western suburb of Summerlin. With “just” 816 rooms & suites (still quite a few, but small by Vegas standards), you can still experience the luxury of Sin City with the personalization of a smaller property. Starting at over 500 square feet, each room features the “standard” Vegas fare: luxurious linens, marble bathrooms with separate tub & shower, and a fully-stocked minibar. Each room also includes panoramic views of either the neon lights of the strip or the majestic beauty of Red Rock Canyon. The hotel also offers complimentary scheduled transportation to and from the airport and to and from the Strip (dropping off at Fashion Show Mall), allowing guests to still experience Vegas with a more secluded hotel location. Pay a visit to the on-site spa, or indulge in one of the 10 restaurants on property. Visa Signature rates in February begin at $160/night (not including the mandatory $24.99 resort fee).
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Four Seasons: For guests seeking to get away from all the gambling, consider a stay at the Four Seasons, one of the only gaming-free hotels on the Strip. Located on the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard and connected to Mandalay Bay, the Four Seasons has just 424 rooms, furnished with contemporary décor & artwork and a variety of amenities such as floor-to-ceiling windows and LED TV’s. Guests can get away from it all and lounge by the carefully landscaped pool or visit the property’s spa for one of dozens of treatments. Two popular restaurants and three on-site bars pair nicely with the more expansive offerings at Mandalay Bay, giving guests numerous options but a more private hotel experience. Rates in February begin at $199/night.
THEhotel at Mandalay Bay: In addition to the standard rooms at Mandalay Bay, THEhotel offers a more exclusive suite-only option that American Express Platinum cardholders can book through FHR. Each room is at least 725 square feet, including a separate living room area with seating for up to 5 guests. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the strip, the mountain, or Mandalay Bay’s beach-style pool area. Other amenities in the room include plasma TV’s, a marble & granite bathtub, and a separate half-bathroom. Some of the rooms are even pet friendly! THEhotel has two restaurants and its own spa, but guests can also take advantage of the myriad of services provided in the main resort & casino, including many additional dining options, the Shark Reef Aquarium, and House of Blues. My one recommendation for a quick bite and a terrific beer selection: Burger Bar in The Shoppes at Mandalay Place. Rates in February begin at $108/night.
Both Visa Signature and American Express FHR
In addition to The Palazzo and Bellagio, two other resorts are also available on both Visa Signature and American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts: Wynn Las Vegas and Mandarin Oriental. TPG already had a chance to try out the Mandarin and the Wynn’s newer sister property (Encore Las Vegas), so be sure to check out his reviews.
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