Yes, Las Vegas can be done on a tight budget — here’s how
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Fortunes are won and lost every day in Las Vegas. And I’m not just talking about at the casinos.
Some of the country’s best restaurants have outposts in the city, and sky-high prices to match. Luxury boutiques line the resort shopping malls. And good tickets to a hit show or superstar concert are likely to set you back more than the cost of your hotel room.
But that doesn’t mean that Vegas is only for high rollers.
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Las Vegas was once known for its cheap steak dinners; buy one, get one free show tickets and a steady stream of complimentary booze. The theory was: Lure visitors into the casino and they will gamble away more than enough cash to subsidize those cheap meals.
Those deals still exist, but you’re going to work just a little bit harder to score a 99-cent shrimp cocktail.
In 1999, when I turned 21, my college friend and I did a crazy cheap trip to Las Vegas. I flew a TWA red-eye and stayed at the cheapest room at Circus Circus, known still today as “The Manor House.” It’s really a motel next to the RV park, and the room rate included two free passes to the buffet.
On another trip, I booked an America West vacation package and stayed at Harrah’s. The location was better but the room was far from glamorous.
Enough has been written about the free shows in Vegas: the Bellagio fountains, the Mirage volcano, the circus act at, well, Circus Circus. The same for hiking in Red Rock Canyon or driving to the Valley of Fire. Those are all great activities for your first or second trip to Vegas.
But I set out to see how, on my 19th trip to Sin City, I could find some new experiences without breaking the bank.
Rent a car
Taxis, Ubers and Lyfts in Las Vegas can be very expensive. (Plus, they are sometimes hard to find.) And while walking is my normal way of seeing a city, temperatures in Las Vegas can easily top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The massive casinos on the Strip might look close to each other, but they’re actually pretty spread out.
Yes, there are free trams between a handful of resorts. And there are buses that run throughout the city. So, if you’re on an extremely tight budget, that is the way to go.
For me, I’ve found that renting a car one-way to or from the airport makes a lot of sense. I’ll either pick it up at a casino on my final full day, use it to explore and then return it to the airport the next morning, saving $30 on a taxi. Or, I do the opposite.
Many folks will think I’m crazy given the long shuttle ride to the airport rental center and because I’ll need to fill up the car with gas. But for me, a one-day rental on a 72-hour Las Vegas trip is a nice trick.
If you have elite status with a casino chain, you can also park for free.
I’ve leveraged my Hyatt Globalist status to earn M Life Gold, allowing me to park for free at any of the MGM resorts.
A car gives you the flexibility to play $5 blackjack tables at casinos off the Strip or explore local restaurants. You can visit Fremont Street and favorite spots such as the Neon Museum. It’s not right for everyone, but it’s something I’ve started to do more often — especially on crowded weekends when there is often a long wait for a taxi.
Check out the pinball museum
There are plenty of flashing lights in this city. But only at the Pinball Hall of Fame can you actually take control of some of those bulbs yourself.
You’ll find the massive museum (it fits into an aircraft hangar) just south of Mandalay Bay. It’s got about 200 games, ranging from vintage to modern, and others that brought me back to my childhood in the 1980s.
And the best part? You can play some for just a quarter. A $5 bill kept me and my colleague occupied for nearly an hour. Consider the free parking, and it’s a great experience for travelers on a budget.
Cheap meals in Las Vegas
When it comes time to eat, you generally have two choices: a fancy, over-the-top meal or the same fast food you get back home.
Las Vegas buffets used to be a steal, but prices have crept up along with the offerings. (Pro tip: If you arrive just as breakfast is ending, you pay the breakfast price and can stay as the restaurant transitions to lunch.)
But for good food at an even better price, eat like a local.
My favorite old-time Las Vegas haunt is The Original Omelette House.
It’s the sort of spot that, when you see it from the outside, you think about getting back into your car and driving away. But trust me: stay. Ignore the strip mall filled with a liquor store, chiropractor’s office and a vape shop.
You can get a salad or a sandwich here but really, that’s like ordering a steak at Long John Silvers. You just don’t do it.
Instead, there are dozens of omelets you’ll want to choose from. Just be warned, these are big omelets. The standard ones are made with six eggs. That’s right, half a dozen eggs. Not a typo.
There was plenty after my meal for leftovers.
For a dollar less, you can get the so-called baby omelet made with just three eggs. (See, the price of that rental car is easily being paid off.)
If you’re not willing to venture far off the Strip, there is the long-time steak special at Ellis Island. Yes, you have to join the loyalty program and do some gambling. But then you can get the steak for only $7.99. The casino describes it as a “10-ounce top sirloin steak served with … potato or rice, garlic green beans and homemade soup or salad.”
Also note that Ellis Island has $5 blackjack, something that fewer and fewer casinos offer anymore.
Cheap drinks in Las Vegas
Yes, everyone knows the trick to getting free booze while gambling. But you don’t always want to sit at a slot machine or table to get an inexpensive drink.
Here’s where you can take a little field trip on the Strip.
There’s a CVS, Walgreens, Target and a convenience shop called ABC Stores all right between City Center and the MGM Grand caddy-corner to it.
Need a case of water in the desert? Cheap beer? Wine or liquor? You’re all set.
These convenience stores are much more affordable than any bar in the casinos. And, as long as you’re not carrying glass, you can drink whatever you want on the street.
The final tip here: Visit your resort’s fitness center. Hang on, I’m not saying you need to work out (but after that six-egg omelet, it may not be a bad idea.) This is another place where you can often pick up bottles of water for free. You are already paying exorbitant resort fees, so you might as well get back every last penny.
Related: Advice for staying safe in Las Vegas
Casino loyalty programs and coupon books
Airlines, hotels and car rental agencies aren’t the only companies to reward travelers for their loyalty.
Casinos offer their members discounted or free rooms, shows, meals and more. OK, don’t expect a free room unless you gamble a fair amount. But discounts are pretty easy to come by.
Typically, you need to sign up in person — something that won’t help you on your first trip to Las Vegas. However, if you have a local outpost of one of the big casino chains, sign up there and then try your luck at a discounted room.
For those who really want to dive into these programs, here’s our complete guide.
Sometimes, there are promotions to sign up, especially at the smaller casinos. This could mean a free game or a match play, where the casino essentially doubles your bet. (It only helps if you win the hand, but can be a great boost.)
I recently earned a promotion through an online game, myVEGAS Slots, which is run by Playstudios and partners with several travel and entertainment companies for rewards, including MGM. It’s a free online casino that I’ve wasted way, way too many hours at over the years. There are also plenty of free night offers for people who play the online game, but it’s not an easy path to a cheap vacation.
Other ways to save in Vegas
Discounted show tickets
You are not going to score a discounted ticket to the latest show in town.
But, if you want to see one of the lesser-known acts or a show that’s been open for years, check out Tix4Tonight.
It is the Las Vegas answer to Broadway’s TKTS: discounted show tickets that need to be purchased that day, in person, at one of the company’s outlets.
Magic. Comedy. Vegas showgirls. You name it, and it might be on sale tonight. Or not. Like everything else in Vegas, it’s a gamble, but one that usually pays out for deal seekers.
Related: The top 13 things to do in Las Vegas
Free slot machines
Some casinos still have a “free pull” at a slot machine. These machines have horrible odds but are usually flashy machines on the street to get you in. There are fewer and fewer of them today, but it’s worth the wait in line and, hey, you never know.
Save on ATM fees
Finally, think about how much cash you might need during your trip to Las Vegas. If you do rent a car, go to a local branch of your bank and get cash there.
If not, consider carrying enough cash from home. During a recent trip to Sin City, I saw a $9.99 fee at the ATMs in the new Resorts World casino.
The house might always win at the slot machines, but you don’t have to give away your money at the ATM too.
Feature photo by Davin G Photography / Getty Images.
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