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Las Vegas might not be the first travel destination that comes to mind for saving money, but here are a few tips for spending smartly next time you go, based on a recent trip. There's some risk in these first two situational suggestions -- because the deals might not materialize -- but rolling the dice shouldn't be new to anyone visiting Vegas.
Upgrade your cheap seat. If you're attending a Vegas show by yourself -- which often happens when you're in town alone on business or killing time while a spouse attends a conference -- buy the cheapest ticket possible. You can then often upgrade to a better seat for free at showtime, just by asking an usher or box-office attendant. Even the busiest shows have a vacant single seat here and there that otherwise would go unfilled.
I bought the cheapest "Jersey Boys" ticket available through the ticket broker Tix4Tonight, which has kiosks all over the Strip. It cost $68 (including fees) for a normally $100 seat in the mezzanine, about 18 rows from the stage. I arrived early at the Paris theater and presented my ticket to an usher in the lobby to ask if there was a better seat, but she beat me to it. "Are you by yourself? she said. "How would you like to be on the main floor?" She cribbed a seat number from a list in her hand and wrote it on my ticket. It was in the ninth row, just to the right of center -- a seat that retails for $150 for one of the hottest shows on the Strip on a Friday night, and I paid $68.
Get a better ride. The Venetian's gondola ride, with its serenading gondoliers, is a popular romantic diversion for couples. A 10+-minute ride costs $16 a person if you want to share the four-person boat with another couple, or you can pay the whole $64 for you and your partner to have the boat to yourself.
Or you can get there early and pay the lowest price and still have a boat to yourself. When traffic is slow, the gondolas still keep moving as part of "the show," and the Venetian would rather not have an empty boat. When we arrived at the 10 a.m. opening, there were only a few couples in line and gondolas queuing. The ticket seller offered us a boat to ourselves for the discounted price of $56 -- a clue that things were slow. We declined the offer, paid the $32 and got a boat to ourselves anyway.
If gambling on deals isn't your thing, here are two sure things:
Go for the buffet. There are food deals to be found in Vegas (try the any-topping, made to order 12-inch pizza at the MGM Grand's Project Pie for $12), but generally eating is expensive on the Strip. While the cheap buffets that used to be a trademark of the city have largely disappeared, they still might be a better choice than other dining options, for at least one of your daily meals.
Here's why: One day, my wife and I ate lunch at the MGM Grand's Studio Cafe, pitched as a "quick bites" option by the hotel. A BLT, two soups and a soda cost $50, including tax and tip. Another day for lunch, I grabbed a chicken Philly sandwich and soda at Nathan's in the food court -- $17. With that as the norm, the colossal gourmet lunch buffet at the Bellagio not only had much better and more food -- it's hailed by many as the best spread in Vegas -- but it also was an outstanding relative value at less than $50 for two people, including tip.
Extend your stay. This is a great tip for any city, but it's especially useful in Vegas, where many travelers opt for late-night flights out of the city. That means checking your bags after an 11 a.m. checkout on your departure date and finding something to do all day. Or you can keep your room, simply by asking -- something we found out only because I became ill on the last day of our trip and didn't want to leave the room until I had to for our 6 p.m. flight.
When we asked at the MGM Grand front desk, we were told that we could stay in the room until 2 p.m. for free. If we wanted to stay until 6 p.m., we could pay about $36 -- a figure derived from our nightly room rate. We took the latter. I probably would have spent more than that on luggage storage and finding things that I didn't really feel well enough to do. Even travelers who don't feel ill would like the convenience of a private room on their last day in town.
Policies will vary by hotel. Just ask.