A Brit Abroad: My Girl’s Guide to visiting Las Vegas
Las Vegas is a city you either love or hate. I’m firmly in the ‘love’ camp, and could ramble on for hours about how to get the most out of your trip, where to stay, what to do and how to get there. So I thought I’d do just that!
I am well known amongst my friends for my Vegas obsession (I’ve been 6 times). I’m often asked for advice on visiting – especially when it comes to where to stay and where to shop. I felt it was worth a blog post I can direct people to in future – and hopefully this will also be useful to others who fancy a fashionable trip to Sin City.
Vegas is a city where money rules, and if you really want to make the most of it it’s worth saving up before you go. That said, there are plenty of ways you can have fun without spending big bucks. The first time I went I was 21, living on a shoestring and staying in one of the cheapest hotels on the strip, but I still had an amazing time. The joy of Vegas is there are options for everyone. If you have the cash, eat at Nobu. You don’t? $10 Lobster dinner special coming right up!
But before we talk about what to do when you’re there, how about getting there in the first place?
Travelling to Las Vegas from the UK
If you’re willing to book flights and accomodation together, nine times out of ten I find Expedia.co.uk to be the cheapest option overall. Obviously if you want it all done for you, you can try a holiday company like Virgin Holidays and add in extra stops too. I always try Last Minute and Hotels.com too as a comparison, and check that flights aren’t available cheaper using SkyScanner. If you’re booking the two separately, most hotels offer great rates direct, so follow your favourites on Twitter, sign up for their mailing list and check out their facebook page for good deals and freebies like meal credits or show tickets. Be aware of any charges you may incur for booking in dollars though – some credit cards will add a fairly large fee for foreign transactions.
You can fly to Vegas a number of ways through various transport hubs. I usually end up booking an indirect flight from a US airline with one connection (Dallas / Chicago / Atlanta) which saves at least a couple of hundred quid compared to the dream – direct flights with Virgin Atlantic. Just be sure that if you book an indirect flight you have adequate time to make your connection. On your first entry point into the USA (your connection airport) you’ll need to collect your bags and clear immigration with them before you drop them back off and go to the gate for the Vegas connection. One flight I looked at this year had a 40 min connection time – I can tell you from experience that this is not enough time, and even if you make the flight, your bags probably won’t.
You can also connect in Europe or Canada, but be aware this may mean you may have to clear immigration twice, once as you connect and again when you get to Vegas. This all adds time to your already long journey of 12 – 16 hours.
Now for the fun bit. Once you’re there!
My top 10 Vegas Experiences
1. Stay in the best (or most ridiculous) hotel you can afford
Vegas isn’t exactly short of accomodation options, so you may as well make the most of it. Stay on The Strip! As far as I’m concerned there’s no point staying in a motel miles off the strip, or scrimping on a super-cheap option Downtown if you want the proper Las Vegas experience. Though you’ll have fun no matter where you stay, it pays to pick a strip hotel in the centre of the action. The whole of Vegas life (as a tourist) centres around these huge hotel / casino / entertainment / shopping complexes and you’ll never get such a good hotel room for such a cheap price. There’s a hotel to suit everyone, from tropical decor at Mandalay Bay and The Mirage to rococco excess at The Venetian and Italian glamour at The Bellagio (above). For that reason I’m not going to go too much into personal recommendations. One woman’s dream is another’s nightmare. I do like the Flamingo for its gardens and pool and eye-popping pink, I love the Mirage because I’ve had so many good times there, and I think TI has a perfect location for a short trip. If you don’t fancy the madness of a themed hotel, a lot of the newer builds (The Wynn and Encore, The Cosmopolitan etc) have more of a generic ‘luxury’ feel, with no detail overlooked, and I hear The Hotel at Mandalay Bay is a beautiful option for those with cash to splash. With the exception of the Imperial Palace, Circus Circus and The Riviera there aren’t really any strip hotels I’d strongly advise against – even a naffhouse like Excalibur has a certain trashy appeal (and a surprisingly good pool complex) if you’re on a tighter budget.
2. Visit the Grand Canyon (preferably by helicopter)
You’ve come this far, you may as well take a day trip to one of the Wonders of the Natural World. If you’re renting a car then it’s a cool drive (possibly taking in a bit of Route 66) to the Canyon. But there are loads of tours from Las Vegas too, and if you’re tight for time one of these might actually work out better. As dramatic as a drive to the rim and skywalk is, I thoroughly recommend splashing out on one of the helicopter tours. Not only is it much quicker (a matter of minutes to the Canyon, rather than the 4 hours it’ll take most coaches) but it’s also one of the most dramatic journeys you’ll ever experience. The flight takes you over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and most will then land in the Canyon for a final touch of drama. This kind of trip will cost about $300 per person – I booked my last one through All Las Vegas Tours and had no complaints. I will warn you though – they weigh you and your bags to make sure the weight is distributed evenly for the flight!
3. Shop ’til you drop at the many malls
Las Vegas is a shopping mecca. Everything is represented here, from young fashion stores like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters to designer labels like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. The top shopping destinations were, for a long time, The Fashion Show Mall (Mid-strip, next to TI and opposite The Palazzo), The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, The Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood and the shops of The Venetian. Now you can also add Crystals at CityCenter, a high-end designer shopping mecca that includes Miu Miu, Bulgari and Bottega Veneta, plus the ever-expanding designer shops at Bellagio, Palazzo and the Wynn to the list. These are malls like no other, themed beyond belief. Ever seen a spiral escalator? Head to the Forum Shops and you will. Fancy shopping under the stars no matter the time of day? Try the Miracle Mile. Want to punctuate your shopping with some street theatre or a gondola ride? Head to the Venetian! My top haunt as a girl on a limited budget is definitely the Fashion Show Mall, which makes up for lack of theme with the sheer amount of stores for all budgets, including Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Dillards and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores. You can see me outside the Fashion Show in the pic above, way back in 2004 on my first trip to Vegas!
TIP: When it comes to individual shops, my first stop is always the retro reproduction store Bettie Page Clothing (branches in the Miracle Mile and Forum Shops) for wiggle dresses and polka dots a-plenty in a huge range of sizes. I’ve never been in there and come out empty-handed.
4. Gorge at the brilliant buffets
Apparently there are people who don’t like buffets. They think there’s too much choice, a bad atmosphere, the promise of lifelong indigestion. They think that getting up and down all the time for food is annoying, that the food is sub-standard, and that it’s greedy to keep on shovelling it down your throat just because you can.
These people are no friends of mine.
I love a good buffet, and Vegas does them brilliantly. Especially at brunch. I used to be a fussy eater, so a buffet was good because I could always find something I liked. Now I love them because after all those years of not eating stuff, I want to eat it all, but I can only do that if I have very little bits of everything. My favourite Vegas buffets are mostly the more expensive ones; The Wynn, The Bellagio, The Mirage. Along with many others I also really rate the off-strip treats at The Rio and the good international cuisine at Flavors at Harrah’s. For budget eats that aren’t greasy and lukewarm, you can’t beat a trip downtown for the Garden Court Buffet at Main Street Station. Plan your buffets in advance – you definitely won’t want to eat nothing but buffets for your entire stay. Not only will you go home unable to fit into your clothes, but Vegas is full of incredible restaurants you’ll want to try too. Just promise me you’ll give in to the tack factor and try one or two buffets if you can, if only to get the full Vegas experience.
5. See the dolphins & big cats
When explaining Vegas to non-believers, I usually find that explaining the sheer size and scope of what is available away from gambling is the way to go. Most people usually get interested around the time I say “and one hotel has a ZOO inside it!” It might be a bit of an exaggeration to call it a zoo, but Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage is definitely worth a visit if you want a break from the clinking of slot machines. The secret garden is home to Siegfried and Roy’s big cats (white tigers, white lions, panthers and leopards) plus a few surprises, while the dolphin habitat is a really well-designed home to a family of bottle-nosed dolphins. In true Vegas style it’s a bit over the top but very well done, and definitely worth a couple of hours of your time, if only because it’s one of the only places where you won’t hear the familiar jingle of slot machines!
6. Hit the outlets & shop for bargains
My first trip to Fashion Outlets Las Vegas was a revelation. Diane Von Furstenberg dresses for $90 and skirts for $50! A Marc by Marc Jacobs bag for $200 and a top for $40! I could have spent thousands, but each trip I’ve limited myself to only a few purchases. This particular outlet mall is a good 40 minute drive out of Vegas, reached by car or a $15 shuttle from various points on the strip. If you enjoy a designer shopping bargain, it’s definitely worth the trip. I prefer it to the other big outlet chain (Las Vegas Premium Outlets, found north and south of the strip) for the simple reason that it’s in a covered mall that’s air-conditioned, which is a big selling point when you’re in the desert! It’s also the only one with a Neiman Marcus Last Call, where I’ve found 90% of my best buys. If you’re holidaying with someone who’s not a shopper, the outlet is right next to Prim Valley Resorts, so they can head there to kill time if need be. This hotel is worth a look even if you’re shopping – it’s like a Vegas homage to the Hotel Del Coronado from the film ‘Some Like it Hot’. There’s also Buffalo Bills, complete with amusement park, just over the road.
7. Take a trip Downtown
Downtown Las Vegas is the bit you’ll recognise from all those old movies (not to mention the brilliant Swingers). Before huge theme hotels started appearing on Las Vegas Boulevard South, there was Fremont Street, a hotel and casino-filled street in Downtown Las Vegas that earned the nickname ‘Glitter Gulch’. The area has seen better days, but remains a must-see. Head down at dusk and grab the cheapest dinner ever at one of my favourite off-strip hotels, Main Street Station, then take the covered walkway to the California for cheap beers before taking in the Fremont Street Experience free light and sound show on the covered walkway over the main stretch of Fremont Street. It’s really great fun. Pick up your tacky souvenirs here too – they’re much cheaper than the shops in the malls on the strip.
The best way to get Downtown is by public transport, just jump on The Deuce from anywhere on the strip.
8. Take advantage of the freebies
Vegas can quickly become an expensive place to visit, even if you take advantage of the cheap deals and budget options. But the good thing is there are still a few fabulous things you can do for free, mostly when it comes to entertainment. See flamingos at the Flamingo, the lion enclosure at MGM Grand, The Rio’s Masquerade Show in The Sky, the huge aquarium in the Mirage lobby, or the Forum Shops talking statues to start! But top of my list is a visit to TI to see The Sirens. This is a free show put on in the evenings outside the hotel, using two mechanical pirate ships moored in the grounds (in ‘Sirens Cove’). Originally these boats were used for an old-fashioned Pirates vs British Navy battle. But when Treasure Island became TI, and Vegas ditched the family focus in the early 2000s, the show was given a Pussycat Dolls-style makeover and became ‘The Sirens of TI’. A few times each night a group of midriff-baring beauties seduce some hot pirates in the bay, complete with water splashes, pyrotechnics and some bad pop music. It’s pretty ridiculous and very low on plot, but it’s amazing fun and after a few drinks it’ll really get you into the Vegas spirit. If you’re staying at the hotel you can get the best view by flashing your keycard and heading onto the bridge across the bay. Just be ready to get soaked!
9. Have a ridiculously expensive night out
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that Las Vegas isn’t exactly short on nightlife. The coolest club or ultralounge changes with every new opening, meaning the last one I went to is not even worth mentioning now. But they all offer up incredible nights out if you’re young enough to appreciate the atmosphere. I currently have my eye on XS at Encore (above) which has its own pool, outdoor patio and blackjack tables. I’m sure next week I’ll find something else that looks even better. One thing they all have in common is that a night there can quickly set you back a lot of cash, and will undoubtedly involve long waits if you don’t plan ahead. If you want to sit down, you’ll need to book VIP table service which will run into hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars as the night progresses. There are nightlife hosts / concierge services that can organise stuff for you but that too comes at a price. A cheaper option if you don’t mind standing and waiting is to look out for free entry cards around Vegas (try cool fashion stores in the malls, or ask a hotel concierge or taxi driver. There are also touts on the street who’ll hand over a pile of them for a tip. Whichever way you do it, go out for cheaper drinks first, dress up and be prepared for a pricey night.
If you don’t fancy the huge clubs, there are plenty of lounges and bars that are almost as rowdy. My favourite place for a guaranteed good night out is Coyote Ugly at New York New York. Yes, it’s essentially a box hidden in a corner, made to look like a trashy movie set, and the clientelle is mixed to say the least. But it’s cheaper than the clubs, the naffness makes it fun, ladies are treated well (if you’re brave enough to dance on the bar you’ll get free drinks) and the jukebox has loads of British music on it. I’ve never had a bad night here.
10. People watch from the casino floor
If you’re gambling a decent amount and willing to tip, waitresses will circulate and offer free drinks. But this can often be a pricey way to soak up the atmosphere if you don’t win along the way. I’m not a gambler, which people find odd considering how much I love Vegas, but I hope by now you’ve realised there’s so much more than slot machines in this city! If you’d rather not risk your hard-earned readies, I suggest heading for the many bars / lounges that sit right on or just off the casino floor, where you can watch other people and see how it’s done. On my last trip, bar-hopping these places became a daily routine. My favourites include Breeze at TI, Centrifuge at MGM Grand, Laguna at The Venetian, Eyecandy at Mandalay Bay and Le Cabaret at Paris Las Vegas. This is just a drop in the ocean though – all you need to do is step into a casino and walk until you hit a bar – they all have one and they’re all surprisingly good for watching the world go by.
I feel like I could go on for another ten, there’s so much more I want to touch on. But this post is long enough, and hopefully this gives you a taster of what Vegas has to offer. If you tire of the food, drinks, shopping and tourist traps, there’s always the high-octane thrills (rollercoasters and rides at New York New York, Stratosphere and Circus Circus) the pools and spas, and the hundreds of amazing shows to continue to keep you occupied.
If you’re a Vegas fan too, let me know your top tips below!
– Photos are mine unless otherwise credited.