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Las Vegas Part 1: The Basics

I love Las Vegas, and that is coming from a budget traveler. I’ve been there twice, both times with my mom and dad. The first time I went was five years ago as a broke college student. My parents took my best friend and I for my 21st birthday. I think I brought about $100 cash with me and felt like a high roller.

This time I brought even less, and my parents didn’t hand me money like it was going out of style (although they did each slip me about $20 at one point – thanks mom and dad!). In a series of posts I am going to tell you all about how I had a great time without breaking the bank.

Accommodations

Okay, I crashed on a roll-away bed in my parents’ Bally’s hotel room, so I stayed free. However, I know there are ways to find budget accommodations, on and off the strip. A traveler I hosted on Couchsurfing recently got a hotel room on the strip for under $50, so apparently it can be done, but I don’t know that from personal experience.

Couchsurfing can be another great option. You can find a host who lives nearby – I actually met up with one for a night out – and stay for free. You won’t have a luxury suite in the Bellagio, but you will have a local on hand for advice on where to go and what to do.

Gambling

I’m not a big gambler. I don’t know how to play any poker games, and I don’t like feeding all my money to slot machines. However, I do play a few slots here and there while in Vegas. My mom and I will find a 25¢ Wheel of Fortune Machine while my dad plays at a table. She’ll put in up to $100 in, and I usually stick with $5 and play slow until a waitress takes my drink order, then watch mom once I lose all my money.

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On this trip, though, I actually won! The first night I was there I put my usual $5 into a “Wheel of Fortune” slot machine. I was down to my last credits and hadn’t won a thing. I thought “well, that was fast” and pressed the max bet button, expecting absolutely nothing.

I hit a Triple Crown symbol along with two other symbols that were similar to each other, and all of a sudden the numbers on the screen showing how much money I had started going up, up, up! It took a while and we had no idea when it would stop.

When it was finally done I had $226.50! I went straight to the cashier’s cage, cashed in my ticket, and put the money in the hotel room safe. In the end I came home with $270, which was promptly deposited into my Adventure Fund savings account.

A note about “free” casino drinks

Yes, you can get a complimentary drink if you are playing on the casino floor. First of all, tip $1 every time, no matter what. I recommend sitting close to the bar or nearby a waitress if you see one. For slots, sit at a machine and wait to start playing until you see her close by. Play slow to stretch out the number of drinks you can get per dollar. If every time you want a drink, you blow $10+ on gambling, you might as well purchase one from the bar.

Food

Las Vegas has some incredible food. I have not had a chance to not dive deep into great cheap eats or high-end restaurants in Vegas. On this trip I hate to admit that I mostly ate orange chicken and pizza from the fast food restaurants at my hotel, but I do have a few suggestions outside the cafeteria.

The best food I had on this trip was at Tacos El Gordo. It is on Las Vegas Blvd., but it’s off of the main part of the strip, and was recommended to me by a local. This is a chain restaurant, which I am typically vehemently against, but it’s a small chain and it started in Tijuana, Mexico.

When we walked in, it was clear that this place was not a tourist attraction, and it was completely packed. You had to stand in different lines for different kinds of tacos – why my parents and I didn’t divide and conquer, I do not know. We got three each of three varieties of tacos: Adobada (spicy pork), Cabeza (beef head), and Asada (steak). They had other stuff on the menu too, but the tacos were no doubt the main attraction.

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Each taco was very unique, and the ingredients were extremely fresh. Highly recommended!

Another great cheap option is the 7-7-7 deal at Mr. Lucky’s 24/7 Café at the Hard Rock Hotel. For $7.77 you get a 7-ounce sirloin steak, four medium sized shrimp, salad, and mashed potatoes (when I was there five years ago it was three jumbo shrimp and you got a roll).

You won’t see this special offer on the menu, but ask and you shall receive. And if you don’t accidentally order four shots of patron to go along with it (if you don’t specify what kind of tequila you want, they’ll bring out the good stuff) you’ll have a full belly and a full wallet.

There is one high-end restaurant experience I can recommend. When I was there the first time my dad won about $600 so we pretended we were high rollers for a night and had the most fabulous dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, overlooking the Bellagio Fountains.

We had cocktails, appetizers, wine, dinner & dessert – the whole nine yards. Everything was expensive and came in small portions, of course, but it was all delectable. I specifically remember my dad tipping our waiter 25% with a $100 bill. So, if you have $500 to spare for dinner for four, I would definitely recommend the Eiffel Tower Restaurant.

 

Of course, you can also enjoy plenty of classic Vegas sights for free. Here are my favorites:

  • Visit the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. Take an Uber instead of a taxi and ask your driver to wait while you snap a quick photo.
  • Walk the strip and wander in and out of all the fancy casinos and malls.
  • See the Bellagio fountain show before heading inside to check out the glass ceiling and indoor botanical garden.
  • Check out Freemont Street. Go at night to see the light show on the ceiling.

Up Next: Las Vegas Part 2: Street Art Tour.