Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Vegas advice for a friend going to CES

Don't ask me about Vegas. You'll get more
than you'll ever want to read.
A friend of mine in Seattle made the mistake of sending me a Facebook message saying he was going to CES next January (2016), and asked for any advice. Oops on him. He was expecting a short answer (e.g., "SLS might have cheap rooms"). A couple hour later, this popped out of my brain:

OK, you asked for it, but I'm sure you didn't expect a 2000-word essay. Vegas is my hobby, and I can talk about it for hours. I'm "that guy" at the BBQ, who you ask "what do you think about Circus Circus", and then try to back slowly away when I'm still talking an hour later. So, here's my thoughts. I hope you're not reading this on your phone.
CES is January 6-9. I'm assuming you want to fly in the night before (Tuesday, January 5) and fly out the day after (Sunday, January 10).
As I mentioned, CES is the most expensive time of year in Vegas. If you heard the whining about PAX hotels and pricing, well, CES is more than three times the size of PAX. Demand for everything is high, and the prices adjust to match. $100 a day for travel isn't going to cover half of your costs, based on what I'm seeing at http://cesweb.org/hotel . Hotel pricing looks to be about double what I'd expect on a normal day.
That said, yes, we can still find some values for you.
First, a little geography. You'll be flying into McCarran airport, which is one of the closest airports to a destination city in the country. It's basically on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip, which has one of the highest concentrations of hotel rooms in the world. The Strip is about four miles long, and CES is taking place just north of the center of it (at the Sands Convention Center, behind the Palazzo) and on the north end of it (at the Las Vegas Convention Center, between Riviera [closed] and Hilton [now named Westgate]). See the map at http://images.cheapovegas.com/sites/all/themes/cti_flex/images/vegas_strip_map.gif to get your bearings here.
Two miles north of The Strip is Fremont Street, also known as "Old Vegas" or "Downtown". With just a handful of exceptions, The Strip and Fremont are really the only two places to consider staying. Everywhere else is either sketchy or too far to be reasonable.
So, that said, let's first talk hotels:
95% of the hotels in Vegas charge a deceptive "resort fee". Doing so keeps their prices low in search engines, but gets them the money in the end. There's no way out of paying the resort fee, and you don't get anything special for it. Just assume all hotel costs you see online are $25 less than what you'll pay. It's scammy, but until the FTC decides to crack down on it, that's the way things are.
I just fired up Expedia and ran a search for a hotel, January 5-10. I wouldn't consider anywhere in Vegas that's 2-star or below, just for personal safety reasons. I'm seeing two hotels on Fremont Street for a surprisingly low price: Four Queens at $61 a night, and Golden Gate at $63 a night. I stayed at Golden Gate last September, and will be there again in October. The room is *tiny*, and it's not fancy or any place I'd go to relax and hang out. It was clean, safe, and met my needs -- somewhere to shower and sleep. I've also heard OK things about Four Queens, except that the rooms feel like the set of Golden Girls -- old people furnishings.
Jumping up to the next level on price, I'm seeing more Fremont Street properties, but nothing on The Strip yet. Oasis at Gold Spike ($113) is reportedly a hipsterish non-gambling hotel, with a dorm-like atmosphere and basic board games in the lobby (checkers, Jenga). It's worth considering. I'd definitely pass on El Cortez at $76 -- those are almost the Vintage rooms, which have all the atmosphere of a cinder-block prison cell. Clicking into it, though, I see the Cabana Deluxe Room for $87 (200 sq. ft.) and the Cabana Junior Suite for $94 (400 sq. ft.). I've heard great things about the Cabana rooms. The D at $103 is overpriced. The Plaza at $123 is a definite do-not-stay -- the rooms are shabby and falling apart, and the hotel is running out of money.
With this said, all of these are on Fremont Street, and will require transportation to and from the conference. More on transportation below.
So, let's look at the Strip. Within walking distance of the Sands Convention Center, you've got the Venetian/Palazzo ($639/$651 and always out of my price range), Wynn/Encore ($2,360/sold out, and always way out of my price range), Westgate (usually a good deal, but not at $463), and Treasure Island ($360, their pricing is pretty random). Within walking distance of the Las Vegas Convention Center, you've got Westgate and Circus Circus, and that's about it.
I'm seeing Circus Circus for $173. I stayed there a couple of years ago. A lot of people hate it because of the clowns and massive hordes of children, many of whom are wandering around on their own while their parents feed the slot machines. The rooms are a little worn, but good sized, and if you can tolerate screaming kids as you hustle your way through the casino to better places, it's not *that* bad. I'd stay there again.
Excalibur is next at $179 an night. It has a similar kid problem, but at a lesser level. It's not within walking distance.
The Stratosphere is showing $187 a night. I've never stayed there, but I hear their rooms are decent. Many folks, including myself, consider it being too far north to be considered "on-strip", but it's always some place I'd consider. The neighborhood is sketchy -- don't try walking from here to anywhere.
More quick hits at higher price points: Luxor ($209) is worn out. Monte Carlo ($227) is a solid but bland choice. Tropicana ($231), which was recently remodeled and feels fresh is a much better choice than neighboring Hooters ($231), which is likely to change ownership soon and may close, don't chance it. Harrah's ($267) is almost in walking distance, if you don't mind walking. I'd consider it, although they've been slacking on maintenance. Best Western Casino Royale ($270) might be a hidden gem, but not a very precious gem. It's what you'd expect from a Best Western, but with a bizarrely situated front desk, no lobby, and an extremely crowded first floor casino. I hear good things about New York New York ($279), but I've never tried it. Avoid Flamingo ($280): terrible service, no room maintenance, and food options that keep getting the health department on their case. Rio ($283) isn't on the strip and is falling apart. I'm stopping at $300, but if you have questions about other hotels, definitely ask.
My favorite place in the world, the Cosmopolitan, is listed at $520. Ouch.
So, if it's me travelling solo, I take the tiny Golden Gate room. If I was travelling with Kim, who likes spending time relaxing in the room and hates Fremont Street, I think I'd give Tropicana a try.
On to ground transportation:
For pretty much anywhere you stay that's not in walking distance, cab fare should run about $15 each way. That's just the way it ends up. I hear that during CES, cabs lines take forever. Uber is rumored to begin service in Vegas in September with the OK of the government. That's going to be an amazing, earth-shaking change to the transportation scene in town, and I've got no idea how it will shake out. I've used Uber before, and if it's live when I'm there for my September and October trips, I can see using it as my way around town.
Express buses will take longer than a cab, but are cheaper, at $8 for a 24-hour pass, or $20 for a 72-hour pass.
Monorail? It'll get you to the Las Vegas Convention Center, but it'll be a walk to the Sands Convention Center. It's either a great choice or a terrible one, depending on your hotel.
For transportation to and from the airport, if you're solo, there's shuttle buses that cost around $15 per person, each way. Cab fare will be $15-$30 with no extra person charges, but you're likely to get longhauled if you're not savvy to the cab drivers' scam. For two people, I'd take a cab. For solo, I'd take the shuttle.
I also searched carrentalsavers.com and found a rental car for five days for $188.17 from E-Z rent a car, including all taxes (but excluding insurance, if you think you need it). I've rented from them before. They didn't seem to clean their cars as well as the big names, but it met my needs. Avoid Fox and Sixt -- they require a shuttle bus to a shuttle bus to get to their locations.
Now food:
I don't actually have a lot to say about food for you. Vegas has some of the best chefs in the world running their restaurants, but price-wise, you pay for it. When I'm there, it's either food court or high-end foodie place, and rarely somewhere in between. As I alluded to above, don't eat anywhere at Flamingo if you value your health. Once you figure out where you're staying, I can give you some more specific food suggestions. A few random snippets, though: the pancakes at DuPars (on Fremont) and at Eat (just off Fremont) are the best in the world. Earl of Sandwich at Planet Hollywood puts Subway to shame. If you want pizza, the best in town are at Pizza Rock (Fremont) and a secret place inside of Cosmopolitan. Also at Cosmopolitan, China Poblano is my favorite mid-range restaurant in town, with their Chinese-Mexican fusion food. Also at Cosmo, Estiatorio Milos has the best $21 lunch special you'll ever eat, if you like Greek seafood.
And finally, airlines:
In the last two years, I've become a Southwest Airlines fanboy. I've bought into their credit card mileage plan full force, and haven't had a problem with them yet. (I'm flying on them tomorrow with Kim and Krys to Orlando, then to Houston, and then home, so we'll see if I feel the same way afterwards.) Two free bags, reasonable prices, and easy to earn and redeem mileage. Also, there's no fees or penalties for cancelling or rescheduling flights, so I re-book when the price drops. The price difference remains available as credit for a future flight within 12 months.
That said, they're usually a little more expensive than Alaska. For years, the non-refundable price point that I'd jump at was $99 each way, but I haven't seen that in quite a while. Prices go up, I guess. Alaska charges for bags, but on short trips, I can usually get by with a carry-on bag only. I love Virgin America, but wish they would fly a direct route, but they don't, so I'd have to change planes in LA or San Francisco. They've rarely been a good financial choice.
If you're really trying to keep costs down, consider flying Allegiant out of Bellingham, but read all of the fine print. They have very, very low fares, but charge for checked luggage, carry-on luggage, seat selection, beverages, printing boarding passes, and anything else they can get out of you. Also, consider flying out of Portland instead of SeaTac. Sometimes, fares are significantly lower, but that might not offset gas and parking costs. I did it once, and might consider it again.
So, what are the next steps?
Figure out a hotel or two (make sure it's refundable; it usually is) and rental car now, and book them. If prices drop, you can always cancel and rebook.
Start watching airfare. The flights.google.com engine is pretty good, but doesn't include Southwest's fares (Southwest doesn't play ball with the shared airline fare engine). Get a feel for prices, and when they drop down to where you think they won't go any lower, buy your non-refundable flights. Once you do that, you're committed. They say that prices are the lowest 5-8 weeks before departure, but for something as in-demand as flights to Vegas for CES, I imagine that they'll start to go up once companies get their 2016 travel budgets in order. Might be better to get a flight sooner rather than later.
Also, I wrote up this in January for a foodie friend heading to Luxor (http://ruleslawyer.blogspot.com/2015/01/suggestions-for-luxor-resident.html) and this way back in 2010, and it's still pretty relevant (http://ruleslawyer.blogspot.com/2010/12/twenty-tips-for-vegas-noobs-and.html).

Friday, January 30, 2015

21 wins in six days: A Vegas trip report

In mid December, work tells me, "We'll need you to go to L.A. and Las Vegas for the [redacted] case." Yes, please. I check with the people I'm meeting, and check with my wife to see if she can join me in Vegas, and decide that the third week of January would work best.

Room booked, her airfare purchased, I'm working out the details. Plans change at work. "Nope, just L.A.," they say. I don't care. I'm going to Vegas anyway. I arrive in L.A. on Tuesday, having booked my own airfare from L.A. to Vegas for Wednesday night.

Tuesday night, January 20:
I head over to Hollywood Park to play $3/$6 limit poker. I've played there before. It's huge, it's targeted at low rollers, and is the same somewhat sketchy melting pot of humanity that I remember from previous trips. The Yelp reviews are dead on. ("Most amazing place to people watch. The players are a unique breed over there lol." That's the tamest description.) They stopped racing horses there this year, but the poker room is still busy as heck.

At my table, the woman in the seat to my right is watching music videos on her phone, silently dancing in her seat, frequently missing the action in the game. She's also a little shaky, and has the gaunt look of a 35-year-old who's seen 70 years of life pass her by. Heroin junkie, I suspect. To my left is a frail Asian man who fell asleep twice.  Two seats to my left, a jolly Hispanic guy who reminds me of the "good potato" farmer in the McDonald's commercials from last year. Also at the table were a skinny Hispanic guy with gang tattoos, an overly happy guy who looks like Kevin Hart, an white guy who thinks he's a pro in his mirrored shades and hoodie, a well-tanned middle-aged goomba with a Russian accent and a tweed sport coat, and me. Early on, the Russian asks to see Junkie's had after show down, and the dealer shows it to him. Junkie gets all upset, calls the floor, and rants about how she's a pro, has one of those "World Poker Tour thingies", and might just... Ooh! New video!

An hour into the game, which is going plenty slow due to junkie's distracted play, I'm dealt Kd Td on the button. With five of us in the pot, the flop comes Jd Qd Ad for a royal flush.

I get a little panicky. I've seen the dealer making jackpot drops, so I know there's some kind of jackpot to be won. There's no signage or big board, and the text crawling across the bottom of the monitor only mentions some kind of win $75 of $150 for getting your aces cracked.  How big does the pot need to be for me to win a prize? How many players have to stay in? Does it get nullified if I tip my hand by asking about it? I've got no idea.  With $15 in the pot, two players check, Hoodie bets $5, one guy folds, and I call. The last two players fold. $21 in the pot should be enough to qualify for the jackpot, I think, but I have to make it to showdown. I call Hoodies turn and river bets, and then show my hand.

No, there's no jackpot. I net $27 for my monster hand. In several local card rooms, it'd have been at least $600, and maybe several thousand. Dagnabbit. Still, let's call this Win #1.

A few hands later, the Potato Farmer's $3 call bet rolls across the table to Junkie. She gets irate. "Why are you throwing chips at me!" she accuses. She calls the floor, and gets even more upset when the floor and Potato Farmer start talking in Spanish.  She grabs a couple of racks, puts her chips in them... and keeps playing, ranting to nobody in particular, still dancing to music nobody can hear.

Another hour or two passes, and I'm dealt pocket aces in early position. Knowing there's a jackpot for getting them cracked, I bet hard, and with several people in on the flop, and a few on the river, one caller takes it to showdown. I win the hand, bringing in a decent sized pot. A few hands later, I decide it's time to cash out and call it a night. Win #2.

Wednesday, January 21:
Thanks to some super efficient help from our IT guy in L.A., my work is done at around 10:30 AM on Wednesday. Win #3. My flight isn't scheduled to leave until 8:45 PM. It's on Southwest, so it's fully refundable. I check rental car prices, and find a two-day one-way rental to Vegas for $38. Road trip! The GPS says 4½ hours, so after shuffling rental cars at LAX (I get a Ford Fusion with 16 miles on the odometer -- Win #4!), I'm on the road at 1 PM, with an ETA of sunset.

The road trip from L.A. to Vegas is, in theory, the stuff of Hollywood legend. Last Vegas, The Hangover, Swingers, Rain Man, and countless other films depict this drive. None of them mentioned the elevation change or the relative dullness. Driving Moses Lake to Spokane is more interesting, but still, it's a new road and something to check off my list of life experiences. I stop at the In-n-Out in San Dimas for lunch (San Dimas High School football rules!), at the Target in Hesperia for a package of water, and in the wide spot of Baker for a bathroom stop and to check out the World's Tallest Thermometer.

The stops have made the trip closer to a six-hour drive, and as much as I'd have liked to stop in the Fallout: New Vegas towns of Primm, Searchlight, Goodsprings, and Nipton, my priority was Vegas.

I went straight to The D, and while checking in, wondered if my 0.3 Bitcoin would be enough to cover the room charge. It would have been just a little short, but there was no need, because I'd already paid for the cheap room the week before (I've got no idea how I forgot this, having the printed receipt on me, but I count this as Win #5). I went upstairs and ditched my bags. The room, the hallways, and the elevators are a big improvement over the last time I stayed at The D. The rooms had been renovated in late 2012 after the change from Fitzgerald's, but I suspect I got a room that hadn't been completed. This time, the room was in great shape. I'm glad I gave it a second chance.

I went back downstairs and played some craps (losing), some slots (losing), and some Sigma Derby (those plastic horses always take my money). I then wandered over to the Golden Gate where I turned my $10 promo money in to $11 real money, and won a little more on the slots. Craving video poker, I went to Main Street Station, and lost a good sized chunk of change. When you get 4-of-a-kind, they'll give you a scratch ticket, which I hear is mainly worth $2, but could be up to $5000. I don't know -- I didn't hit any quads today.

Giving up -- for now! -- I lost another $20 on slots. With the 11 PM Chinese oxtail soup special coming up at the California, I headed across the skybridge, and while waiting, made my losses back and more with some luck at their craps table and slot machines.

The oxtail soup was delicious; I see why it gets its reputation. I didn't figure it would have real bovine tail parts in it, but sure enough, it had segmented bone with tasty, fatty, stew-like meat falling off of it.  More than anything, it reminded me of a really good beef phở, but with the need to peel meat off the bone. Win #6; I'm craving it again.

It was getting late, so I aimed myself back towards The D. I stopped in at Four Queens and played the Silver Strike machine. I bought in for $30, won three $10 Silver Strike tokens, and lost the rest. I turned the tokens in at the cage, so I broke even. A good day; time for bed. I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Thursday, January 22: 
I wake up at around 9 AM and I'm craving pancakes. The best pancakes downtown are at Eat, but I'm planning on having that with my wife tomorrow, so the clear choice is the second-best at Du-Par's at Golden Gate. I check out of my hotel and stick my bags in the trunk, and drive a few blocks to find somewhere to park. $3? It's amusing how I can drop several times that at a craps table, and can spend even more on a meal, but spending $3 on parking chafes me. I drive a bit more, and see that the Main Street Station parking is free with validation, so I park there. Still, it's $3 out of pocket. In any other town, a $3 parking fee for a downtown lot would be dirt cheap, but here, it's frustrating.

I've got a $15 food credit from Golden Gate, Plus, I win a little bit from the Golden Gate slots, which just makes the pancakes that much tastier. Win #7.

Yes, technically it's also 5-of-a-kind, but quad deuces pays more.
After breakfast, I'm determined to get me a 4-of-a-kind scratch ticket from Main Street Station, so walk back over there and start playing. I'm playing Loose Deuces Wild, and while I suspect that getting a 4-of-a-kind using wild cards doesn't count, I'm not sure.  Soon enough, I get 3-of-a-kind plus a deuce, so I stop and Google the promotion's rules. Yup -- wild cards don't count.  I play some more, time passes, and the person to my left hits 4-of-a-kind. As the slot attendant gives her a scratch ticket, I hit 2-2-2-2-4 for a $625 win (#8). That's great and all, but with deuces wild, does this count as 4-of-a-kind? The attendant says yes, and I get a $2 win on the scratch ticket. I then validate my parking and get my $3 back for an even $5. I then win $45 from their craps table (#9) and decide I've taken enough of their money. To the strip!

I get to the Riviera to check in to my free room, and the line is nearly to the door. Fortunately, I remembered that last time I was here on a comped room, the VIP desk said I could use their line. The VIP desk has moved into the former Bingo hall, but there was only one person in front of me. Win #10! Check-in was quick, and in addition to three free nights, I got a $50 food credit at the R Steakhouse (ick) or the Wicked Vicky Tavern (ick), an extra slot tournament entry, 50 entries into some kind of a freeplay prize drawing, and a coupon book with a $10 and an $25 match play. Combined, we'll call that Win #11.

As I'd hoped, I got a room near the top of the Monaco tower, which is their most recently remodeled one (in 2008!). The room was in good shape, had a view of the pool and the strip, and decent wi-fi.  It also had no mold, clean sheets, and a clean bathroom. I ditched my bags and headed back downstairs. I quickly lost a chunk of change on slots, and lost the $10 match lay coupon on roulette, but still hit enough numbers to only be down a little bit.

I'd called Alamo to see about extending the car rental, but another two nights would have been another $98, so I figured cab fare the next few days would be cheaper. I headed to the airport to drop off the car, almost running over a pair of AVN porn stars on Paradise Road, and at the last minute, remembered I needed to fill the tank. With plenty of time, I also stopped at Silver Sevens, where I pocketed a nice craps win (#12), broke even on slots, lost a little on video poker, and offset the VP loss with some freeplay.

I still arrived at the airport a little early -- my wife's flight was delayed about 20 minutes -- so I wandered around baggage claim and the security checkpoint looking at the "History of Flight" exhibits and playing Ingress (the exhibits are all portals).

"So what's the deal with neon trees?"
My wife's flight arrived, and -- surprise, dear! -- I've booked Presidential Limo to take us to the hotel. It wasn't super expensive, and I'm feeling flush with my winnings so far. The driver is professional, friendly, and quick, and my wife and I shared a bottle of champagne on the way. She's satisfied with the room, and we need a light dinner, so we head across the parking lot to the Peppermill. From the Vegas discussions I've read, it's like the place to go on the north strip. Heck, Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace hung out here for an episode. But, no, it's like a 1971 Denny's trying to be a tiki room and a Rainforest Cafe, and failing at both. We order drinks and nachos, and I try to buy into the theme by ordering a Mai Tai. It takes three waitresses to figure out how to get me my drink. While satisfying and inexpensive, the food and drinks are nothing special.

Friday, January 23:
Breakfast at Eat. We direct the cabbie to 7th and Carson (no long haul; Win #13) and get seated immediately. I order Vegas' best pancakes (how could I not?), my wife orders the eggs, and we share the deceptively named "Cinnamon Biscuits". These are no cinnamon biscuits. No, as my wife said, "this is the best strawberry shortcake I've had in my life." Strawberry shortcake is her favorite dessert, so this is extremely high praise.

Over breakfast, we discuss which show we want to see this night. My wife wants to see a comedy show.  I'd printed the previous Friday list from Tix4Tonight, and after a bit of back and forth, we agree to take a chance on Carrot Top. I've got a buy-one-get-one monorail MyVegas monorail pass, so we try to catch a cab to Westgate to redeem it. I didn't think it through all the way -- where does one catch a cab at Eat? -- so we wander through the container Park (which my wife is enthralled with!) and then to El Cortez to catch a cab there. No cabs are available, so we go inside to ask the front desk to call one. "This place isn't nearly as bad as I remember," my wife says. Another baby step towards getting her to visit downtown. Someday.

If Kearse catches the first pass of the game
for a long touchdown, I'm a rich man.
We head to Westgate, and while I'm there, I make my first ever sportsbook prop bets, quintupling down on Jermaine Kearse to have an amazing Superbowl. My first time at the window, I didn't realize that some bets I had to pick the over/under (others had just one bet number for yes and one for no), so I had to regroup and try again, but got it figured out. Go Hawks.

We catch the monorail to MGM to get tickets from the Tix4Tonight at the Coke store. Bad choice -- what a hike from the station. We do it, though, and my wife grabs a Coke while I get the tickets.

We then hop across the street to Monte Carlo looking for a Game of Life slot machine, which we really enjoyed on our last trip. No luck there, so we lose money on some other slots. Next door at Aria, also no luck finding Life. I pull up Caesars slot finder. I don't think it's anywhere in Vegas.  I suggest the Deal or No Deal community slots as an acceptable substitute. We win back most of our Monte Carlo losses, with her doing much better than me. This will happen several times this weekend, with Howie taking my money and awarding big wins to her.

We cross the skybridge to Cosmopolitan, and as I'm taking the escalator down past Chandelier, I point out to my wife that of all the places in the world, this escalator is my happy place. She points out that it's likely because of our mutual adoration of sparkly crystalline things early in our relationship. I'd never considered that, but that may be exactly what it is. Happy sigh. Win #14.

We walk through the casino, hoping to find a pair of video poker machines side-by-side at Book & Stage, but the machines are down, going through a software update. On the way, however, we find what may be Vegas' only remaining Game of Life slot machine. It takes a lot of our money, but it's still Win #15.

Taking a break from gambling, we cross the street and wander through the Miracle Mile shops. We never buy anything, but it keeps us from losing more. Then into Planet Hollywood, where I try to teach my wife craps on the pop-o-matic craps table. She's bored quickly, and we walk away with a $16 loss.

Goodnight Vegas. Goodnight air.
Goodnight neon everywhere.
She asked me to surprise her for dinner, so on the recommendation of the Vegas interneterati, I decide on Mandarin Bar. It's a challenge to find the pedestrian entrance to Mandarin Oriental (pro-tip: at the bottom of the Aria escalator, make a U turn), but we walk in through the car entrance. Up to the 23rd floor, we arrive a few minutes before the food menu is available, but as I sip my lemongrass mojito and my wife tries her Daywalker (Jameson, cinnamon syrup, hard cider, lemon juice, ginger ale), that gives us time to figure out what we want. We decide on the Italian Board (porchetta, sopressata, salami finocchietta, cabra romero, robiola mosina, gorgonzola dolce, Mario, Luigi, Pantoliano, and other italian stuff my ancestors would love but my spellchecker and I have no idea) and chicken satay skewers. It was all outstanding, except for the robiola, which Wikipedia tells me shouldn't have been nearly as oozy as it was. We left it on the board, and scarfed down the rest, plus a cone of quince (it's a fruit). We watch the strip light up as the sun goes down. Very nice. Win #16.

Over to Luxor, where we lose money to slots before the show. While we're being seated, the Carrot Top show starts with the kind of internet videos I avoid: dumb people hurting themselves or others in ways too edgy or risqué for America's Funniest Videos. My expectations are being lowered by the minute. The guy opening for him (some Sirius XM guy whose name I don't remember) was good, though, and when Carrot Top was on stage, I found myself laughing quite a few times. The show seemed to go quickly, so yeah, I guess I enjoyed it. Would I go again? Probably not. But if Carrot Top is the best prop comic out there, it may just be that I'm not a big fan of prop comedy.

After the show, we head back to the Riviera. The room hasn't been cleaned yet. No matter. My wife's exhausted, so she turns in Vegas-early, but it's a Friday night in Vegas, so I'm still energized. I head downstairs, lose a little bit at the slots, and then head across the street to Circus Circus. Someone on the FHBM Facebook group had asked if the carousel of slots still rotates, so I went in to investigate. It does, but I think someone already answered the question before I got to it.

Circus Circus may have a lot of things wrong with it (like kids, and kids, and the buffet), but I always seem to leave there with more money than I came in with. Several good hands of video poker did it for me again this time. Win #17.

Back across the street to the Riv, I buy in to the craps table. The shooter is hot, and with the $25 match play coupon winning, and the rest of my bets hitting on most rolls, I double up my money before I even get a chance to roll the dice. Win #18. I cash out and stop by the front desk to ask for towels, pointing out that housekeeping overlooked our room. "What room number?" I give it to them. "Hmm. What name?" I tell them. "Oh, here it is." Was the room missing from the system? Never mind. I head upstairs, and towels arrive shortly thereafter. It's just after midnight, and I'm tired.  So much for me being energized on a Friday night.

Saturday, January 24: 
The third best breakfast spot in Vegas is Mon Ami Gabi. My wife was really craving Eat's cinnamon biscuits again, but I need to give her a reason to come back on the next trip. The wait is 20-30 minutes for a patio seat, but there's slots to lose money at, so we do. We then wander, losing money at Planet Hollywood video poker and Cosmopolitan slots, and winning at Bellagio slots. We wander through the conservatory, which is decked out for the Year of the Goat.

Goats? On my hobbit house?
It's more likely than you think.
My wife's feeling a little icky, so we head back to the Riv. We arrive just after 3:00, and the room still hasn't been cleaned. I leave the full trash can outside the door. While she naps, I play craps downstairs (coming out ahead), video poker (coming out ahead), and slots (losing it all back). I also enter the Saturday slot tournament, scoring around 18,000 points. When the results came out later that night, I see that of the 20 spots that awarded prizes, the cutoff seemed to be around 19,500. So close!

My wife wakes up for dinner at around 5, and we try to get in to the R Steakhouse to use our $50 credit. Nothing available until 9 PM. We head over to Wicked Vicky, and the wait is 45 minutes. I think the combination of us people on comped offers plus the Antique Gun Show going on at the hotel has overwhelmed their staff. While we wait, she plays Deal or No Deal, and I play other slots, sick of Howie taking my money. I head back to the room for a second to pick up something, and see that the trash can is empty but the room is still unmade. I catch the maid in the room next door, and she tells me that our room is next on her list. Whew.

About 30 minutes have passed, and I see that our name on the dinner list is alone among a bunch of scratched out names. I'm guessing they called us and we weren't around. One guy in line is complaining that he's been waiting three hours for a take out order. I ask, and they say it's just a few minutes. 15 minutes later, yeah, still a few minutes. 15 minutes after that, my wife -- who is more assertive in these situations -- asks "can we have that empty table there?". We're seated immediately.

Oh, Vegas, I miss you already.
I order a burger, my wife has fried shrimp. It's edible, a step above bowling alley food. Definitely not a fine Vegas meal. It met my low expectations. If you're hungry, and there's no wait, go for it. Or try the Peppermill next door. There's nothing else reasonably close that's edible in that price range.

Saturday night in Vegas, my wife heads back to sleep, and I head out. Poker Atlas says the 9 PM Flamingo tournament is starting in about 45 minutes, so I catch a cab down there. While waiting, I lose some money at video poker. I am doing well in the tournament, but just before the first break, I'm holding AK with a board of AK72, and the guy to my right goes all in. It's an easy call, and he turns over QQ. The river is a third Q, crippling my stack. I lose it all three hands after the break (at that point, my M was less than 3, so pretty much any two high cards are an all-in situation).

In a real Times Square bar, there'd be more fighting.
I wander the strip in search of a $5 craps table. My expectations are low, because it's Saturday night. Nothing at Cromwell (though I lose at video poker and pop-a-matic craps but win most of it back on slots), nothing at Cosmopolitan (but a slots win), nothing at Aria (another slots win), nothing at Monte Carlo (giving back my slot wins), and nothing at Tropicana (slots loss). Why do I never stop at New York New York? It's a property I always pass through multiple times, but never stop. No idea.

I wander up through the same properties (I despise the MGM-to-Planet Hollywood walk through the gauntlet of low end retail/porn slappers/costumed characters/club promoters), and then cross over to Cromwell, Flamingo, Linq, O'Shea's, and Harrah's. No $5 craps. Finally, at Casino Royale, I find two $5 tables, but they're packed. I wander further north, through Wynn and Encore. It's Saturday night, and as always, the drunk spotting is epic. As I'm in the cab line at 3 AM to head back to Riviera, I see one guy placing his buddy in a cab and tells the driver "take him to Planet Hollywood. That's where he needs to go." The guy in the back seat has no idea what planet he's on. Meanwhile, the drunk woman in front of me is teetering on her heels and looks ready to fall down at any second. I get back to the Riv, and call it a night.

Sunday, January 25:
I'm told there's a plate under there somewhere.
I've heard good things from the Vegas interneterati about Griddle Café at SLS, and my wife's never been to SLS, so I tell her all about how the place was remodeled from the Sahara, how naysayers said that the location was terrible and that it'd never open, and how the naysayers are almost right: it opened, but it's got nobody playing there. The Griddle has some decent reviews, but internet rumor is that it'll be closing soon, even though it just opened a few months ago (spoiler: closure was confirmed on January 29).  She's up for it, and sure enough, when we arrive at around 11 AM on a Sunday, we're the only ones in the driveway, the only ones in the casino, and ... the Griddle has every table filled and a waiting line. The line moves quickly, and I order the largest pancake I've ever encountered. I eat maybe a third of it, but it's really good, despite the not-so-appealing combination of walnuts and syrup. My wife's French toast is equally gargantuan. Win #19.

We leave there and head for The Linq retail strip, which, unlike SLS, has been surprisingly successful. The retail is kind of "meh" this time around, so we hop into Flamingo. We sit at Bugsy's Bar and play video poker, and the bartender, who is was telling another barstool about great things that Harbaugh has done for the 49ers, asks where we're from. "Seattle." "Oh, I'm not talking to you," she jokes. We quickly lose enough money, and my wife hits the slots while I hit the pop-o-matic craps. I win about as much as she loses, and we discuss dinner. "House of Blues," says my wife. Sounds good to me.

We've got plenty of time, so we wander through Bellagio, and grab a snack at the Jean Philippe chocolate fountain. We catch the tram to Monte Carlo, then the tram from Excalibur to Mandalay Bay, where I make reservations for an early dinner. We've got about two hours before dinner, so wander to Luxor and she finally loses some money to Deal or No Deal, while I make it back playing some other machine.

Dinner at House of Blues is great, although my grilled chicken sandwich was so slippery I had to resort to a knife and fork. My wife's jambalaya was equally good. I had the Elwood's Caribbean Tea (gin, rum, triple sec). She had the Blues House Cider (Jack Daniels, hard cider, raspberry). Both were dangerously tasty.

With two hours left before we had to be at the airport, we headed back to The Linq. My wife played slots while I hit the craps table. We both came out way ahead. Win #20.

Off to the airport. The inside line to check bags was fairly long, but the curbside baggage check was empty.  Saving that time was well worth the tip to the redcap. We made it through security quickly, and our plane was on time. While we were waiting, charging my phone under my seat, the Seattle Mustachios Women's Hockey team sits next to us. They seemed excited about placing second out of 20 in the Las Vegas tournament. I didn't even know that was a thing. Good for them.

On the plane, I attempt to use a set of free drink coupons that I got from a member of the Five Hundy Facebook group, but the flight attendant didn't want it. Free drink, regardless. Win #21. I offered extra coupons to my seatmate, but he said he'd drank enough in Vegas. His wife declined, too.

It was a really great trip. I didn't get longhauled the entire time, I came home with more gambling funds than I left with, and had some great food. Even the mediocre food was decent.

My next trip is looking like a training class in mid-September. I'm hoping I can get another trip in sometime before then. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Suggestions for a Luxor resident

A posting of suggestions for a friend who's going to the Luxor in a few weeks:

Vegas trip planning is such fun, even when I'm not the one going. Here's my suggestions (wow, this got long quick -- I guess I'm a bit opinionated):

1) Cabs between Luxor and the airport will cost you about $15 each way, if you don't get longhauled. I'm seeing availability of car rentals for right around $100 (total, including tax) for Feb 26-Mar 1. Add in a trip downtown (another $20 each way), and it might make sense, especially if you're not drinking a lot.  http://carrentalsavers.com/

2) One of the best meals in Vegas is at Gordon Ramsay Steak. It's pricey, though, perhaps the second-most expensive meal I've eaten. Reservations and menus with prices are at http://www.parislasvegas.com/restaurants/gordon-ramsay-steak.html

3) Giada's at The Cromwell was also very good, but way overpriced (my most expensive meal ever).  Reservations are hard to come by, but if it's just one or two of you, I hear you can walk up to the bar and get a full menu.

4) Just as good, and recently rebooted, is Mix at the top of Delano (next door to Luxor, at Mandalay Bay). Again, on the pricey side, but the Filet Mignon was the best meal I've ever eaten. Sunset is the best time to go so you can watch The Strip light up. It's scheduled to close soon, so this may be your last chance before it gets remodeled and rebranded. http://delanolasvegas.com/dining/mix-at-delano.aspx (Chef Alain Ducasse)

5) A little lower on the price scale, if you like Chinese food or Mexican food, you should definitely stop at China Poblano at Cosmopolitan. I can't believe I didn't stop on last weekend's trip -- I always have a meal there. (Chef José Andrés)

6) My favorite location on the strip for breakfast is Mon Ami Gabi at Paris. Reasonably priced, and if you're patient, you can get a seat on the patio and watch the parade of humanity pass by as you eat. Top notch food, and a reasonable price point, too.

7) If you're willing to travel off-strip for breakfast, you absolutely *must* have breakfast at Eat, at 7th and Carson, just a block off of Fremont Street. It's the best breakfast in town, and very reasonably priced. (Chef Natalie Young)

8) Lunch: One of the neatest lunch experiences, weather permitting, is at Olives at Bellagio. They seat for lunch until 2:45, so get there for a late lunch at around 2:30, and ask for a seat on the patio. The Bellagio fountains go off every half hour starting at 3:00 (earlier on weekends), and it feels like you're in the middle of the show. If the wind's right, you might get misted. (Chef Todd English)

9) Don't eat anywhere at Flamingo. Not the buffet, not the food court, and definitely not Carlos & Charlies. Rancid meat isn't good.

10) The best buffet in town is at Cosmopolitan. The "Wicked Spoon" has high quality food in small dishes, and their desserts look and taste amazing. Others may tell you that Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace is better, and I've not tried it, but Baccanal is more expensive and has longer waits. I've also had buffets at Monte Carlo (meh), MGM (meh), and Bellagio (surprisingly meh).

11) And again, at Cosmopolitan, Holsteins makes some great hamburgers, and Secret Pizza (you'll have to ask someone in order to find it) makes the best pizza on the strip. There's better pizza (and the best meatball I've ever had) at Pizza Rock just off Fremont Street, but Cosmo is much closer to Luxor. (Also, 800° Degrees Pizza outside of Monte Carlo is merely really good, not as amazingly good.)

12) And even more at Cosmopolitan, the best lunch deal in town, if you like seafood, is at Estiatorio Milos. They used to have a $20 fixed price lunch menu. I see now that it's up to $25, but even at that price, it's great food at a great price. The tomato salad is something I still dream about, even though it seems so simple.

13) At Luxor, I've heard that their coffee shop, the Pyramid Cafe, is surprisingly good. I've also heard that their buffet is surprisingly bad. Next door, the buffet at Excalibur just re-opened after a $6.2 million renovation. It looks gorgeous, but I haven't heard if the food's any good -- it was terrible before it closed in September.

14) As far as shows, I've heard Chriss Angel's show is one of the worst in Vegas. Absinthe, at Caesars Palace, is one of the best (but quite raunchy), and you can often get discount tickets for it in the plaza outside the tent the afternoon of the show. I should see it again. We've also enjoyed Human Nature (four Aussie white guys doing Motown), the Beatles LOVE Cirque show, the Sinatra-like Matt Goss, and Rock of Ages.

15) If you do go to Fremont Street, spend a few minutes in The D. It's loud, it's a rocking party atmosphere, and it's a lot of fun just to hang out there. They've got "vintage" coin operated slot machines upstairs, if you're into the retro thing.

16) Other tasty, moderately priced dinner options I'd recommend near Luxor: Nine Fine Irishmen at New York New York, Todd English P.U.B. at Aria, and

17) There's no good dining next door at Excalibur. Keep walking.

18) On the other side, at Mandalay Bay/Delano, other than Mix, I've not had a lot of experience. Strip Steak is overpriced. I've heard good things about Rx Boiler Room, but haven't tried it yet. Our last meal this last weekend was at House of Blues, and although it was good, it wasn't amazing.

19) On or near Fremont Street, other good dining choices would be Andiamo's Steak at The D (I hear it's good; I haven't tried it yet), the late night Oxtail Soup (after 11 PM, at the Market Street Cafe at The California -- so tasty!), and Carson Kitchen (6th & Carson; I've heard it's amazing but haven't made it there yet. http://carsonkitchen.com/food-menu/)

20) Monorails/trams: There's four of them.
a) The Las Vegas Monorail ($12 for an all day pass) is super inconvenient. It's a long walk from the stations to the hotels.
b) The free tram between TI and Mirage is odd, in that it's almost as fast to walk.
c) The free Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay tram is still confusing to me. It's a four station loop, Excalibur North -> Mandalay -> Luxor -> Excalibur South, with no passengers allowed between Excalibur North and South. This makes it pretty inefficient to get to Mandalay from Luxor. It also stops running at 10:30 PM, which seems crazy early to me.
d) The free tram between Bellagio, Crystals Mall, and Monte Carlo is OK, but if your destination is Aria, I discovered it's faster to take a shortcut out of the back of Bellagio than it is to take the tram.

21) Major stuff that's changed in the last few years: No more Treasure Island pirate show. No more Show in the Sky at Rio. Imperial Palace became The Quad which became The Linq Hotel. The Linq promanade opened, which is kind of a cool retail corridor leading to the new High Roller ferris wheel. Bill's Gambling Hall (formerly Barbary Coast) is now The Cromwell, and is targeted to club kids.

22) Speaking of clubs... I got nothing.  I hear Marquee at Cosmopolitan has slightly fallen in popularity behind Hakkasan at MGM and Drai's at Cromwell, and that XS at Wynn is still bringing in the crowds, but that's not my scene, so I have no opinions on the club scene.

That's probably not it, but that's everything that came to mind. I'm sure I'll have more ideas soon.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

VIMFP, Aliens, and quads, quads, quads (Days 7-11)

(See my report for days 0-6 in my earlier post)

Day 7:
Pilot must've came too fast, never pulled out.
We slept in a little bit on Wednesday morning, and then hit the road back to Vegas. Travelling at a much more leisurely pace than the previous two days, we made several stops to check out some neat spots.

First, we stopped in the ghost town of Goldfield. At least, the guidebooks call it a ghost town. The residents would probably disagree.  We stopped in Beatty, finding a geocache in an old airplane marking the entrance to the Angel's Ladies brothel ("Free all night truck parking!"). We then took a side trip to the real ghost town of Rhyolite, where we encountered unexpected artworks, an abandoned town, and fenced-off gold mine shafts.
The Last Supper, with fiberglass ghosts.

A miner and a penguin, probably 20 feet tall.
Minecraft porn. The curtains match the rug.
We continued south into Pahrump, where cell phone signal allowed me to ask, "Hey Siri, where's the nearest Quizno's?" Answer: McCarran airport. "Hey Siri, where's the nearest Subway?" Answer: "I found three train stations" -- and gave me monorail stops. Sigh. Using other phrasing, we found two Subways in Pahrump, and decided to go to the one not in the WalMart. I shudder to think how quickly I'd have been able to fill out my People of WalMart bingo card in the Pahrump WalMart.

Red Rock Canyon has red rocks. Who knew?
We continued on to Red Rock Canyon, where we'd planned to take a 1½-mile hike to get one of the oldest geocaches in Nevada, but after so many caches, and after driving the canyon loop, and the sun going down, and knowing that I'd be giving Erik and Abby a walking tour of the strip that night, we decided against it. The loop drive itself ($7 admission fee required) was amazing, peaceful, and with the sun getting low on the horizon, full of color.

We headed into town and picked up Abby's car from the Golden Nugget valet. Abby dropped me off at the McCarran rental car center, and we all met back up an hour later at the Silver Sevens, where we'd each booked rooms for the night (mine was comped). Into my rental, and our first stop was the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. It took me 13 trips, but I finally stopped and took my photo there. 

I stashed my car at the Mandalay Bay valet (after lying to persuading the valet to let me leave it), and I walked Abby and Erik through the casino, into Luxor, and into Excalibur. It was Abby's first time on the strip, and Erik's first visit in 20+ years. I'm such a Vegas nerd, I talked non-stop about everything that came to mind, most of which I learned from the VIMFP podcasters and other excellent blogs (such as Vital Vegas and VegasChatter). Erik, having driven more than 900 miles in the last three days (not to mention the drive down from Seattle just to get here), seemed pretty overwhelmed. Abby was similarly showing signs of sensory overload. I, now in my element and always lacking in the ability to pick up on social cues, pushed them onward. I talked of TheHotel's change to Delano; of the shabby hit-your-head-on-the-windows rooms, the de-theming and structural questionability of Luxor; and of the dangers of Excalibur's buffet, Fun Dungeon, and Criss Angel.

We crossed the street to Tropicana, where I rambled about hate that redundant name!), finally realizing we had to walk all the way back to the front, outside, to get to it. Pizza was good though.
the remodel, the casino scents, and the anal light fixtures. We stopped to unsuccessfully search for a geocache outside, and then crossed over to MGM. Somehow, I could tell they were wearing down, so I merely pointed into the casino ("the largest in Las Vegas") and explained the concept of bottle service to them ("lots of dollars, little sense").  On to New York New York, pointing out the once-slated-to-be-closed Coyote Ugly, the roller coaster ("it's real!"), and the dueling pianos at Times Square. Heading on to Monte Carlo, I pointed out The Park construction, comparing it to The Linq, which they had yet to see. We walked through Monte Carlo looking for a snack at 800° Degrees (I

Onward toward Aria, and Abby and Erik were really dragging. I pushed them, and showed them the Chuhuly gallery, the water wall, and the silver Colorado River sculpture behind the reception desk. I marched them through Crystals, across the boarded-in skybridge under the Harmon (explaining the rebar lawsuits and the impossiblity of implosion), and into the Cosmopolitan.

The Cosmo is my happy place. For some, Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. For me, it's descending the escalator down to the Cosmo casino floor, the thumping of Bond behind me, the hip classiness of Chandelier to my right. For Erik and Abby, it's when their sensory overload took full effect. 

I don't remember everything I rambled to them about Cosmo ("terrace suites, fountain view, secret pizza, free foosball, used to be a record player here..."), but they glanced at Liberace's car and we headed for the door, through the thumping gyrations of Bond. 

Once outside, now four hours into the tour, we re-assessed the plan. Bellagio, High Roller, and that's it for the night. Fair enough. At the top of the Bellagio escalator, we stopped to watch the fountains. On the way in, I recapped Steve Wynn's story, from the Golden Nugget, to the Bellagio, to the $28 million Popeye statue. We wandered the conservatory, looked at the Chihuly artwork in the reception, and headed through the casino (me: "Hyde's a great place for early evening drinks.") to exit on the Bally's skybridge.
From there, we made a beeline to the High Roller (with my commentary fading into the desert air,"the fugly Bally's Bazzar roofs," "Giada's new restaurant," "never eat at the Flamingo," "Imperial Palace to Quad to Linq"...)

I had a coupon for two free passes, and Abby splurged for one more ticket. It was just the three of us in the pod for half an hour, and while I could feel my Vegas energy continuing to build, I could tell -- despite my lack of social instinct -- that this was the end of Erik and Abby's tour. The ride was great, but I'd only do it again if it was free. I provided a little commentary ("There's Wynn and Encore. That's where the Silver Sevens is. That's the Flamingo timeshare building."), but mostly just listened to the in-cabin broadcast.
I can see my happy place from here!

Half an hour later, back on the ground, we took a cab back to Silver Sevens. We said our goodbyes, and I stayed in the cab to go get my car from Mandalay. I donated $20 to their slot machines as penance for abusing their parking, headed back to Silver Sevens, donated another $45 to their slot machines, and called it a night. The room was clean, comfortable, a bit worn, but definitely a decent place to sleep and shower.

Day 8:
I had food credit to use at Silver Sevens, so I had a basic breakfast there. It wasn't bad, wasn't great, just a typical casino coffee shop breakfast. For free, sure, why not. I played a bit of video poker, churned through some freeplay Silver Sevens gave to sweeten the deal, and then headed to the Mirage to get a free ticket to Cirque du Soleil's Love Beatles show. Sitting in the car in the Silver Sevens garage, I read the fine print, and realized I needed to phone MyVegas to redeem the ticket, and then go to Mirage to pick it up. I called. Their computers were down. The operator was stuck. The second operator was also confused, but finally, 20 minutes later, they gave me a confirmation number.

I drove to the Mirage, and left the car with the valet, but the box office line was fairly long, so wandered a bit until the line shrunk down. Once at the counter, the clerk couldn't find my ticket, so asked for my confirmation number. It's in the car. No matter, she says, and searched for it a few other ways. After about 10 minutes of searching, she found it -- the phone operator had both issued it and then cancelled it. It took another 15 minutes and two other people to figure out how to issue the ticket. It's like nobody ever redeems their MyVegas points for big ticket items.

Frustrated with the Mirage, I pulled up the PokerAtlas app on my phone to find out what low buy-in tournaments were coming up soon. The Quad 2:30 tournament looked promising, so I headed over there and paid my buy in at around 2 PM. I dinked around on slots and video poker, losing a little at both, and then returned to the poker room. Only one other entrant -- they cancelled the tourney at 2:45, refunding my buy-in. Now what? Luxor at 3:30? Could I walk there in 45 minutes? I tried, but was 10 minutes late. No matter; they allow late registration. I bought in, survived through the first break, and with seven of the original 28 players left, got knocked out when I was in danger of being blinded out and ran into my opponent's flopped top pair.

I slowly moseyed my way back to the Mirage, and thoroughly enjoyed Love. Again, a bit on the nerdy side, I was mezmerized as much by the theatre mechanics (the curtains, the screens, the lighting, the rope work, the tracks) as by the acrobatics. As my first Cirque show, I now understand and agree when people say there's not much of a plot, a thin thread running through the whole thing, and that there's not a bad seat in the house.

When I turn my phone on after the show, I've got a voice mail. It's the players desk at The Quad. Apparently, they have a pair of High Roller tickets for me. They say I printed them but never used them. Really? The ticket in my pocket I used last night disagrees, but whatever. I'll stop by tomorrow.

I'm now part of a large herd of show attendees at the valet. I head back in for a bit, lose a good chunk of change at the slots, and head back out. Still crowded. I hand over my ticket, ask how long it will be, and the valet says "not long... most of these people are here to watch the volcano." I sit, watch the 9:30 volcano show, and wait, and wait, and after the 10:00 show, I ask the valet how much longer. "Oh," he says, "it's parked right over here." Must've been watching the show instead of my car.

Here's a random photo of Vegas I took on
day 8. Day 9 was too full of moseying to
spend time taking pictures.
It's still early, so I turn left and head to SLS. Formerly the Sahara, it underwent a $415 million renovation, and I wanted to see how it looked. It's funny -- it feels kind of the same, but completely different, like moving from Windows XP to Windows 7. I signed up for the players club and got $6 freeplay. I grabbed dinner at Umami burger, and took the chef's recommendation of ordering it medium rare. Usually, I like my burgers well done, but it was really good. The sweet potato fries were even better, with a cinnamon-sugar coating, a taste I'd never considered, but definitely on my to-make list.

I hit the video poker at SLS (winning), the slots (winning), and the craps table (winning). SLS is a winner in my book. Too bad it's still so far away from everything else.

It's about 1 AM as I hop in the car, thinking I'll head back to Silver Sevens and crash for the night. Then I realize it's still early in Vegas. Half an hour later, I'm in my happy place, giving Cosmo the money I took from SLS. I finally crash into bed at 3 AM.

Day 9:
Friday in Vegas. My wife, Kim, is due in tonight, so I'm moving to Aria. First, though, I check out of Silver Sevens and head over to Mandalay Bay to use a MyVegas breakfast buffet comp. Still feeling bad about persuading the valet to leave my car there on day 8, I opt for the self-parking instead.

The buffet comp went much more smoothly than the Love comp. I grab pizza and eggs from the buffet, guzzle down some coffee, and go back for seconds.  When I come back to the table, everything's cleared off, including the coffee. No matter. I commandeer a fork from a set of silverware on the table behind me, finish my French toast, and leave, no tip necessary.

I play a bit of video poker, losing quickly. Next, to the Aria, where I check in, and the $20 trick gets me an upgrade to a city-view room, but that's all they can do -- they're booked up pretty solidly.  I wander from there to The Quad to find out about those High Roller tickets. They confirm that yes, somehow they've got an extra pair of tickets for me. I point out that I used them yesterday, but they say the computer says I've got two tickets coming, so I get two for Saturday, hoping to hand them off to a fellow FiveHundyite.

I lose a little at Flamingo, and then head over to Caesars. Kim and I plan to check out the Shania Twain show on Saturday, and I've been trying to find cheap tickets, but have had little luck. Tix4Tonight didn't have any listed, and it makes me nervous to put it off until the day of the show.  It took me until just now to remember that I might have enough Total Rewards points on my account to buy one of the two tickets. To my surprise, I had enough to get both. Cha-ching!

I'd been wanting to try the drinks at Cosmopolitan's Book & Stage for years, and knew they were comped when playing video poker at the bar, but I'd never worked up the gumption to actually try it. Today was the day. "I hear from some podcasts that you make some great cocktails, comped when I'm playing," I ask the guy behind the bar. He confirms that's correct, when playing at least $1 a hand, which is what I expected. "What can I get you?" he asks. "I'm craving something with blackberry, and I'm not a fan of ginger." He comes back a few minutes later with a tall dark purple drink. I'm excited to try it. "It's got blackberries, St. Germain, whiskey, ginger beer..."

Hmm. Ginger? I'll try it anyway.

It was great. Maybe this is my new happy place.

I continue to play video poker, chatting with the older guy next to me. He's here in Vegas nine months out of the year, much of the time sitting in that stool. I tell him that I'm in town maybe twice a year, and that this is probably my favorite spot.

Then I hit four aces for $200.  I affirm to him that yes, this is indeed my favorite spot.

I pocket the money and head to the car. Where to? I'm feeling rich. I'm feeling big. I'm feeling like 25¢ roulette at the El Cortez. Wait? What?

I drive downtown, and quickly realize that it's unlikely that I'm going to get there quickly. The Life is Beautiful festival starts tonight, and several streets are blocked off. I've left my downtown players cards in my room at Aria, so the El Cortez guards won't let me park there, which is understandable when parking appears to be $20 nearby. I give up and head back to the strip. Where to? Riviera, I suppose. They've gotta have cheap gambling.

As I turn left on Riviera Blvd. to get to their parking area, the Westgate sign looms in front of me. In 13 trips, I'd never been there. That's my new destination. I explore the casino, which is smaller than I expected, but reminds me of a run-down Caesars Palace. I think they were built around the same time, so it kinda makes sense.  I played a little video poker, a little on the slots, watched a little of the World Series, and left. Meh. I don't know if I'll head back. Maybe if my little play results in some good offers. Otherwise, probably not.

Kim's flight arrives in a couple of hours, so I aim the car towards the airport, and stop at the Hard Rock. For a Friday night, the place is dead. I lose a small chunk of change on video poker, and a larger chunk of change on the slots. Still, I'm up for the day. I head to the airport, pick up Kim, and head back to Aria. She was up early, had a full day of work, and crashes into bed. I'm still energized, and it's Friday night in Vegas, so I head back out, wander up to Encore and back, and crash into bed about three hours later.

Day 10:
Kim and I rise slowly on Saturday morning, and stagger down to the Aria café for breakfast. Good, quality food, but crazy expensive for what it is. We've got $100 resort credit to offset it, so that helps. We play some slots, play some video poker, and lose on both.
Always take in the Fountains of Bellagio with
the love of your life. Always.
We mosey down to Caesars by way of Cosmo ("that's where I hit aces for $200 plus a tasty drink!") to see if I can upgrade our Shania Twain tickets. Nope -- the tickets are from the casino comp pool, which are non-upgradable. No big deal. We go explore The Linq, which was barely open when we visited in February, and which I zipped through when I was dragging Abby and Erik with me. Kim enjoys the retail experience, so we take our time and pick up a few gifts for folks back home. I remember the Sprinkle's cupcake ATM, and get a tasty chocolate cupcake out of it.
Just like the one in L.A., which had a line two
blocks long when I considered stopping

Dinner is at Giada's, where we both order the tasting menu. Being from the northwest, the Coho sounds like an everyday food so we opt for the lamb. Although the amuse bouche was excellent, and the bread was superb, and the blackberry tiramisu dessert was among the best I've had, the lamb was merely "pretty good". Service was over the top, but not intrusive. Perfectly executed.

The Shania Twain show was fun, pretty much exactly what I'd expected. She played all of her hits, a few of her more obscure songs, and interacted with the audience quite a bit. Although we were up in the top balcony, the seats still had a great view.

After the show, Kim and I wandered a bit, losing money in slots at Planet Hollywood and Venetian, and I won a trifle at Treasure Island. The video poker at Encore put $20 in my pocket. Back at Aria, as a late night snack, I used my final MyVegas comp for pizza and a beer at Five50. The pizza was greasy and seemed like it had been under the heat lamps for a while. It might be that Pizza Rock spoiled me the previous weekend.

Day 11:
We both woke up feeling less than great. Kim had been fighting a headache; I think I was feeling sad that this was our last day.  We checked out of Aria, burning the last of our resort credit on some incredibly overpriced peanut brittle. I considered heading to Westgate to watch the Seahawks game, but it had already started, and Kim wanted somewhere more quiet. I suggested Wynn, so we drove there and left the car with the valet -- but Kim noticed the Disney Store sign on Fashion Show Mall, so that was our first stop. Lunch in the food court, a few hours of wandering, and back to Wynn. We played some slots (losing), and then some video poker. Kim and I were both down a bit, and then I hit four aces. Booyah!

The $28 million dollar man
Still, it was too loud and overstimulating. I know a great, scenic, quiet spot. I took Kim to Red Rock Canyon, this time stopping at the visitor center and several viewpoints. From there, to the airport and an uneventful flight home.

My longest Vegas trip ever has come to an end. My next trip might be in January, another will definitely be next October. And I'm looking at hotel rates in November, just in case.
Until next time, Vegas. Keep my money warm.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

VIMFP, Aliens, and quads, quads, quads (Days 0-6)

My longest trip to Vegas will also be my longest trip report. Eleven days, five hotels, one amazing time.

The back of La Bayou's facade.
I think that's an old wall from Coin Castle just left of center.
Day 0: 
On Wednesday, October 15, I Ubered out of work, off to SeaTac, and caught the last Southwest flight to Vegas. I checked in to the Golden Gate around 11 PM, and dropped my stuff off in my room, which was small, worn, low, had a terrible view of the roof of La Bayou, but was nonetheless clean. I knew from online reviews that it was going be loud, given its proximity to the stage at Fremont and Main, which gave me an excuse to start gambling early.

Another reason to start: Golden Gate had a promo with $10 freeplay twice a month: the 1st through the 15th and the 16th through the 31st. If I wanted the first $10, I only had an hour to use it. I used it and losed it, and lost a bit more. I had similar bad luck at Four Queens but made some of it back at Binons. Around 2 AM, I was too tired to go on.

Day 1: 
The D, ready for Saturday's Sammy Hagar show
Thursday morning, after sleeping in I wandered down to Eat for breakfast, and had the best pancakes of my life. I then hopped across the street to El Cortez, where I won money on a slot machine, lost it on pop-o-matic craps, and then made it back at 25¢ roulette. I wandered Fremont Street for hours, losing at the Plaza, Main Street Station, and the California. I'm still learning how to play craps, so I also spent time at The D, losing a few bucks at their craps table, the first of several losing craps sessions this trip.

Around 5 PM, I headed over to the new Downtown Grand. I'd heard from the Five Hundy by Midnight podcast that the casino's Art Bar has some great happy hour specials, and they were right -- 50% off of everything, including the very tasty French dip sandwich I ordered.

I then lost some change on video poker and slots, and put $20 on the Patriots to beat the Jets by at least 9.5 points. The Pats only won by 2, so goodbye, Andrew Jackson.

Later in the night, I wandered back to Fremont Street proper, and over to the Container Park. I thought it would be pretty cool, but no, it's pretty much just hipster retail. Sure, it's got the fire-blowing praying mantis out front, but that's pretty much the only thing that interested me. I then headed back toward the Golden Gate, stopping by the Fremont casino. I won a little on slots and a little more at their $5 craps table, and called it a night.

Day 2:
Friday was the first official day of the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic schedule, but first, unofficially, was a craps meetup with the hosts of the You Can Bet On That podcast. Two hours later, two thirds of my day's bankroll was gone. While I was playing, Derek Stevens, owner of The D and part-owner of the Riviera, walked by and commented "Nice jacket". I was wearing a cheesy Riviera silk jacket I'd bought on eBay for the occasion.

Sigma Derby: wagering on mechanical plastic horses
VIMFP started with a meetup at The D's Longbar, followed by an opening ceremony ("I am the Vegas Internet Mafia! We are the Vegas Internet Mafia!") interrupted briefly by a homeless guy trying to upstage the hosts. Then a group of about 75 of us paraded along Fremont Street, up the external escalator of The D, and into their upstairs Vue Bar, interrupting a live sports radio broadcast.

Next it was over to the Sigma Derby machine for the first round of the VIMFPtucky Derby tournament. I got knocked out early, eating up most of the rest of the day's bankroll.

"Why weren't you playing 25¢?" people asked me.
If I had been doing that, I wouldn't have
survived long enough to hit the royal.
When you're on Fremont Street, and you're running low on funds, there's one place to go for cheap gambling: back to the El Cortez. I played $1 pop-o-matic craps, and while there, watched a catering cart full of White Castle sliders topple over. The fuel gel also dumped onto the carpet, starting a small blaze, which got extinguished when a craps player dumped his drink on it. Amused but still losing money, I then nursed a $20 bill for a few minutes on a 5¢ video poker machine (25¢ a hand), and hit my first royal flush for $200.

Dinner was at Pizza Rock, some of the best meatballs I've ever had.

I took some time off of gambling to go to the VIMFP "Undercard" event, which consisted of some hilarious Q&A of the Vegas Gang podcast folks and other contributors to VegasTripping.com. Following that, Tim and Michelle of the Five Hundy podcast took the stage; Tim took topics from the audience to rant about. Also, as a counterpoint to Doctor Dave's wisdom tomorrow, @Misnomer took a few minutes to tell us the Poorly Researched history of Las Vegas. Much fun.Well worth a listen if you have a few minutes.

Up big after my El Cortez win, I took the winnings to the $5 craps table back at the Fremont. I made back even more. Finally, getting late, I lost a portion of it back to the slots at Four Queens. Time to call it a night.

Day 3:
"Steve Wynn is so confused... for the last
four months he's been polishing his wife
and ___blanking___ a Popeye statue.
Saturday, October 18th was the day of the VIMFP main event at The D. I had breakfast at the D Grill (nothing special), and attempted to figure out if there was any play in Keno that had a lower house edge than any other. I settled on six-spot Caveman Keno, but after being down $5 without hitting a single win, I was bored and moved on. I headed back to the Fremont, giving back a little at the craps table, and then grabbed a box of Dunkin Donuts for the main event.

The donuts bribed my way to a front table seat for the Vegas Gang podcast with Global Gaming Business Magazine publisher Roger Gros (seemed very knowledgeable and in tune); a presentation by Doctor Dave on the history of The D property; a live Five Hundy podcast (one of several trip highlights; they recommended Eat -- did they go based on my review?); and Vegas Tripping Match Game (just as hilariously raunchy as the Match Game panels at PAX).

I skipped the Sigma Derby finals, since I was knocked out of them the day before, and headed back over to the Downtown Grand. After losing back all of my craps winnings and more at the dice table, I sat down to play some video poker, and for the second day in a row, hit a big win on a 25¢ progressive machine -- quad aces for around $250, I think.

"Right now these are your memories for tomorrow."
Back over to The D for a bit, and then a block away for the Sammy Hagar/Chickenfoot concert. It rocked hard and loud. He did my favorite Van Hagar song, "Right Now", along with a re-imaging of the video playing behind him.

Ears ringing, voice hoarse, I headed back to Fremont Street, grabbed a FiveHunDog (two dogs, one bun) from American Coney, and called it a night.

Day 4:
One cache was at Coyote Springs, a 2008 housing development
where, according to Wikipedia, "progress has been stalled further
by various legal battles, and there is skepticism as to whether
homes will ever be built."
I slept in a bit late, which probably saved me a good chunk of change betting on NFL games. I checked out of the Golden Gate, and headed to breakfast at Eat, again. It was that good. Most of the day was uneventful: minor losses at El Cortez, Downtown Grand, Fremont, and Four Queens. At around 6 PM, I met up with Abby and Erik for dinner at the Triple George lawyer restaurant. The place has great reviews, but they severely overcooked the fish -- it was almost like eating soft, dry rice cakes. They comped the bad food with no hesitation, and the cocktail and appetizer was tasty. Just an off day, I suspect.

We stashed Abby's car at the Golden Nugget valet, and Erik drove us out to the desert, 100 miles north to Alamo, grabbing two caches on the way.  We arrived at the Windmill Ridge hotel after closing, but Abby was smart enough to look in the mailbox, finding three envelopes with our three names on the outside and our keys on the inside. The room was clean and big, in its own separate cabin, and I fell asleep quickly.

Day 5:
Erik at the start of the ET Highway
It's ET Highway day! Officially State Route 375, the ET Highway and surrounding dirt roads contain 2500 caches -- one cache every 0.1 miles for 250 miles. Some geocachers who come out here to do the ET Highway series hope to get all of them. We planned to get several on the paved segment before sunset, about 600 or so, and a handful of neat spots on side roads.

After I did the running for the first 20 caches (jump out of the car, find the pile of rocks, swap out the unsigned cache with a signed one), Abby did the next 20. At that point, the three of us looked at each other, realized this was a pretty dumb pursuit, and decided to get 50 51 for the area and call it good.

Shortly after cache 51, as we drove deeper into the desert, Erik's radiator hose split, 10 miles from the corner of Nowhere and Nowhere. Fortunately, a passing pickup truck carried Erik into cell-phone range, where he was able to make contact with a tow truck, which had us back in Alamo for most of the day, waiting on the replacement hose to arrive. At 4:30 PM, the hose arrived, and we were on the road by 5 PM. Hitting cows on the road after dark is a serious hazard in this area, so Erik slowly and deliberately drove the 161 miles non-stop to Tonopah, facing into the sun until it set.
2 + 2 + 2 + 9 + 2 = $250

Tonopah is one of the darkest areas of the continental U.S., so it was perfect for catching the Orionid meteor shower. I was worn out and hungry, but still spotted three meteors on a short mile hike from the Jim Butler Hotel (clean, friendly, a bit worn) to Tonopah Station casino, where after about 20 minutes of play on a video poker machine, hit a set of four deuces for $250. A great way to end the evening, on a long day I didn't even expect to be gambling much.

Day 6:
We missed nearly a full day of geocaching yesterday, and had some good caches scheduled for today. Our revised plan: get 'em all today. Can we do it?

We see that they see us and want us to see that they see us. See?
Erik went above and beyond today, starting with the non-stop 130-mile drive to the first cache at the site of the famous (but now missing) Area 51 Black Mailbox. From there, we drove 12 miles down a dirt road, stopping for caches along the way, right up to the edge of Area 51 (Nellis AFB).  As we approached, an unmarked white pickup truck (Department of Defense security contractor) barrelled down the hill inside of the secure zone, turned away from us, and headed deeper into the secure zone.  I'm pretty sure he just wanted to make sure we knew we were being watched. Yeah. We know.

We left this dirt road and hit several others over the course of the day, hitting old mining operation sites, the Little Al'e'inn for lunch, and the two oldest caches in Nevada. In the end, we hit every cache we really wanted to, compressing two days into one, with Erik doing so much driving.
Flying saucers have radiator hose problems, too?
Area 51, from the end of Mailbox/Groom Road.
Note the antenna hidden on the hill center left, and the truck on the hill center right.
(Part 2, days 7-11, is up now.)