Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Vegas trip report: The fight, the rubber burrito, and the dragon

Welcome to Terminal 3. The joy of Vegas.
The feel of a medical clinic.
This is compiled from my trip report segments on the Five Hundy by Midnight Facebook group. It's long. It was a long trip. You've been warned.

The first third: The fight, the sportsbook, and the shantytown

Saturday, 4:30 PM arrival: 

I'm staying at Caesars, but I'm starting this trip by parking at Cosmo (the best garage on the Strip) on Saturday afternoon, planning to check in late and hoping for a "we're full" upgrade. I walked over to the MGM to check out the Mayweather fight crowd, and was not disappointed. There were meth grannies, dudes in kilts, bros, women dressed in Lil' Kim pasties, and several young bucks riding "hoverboards" around the casino. I think these are the irritating selfie sticks of 2015. I tried to talk my way into a cheap ticket in, but no luck. Lost $7 at Sigma Derby, then headed to Secret Pizza. You know, when I eat Secret Pizza, I think it's better than Pizza Rock. When I eat Pizza Rock, it's better than Secret Pizza. My conclusion: the best pizza is the pizza you have. 
My happy place
Back to Caesars. The $20 trick was rejected -- she put the bill back on the counter and said "no need, I'll still get you a complimentary upgrade." She did (Palace Basic to Palace Jr. Suite; just a little bigger and at the end of the hall), and I gave her the $20 at the end.
SundayI know nothing about sports betting, but that doesn't stop me. On the advice of Sportsbook Tom and Vegas Fanboy, I spent most of the day in the Westgate Theatre. Wizard of Odds says the best bets are on home underdogs, and Tom suggested the under on the Cardinals/Saints game. I went 2-for-7, and one of those wins was (*cringe*) a bet against my beloved Seahawks. The Westgate has also moved their video poker machines out of the sportsbook, but I found a playable one and lost $100 fairly quickly. Wonka gave me some of it back, but other slots took it again.
Leaving poorer but still having fun, I drove back to Caesars. Valet full. I parked in the self park and walked over to Cromwell. Roulette took another chunk of change. Over to Paris by way of the Grand Bazzar Shantytown. Maybe I'm the only one, but the shantytown isn't as bad as I expected. It's like the kiosks on the Excalibur/Luxor walkway, or the ones formerly in the back of Imperial Palace, or near Carnaval Court, and for now, they're clean and shiny and new and at 9 PM on a Sunday, appeared open. It's certainly nicer than the unmaintained turned-off fountain of porn cards that used to be here.
Sunday morning, NFL week 1. Everybody's tied 0-0.
Every game has zero points.
So much hope is about to be dashed. 

Paris took the rest of my daily budget. I had dinner at Yong Kang Street, which was good but much more expensive than it should be -- $40 for three items off the cart and a beer.
Training classes start Monday. There's no better place to take a class.

The second third: Uber, Fremont, and the rubber burrito

Monday was the first of six training days, so my gambling will be limited to lunch and after hours, which is good for the bankroll. Lunch on Monday was a profitable hour at the Casino Royale craps table. After class, I headed out on my quest to complete my casino chip collection, with stops at Aria, Stratosphere, and Circus Circus (which resulted in this shout-out from
Fumigating? Remodeling?
Only her hairdresser knows for sure.
At around midnight, I was craving some quick Mexican food, and VegasMate said Chayo was nearby and possibly open, but no. Midnight was too late for "late night" on Monday. Instead, I hopped down two doors to Off The Strip. Their chicken parm was mediocre. The pasta was angel hair, which had clearly been pr-emade hours before and was reheated under a broiler, probably at the same time as the chicken, which had charred tips.
Tuesday lunchtime craps was at Cromwell. The crew was great, and I broke even. That night, I headed down to Fremont and played craps at Four Queens. It turns out that the couple next to me are also from my hometown, living about five miles away from me. Small world. For a late dinner, I headed to the Market Street Cafe for oxtail soup. Sadly, the kitchen was closed Tuesday night for deep cleaning. Instead, I wandered to Pizza Rock, got in just before they closed, and they gave me a discount on a slice because it was their last one and was missing the tip. Across the street Downtown Grand's sign was off and the place was looking mighty dark. When you can't tell from 200 feet away if the casino is open, I don't know how they expect to get Fremont Street foot traffic.
Last one out, please turn off the lights. But don't turn
off the sign. We already did that.

The news had broken Tuesday that Uber had gone live, so I cancelled the second rental car I had scheduled for later this week. At lunch on Wednesday, I dropped off the first car and Ubered back to the training at Caesars. The driver was apparently new to all of this, wide-eyed with high hopes, with Uber and Lyft placards to put on his dashboard and a low-numbered TNC permit decal in the front window. He was delayed a few minutes on his way to me when he got a $100 ticket for driving in the bus-only area, but he seemed to think that Uber would fight it. Not likely, I suspect. He also wasn't familiar with the streets, missing a turn his GPS gave him, and he almost took me to Venetian when he forgot where I was going. Still, only $17.40, and a better experience than I've had in some cabs, but if I wasn't aware enough to give him directions, who knows?
After training -- which ran until after 8 PM -- I headed out to get the final pieces of my chip collection. The Venetian craps table was jumping. The Wynn and Encore were dead. TI is feeling more and more bottom-tier every time I walk through. Casino Royale's $20 rebate on losses is still going strong, but after claiming my first $20 earlier this year, they require subsequent losses to be more than $100. I dropped $21 on the big Wheel of Fortune slot to test this out. No rebate for me.
I stopped at Chayo for dinner -- Wednesday was much busier than Monday -- and had a chicken burrito. It was OK, nothing special, a little rubbery, and although I hoped the sauce would be enchilada like, it was more like watered down refried beans. Still, it was reasonably priced and quick.
Paris has a new game, High Card Flush, and it's clear that the dealer was still learning the game, too. Her card handling was inconsistent, and she pushed back my $1 "straight flush" bet saying it needed to be $5 minimum. The table sign said that the table bet and Flush bet were $5 minimum, but "Straight Flush $1-$25". I didn't point it out, since I shouldn't be making those sucker side bets anyway. The game was profitable and friendly. On the way out, I played the Lord of the Rings skin of the Mad Men slot. Unlike other LotR slots, this time, I made it out without having my wallet jacked by hobbits.
Video poker has been mediocre so far. I'm spotting a few flaws in the cheat sheet I posted, and some of the games that I saw listed at VegasMessageBoard (particularly the 1-cent hundred-play 5600-royal CET ones) are nowhere to be found. Tonight, I think I'll head down to MSS or Gold Coast to play some more advantageous machines.

The final third: Dragons, drinks, and chasing the sunrise

Thursday, September 17, I spent my lunch break playing craps at The Cromwell again. I played craps at eight different properties this trip, and Cromwell is easily my favorite. The crowd's fun, the dealers are friendly and competent, and even though I lost, I feel I got good entertainment value.

After the conference ended for the day, I Ubered downtown to hit the 7:00 poker tournament at The Plaza. The driver was confused about where the Caesars Colosseum valet was, and missed two turns headed downtown, but these bugs are to be expected with a new system. They've probably got it working a bit better now. 

The PokerAtlas app listed the tournament as a $10 buy-in, which is technically correct, but given the choice of 3500 chips for $10 or 7000 for $20, I went with the $20. The Plaza uses electronic tables, which is fine -- the weak, loose players tend to play even weaker and looser. Around the table, some of the players were trying to get their friend to buy in late, because without a certain number of players, the $150 guaranteed prize pool wouldn't be available. They ended up with enough, but really, how can a prize pool be "guaranteed" if they require a minimum number of players? Seems sketchy.

Tight play and monster hands got me to the break with the chip lead, but I still spent another $5 for the 3000 chip add-on. The tournament went quickly at this point, and when it was down to the final three, the stacks were something like 31K, 30K (me), and 5.5 K.  We chopped it $60/$60/$30, so I'm counting that as a tournament win.

I played the 100.65% Jokers Wild poker machine at Plaza during the break, but it was an ancient coin-dropper with hazy graphics and finicky buttons, so I ended that experiment quickly. After the tournament, I headed over to Main Street Station for video poker, which quickly took half of the day's bankroll, but hey, tasty beer. Video poker was not kind to me this trip.

A couple hours later, I headed to The D and played craps for a few minutes. I had little luck, and bailed out fairly quickly.  Out at The D valet, I attempted to Uber a ride, but the cell signal was weak, probably due in part to the buildings' "canyon" effect, and in part to my phone's weak battery. I headed over to 3rd and Ogden instead (Pizza Rock/DT Grand), and successfully hailed an Uber from there. As I waited, I watched the street department add green bike lanes to Ogden with their special paint cooker cart. Kinda cool. 

Piff the Magic Dragon, Mr. Piffles,
me, and a photobomber.
Friday the 18th: I picked up a discounted ticket for X-Comedy and then played craps at Harrah's for lunch, but my loss was nothing special. At the end of the day's class, a couple of other students asked what I had planned for the night. Other than the show, I wasn't sure. They suggested that the $2/$4 table at Flamingo was profitable. Turns out they were right. I played for about an hour, and left with more than I sat down with, despite the lack of good cards. 

The X-Comedy show was OK, nothing great, although the only reason I went was to catch Piff the Magic Dragon's performance, and he was as hilarious as I expected. He did most of the tricks I'd already seen on "Fool Us!" and "America's Got Talent", but they were more entertaining in person. Unless you're going to see him, and you *really* want to see him, I'd skip the show.

"All you can drink wine."
Challenge accepted.
I was craving Italian food, and VegasMate suggested that Battista's was nearby. I went in with somewhat low expectations, given some of the reviews I've read here, and it was certainly better than I expected.  Salad, bread, chicken parm, unlimited wine, and cappuccino cost me $38, including tax and tip. The meal wasn't "oh my god" great, but it was certainly good, and for the price, someplace that's definitely on my list of places to return to.

I was jonesing for craps, but $5 on a Friday night? Good luck. I eventually wandered down to Excalibur's table, where I lost a chunk of change but a hot shooter kept me from losing the rest of the day's bankroll. No, that was lost playing slots at Caesars just before bed. What was I thinking? (I Ubered from Excalibur back to Caesars, because I was exhausted. The ride was uneventful, except the driver told me that he'd witnessed a single-vehicle crash just a few minutes earlier near the Welcome to Las Vegas sign where the car had rolled three times before stopping. Eek.)

Saturday the 19th. Day 6 of class. Yes, this class extended into Saturday. They gave us a lunch break, but the hands-on labwork was so intense, I just worked right through it, finishing around 3 PM.  

Today's Vegas challenge: I wanted to see the sunrise, to be the "still up" instead of being the "just up." Could this guy in his mid 40s do it? My best approach: start with a late afternoon nap. Down at 4 PM, I set my alarm for 7:30 PM. And then for the next 90 minutes, I drifted from fully awake to barely awake, but the fact that I was sleeping while Vegas was downstairs kept me from actually falling asleep. Finally, at 6, I gave up and headed out.

There's a feeling I get in Vegas at certain points in some trips -- I'm dressed up, headed towards the hotel elevators, and I'm grinning. I'm looking good. I'm feeling good. I'm in Vegas. This town is mine tonight. I'm gonna see this night to the end. I've got no destination in mind, I'm just going to wander. As I'm riding the elevator down, I don't know if I'm going to head north or south. Do I want to walk up to Encore and feel the posh vibe there, or do I want to make it down to Mandalay Bay and see what kind of crowds Santana and fake Michael Jackson are bringing in? I get to the statue of Caesar by the bell desk, and without thinking, turn right. A few steps later, I realize, "well, looks like the south strip it is." 

I take the express mosey to Mandalay (Bellagio tram to Monte Carlo, Excalibur tram to Mandalay), and remember that I'd heard great things about the catfish sloppy joes at RM Seafood. I pull up the casino map and restaurant menu in VegasMate to find out where in this place is. Once I get there, I look at the posted menu, and then ask the hostess "I don't see the catfish sloppy joes on the menu. Are they still available?" No, she says, not since last spring, and then they were lunch only. Bah.

I wander over to Delano to check it out, and spot Della's Kitchen. Chuckmonster gave it a good review... but they're closed. Bah.

I'm close to being hangry now, so I'm committed to find somewhere else here at Mandalay to eat. Border Grill it is. It's quite a hike through the convention space to get to it, but let me tell you: it's worth it. The margarita was good, the chips and salsa were free, and the poblano enchiladas -- wow. For sitting at the bar watching college football, these three small enchiladas in green sauce were elegant, beautiful, tasty, light, yet filling. This may have been the best meal of the week; definitely in the top three. It's worth the walk.

Stunning drinks. Mediocre poker.
Inside the Chandelier; my happy place.
Time to mosey north. Things are uneventful until I arrive at Cosmopolitan. It's nearing 9, and for a Saturday night, Chandelier is still fairly empty. CliQue is still under construction, so I ask the bartender, "when I was at Book & Stage last January, the guy made me a great drink with blackberries, St. Germaine, and some other ingredients. Any ideas?" Yup. He can make the Stunning Man, but without the egg whites, which is *exactly* what I had before. I tipped him well, and when I finished the first, he made another. A few minutes into my second drink, I hit a wild royal for $21.25 (sadly, the best hand of my entire trip). The crowd was building, the vibe was rising, yet I decided to keep walking.

Craps at the Casino Royale is quite a contrast to video poker at Cosmo, but was equally profitable. The mix of people in suit jackets next to grubby t-shirts next to dude bros in town for a body building conference was what Vegas is all about. Good times. 

I eventually wandered up to Wynn, where, at 3 AM, I could barely make out the video poker paytables through my hazy eyes. Time to walk south again. My feet carried me directly back to Caesars, but my stomach carried me past it back to Cosmo. It's 3:30 AM, and I need Secret Pizza. The line is nearly out to the pool tables, but it's worth it. After a half hour wait, I scarf it down, and then with my mind starting to play tricks on me, decide that yes, it's really best to head to bed. Yet again, I was defeated in my challenge to see the sunrise. Check out time is 11 AM. I set my alarm for 9:30 and pass out at 4:30.

Sunday, the final day. I wake up at 9 on my own. Can't sleep. Las Vegas is waiting, down on the street below. It turns out it was a good thing, as I'd forgotten to toggle "PM" to "AM" on my alarm. I slowly and sadly pack up my stuff and drop my bags at the bell desk. (Aside: I think I left my stack of downtown player's cards in my room. Darn. I'll need to get new ones on my next trip. Think Caesars put them in lost-and-found, or would they just toss them?)

I walk through Bally's to the monorail and grab a betting sheet on the way. I'm too late for the morning NFL games, but maybe I'll make it to Westgate in time for the second half betting. Nope, too late for that, too, so my only bets are on the Jaguars, Seahawks, and the "total sacks" prop bet for the Seahawks/Packers game. Later that night, I win the Jags, but lose the other two.

Seahawks Poblano
You know, I don't have an Ellis Island chip yet. Time to remedy that. I Uber there with a silent driver, and leave 90 minutes later with double my buy-in and a yummy hefeweissen in me. The table was fairly empty, half un-staffed, and the pit boss was a grumpy micro-manager. I head back to Bally's, but realize I'm walking past the Westin Max, which I profited greatly from the one other time I played there. I poke my head in, and it's smaller than I remember. The VP paytables are weak, and they don't have a craps table running. Sorry, VegasFanboy, but I see no reason to play here. I hop across to Bally's, grab a froyo from their food court, and catch the end of the Jags game.

I've got about two hours before I need to grab my bags from Caesars valet and head to the airport. I should grab dinner. Where to go? I've been here nine days, and haven't yet had my traditional Salt Air Margarita and When Pigs Fly pork buns from China Poblano. It's what I do. I do it. So good. Sitting at the bar, watching the Seahawks game in the sportsbook across the walkway, I can think of no better way to end a long trip in Vegas.

I'm wrong.

Walking back to Caesars, I look at my watch. It's 6:55. To my left, the crowd is gathering for the 7:00 Fountains of Bellagio. I wedge my way in to the rail near dead center and wait. "What are the chances?" I think. "Really? I'm going to be seen off with Tiesto or Billie Jean or Titanic, right?" The nozzles rise form the lake. The background music fades. The fountains light up and begin to spray. It's quiet. Slowly, the strings swell. It's happening. 

"Quando sono solo sogno all'orizzonte," sings Sarah Brightman. My spirits soar. Andrea Bocelli joins in. The jets of water touch the sky. My eyes tear up. It's time to say goodbye.

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 . 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 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 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 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 ( and this way back in 2010, and it's still pretty relevant (

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.

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

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. (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.

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.