This will be my 7th trip to Vegas, and I seem to learn something new every time. I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, so take everything I say below with a grain of salt and a jaded eye. Also, http://www.cheapovegas.com has some additional good suggestions.
1) Your vacation time has value.
Wasting your time in Vegas has a cost. I'm not talking about wandering around, taking in the scenery; that's a valuable being-a-tourist time. I'm talking about time spent doing non-fun stuff, like waiting in line. Don't park your car when you can valet. Don't wait in line if you can do it later. Don't show up to the airport 2½ hours early. This tip is inherent in many of the tips below. For example...
2) Couples shouldn't take a shuttle bus from the airport
Shuttles cost $12.50 per person. Cabs to the center strip cost about $25. With two people, it's a wash if not for the fact that the shuttle buses can make two or three lengthy stops before they reach your hotel. Take a cab instead, but...
3) Don't let the cab driver long-haul you from the airport.
When the cab leaves the airport, they should be turning left to get to the strip. If they turn right, they're headed for the tunnel, which will add about $5 to your fare. If they ask to take the tunnel or the freeway, just say no.
4) Try the $20 trick.
When checking into the hotel, slip a folded $20 bill between your credit card and drivers license, and say the magic words, "Do you have any complementary upgrades available?" The worst that can happen is you get snubbed (right, Becca?). The best? It happened to me at Caesars: an upgrade to a four room suite. See http://www.frontdesktip.com for success and failure reports.
5) Collect and use coupons
You'll find coupon books at the airport, in the cab, and in your hotel room. There's some great coupons in the 2011 American Casino Guide and in the 2011 Las Vegas Advisor Pocketbook of Values. (The 2011 Vegas Entertainment Book... not so much). Many of these are good for first-time players club signups only. Also, Restaurant.com, with promo codes, has some great deals (e.g., House of Blues or the Stratosphere rotating restaurant for $22 off a $35 purchase). The most ubiquitous "coupon," however, is...
6) Collect and use players' club cards
Every casino offers players cards for tracking your play, similar to Safeway cards. Play enough, you'll get free money on the card (although at my play level, it's minimal). However, many players cards come with free sign-up bonuses. The two big casino chains on the strip are Harrah's (their "Total Rewards" card is usable at Harrahs, Imperial Palace, Flamingo, Bally's, Paris, Planet Hollywood, Caesars, and Rio) and MGM (their "Players Club" card [soon to be "MLife"] is usable to at MGM, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, New York, Monte carlo, Aria, Bellagio, and Mirage). Some casinos also track your non-gambling spend, so hand it over when you check in, at meals, or if you buy something stupidly expensive at the casino's mall. The best offer going right now is at Tropicana, so be sure to...
7) Take advantage of Tropicana
For a limited time, they're offering an "Even the Odds" promotion for people who've never had one of their players cards. Sign up for the players card, lose money at slots, and you'll get 50% of your net loss back the same day (as free slot play, up to $100), and another 50% of your loss back after the third day of the next month (as free play, up to $100). Strategy: Make stupid big bets on high roller machines, and if you end up above $200, cash out and don't look back. If you lose all $200, take the 50%, and grind it through slowly on a penny machine, then come back within a year and do the same with the second 50%. If you enjoy slot play, then...
8) Odds on slots are based on three things: Location, location, location.
The airport airport has the worst slot payout in town, because it's got a captive audience. Slot machines on the strip are better, but still bad, paying about 89%. Downtown pays about 92%. Off-strip pays about 94%. That house edge adds up. Speaking of which...
9) Friends don't let friends play 6:5 blackjack.
Getting 6:5 on your money when you hit an Ace and a face card shouldn't even be called blackjack. The proper payoff is 3:2; your $10 bet should be paid $15, not $12. But 6:5 "blackjack" has invaded the strip like a virus over the last 18 months. Just. Say. No.
10) It's further away than it looks.
Sure, you can see the Eiffel Tower from Mandalay Bay, and the Venetian and the Sahara look "only" a few blocks apart. It's a long walk. The strip is four miles long. That said, it's worth it to take the better part of a day walking between Mandalay and Encore. North of that, though, it's acres of desert and crappy casinos. But when you're walking...
11) Obey pedestrian controls as if you were in Seattle
On average, a pedestrian gets killed in Vegas every four days. Not good odds for the price. Take a hint from the chicken -- there's better ways to cross the road. And while you're hoofing it to the next casino...
12) Ignore the porn slappers and time share weasels
Be rude without feeling bad. There's sleazy people on the street handing out cards with porn on them hoping you'll call their client for a good time. If you take one, the rest will surround you like a pack of hyenas trying to get you to take theirs, too. There's weasels on the street offering free show tickets in exchange for watching a time share presentation. If you waste your time doing this, well, see tip number 1. Don't say no, don't acknowledge their presence. Just keep walking.
13) You can't catch the bus at the casino; you can't catch a cab on the strip; you can't catch the monorail anywhere convenient.
Cabs aren't allowed to pick up passengers on the strip. Catch one at the nearest hotel. On the strip, you can catch the double-decker bus ("The Deuce") at $5 for a two hour pass, or $7 for a 24-hour pass. During busy times, the Deuce isn't much faster than walking, but it will get you there. There's also free trams between Treasure Island and Mirage; between Monte Carlo, Aria, and Bellago; and between Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and Excalibur. The monorail is expensive and sucks. The Deuce is the most cost effective way to get downtown, but...
14) Save Fremont Street downtown for later.
If this is your first time in Vegas, you'll be doing too much to waste time downtown. Save it for next time. Instead...
15) Watch the Bellagio fountain show.
It's the best free show in town, hands down. Pirate wenches, sleeping lions, and fake volcanos are distant wannabes. Bellagio also has a beautiful conservatory and great Chuhuly glasswork in the lobby. It also has good food, like most of Vegas. So don't forget...
16) Splurge on a good meal
Some of the best chefs in the world have their restaurants on the strip. Your tastes certainly vary from mine, but you're sure to find what you're looking for. After you drop $100 on a meal...
17) Max out the Buffet of Buffets
Harrah's is offering the "Buffet of Buffets" for $39.99: 24 hours of all-you-can-eat access to seven of their buffets:
- Harrah's Las Vegas: Flavors
- Flamingo: Paradise Garden Buffet (nasty! don't do it!)
- Imperial Palace: Emperor's Buffet (even worse!)
- Paris: Le Village Buffet
- Rio: Carnival World Buffet
- Caesars Palace: Lago Buffet
- Planet Hollywood: Spice Market Buffet (yummo!)
18) Don't pay full price for a show
http://www.tix4tonight.com has booths up and down the strip. Your hotel magazine or the coupon book you grabbed in the cab probably has a discount on their service fee. They sell show tickets at between 20% and 50% off.
19) Buy a case of water for your room.
Get it from the ABC store, or Walgreens, or somewhere cheap. You'll want it when you wake up with a hangover, or even with no hangover. Even though it's winter, you're still in the desert. Drink up.
20) A final tip: Tip.
Tips are the grease that lets the Vegas machine work smoothly. That $20 tip in number 4 above is a good example of this. Among some others you'll encounter:
- Waitresses: $1 a drink. $2 will be remembered. Starting $5 will get you instant drink service for your next several.
- Table game dealers: $5 an hour. Or make a bet on their behalf.
- Poker dealers: $1-$3 per pot, when you win. 5-10% of tournament winnings.
- Housekeeping: $1-$2 a day. Maybe I'm a jerk, but I find it a good way to get rid of my change so I don't have to carry it back through the airport.
- Cab drivers: 15% of the fare.
- Valet: $1-$2 when you retrieve your car.
- Slot machine attendants: For handpays (i.e., winnings over $1200), $20 or 1% of your winnings, whatever's more. I should be so lucky to have this problem.
(Edit: formatting clean up)