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).

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