How I lived it up in Vegas without breaking the bank
By AMELIA RAYNO | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: March 10, 2018
I took a breath, buried my pride and slid the $20 bill across the counter, suggestively.
"Are there any complimentary upgrades available?" I asked the woman working the check-in at the Luxor Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
I was in town for four nights and on a mission to live it up in Las Vegas while keeping my bank account in check -- so I'd packaged my flight and hotel, chosen the cheapest room available and hoped for a little of that Sin City sleaze to make my stay a little more lavish.
Simple bribery? Unabashed passing of the cash? I'd heard that worked.
The woman checking me in eyed the offering but never stopped typing on her computer.
"No," she retorted, without acknowledging the money now awkwardly languishing between us.
Defeated, I reached for the bill and pulled it back, clumsily.
Oh, well, there were plenty of other ways to save in Vegas, a wonderfully wacky alternate universe in which deals are pitched as eagerly as dice on a craps table -- as long as you know where to look.
And one such offer was five seconds away.
"I can upgrade you to a better room for an extra $10 a night," the clerk offered. "It's usually $20."
"I'll take it," I told her.
I was in. I had breached the unspoken threshold to Vegas' labyrinth of deal-making and money-saving. Over the course of four nights, I would push the limits of my penny-pinching strategy while still living the lux life -- taking in a headliner show, bouncing around a festival, indulging at the day spa and savoring a bounty of crafted coffee drinks, mouthwatering meals and cosmopolitan cocktails.
The mini upgrade, I'd soon discover, was just the beginning.
The courses, artfully presented on tiny plates, kept coming.
Slivers of milky white tuna, albacore, mackerel and yellowtail, pressed into nigiri sushi and topped with flakes of sea salt, a brush of ponzu sauce or a sprinkle of chives, arrived in a slow march. Other Japanese delicacies -- octopus, scallops with roe and sea urchin -- joined the procession as well.
The sushi chef making the edible art in front of me passed me a dish holding two buttery pillows of deep red sashimi.
"Only tonight," he said, then added in a hushed tone, of the fish that is increasingly rare because of its dwindling numbers, "Bluefin."
The meal lasted two hours before the finale -- a small bowl of green tea ice cream and mango mochi -- arrived. I felt indulgent.
Then the bill came. For $23.
That's right. At Yama Sushi -- an establishment that boasts rarely seen varieties and cuts from whole fishes -- an all-you-can-eat special costs just $23.
In a sea of bargains, I thought, this might be the best deal on the strip -- er, the strip mall, that is.
I was in Vegas' Chinatown, a neighborhood that rivals those in San Francisco and New York in size and sports some of the best food in the city, yet is often overlooked, in part because much of it is confined to dull strip malls. But on this rainy January evening, it couldn't have felt more posh.
Just an 8-minute cab ride from the Las Vegas Strip, Chinatown has plenty more to offer -- from a charming Thai wine bar (Chada Street) to Korean barbecue (Tofu Hut and more) to Asian-American fusion (Sparrow + Wolf). On a Monday night, parking spots were hard to come by and many eateries were nearly packed.
I topped off dinner a couple of storefronts down at Golden Tiki -- a bar with oversized wooden doors and tiki totems for handles. Inside, I was plunged into near blackness, then, when my eyes adjusted to the low lighting, transported to a tropical paradise with bamboo walls, water features, hanging lanterns and a "sky" full of shooting stars. Cocktails ring in around $12, still a relief after I'd mistakenly ordered an $18 martini near the Luxor casino a night earlier.
Off the strip and around the city there are other gems touting great food and low prices.
On my first night in town, I wandered over to the Arts District, northwest of Las Vegas Boulevard, for First Friday, a free monthly festival. For $10, I hit one of the many food trucks for three al pastor tacos, then browsed the various art stalls and studios, meandering past baby strollers and body-painted women, dancers and drag queens, pottery booths and poodles with hats. Nearby ReBar -- that's part thrift shop, part cocktail bar that donates a portion of drink sales to local charities -- sold me an Old Fashioned for just $7.
Just north of the strip, meanwhile, Viva Las Arepas churns out savory Venezuelan sandwiches for between $4.50 and $8.
South of downtown, the quirky Sister's Oriental Market & Video touts authentic Laotian food next to Asian dried goods -- and bootleg videos. When I went to the counter to order, an Asian-American man was getting up to leave.
"I'll be flying back from New York for your food again," he told the owner -- a jovial woman who called me "sis" and checked in with me twice to "make sure I wasn't crying" from the spice.
On the strip, there are deals to be found, as well, though usually only within the context of the typically exorbitant prices -- a large Starbucks coffee, for example, comes close to $7. But during happy hour (times vary), many of the strip's high-profile restaurants slash prices by as much as half.
Still, even when taking advantage of the deals at the Cosmopolitan's Momofuku, my meager meal of lamb ribs, a side of smashed cucumbers and a glass of sake came to $37 before tip.
I was in search of the perfect Vegas souvenir -- and with shops lining the sidewalks by the dozen, I had ample opportunity.
But I wasn't on the megamall-like strip, where mass-produced trinkets and clothes from high-end chains can cost a fortune. I had ambled back to Main Street in the Arts District. There, an impressive array of vintage and antique stores create a community.
Had it been a taste of Vegas glam I was craving, sparkly clutches, gold-rimmed barware and luxurious fur wraps tempted at many stops. And as for classic Sin City kitsch, there was plenty of that, too, in the form of retro postcards, gambling relics, Vegas-themed teacups, salt and pepper shakers and fuzzy dice.
On a Saturday night, I took in the nearly sold-out Criss Angel show at the Luxor -- nabbing a $100 ticket for just $67 after signing up for MGM's free membership club. I used the savings on a glass of sparkling wine (which was poured close to the rim as if it was a beer) and a box of peanut M&M's to enjoy while the headliner cut women in two and sent doves flying into the rafters.
After jetting from one side of town to another, eating, drinking and reveling in Vegas culture, I was in need of a little rest and relaxation. I'd planned to lounge at the Bellagio's ornate pool area all afternoon -- travelers can get a taste of the elegant establishment without coughing up the hefty price of a night's stay by reserving a chair for $20 on weekdays.
But when it started raining, I pivoted. I received a full refund for my Bellagio reservation and then I had an idea. I had heard that the Groupon app was rife with Vegas deals, and I found one that was the perfect calming replacement for a missed day at the pool.
Jackpot: a spa day at the Flamingo hotel that let me live the luxe life for half the price. For a service normally valued at more than $200, I paid a mere $112.
Two hours later, I was lounging on a warm massage table with scents of lavender lingering in the air and the promise of a foot-bath treatment and use of the spa's extensive facilities -- a eucalyptus steam room, sauna and hot and cold tubs, among them.
In four jam-packed days, I'd indulged in every thrill, satiated every craving and pampered myself in royal fashion.
And yet, I still had money to spare.
Perhaps it was time to gamble? After all, they do deliver free drinks, another win.