By George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog.com Las Vegas these days is so much more than gambling--er, gaming. Besides cheap airfares, and equally good value for money hotels such as the Wynn, Encore, Bellagio, Four Seasons and the newly-opened Mandarin Oriental, we love the shows, the restaurants, the shopping, the nightlife, the beach clubs, the spas, and the city's proximity to great Southwest attractions such as the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Zion National Park, and other natural and manmade wonders.
1. BECAUSE NICE THINGS ARE AFFORDABLE HERE Five-star hotels that would cost $500 or more per night in New York, Boston, San Francisco or LA go for one-third of that in Las Vegas, plus you'll often see $50 per night resort credits thrown in. We've seen published weekday rates of $159 at Wynn Las Vegas, $139 at Bellagio, and $250 or so at the ultra-luxe (and gaming-free) Mandarin Oriental. Plus, with the opening of The Cosmopolitan in December 2010 in the new CityCentre complex, there will be further downward pressure on hotel rates across town. Did we mention weekend rates of $169 (2 night minimum) at the Four Seasons Hotel (subject to availability and seasonality)? Of course, rates vary with season, but shop around on sites such as Hotels.com and you'll be amazed at what five-star luxury goes for in Vegas. And if five-star is not your scene, we recently saw room rates as low as $17 per night on the Strip. At that price, you could sell your condo and move in.
2. A MASSAGE WOULD DO WONDERS The home of the groaning buffet is also a major spa capital. Sophisticated facilities such as the Qua Baths at Caesars and the Bathhouse at Mandalay Bay's THEhotel are a must. Many resorts are discounting spa experiences right now - over at the Mirage, they are discounting treatment by 30 percent - try the "Vegas Quickie" package, a 25 minute massage and a facial, for $99. More spa ideas here.
3. AMAZING DINING Some people come to Vegas not to gamble or sightsee, but simply to eat. Some of the world's most celebrated dining spots are here, including the one-of-a-kind Bartolotta at the Wynn, where chef Paul Bartolotta flies in an amazing array of fresh seafood daily from Italy and elsewhere. In fact, many of Vegas' best restaurants can now be found in the Wynn/Encore complex, including SW Steakhouse and Botero. Only Paris has a higher concentration of fine French cuisine. If airfares to Paris are too dear, within a few hundred yards of each other you can sample the fare at Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire's Twist in the Mandarin Oriental, Guy Savoy at Caesar's Palace, and Joel Robuchon's at the MGM Grand. And we always schedule a visit to sample the contemporary American menu at Sage in the Aria Resort.
4. SEE ONE OF THE BEST CHINATOWNS AROUND And speaking of fantastic dining experiences, but this time on a budget: It seems weird calling Spring Mountain Road - just off the Strip - "Chinatown," seeing as it's really "Asiatown." Name a country or a type of cooking and you should be able to find it. Strong suits are regional Chinese, Japanese (Raku at 5030 Spring Mountain is a must), Korean and Vietnamese, but don't stop there -- Las Vegas is jam-packed with Thai restaurants, many of them better than you might find back home, unless home is, say, Bangkok. Make your first stop Lotus of Siam, for their tasty Northern specialties menu. Warning: Do not be tempted by the bad lunch buffet (953 E. Sahara Ave.)
5. THE BEST RETAIL DESTINATION IN THE WORLD? There are more Tiffany, Prada, Armani, and other high-end boutiques per square mile here than in any city in the world. You can walk in air conditioned comfort from one shopping area to the next. You'll also find that the Las Vegas branch of your favorite high-end retailer carries items found nowhere else, and the sales staff is invariably plentiful, friendly, and helpful. High end retailers too rich for your wallet? Then head for the outlet malls: the Las Vegas Premium Outlets mall, which encompasses 150 stores, or the Fashion Outlets Las Vegas. Best times to find sales: July to early August and early January just after the post-Christmas markdowns.
6. THE 99 CENT MARGARITAS The Vegas so many of us grew up loving is back in full force, with the craziest drink deals and some pretty terrific happy hours. Of course, at Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon, right at the corner of Flamingo & Las Vegas Boulevard, happy hour runs all day, and the margaritas really are just 99 cents. Need something slightly more high brow? Hit Las Horas Loca at Agave, a classy Mexican restaurant out by the Red Rock Resort. Every day, from 4:05pm to 6:27pm (for real), they've got 25 cent tacos and $1 Coronitas (10820 W. Charleston Ave.).
7. IT'S A GREAT BASECAMP FOR SEEING THE WORLD'S WONDERS Minutes from town, you can be hiking in Red Rock Canyon, which certainly hasn't cut back on its beauty in these tough times, while just north of the city, there's cool, green Mount Charleston, towering 12,000 feet above the valley floor. Further afield are Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Lake Powell, the Hoover Dam, and other must-sees in the aptly-named "Grand Circle" that too many people have never seen. To plan your trip, visit Grandcircle.org, the official tourism site for the region.
8. FUN RIDES We'll be honest: we did the Big Shot at the Stratosphere once and only once, and that was perhaps one time too many (how many near-death experiences do you need in one lifetime?). But if you're a thrill seeker, it's a must. You're shot in the air high above the strip 160 feet in 2.5 seconds, and then you drop. Very scary. There are lots of tamer attractions that could easily occupy you for an entire week, such as the Gondola ride at the Venetian, or the roller coaster at New York-New York. For more sightseeing ideas (and there are more than you can imagine) visit the attractions page at Vegas.com.
9. THE SHOWS MUST GO ON There are now seven Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas (including Mystere, O, Zumanity, Love, and the newest, Elvis). During the week of November 29-December 5, you can buy a package to see all seven for $445, or just two for $160 per person. Also check out one of the Tix4Tonight booths, scattered around town.
10. LOTS OF LOW AIRFARES Best of all from the perspective of an airfare web site, flying to Las Vegas remains amazingly cheap. If you live in or near one of the cities (47 and counting) with Las Vegas service via Allegiant Airlines, you'll sometimes find one-way nonstop airfares for as little as $19 (plus fees and taxes, of course). You'll find a constantly updated list of low fares into Vegas on Allegiant, Southwest and all airlines here.