Over the past 2+ years, I’ve been to Las Vegas, probably 5 or 6 times. It’s served both as a main destination and also as a stopover for my journeys exploring the western continental US, as well as, Hawaii. As such, I’ve stayed at a bunch of hotels on the Strip, seen the sights, ventured the area, and had a lot of fun in the process. My first time there back in 2016, I was utterly clueless, about what to expect, do, or even what hotel resort I should stay at.
Now that I know better, I want to present a guide for first timers, on where to stay and what to do while in Las Vegas. It’s tough for beginners, because while they know of Las Vegas’ reputation, it can be difficult to discern what is hype and what is worth doing on and off the Strip. Well, here’s a good place to start. I will cover what to expect, how to plan, where to stay, and what some good activities are to do while in town.
Knowing What to Expect
I’ve met a lot of people who have told me that they hate Las Vegas, while others have said that they love the place. For me, I really do enjoy being there, every so often and never have a bad time.
Now, why is that? I think that it stems from the fact, that I know what to expect, and gravitate towards things that I like while in town. I don’t get drawn into the hype or how people think you have to spend a vacation in Las Vegas. I know that I’m not really into going to night clubs anymore, so I don’t make it a focal point, of my stay. I might still go to one, if it makes sense (I’m hanging out with people who are going), but it’s apart of the flow of an evening.
Folks will complain that it is ‘fake’, very commercial, and not a genuine experience. Gee, what gave it away, the giant phony Eiffel Tower? Or was it the giant corporations, who own the hotels, and want to make a lot of money?
However, they also ignore the fact that due to its location, Las Vegas is perfectly situated to go explore natural wonders like Death Valley National Park, Red Rock Canyon, Grand Canyon, etc.
Plus, it’s all centered around entertainment, which isn’t the most ‘genuine’ of mediums. It’s about having fun, not a religious experience.
You don’t have to gamble in Las Vegas. You don’t have to party. If that’s what you’re basing an entire trip on, fine, but don’t complain that you feel empty about it later. All because your party nights, didn’t go as well as the vision in your head, said that they would.
My best trips in Vegas, were more balanced ones. I went to shows. I gambled some. I partied for a night. Did random things on the Strip. I ate good food. Kicked it at the pool. Then, I went out and explored nature.
I hit the beats, that I wanted to hit, and never tried to force some epic night to happen. Sometimes, you hit a club or bar at night and it sucks. Sometimes, it’s great. That’s how things work.
Just know ahead of time, there are going to be aspects of being there that you’re going to probably dislike. Other aspects, you may well love. Decide what kind of trip you want to take ahead of time and then just roll with it. Change things up if need be, but let go, and actually try to enjoy yourself.
Where to Stay
The first time in Vegas, you’ll probably want to stay at a hotel on the Strip. That’s generally what people want to explore the first go round. It makes everything much easier, just walking or taking the monorail, instead of having to drive back and forth or taking an Uber/cab.
The first things that I will cover, are what you should consider when booking a room in Las Vegas. Then, I’m going to give some suggestions on what hotels to stay at, and how I find the best rates.
When are You Going and What’s On Sale?
Once you have your travel date nailed down, it will be simpler to select a resort to stay at, if price is the main factor. While in general, certain higher end properties are more expensive, this isn’t always the case. For example, I’ve gotten a room for cheaper at Caesar’s Palace (upper middle end to high end hotel), than I would have at the Excalibur (lower end) during the same time period.
Is this how it’ll be most of the time? No, but this sort of thing can happen quite often.
Much of how much you’ll pay for a room in Las Vegas, depends on what is happening in town, at that time. Sometimes, conventions are in full swing, and even cheap stays can jack up their rates to hundreds per night. Other times, you can pay $50-60 (with fees and taxes) and have a great mid-to-upper tier place to stay.
You can also consider any incentives that are being given away to stay at a place. Lots of properties will give out $50-75 worth of food/drink/activity credit and when combined with a rock bottom rate, it can be substantial savings.
Your credit card may also have incentives and partnerships with hotels. For instance, certain American Express cards will have deals, with a few choice Strip properties. I have booked a stay at both the MGM Grand and Mirage through Amex. Now, each time their rates were cheaper than usual, but with Amex I also got a free room upgrade and $75 in credit.
Essentially, for a lower than usual rate for a standard room, I got a mini suite and 2.5 meals at the buffet during my stay. It was great, not having to spend anything on food for a couple of days, during my trip!
Driving or Renting a Car?
Are you driving or renting a car? Some properties now charge money for using their parking decks, during your stay. Consider this as a factor and possibly book a hotel that has free or cheap parking, if need be.
Vegas is fun, but it is designed to take your money. If you plan ahead, you can mitigate that to a large extent, and have a blast on the cheap.
Take Fees into Account
This has become pretty standardized up and down the Strip, but some places do have cheaper resort fees than others. The advertised price that you see, is not what you’ll ultimately pay.
You see, hotels tack on what they call resort fees, and this costs an extra $25-35 each night. So, while you may think that $100 a night room looks like a great deal, it will cost you more. Please factor this in, if you’re on a budget.
Staying off of the Strip and the resort fees will come down, but if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in that area, the transportation back and forth will cost you as well.
What time of the year is it? The pools in Las Vegas usually close during mid-autumn and stay that way, through winter. However, if you arrive during the rest of the year, the pools will be open. So, if you’re looking to spend some days poolside, try to book a resort that has an amazing pool complex. They aren’t all the same.
If bringing kids along, understand that, some hotels have pools that are more orientated to adults. Hard to tell a kid, that he can’t go swimming, because there’s an over 21 party happening at the pool. Also, if it is winter, this is a non-factor so you don’t need to get lured into an expensive property who’s big selling point is its outdoor complex.
What Hotel Resorts to Book?
Obviously, this is all going to depend on a bunch of different factors and preferences. As I’ve already written, the time that you visit can determine a lot about the price you pay, and where you stay if that is a major factor.
I will usually go with the cheapest place available, that I know is decent…since I’ve stayed at so many of these hotels. Nowadays, I usually go to Vegas with a purpose in mind, and might spend more time in my room than I used to when I wanted to explore the Strip.
However, I’m going to give some recommendations about where to stay. First, I’ll cover properties, at any price. Then, I give some of the better affordable options. I’m just covering the standard rooms here. Yes, certain properties have crazy high end suites and bungalows, but you usually need to make a special reservation with them. Plus, way beyond the scope of this post, and my experience haha.
I will try to post videos or pictures of places that I’ve stayed in, if I have them available.
The Venetian– Designed to be a replica of Venice, Italy? You bet. I love this hotel, from the Canal Shoppes with its own St. Mark’s Square to the Gondola’s and the amazing art (as seen above). Beyond that, there are a ton of restaurants from cheap to upscale, nightlife, and outstanding rooms.
Aria/Vdara– I stayed at Vdara once in their Panoramic Suite. It was a really spacious and nice room, but I wish I’d gotten a higher floor, so the panoramic windows would have really been worth it. Anyway, this shares a lot of the same facilities as the Aria does, and the rooms there are both more high-tech and quite exquisite.
Other Spots to Consider
Caesar’s Palace– Caesar’s can straddle the line between mid range and upper range price. It really depends on the date and which type of room, you go for. They do have the really high end suites, but also completely affordable bookings as well. This was the first hotel that I stayed at in Vegas and one that I still enjoy. Nobu is also a boutique hotel, that is actually inside the Caesar’s property, which I’ve heard great things about.
MGM Grand– Another property that spans the spectrum from affordable to insanely decadent. You can get a standard room for under $100 most of the time, as MGM Grand is utterly massive. There are cheap food courts, more upscale restaurants, and Hakassan Night Club. You can also book a stay in the Skylofts, if you have a group, or just want to break the bank.
Luxor– The Luxor is the pyramid shaped and Egyptian themed hotel, that was built back in the 1990s. While it is affordable, some of the rooms are outdated (and smell like it), but if you can get a renovated room; it is worth the usually affordable cost. I have also booked a suite there for less than what it’d cost for a standard room, at a slightly more upscale Strip property. Here’s a video walk through I did of that room:
Westgate– Westgate is an off-strip property. However, it has a monorail stop on its property, and it is only a 10-15 minute ride to anywhere on the Strip. It usually caters to an older crowd or conventions (it’s next door to the LV Convention Center), but when it isn’t booked, you can score seriously cheap rooms here. Plus, the rooms are bigger and better than the other cheap options on the strip. I’ve stayed here for $55 per night with all resort fees and taxes included.
Westgate doesn’t have that same party atmosphere, but can be well worth a look, when it’s cheap. Here’s my room tour:
Treasure Island– I stayed here for a night once, and I have to say, this place was kind of wild. My flight out of Las Vegas was delayed and then cancelled, but during that time I played on the Wheel of Fortune slot machines at the airport, and won hundreds of dollars. I booked it last minute for a good price and just partied on premises to celebrate my good luck.
Since it is affordable, it does tend to cater to a younger crowd, both college-age to mid-twenties and families. Overall, I thought it was decent stay.
Treasure Island has a nice position on the Strip, right near the Fashion Show Mall, and it has a Walgreen’s pharmacy available through the casino. That is actually a big plus, because you can pick up supplies, like water for much cheaper than in the casino owned stores. I also had a great time at Senor Frogs for that one night, plenty of booze, and women.
It’s another 1990s hotel, but it was nice for what it is:
Flamingo– Oh, the Flamingo. It is the oldest hotel on the Strip, but has been renovated numerous times, and the location is utterly perfect. Center Strip. Close to almost everything and cheap to boot. Property wise, it doesn’t have the most things to do, but it was clean and a great jumping off point. It is right next to the High Roller Ferris wheel, with all of the shops and restaurants on the promenade. The pool is actually really great, too.
Linq– Right next to Flamingo, not a lot to do, and the pool is pretty darn small. However, The Linq is a great place to crash, if you don’t have a lot of money and want easy access to the rest of Las Vegas Blvd. The room that I had was updated and really great for what I paid. Spoiler: it was really cheap. The Linq, is a solid option if you just want a room, and don’t need all of the frills.
How to Book Your Hotel
The two best sites that I use to book Vegas hotels are Trivago and TripAdvisor. Trivago got me that awesome deal for the Westgate, last minute. I like that one because it aggregates a bunch of different travel booking websites into one easy to use results list. I can simply find the cheapest place for my dates and be taken to the best offer.
I also use TripAdvisor, as I can find alternate results from Trivago sometimes, and get an even cheaper rate. Plus, book tours and tickets.
I’ve also used American Express to get those upgrade deals, which is useful if you have those cards. However, utilizing the hotel’s own websites are also great. Sometimes, they’re not the cheapest, but this is where you can get free resort credits and special offers.
Getting to Your Hotel
From McCarran Airport to a Strip Hotel is probably going to run you $18-30, if you take a cab. Uber and Lyft are a bit cheaper, I generally use this service.
However, my first time in Las Vegas, I booked a shuttle bus ahead of time and it was in the $10-12 range…if I remember correctly. It took longer, as other riders got dropped off at their hotels before me, but it wasn’t too bad at all.
Things to Do in and Around Las Vegas
I haven’t gone to a ton of shows over the years, since it’s not always my thing. However, I do occasionally have an open evening, and want to be entertained.
The one show that I’ve seen that I will totally recommend is Love by Cirque du Soleil. It’s the performance set to The Beatles’ music. I had zero expectations for that show going into it, am only somewhat a Beatles fan, and it was one of the best things I’ve seen.
The Cirque performances are great, there are multiple shows to choose from, and you can usually find discounts ahead of time.
What show did I not like? David Copperfield. Way overpriced. Repetitive illusions. Left it very underwhelmed.
Sights and Exhibitions
High Roller– Yes, the giant Ferris wheel, seen in the picture up towards the top of the page. If you want spectacular views of the city and surrounding area, this is the best option. Plus, your ticket gets you drinks at the bar, inside of your capsule during the ride up and back down again.
The Eiffel Tower, at Paris Hotel, is another option. But it doesn’t really compare to the views you get with the High Roller. You only need to do one and that’s the better of them.
Shark Reef– As far as wildlife exhibits go on the Strip, it is between the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, and the Dolphin/Big Cats at The Mirage. For me, the Shark Reef is the better of the two, with some great views in the tunnels of sea life. Tickets are around $20 for adults.
Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art– This is another option, but is highly dependent on whether you like art, or what is being exhibited there at the time. I visited the Bellagio Gallery, during my first visit to Vegas, and they had a really outstanding European art exhibit at the time. You can also go to the hotel’s gardens and walk around, which is quite nice.
Titanic Artifact Exhibit– This one is at the Luxor and costs about $35, but if I remember correctly also gets you access to the Human Bodies exhibit. This is a really well done historical exhibit, which displays artifacts from the sunken Titanic, and tells the story about the people who perished. I wasn’t expecting much, but I actually really enjoyed learning, and seeing everything that had been recovered.
Walk Around Each Hotel Property– It’s kind of general, but each hotel has its own unique thing, and sometimes limited attractions. You can walk around New York, New York to see their version of the city. Ride a roller coaster. Then, be at a really high end shopping center like the Crystal Shops, within 10 minutes.
Honestly, my first time in Vegas, I walked around the Strip a whole lot so that I could see all of the architecture and do all of the random things that are offered. Obviously, do plenty of other things, while in town but this can be a fun way to spend time.
Get off the Strip
One thing that a lot of people visiting Las Vegas for the first time overlook, is that, there is a ton to do off of the Strip and out into the surrounding area. The southwestern United States is geographically, an amazing place.
It is a great change of pace to get away from the casinos and craziness that is Las Vegas Blvd., and out into nature. This can come in the form of half day, full day, or even multi-day trips.
For the first time visiting, consider whether or not you’ll be in this area again, and how many days you have to schedule activities. For me, Las Vegas has become a jumping off point for exploring the rest of the western US. I live where there are constantly cheap direct flights and I sort of use Vegas as a hub or stopover to my next destination.
Freemont Street and Downtown Vegas
Go take a look at the older Las Vegas and take in some of the sights, bars, and experiences out away from the Strip. It can be cool to take an evening away from the resorts and get another side of this area.
Red Rock Canyon
If you want a simple half day trip idea, you can spend a morning exploring the beautiful Red Rock Canyon. It’s only about 30-40 minutes from the Strip and is home to some absolutely stunning natural beauty.
If you have a rental car, you can drive out there yourself. If not, there are tours available which last 4-6 hours, and will take you to all of the highlights of this place. I did a tour with Pink Jeep to Red Rock Canyon and had a wonderful time. It was a smaller group tour, with a knowledgeable guide, and pick up/drop off from my hotel.
You can go hiking or even book horseback riding tours of the area.
Admittedly, I didn’t wake up in time to go on the Grand Canyon tour, that I had purchased. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I have lost hundreds of dollars, from not waking up for various tours in various cities over the years. Why, yes, I am an idiot.
That being said, I’m still including going to the Grand Canyon, as a part of this list.
Death Valley National Park
This is a full day trip and the next one that I’m going to do (assuming I wake up), when I go to Vegas again. You can of course drive to the park for yourself, but if you want to take a full tour from Las Vegas, just know that it’ll run $200+.
Other Day Trips
- Hoover Dam
- Valley of Fire
- Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
- Zion National Park
Beyond all of that, there is of course still a ton of shopping and gambling to do, if you’re into those things. Pretty much every hotel property has their own extensive shopping experience, from the extremely high end Crystal Shoppes, or the more affordable options at some place like Fashion Show Mall.
At nighttime, you can take in a show. If not, head to a restaurant, cruise the Strip, visit a unique bar or lounge, and party the night away…if you’re so inclined.
Las Vegas is the type of place where you can probably find something to do, at almost any hour of the day, on almost any day of the year. If you’re looking to go for a visit, make sure you plan ahead somewhat, and have an idea about what kind of trip you want to have. Leave room to try new things also, but winging it, can lead to a bad time as much as it can an outstanding one.