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Las Vegas Travel Tips For First Timers
Getting around in Las Vegas depends on a lot of things, but primarily is dictated by what hotel you choose. Every move you make, every vow you break is centered around where you lay your head at night.
Here are some of the basics you need to know about getting around in Las Vegas:
- When you de-plane at McCarran Airport, you most likely will take a (free) two-minute monorail ride to the baggage claim area, which is about the size of an airplane hangar and a half. You are now one of about 40 million people a year who look for their bags and a way to get to the Strip. Enjoy this ride because this may be the only time when transportation will not dent your wallet.
- The monorail ride will take you near the cavernous baggage claim area, which is roughly the size of the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. There are about 20 carrousels and your luggage could be on any of them. To get to the right one, check monitors at the entrance. If the person updating the monitors is taking a cigarette break, hung over or is ticked off because of an argument with his or her significant other, it may take a while for him (her) to match your flight number with the right carrousel. Feel free to wander around aimlessly while you wait, or gawk at the huge billboard trying to get you to buy tickets to Phantom of the Opera. If you feel like an Italian immigrant at Ellis Island in the late-1800s, you’re not alone.
- Hopefully your friendly airline didn’t inadvertently send your luggage to Cameroon (last year in the United States about 31 million bags, or 1.4 percent, were lost). And most likely you paid extra (that annoying bag fee) for the privilege. Most eventually get back to the right place, but the last thing you need as a Vegas first-timer is the location of the closest Wal-Mart, because who wants to use gambling money to buy clothes!
CONGRATULATIONS. THE HARD PART OF THE TRIP IS OVER. NOW COMES THE MILDLY ANNOYING PART – GETTING TO YOUR HOTEL. YOU HAVE SEVERAL OPTIONS:
RENTING A CAR
- All rental companies are in a single location, several miles from McCarran Airport. Grab what’s left of your luggage and look for the van that has your car rental company on it.
- If you screwed up and didn’t rent a car in advance, just get on the first one you see. They all go to the same place.
- On the ride to the car rental facility, get a few $1 bills from your wallet. If you didn’t take the advice of your next-door neighbor, over packed and find it hard lugging around that 75-pound suitcase, you might need help from the driver when you get there. Toke him a few bucks so you don’t feel cheap. It will also get you used to tipping, which helps feed a lot of kids in Vegas.
- Assuming you’ve made your car reservation online and haven’t left the paperwork on the kitchen table as you ran out of the house in a mad dash to the airport five hours earlier, you can take luggage, paperwork and cranky spouse right to the elevator and up a story to where they actually keep the cars. All the companies have kiosks there.
- If you haven’t made reservations, go to a desk on the main floor and be prepared for at least a half-hour – 15 minutes of paperwork and 15 minutes of the company trying to sell you insurance you don’t need. Then you can take the paperwork upstairs and get your car.
- From the time you turn on the ignition it’s about a 10-minute ride to the Strip. If it’s your first time in Vegas it might be a good idea to pick up the Strip at its most southern point (Mandalay Bay) and then gawk your way from property to property. If your hotel is North Strip, it’s 3-plus miles of stoplight after stoplight. Center Strip, two miles. South Strip, about a mile.
- Unless you are on an air-tight budget, for the love of everything you hold dear, use valet parking. There is free parking at every facility, for the $2 tip, valet is worth the convenience. If you are patience-deficient, call from your room when you want your car and it’ll be waiting for you.
TAKING A CAB
- Cabs are everywhere, especially at the airport. Just look for the signs inside the baggage terminal.
- Most of the drivers are decent people, trying to make a living. But …..
- DO NOT LET THEM TAKE YOU TO THE STRIP BY USING THE TUNNEL. It will add $10 to $15 to your fare. You don’t have to threaten to report them to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office; just ask that they take Tropicana Ave. Typical fares (not including a 20 percent tip): South Strip $12-$14, Middle Strip $15 to $20, North Strip $20.
- Every driver has a ride-from-hell story. A few years back one told me about the cheapest celebrity he had ever driven – the notoriously high-pocketed Michael Jordan. Jordan, the cabbie claimed, told him that just driving him around should be an honor in itself. Jordan, the story went, offered a $2 tip on a $30 ride, but the driver refused the toke out of principle.
- Cabs will drop you off at the front door of your hotel. Make a mental note of this, because this is the only place on the Strip where you will be able to get a cab when you squeeze into those tight pants and dresses and head out later for a night on the town. Cabbies are not allowed to pick up customers on the Strip.
SHUTTLE VAN FROM THE AIRPORT
- Besides hitchhiking, the cheapest way to get from the airport to your hotel is by van. They hold 15-20 people, and the cost is around $7 per person (plus a tip).
- Do some math here. If there are two of you traveling together, it would cost just about the same amount for a taxi, and there is one thing a taxi does that the shuttle might not do, that is . . .
- Take you to your hotel right away. Each van delivers to 5 or 6 properties, and if you’re last on the list, you could be sitting in a van for an hour while the couple you made small talk with at O’Hare was already at the pool sipping on margaritas and checking out the eye candy.
- Getting married in Vegas? Want to impress the hell out of her? You can grab a limo (near the taxi stand) to get you from the airport to the hotel. It’ll set you back about $100, but don’t think that the dark glass between you and the driver will give you an opportunity for a What Happens in Vegas moment. There’s not much time, and you’ll be at the hotel in 15 minutes anyway.
ALL RIGHT. YOU’RE CHECKED IN. NOW WHAT?
- Depends what you’re interested in and how long it’s been since you’ve had solid food, but the best way to get around is by using your own two feet. Leave the heels and dress shoes in the suitcase and throw on sneakers.
- If you do any amount of leg work on the Strip, you’ll notice small people who want to hand you little cards with the photos and phone numbers of very attractive women who would like to welcome you to Las Vegas. These women are not employees of the city’s Visitors and Tourism Bureau. And guys, if you understand two things about your trip, it should be these: 1. Prostitution is illegal in Clark County. 2. Las Vegas is located in Clark County. If you are foolish enough to call up one of those girls on the card and invite her to your room for a game of Yahtzee on your Smartphone, be aware that social diseases that happen in Vegas don’t stay here.
- If you happen to be from Boston, like me, or any other city in which the pedestrians ignore stoplights, be aware that studies have shown that in collisions with cars, people usually come out second-best. Especially people carrying 36 ounces of Heineken beer in their belly. Do yourself a huge favor and don’t jaywalk. Huge signs destroy all sense of proportion on the Strip, and drivers become very impatient due to long stays at red lights and gun it when they can.
- As you walk the Strip, you’ll notice lots of people carrying drinks around, and we’re not talking about Diet Coke. In fact, there are kiosks that will sell you beer and mixed drinks to go. It may freak you out if you grew up in Waukeegan, but it’s legal to drink on the street in Vegas – and you don’t need a paper bag around your beverage. Especially popular are 36-ounce, 18-inch chutes of margaritas, although football-shaped containers of beer are a close second.
- Here’s a tip you can take or leave, but it’s worked for me: Use the 3-to-1 Plan (don’t confuse this with Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan; it’s completely different). For every three beers, which can dehydrate you in the desert, choke down one bottle of water. You’ll find locomotion on the Strip a little more comfortable, especially if the temps are over 100 degrees.
- The Las Vegas Monorail runs on the East side of the Strip from the MGM Grand all the way to the old Las Vegas Hilton (now called LVH). If you don’t like cabs or want to save a few bucks, it’s a decent transportation alternative. But there are a few things to be aware of, namely . . .
- If you’re young, this is not the place to check out hot members of the opposite sex. The clientele is a mix of sometimes-grumpy casino workers and middle-aged visitors.
- Just getting to the Monorail can take time. For example, at the massive MGM Grand it’s a solid 10-minute walk to the entrance from the check-in desk.
- The scenery along the Monorail route is breathtaking, if you like bricks, mortar and employee parking lots. But there is a golf course, which is part of Wynn Las Vegas. It’s available only to hotel guests, and the greens fee is $500.
- It might not be around too long. The Monorail is owned and run by a private company, and has been in bankruptcy. Not extending it from the airport to downtown has been a big mistake.
MONORAIL FROM MANDALAY BAY TO EXCALIBUR
- Mandalay Bay is a bit isolated, but a monorail connects it to the Luxor (big pyramid) and the cheesy Excalibur. Unlike the LV Monorail, this one is free and runs regularly.
- One drawback: If you’re getting on or off at Luxor, the entrance is a bit of a hike from the main part of the casino.
MONORAIL FROM MIRAGE TO TI
- When MGM Mirage owned both the Mirage and Treasure Island, they kept visitors on both properties by operating a (free) monorail between the two hotels. It’s still running, even though Treasure Island was re-branded as TI and then sold to pay some bills during the recession. At the Mirage, it drops you off at the front door; at TI, it’s in the rear of the casino.
- Since crossing the Strip can be hazardous to your health, the city has erected several massive pedestrian escalator overpasses, located every few blocks. This has greatly reduced the amount of hospital visits by tourists. One question: How come when an escalator is broken, it’s always the one going up?
- These overpasses have created somewhat of a cottage industry. Homeless folks find they are great places to hang out because they are city-run and therefore hotel security can’t roust them. And in warm weather, small-businessmen sell water and beer at cut-rate prices.
IT GETS COLD IN VEGAS AT NIGHT
- OK, not all the time. But it is the desert, and between November and April the nights range from cool to cold. If that’s your visit time frame, bring at least a light jacket or sweater.
HOW DO I GET TO THE PLACE THEY FILM PAWN STARS?
- First off, don’t even think about walking there. The Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is located a few blocks north of the Stratosphere, and you’ll go past sleazy wedding chapels and by-the-hour motels. The chances of seeing the Old Man, Chumlee, Rick or Hoss are pretty slim, anyway. If you insist, take a cab.
WHAT ABOUT DOWNTOWN VEGAS?
- About a dozen hotel-casinos are wedged into a two-block area on Fremont Street in the downtown area of the city, about 3 miles from the Strip. If you’re not staying downtown, don’t have a rental and want to check it out, the best option is to bite the bullet and take a cab.
- If you have a rental, there are (paid) parking lots that ring the Fremont Street area and there is on-street parking, but the best option is to valet park and tell the attendant at one of the hotels and tell the attendant you’ve come for dinner. Lie if you have to.
- Once you get downtown, your options are walking (sober) and crawling (not so sober). No cars allowed along casino row, anyway.
HOW NOT TO GET AROUND
Vegas is a very safe city. There is security everywhere, though most of it is not out in the open. Still, there are certain areas to avoid walking:
- North Strip at night. Not much there and it’s a quarter-mile hike from the Riviera to the Stratosphere. If you insist, keep two words in mind: Pepper spray.
- Don’t even think about walking the mile from the Strip to the Rio. It looks close, but isn’t, and you’ll have to navigate without sidewalks and through a major highway interchange. If you think this is something you want to try, make sure your life insurance premiums are up to date. A better option is a free shuttle that runs between Harrah’s and the Rio.
- Avoid the buses. They cost only a few bucks, but they’re really, really slow and make stops every 30 seconds or so. Also, creepy people tend to brush up against you. I took the bus from the Strip to downtown one year. Never again.
- Don’t keep walking around until you see someone famous. They have their own private places where they don’t have to mingle with you and me. In 17 trips I’ve seen only three celebrities – Sinbad (in the airport monorail), Ben Stiller (at the Monte Carlo while he was filming the movie Dodgeball), and Steve Schirrippa (Bobby from the Sopranos), at a bar at the Paris. Elvis impersonators don’t count.
10 MORE OBSERVATIONS ABOUT VEGAS
- On the Strip, everything is further away than it seems. Big signs make locations appear a lot closer than they really are.
- If you don’t mind moving around a little bit and exploring, you never have to do things twice
- It’s dry. Duh, take away all the hotels and it’s a big desert. Drink some water. If you’re a Global Warming denier, spend an August afternoon in Las Vegas.
- If you get the urge, get off the Strip. You’ll soon realize that Vegas is a working city, with schools, police, firefighters, retail workers.
- Don’t bring your kids to Vegas, unless they’re over 21. Vegas is what it is, and it’s not a place for children. Suck it up and head for Disney World if you have young kids.
- Locomotion along the Strip can sometimes be slow, especially on weekend nights. Be patient. You’ll get where you’re going. Enjoy the people watching as you inch your way along the sidewalk.
- If it’s your first in Vegas, it won’t be long before you experience your first OMG moment. I once saw a man dressed as Tinker Bell and . . . well, let’s leave it there.
- Take it easy. Your body needs more than three hours of sleep a night. A little Vegas goes a long way. Try to squeeze in 7.5, even if it’s 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
- Avoid the Bellagio Fountain water show if you are under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Sensory overload.
And finally, on the flight home– plan your next trip.Las Vegas, travel tips
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