When riverboat casinos and Native American casinos started to open in the early 1990s, some Las Vegas operators feared the possible threat to their businesses.
They turned out to be no threat at all. Las Vegas continued to grow, and before long the conventional wisdom soon turned to regarding newer gambling jurisdictions as training grounds for players who would want to sample all Las Vegas has to offer. Chicago remains Las Vegas' largest fly-in feeder market - although there are far more customers from Los Angeles, a four-hour drive away.
Every month, I hear from readers asking for advice as they plan trips to Las Vegas. For some, it's their first time. Of late, I've heard from several who refuse to pay admission to enter Illinois casinos and plan to save the money they would have spent on frequent trips to the boats and barges and splurge on a venture to Las Vegas instead.
For those planning trips to what remains casino gambling's capital city, I offer a few general pieces of advice:
**If you're on a budget, check out the older resorts: You'll pay a high price to stay at the new megaresorts such as the Venetian or Bellagio. But you can stay nearby and visit at a fraction of the cost. Older casino hotels such as the Tropicana, Flamingo Hilton, Barbary Coast and Stardust need your business.
A check of the trip planner in the monthly Las Vegas Advisor newsletter shows that in July, rooms on weekends are going for $159 a night at the Venetian but are just $50 a night at the Barbary Coast. The Barbary Coast is near the center of the Strip, an easy walk to the Paris, Bally's, Flamingo Hilton, Harrah's, Bellagio, Caesars Palace, the Mirage, Treasure Island and, yes, the Venetian. You can choose the less-expensive rooms and still dine at the restaurants, see the shows and gamble at the glitzier resorts.
Same deal on the south end of the Strip, Las Vegas' new hot spot. The surroundings may be more glamorous at Mandalay Bay, but the Tropicana has a great pool, rooms that are much less expensive, and it is just a walk across the pedestrian bridges to MGM Grand, New York-New York and Excalibur, a stone's throw away from Luxor and Mandalay Bay.
**For the best deals in gambling, get off the Strip: First-timers are going to want to see the Strip, home of fairy-tale castles (Excalibur), dancing fountains (Bellagio), the glory of Rome (Caesars Palace) and all the spectacles that go into this playground for adults. Heck, even those on their 10th or 50th or 100th trips can be awed by the Strip.
But when it comes to gambling, well, it seems Strip operators have reached a collective decision they want tourists and gambling novices, not players who actually know the games. Blackjack tables that pay only 6-5 instead of the standard 3-2 on blackjacks, poor video poker pay tables and low slot payouts abound on the Strip. Oh, there are good games to be found, but by and large, the gambling is now better in Illinois and Indiana than it is on the Strip.
For the really good games, the single- and double-deck blackjack with good rules and the full-pay video poker games, you have to get off the Strip. The games have rules or pay tables more favorable to players downtown on Fremont Street or at locals joints such as the Palms, Sam's Town, the two Fiesta locations and the Stations casinos. Locals are pickier than tourists, and the casinos that cater to locals usually offer the best deals.
**Use a player rating card every place you play: Maybe your play will bring you cash, a free meal or two, or a reduced room rate, and maybe not. But if you don't get your play rated, you'll get no comps. Let comps accumulate at the resort where you're staying.
Charge meals to your room. At the end of your stay, ask a host to check your play and see if the casino will take care of some of the room and meal charges. At other places you play, collect comps as you earn them - nothing wrong with a lunch comp as you do a little casino hopping.
On the subject of comps, you'll get the most from casinos that need your type of play. If you're betting the big bucks, any casino will take care of you. But if you're playing quarter video poker or nickel slots, you're more important to some casinos than to others - think the California, not the Mirage.
**Take advantage of free valet parking: I like to take the Strip in segments - park at a north Strip resort and walk to the Stardust, Frontier, Sahara, Riviera and others, or park in the center of the Strip and walk to Caesars, Harrah's, the Mirage and others. Put aside a couple of bucks to tip the valet on the way out, and I'm in the front door for the start of my trek. It beats the parking garages by a mile. Literally.
**Drink plenty of water: Las Vegas is desert country and it's easy to get dehydrated. When the waitress comes around with the free drinks, make at least some of yours bottles of water. And when you go out for a walk up the Strip, take a bottle of water with you. Those massive resorts on the flat desert land are farther apart than they look, and on a hot day you'll need to replenish the fluids you lose on your walk.