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mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}As my 30th birthday approached in February, I knew I had to address a serious oversight in my life. Despite eight trips to the United States, I had NEVER been to Las Vegas. I’d always been attracted by the bright lights and party scene but somehow, I just kept flying straight to the east coast.
I was determined to make amends. My boyfriend and I had a three week trip planned to California, so it was then or never. We booked our flights to Las Vegas in the neighbouring state of Nevada and just a few months later we boarded the one hour flight slightly hungover on Valentines Day.
It’s true. There are slot machines at the airport and there’s no shortage of limousines, newlyweds or party-goers. Something in the air made me want to drink and gamble immediately. We collected our baggage, caught a cab to our hotel (US $10) and were playing Blackjack within hours. The next three days were a wonderful, surreal and tipsy experience.
Everyone needs a weekend in Vegas at least once in their lifetime. Here’s my crash course on how to do it:
Las Vegas couldn’t be any easier to navigate. There’s “The Strip” – a long stretch of hotels and casinos where the majority of tourists go and “Downtown” – which is the old part of Vegas. For a first-time visitor, stay on the Strip for the classic Vegas experience. One block back isn’t the same!
WHAT TO DO
This one’s obvious but did you know casinos give you free drinks while you play? Bottled beer, spirits and wine were hand-delivered at our request, even when I was on a $1 slot machine or just watching my boyfriend gamble. Be sure to tip waitstaff at least $1 per drink. Each venue has its own music, performers and atmosphere and it’s all basically open 24/7. Be prepared to lose track of time because there are no windows. Even if betting isn’t your thing, walking from hotel to hotel and putting a few bucks in a slot-machine is still an experience. Gambling was actually a fun way to meet other people too.
2. Walk The Strip
Whether you’ve lost your winnings or just need some fresh air, walking along the Strip is a fun way to spend a few hours. The hotel exteriors are impressive and the atmosphere of other happy (and occasionally drunk) tourists is pretty lively. You may or may not be offered a stripper. Be sure to head to the Venetian Hotel on your stroll and check out the interior. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s like you’re actually in the streets of Italy! Walk the Strip again at night to see all the hotels lit up. It’s incredible.
3. Fountains of Bellagio
When my boyfriend said we had to watch the Bellagio Light Show, I was skeptical. But it was gorgeous! We watched the 10 minute display outside the Bellagio Hotel at night and it was fantastic. The atmosphere was quite romantic and there were plenty of other tourists equally in awe. The show is free and happens every 30 minutes during the afternoon and every 15 minutes at night so it’s easy to check out anytime.
4. Grand Canyon
My boyfriend surprised me with a sunrise helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon for Valentines Day and an early birthday gift! We went with Sundance Helicopters who were really professional and friendly. A limousine picked us up from the hotel at 6.30am and took us to the airport. Once we (and about a dozen others) had checked in, we met our pilots and got in the helicopters. There was an awkward moment where we thought we’d be sharing our helicopter with a heavy smoker but a quiet word with staff meant we were able to switch helicopters last minute and fly with a couple who didn’t reek of cigarettes.
The views on our 45 minute flight to the Canyon were incredible and really made me appreciate how much Vegas was a city in the desert. The moment we actually flew into the Grand Canyon was unbelievable – I wanted that sensation to last forever but in reality, it was only 15 seconds or so. Upon landing, we had time to take it all in with photos and a champagne breakfast pack of pastries, granola and yogurt. Unfortunately my dairy allergy wiped out half of it, so give staff a heads up if you’ve got special dietary needs. But mostly, my boyfriend and I just stood in the Canyon in awe.
I really wanted to hike or explore once we were there but after about 40 minutes, it was time to fly back. A limousine returned us to our hotel and it was all over by noon. It felt like a dream! The trip was about 4-5 hours all up and cost around US $450 (AUD $620, based on 0.72 cent exchange rate). Is it worth it? Yes – if you have the money. But if you can’t splurge on your visit, Vegas is still worth going to. Chances are you’ll even catch some of the Canyon on your flight in or out.
Even if you don’t want to spend money, you’ve got to at least walk through the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. It’s stunning! If you want to indulge, you’ll find a great range of stores including Barneys, Banana Republic, Coach, Pandora, Steve Madden and Kate Spade New York. Here’s the full store directory.
I never miss a chance to stock up on American brands and our trip to the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets didn’t disappoint. We spent about three hours here, shopping sportswear like Nike and Asics along with staples including Steve Madden, Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, GAP and American Apparel. The mall is modern, mostly outdoors and only a short, 10 minute Uber ride from the Strip. Bonus: you can see downtown Vegas on the way!
There was an Urban Outfitters and Sephora next to our hotel too.
6. See a Show
During our visit, Britney Spears was in town and there were heaps of other shows including Stomp and a few musicals. I’d never seen a live magic show so we splurged on two tickets to David Copperfield (US$240 / AU $340). It was a huge disappointment. He had great reviews but I couldn’t follow some tricks and others were so tech-laden it didn’t feel magical at all. I’d recommend heading to a same-day show discount seller on the Strip. There were a few booths and plenty of shows on offer.
There’s no shortage of restaurants in Vegas! I guarantee any cuisine you want is there. We had gorgeous Mexican along the Grand Canal at Canonita, Chinese at P.F. Changs in our hotel and even a boozy 2am dinner at Gordon Ramsay BURGRs. We didn’t have a bad meal once and it was all pretty affordable too. Especially when you’ve been knocking back free drinks (but tipping!) in the casino for a few hours.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at Planet Hollywood for three nights, which was perfectly located in the centre of the Strip. Our Hip Room (AU $170/night) had a king bed, massive bathroom and sensational views of the Bellagio Fountains. Breakfast was included and came in the form of a $10 Starbucks voucher per person each day that could be used anytime. It proved really handy for times we slept in or just wanted fruit and coffee to go. We liked the Hollywood theme throughout the rooms and casino, as opposed to other accommodation which had a more European vibe or catered for an older crowd.
Overall, I LOVED Vegas and have vowed to return for my 40th birthday with as many friends and family as I can! It really is mind-blowing how an entirely man-made city can thrive in the middle of a desert on entertainment, booze and tourism. Despite its representation in movies, Vegas was really good value and far cheaper than a comparative three night stay in New York. If you haven’t been and you love a good dose of consumerism, make sure Vegas is on your list!
QUESTION: What’s your Vegas travel tip for first-timers?