People visit casinos to win. But the immutable mathematical laws of gambling ensure that most players on most visits will lose. This creates an odd dilemma for the casinos: if the majority of customers aren’t getting what they want most, how do you keep them coming back? The answer in Las Vegas: with bargains! It works.
Las Vegas visitors don’t seem to mind losing at the games if they can just get a little back in some other way. Think about what your friends say when they get home from a casino trip. “Sure I lost, but let me tell you about the great steak and eggs we ate for two-fifty and all the Heineken we drank for a buck a bottle.” We’ve listed 15 such bargains - by which we mean real bargains, jaw-dropping values, sensational lures that have staying power and aren’t just temporary promotions. Here they are, in ascending order of importance, ending with the biggest bargain of all (#1):
15. Steak Dinner, California Hotel-Casino, $3.99
This deal is actually more about novelty than quality. There’s just something special about being able to go home and brag about eating a complete steak dinner for $3.99. (It’s called the “graveyard steak” if you want to talk the talk.) Las Vegas used to have several such offers, but this complete dinner - which comes with salad, potato, vegetable, and rolls - is the last of the breed. It’s served daily from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. in the coffee shop at the California, downtown.
14. Complete Chicken Dinner, El Cortez Hotel-Casino, $8.95
Roberta’s is a classic example of a Las Vegas “bargain gourmet” restaurant, where prime rib and porterhouse or New York steaks are served for under $11 and a complete chicken dinner goes for $8.95. One fly in the ointment (no, that’s not a dish on the menu): this one isn’t for the faint of heart. The El Cortez is located on the outskirts of downtown and hence attracts a rougher crowd.
13. Clam Chowder, Palace Station Hotel-Casino, $3.99
One thing Las Vegas is not known for is oyster bars; given the number of restaurants, there are surprisingly few. But one adjacent to the Broiler steak house at Palace Station serves a big bowl of chunky red or white clam chowder for $2.95. It comes with a basket of sourdough rolls, making it a meal in itself. Also recommended is the seafood-packed bouillabaisse for $17.99 and clams or oysters on the half shell for $9.99/half dozen. A tip for vegetarians: one of Las Vegas’ finest salad bars is served next door in the restaurant ($8.99/lunch, $12.99/dinner). The bar is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily and til midnight on weekends.
12. Souvenir Photo, Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel-Casino, Free
Get a free souvenir photo of your Las Vegas vacation at this famous downtown casino between 4 p.m. and midnight and have that photo taken in front of a glass-encased display of one hundred $10,000 bills. That’s the most compact million dollars you’ll ever see. The bills have been displayed for nearly 40 years, making this one of Las Vegas’ enduring values. Indeed, regular visitors get their pictures snapped every time they’re in Las Vegas to keep running and accurate memories of each pilgrimage.
11. Prime Rib, Jerry’s Nugget Hotel-Casino, $8.95-$29.70
Some 60 Las Vegas casinos serve prime rib specials. The best in terms of quality and choice is Jerry’s Nugget (N. Las Vegas Blvd., a couple miles north of downtown), which has three cuts to choose from. The $8.95 cut is a standard eight to 10 ounces, leaning toward the higher. It’s good, but for an extra $5.90 you can step up to an enormous 28-ouncer that’s two-plus inches thick. Then there’s the $29.70 “spectacle” prime rib, the one that elicits “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from everyone in the restaurant when it’s served. It’s listed on the menu as the “double cut,” but a more apt description is the “Fred Flintstone cut” (remember the dinosaur bones that tipped Fred’s car in the old TV series?). Not many people will finish this big three-plus pounder, so get it for the spectacle...or the leftovers.
10. Lounge Show, Orleans Hotel-Casino, Free
Lounges put Las Vegas entertainment on the map. But since their heyday in the early ’60s, many have closed or relocated, forced to yield precious space to the omnipresent slot machines. The great lounge tradition has been kept alive by a few casinos, however - and best of all by the Orleans (on W. Tropicana). Nightly beginning at 9 p.m. and running until as late as 3:00 a.m., this lounge smokes with some of the city’s best acts. Look for the Nelson Brothers, Shoe Suede Blues, and best of all, Danny Hooper and the Honky Tonk Heroes. There’s no cover and no drink minimum, though the cocktails go for a low $1.25 to $3.50 if you want them. Two other top choices are the lounges at New York-New York and the Desert Inn.
9. Steak Dinner, Gold Coast Hotel-Casino, $8.95
This one’s for those who are both frugal and hungry. Served 24 hours a day in the coffee shop at this locals’ casino just west of the Strip on Flamingo, this is simply the best value for a steak dinner in the entire city. It includes a monster 16-ounce T-bone accompanied by a dinner salad, potatoes, onion rings, baked beans, and garlic bread, all for $8.95. It even comes with a glass of draft beer. You must be at least 21 to order this one.
8. Ham and Beans, Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel-Casino, $4.49
Another mainstay at the venerable Binion’s Horseshoe is the snack bar. There are two of them, in fact-one in each wing. Both serve great homemade chili and turkey sandwiches sliced from freshly roasted birds. But the master value here is the $4.49 Chef’s Special - a bowl of ham and beans, along with a big slice of corn bread. Every morning a huge batch of beans is prepared and served around the clock until the supply runs out (sometime the next morning). It’s a different bean every day - navy, lima, pinto, red, sometimes black-eyed peas - and the stew is chunked up with whole pieces of ham. There are Las Vegas locals who literally live off this meal.
7. Funbook, Palace Station Hotel-Casino, Free
Roughly a third of Las Vegas casinos still give away funbooks, which can contain discounts on anything from drinks to trinks (as in trinket souvenirs). The best funbook in town comes from Palace Station. It has a $2 discount for the casino’s good Feast buffet and a ticket for a free margarita, frozen or unfrozen, your choice. But the main sizzle is its assortment of gambling bonuses. The bonuses, usually paid on winning bets, are sufficient to overcome the casino’s advantage on the games. Using all the coupons in the Palace Station funbook results in an average player profit of $12, of which $5 is risk-free in the form of a cash bonus for a $20 slot buy-in (you don’t have to play it).
6. Slot Play, Harrah’s Hotel-Casino, Free
Coupons in funbooks are mighty effective, but have you ever dreamed of gambling with complete impunity? You can. In order to promote its Total Gold slot club, Harrah’s lets you play slots or video poker with a guaranteed refund of losses up to $100. The catch is that you have to play for at least one hour. But if you stick to the 25[cents] level, it’s hard to lose more than that $100, while the sky’s the limit on the high side. You must be a new member of the Total Gold Club, so don’t sign up at another Harrah’s (there are now several of them around the country) unless it’s offering the same deal. Not only is this free money, it’s an introduction to one of the most potent bargain strategies for Las Vegas visitors: joining slot clubs.
5. Sirens of Ti (Pirate Show), Treasure Island Hotel-Casino, Free
Las Vegas has embraced the phenomenon of the free spectacle, which began with the famous Mirage volcano and now includes sky parades at the Rio, dancing waters in the Sam’s Town atrium, a pair of high-tech animatronic shows at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, and downtown’s Fremont Street Experience. They’re all worth seeing, but none compare to the Siren of Ti’s pirate battle at Treasure Island. The theatrical quality of this swashbuckling, cannon-firing, powder-keg-exploding show that pits a pirate schooner against a British Navy frigate (the pirates always win) is a mini-notch below a full-fledged stage production. The show plays several times a night every two hours starting at 6 p.m., weather cooperating. For the best viewing, stake out a spot at the north end of the veranda of the Battle Bar 45 minutes early. Another good viewing locale is the plank bridge between the ships, as close to the frigate-side rope railing as possible (get there at least 30 minutes prior to show time). Young children love the pirate battle; if they’re bothered by crowds, watch from the sidewalk across the street. Note: This is pick-pocket paradise; batten down your hatches.
4. Steak and Eggs, Arizona Charlie’s Hotel-Casino, $2.79
The best breakfast in a town overrun with breakfast specials is the $2.79 steak and eggs served in the coffee shop at Arizona Charlie’s (an off-Strip casino located on Decatur Avenue). A four- to six-ounce sirloin, cooked to order, comes with two eggs, potatoes, and toast. If you don’t want the beef, you can opt for a big bone-in-ham steak instead. Either way you’re getting a man-sized breakfast for the price of a small glass of orange juice in the Strip coffee shops. Better yet, this deal is offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you can usually find a seat at the counter when lines are long.
3. Buffet, Fiesta Hotel-Casino, $4.99-$8.99
The value of Las Vegas’ famous all-you-can-eat buffets is so high that even the most modest could make the Top Twenty. But there’s no need to settle! The emergence of the “super buffets” over the past half decade has spawned a food fight so ferocious that the casinos are on the verge of running out of improvements. The Fiesta’s Festival Buffet, with more outstanding features than any other buffet in town, occupies the top spot in the Bargain City buffet hierarchy. The nightly lineup includes Chinese, Mexican, and Italian food stations; a Mongolian grill; and the incredible fire-pit barbecue where you can get pork or beef ribs, rotisserie chicken, brisket, ham, turkey, shredded pork, shish kebab, smoked sausage, or baron of beef. On specialty nights you might find sashimi, poke, and poi (Hawaiian night); or raw shellfish, fried clams, and gumbo (seafood night). For a finishing touch, the Fiesta has a one-of-a-kind serve-yourself coffee bar. Breakfast is $4.99, lunch $5.49, and dinner $7.99, except on specialty nights when the price tops out at $8.99. Kids 4-10 receive a dollar off, while those 3 and under eat free. The best alternatives (all similarly priced) are the buffets at Main Street Station, Texas Station, Sunset Station, and the Reserve. The Rio’s buffet is also excellent, but priced about $3 higher per meal.
2. Accommodations, the Orleans Hotel-Casino, $35-$89
Lodging is where the greatest Las Vegas bargains lie. It’s hard to go wrong regardless of where you stay, but the best combination of low price and high quality is found at the Orleans. In stark contrast to the spartan furnishings and unimaginative layouts of most casino hotel rooms (they’re cheap, not fancy), each standard room at the Orleans has a big TV; sofa-centered sitting area; roomy closet and bathroom; and a window in the shower. They’re also bigger than the Las Vegas average by nearly 100 square feet. Weekday rates at the Orleans float between $35 and $89, with the lower rate available about six months out of the year. Weekends usually run $50 to $159. The reason for the good prices is a relatively large room inventory (840) combined with an off-Strip location. But what most visitors (and travel agents) don’t realize is how close to the Strip the casino really is, only about a mile away on West Tropicana Avenue. The casino itself has good restaurants, a bowling alley, movie theaters, a kids’ care center, and the city’s hottest lounge (see #10). Hint: Ask for an east-side, Strip-facing view.
Another benefit of the Orleans’ misinterpreted location is a high rate of room availability, even during busy times. But in case you get shut out, here are a few more go-to places for rooms. Your best bet for a good room-and-show package is the Stardust or the Flamingo. Both are located right on the Strip (ask if they’re running a package special). Two sleepers downtown are the Golden Nugget and the Lady Luck, the latter often among the lowest priced during weekends. Sam’s Town and Boulder Station on Boulder Highway offer great value if you don’t mind being about five miles away from the Strip action.
1. Shrimp Cocktail, Golden Gate Hotel-Casino, 99 cents
Talk about staying power: the Golden Gate downtown has been home to the best shrimp cocktail in Las Vegas since 1959, when it cost 50[cents]. It remained half-a-buck for more than 30 years, until the price was raised to the current 99[cents]. The Golden Gate serves nearly two tons of shrimp per week in old-fashioned sundae glasses (not plastic cups). There are no cost-reducing lettuce or celery fillers; just shrimp (over 100 of the little Bay variety at last count) and the Golden Gate’s “secret” cocktail sauce. For larger appetites, a cocktail with bigger shrimp has recently been introduced for $2.99. Both are available around-the-clock in the deli at the rear of the casino.