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Don't gamble on transportation

Advice and tips for navigating Las Vegas
Image: Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino
Your best option for getting around The Strip is walkingSteve Marcus / Reuters
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

There’s good news and bad news about getting around Las Vegas. The good news is that what you will most want to see and do is confined to a four-mile stretch of road known as The Strip. (Las Vegas Blvd. South, to the city planners.) That’s where you’ll find the volcano, the pirates, the showgirls, the best restaurants, the roller coasters, and more than enough slot machines to eat up your entire life savings. The bad news is that’s where everyone else is going to be, so going up and down that four-mile Strip is not always easy. And by “easy”, we mean “fast”.

First, though, you have to get to The Strip. If you are planning on spending more than a day or two in Las Vegas, strongly consider renting a car, assuming you aren’t driving there in the first place. Yes, traffic in this city is a pain, but that’s no different than in any other major metropolis, and the advantages to having your own transportation may balance it out.

That brings up the second bit of bad news about sticking to The Strip. Although that’s where the bulk of the action is, there’s still plenty of lot of terrific things to see and do  away from the neon palaces of LV Blvd. South. If you’re planning on any exploring of the city, you’ll have greater ease to do so in a rental car, and in the long run probably save yourself some money over taking cabs everywhere. Parking, both self and valet, is free and plentiful at every major hotel and attraction.

Not everyone agrees on the value of your own transportation. Richard Sullivan, who reports on traffic for a variety of Vegas news outlets, including television station KVVU, says the increase in the number of tourists and business travelers has outpaced the ability of the city and county to build enough roads to handle them all. This leads to terrible traffic tie-ups on and around the Strip on virtually every night of the week, but especially on Fridays and Saturdays.  Although the city is working on ways to alleviate the problem, he says for now getting around the area on your own may not be worth effort.

“Other forms of transportation such as cabs, limos, and buses are probably the easiest way for tourists to get around during their visit,” says Sullivan.  “My advice: let someone else do the driving, be patient, play lots of slots and have fun while you're here!”

Your own set of wheels

If you do decide to rent a car, you should take some time to investigate the short cuts to hotels in and around The Strip. Frank Sinatra Drive just opened in 2003 on the west side of The Strip and allows drivers to gain access to the rear of most of the hotels on that side of the street like New York-New York, Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay.  That road connects to Industrial Road, another terrific alternative to driving The Strip during heavy congestion.  On the east side are Audrie Road and Koval Lane, both of which offer back doors into hotels like Paris, Harrah’s, The Venetian, and others, although on busy weekend nights these streets are just as jammed as The Strip. Consider yourself warned.

Letting someone else drive

If you’d rather not put pedal to the metal—or behind the wheel in traffic, whatever—there are alternatives. Start by grabbing a cab or a shuttle bus just outside the baggage claim area at McCarran Airport. Don’t worry about calling in advance – they are always there, although at peak times there may be a line to get transportation. Shuttle buses run from the airport to the major Strip hotels, Downtown, and a few other places around town. They cost anywhere from $5-10 per person depending on your ultimate destination but are only available for transportation to and from the airport.

Cabs are usually in plentiful supply no matter where you go - certainly at every hotel and near most off-Strip restaurants and major attractions. Hailing a cab here is easier than it is in New York City, land of a million cabs.  Just be sure to budget enough money for taxi fares, which can add up quickly. The current going rate is $3 to start and then $1.80 per mile, turning a quick jaunt to the Liberace Museum into an expensive journey that could run you $30 round trip with tip.  It’s these kinds of numbers that dramatically underscore the value of renting a car (at a cost of possibly less than $30 a day), especially when you could be dumping that $30 into a slot machine instead.

Other options

Your best option for getting around The Strip is walking, which you may feel the need to do anyway after indulging in those all-you-can-eat buffets.  But it is quite a hike from one end to the other, especially when the weather is not cooperating, so that means you will often need to seek out other means of transportation.

First on your list will be the Las Vegas Monorail, scheduled to open in March of 2004.  For $3 one-way, you’ll be able to ride from the MGM Grand on the south end of the Strip all the way to The Sahara at the north end, with stops at Paris, Bally’s, The Flamingo, Imperial Palace, Harrah’s, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Las Vegas Hilton in between.  This is going to a major boon, especially for business travelers, but only if it goes where you want to go.  There are a lot of places on The Strip, and certainly throughout the rest of the city, that the monorail doesn’t go, so you shouldn’t view this as a transportation panacea. There are plans in the years to come to extend the monorail to Downtown Las Vegas, the airport, and down the other side of The Strip behind hotels like Bellagio and Caesars Palace but it won’t be any time soon.

In the meantime there are a few other people movers to fill in some gaps.  A free monorail connecting Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and Excalibur, and a free tram between Mirage and Treasure Island.  A third line between Monte Carlo and Bellagio is closed while construction occurs at the latter hotel but officials say it will probably reopen in 2005.

You can also take advantage of the indoor walkways that connect several Strip properties including Mandalay Bay to Luxor; Luxor to Excalibur; and Bally’s to Paris. These are especially helpful on those hot summer days when walking from one hotel to the next can be an unpleasant adventure.

There are, of course, city buses, but the service in this city is widely considered to be among the worst in the nation, especially on the busy Strip routes.  Buses are notoriously late and overcrowded and wise travelers avoid them unless they have absolutely no other choice in the matter.  If you find yourself stuck with it, the routes to look for are #301 and #302, which run the length of The Strip and into Downtown.  The fare on these routes is $2.00 per person, 75 cents more than the normal fare elsewhere in town.

You can also try the Strip Trolley, a bus-like conveyance that isn’t much better than the city’s system, though this is dressed up to look like old-time street trolleys. Whether that’s worth the aggravation is totally up to you.

Several off-Strip hotels and attractions also have shuttle buses that run to their properties. If you’re interested in visiting a specific place, check their website or call to see if they have shuttle service.

Deciding which form of transportation is going to work best for you depends a lot on the time of year you’ll be visiting, what kind of budget you’re working with, and how much energy you’re willing to expend walking or sitting in traffic. The further good news is once you get to where you’re going you’ll have so much to do you may never want to leave.