How to Spend a Weekend in Vegas for Almost Nothing
Vegas, baby, Vegas. Sin City is a year-round destination for gamblers, convention attendees, bachelor parties and even families who want to spend a few days relaxing in one of the 62,000 hotel rooms that line the Strip. Luckily for would-be Vegas vacationers, all this demand means the city is home to lots of amazing deals.
I went to college in California and graduate school in Arizona, so over the years I've taken my fair share of weekend Vegas trips on a student's budget. You don't have to gamble away your home to get a free room, here are my tips for how to save money in Las Vegas!
You have two choices: fly or drive. The closest Amtrak station is in Kingman, Arizona, and you'll have to take an additional 3 hour and 20 minute bus ride from the train to finally make it into Vegas. If you're within about a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas (think Los Angeles, San Diego, or Phoenix) and you have a big group you can cram into your car, driving is the most economical option. If you drive, you can bring your own provisions which will save you big time on overpriced liquor that's sold at stores near the strip. Of course, driving takes a lot more effort than flying, and the threat of traffic always looms over your trip home.
For flights, I recommend a few options. Southwest Vacations often has great deals on Las Vegas (like our current deal featuring the Aria Resort), and those include flight and hotels. JetBlue Getaways are a similar story, especially when JetBlue is running a fare sale. Flights from West Coast cities to Las Vegas are the once that get discounted most frequently. If you'd rather book just a flight, Southwest and JetBlue are still great options, especially if you can catch them on a sale day, which happens several times a year. Finally, Spirit and Frontier, both ultra-low budget carriers (think paid carry-on and no free drinks), both fly frequently to Las Vegas, and often for less than $50 round-trip.
If budget airlines aren't your thing, you can fly over 30 other airlines direct to Las Vegas. If you have some miles to redeem, Delta, United, and American fly direct to Las Vegas from their major hubs. Most domestic carriers require 25,000 miles for a domestic award ticket, so 50,000 miles will get a couple to Las Vegas for a romantic weekend away. United currently offers 50,000 miles as a signup bonus with its Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card, which could get you all the miles required quickly.
All these domestic airports offer service to Las Vegas
Another option would be to use British Airways miles. Since both British Airways and American Airlines are in the oneworld alliance together, you can redeem British Airways miles on American Airlines (or US Airways) flights. The advantage here is that British Airways does not price award flight by region, but rather, by distance. This means that if you live less than 2,000 miles away from Las Vegas, you will be paying less miles on an American flight with British Airways miles, than if you booked the same exact flight with American miles instead. Use MileCalc.com to see how long your itinerary would be. Just type in the airport codes of your journey, and a one-way and round-trip distance will appear.
Distance-based Awards Chart
This is my favorite subject of all. Since most of my Las Vegas trips have been one or two-night excursions, I've developed a few tools that I like to use to find the cheapest room possible. There are several ways to do this: blind-buy websites, points, and directly with the hotel.
There are two major websites in this category: Hotwire and Priceline. They each operate a bit differently, but the principles are the same: pay less for a hotel's excess capacity in exchange for not knowing what the name of the hotel is when you book. You'll still get a hotel in the area of town that you want, but you may not have the choice of view or bed selection that you wanted.
Now, this may freak many of you out. Why would you ever leave that to chance, especially on vacation? Well, there are tools available for you out there that lets you see exactly what hotel you're bidding on. BetterBidding.com is an online forum that people like us can post what hotel we received when we bought on Hotwire or Priceline. You can search by city, and then look through the forum for hotels that match your potential hotel's attributes. I've used this tool with supreme accuracy in Las Vegas, since many of the Strip hotels are easy to guess.
For example, you're able to choose between North Strip, Mid-Strip, and South Strip hotels in your search on Hotwire, and as room rates are usually very low to begin with, I like to choose a 5-star hotel when I travel to Vegas. When looking at some of the attributes of your particular hotel, pay close attention. If there's no casino mentioned, it's easy to narrow down, because there aren't many hotels in Vegas without one. You're probably booking at the Vdara (next to the Aria) or the Trump (technically off-strip, but a short walk through the Fashion Show Mall to the Wynn). You can pick up on more tricks like that at BetterBidding, so if this is an option you're thinking about for your Vegas trip, check them out.
It used to be that the only free room you got in Vegas was through the casino, usually because you just threw down the title of your home on red. But these days "comps" (as this practice is called) are few and far between unless you're a heavy gambler, and those systems favor the slot machines, which have worse odds than the gaming tables like blackjack. We won't be focusing on the points-earning aspect of any of those programs, but we will show you how to get status with them without gambling a dime!
Hotels that had partnered with loyalty programs used to be few and far between in Vegas as recently as two years ago. When I was in college, the only options were the Planet Hollywood, which was partnered with SPG, and the Las Vegas Hilton, which was so far north on the Strip it wasn't worth looking at. But today, several of the major hotel loyalty programs have joined forces with the casino companies to offer reciprocal benefits, and most importantly, points redemption options.
Hyatt was the first to do so about a year ago when they partnered with MGM Resorts, which owns nearly every hotel on the southern end of the Strip (Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, Aria, Bellagio), as well as some on the north end like the Mirage and Circus Circus. Basically, you'll receive reciprocal status within MGM's "mLife" loyalty program if you have status in Hyatt's "Gold Passport" program. Complete details are here, but we'll touch on a few key benefits of this partnership. For one, you'll be able to redeem Hyatt points at most of MGM's resorts (including the Bellagio and Aria). You can redeem 12,000 Hyatt points for the Luxor on the low end, or 25,000 points on the high end for the Mandalay Bay or the Bellagio.
Furthermore, if you have Platinum Status with Hyatt (which is what you get automatically just for holding the Chase Hyatt Credit Card), you'll receive a room upgrade (with availability) and access to the express hotel check-in and buffet lines (an actual benefit in Vegas, trust me). If you're a regular Hyatt customer and have top-tier Diamond status, you'll be granted even more benefits, like guaranteed show and dining reservations, priority taxi line access, and guaranteed hotel reservations.
Starwood used to be difficult because they have only three branded hotels in the Las Vegas, and only one near the strip. The Westin Las Vegas is located a few blocks off the Strip, but isn't anything special like the mega-hotels close by. Plus, at a Category 5 Starwood property, it will cost you between 12,000 and 16,000 points, depending on the season. With the reasonable rates available at other hotels on the Strip, I don't see much value in redeeming for this property (though it could offer reasonable rates itself). Recently, though, Starwood and Caesars Palace have teamed up to allow reciprocal earning and redeeming in the same vein as Hyatt. Properties like Caesars Palace and the Paris hotels are now redeemable with Starpoints, and soon the W Las Vegas will be re-branding one of the towers of the barely-a-year-old SLS Las Vegas.
Hilton has only one option on the Strip: the Tropicana, which will cost you 35,000 Hilton HHonors points per night to redeem (Hilton points are easier to earn, hence the higher redemption rates). The Elara (formerly the Planet Hollywood timeshares), is also available, but it is off-strip and often not a great redemption value for Las Vegas (same goes for the Hilton Vacation Club at the Flamingo).
Marriott has one of the best hotels on the strip in its portfolio: The Cosmopolitan. At 45,000 points a night, it is expensive, but you do have prime Strip location and one of the most popular hotels in the city.
Direct Hotel Rates
Often, since Vegas has so many hotel rooms, room rates at the resorts on the Strip are reasonable enough not to use points on. I've seen $99 rates at the Wynn in the off-season at times. It's best to check all of the options in this post before booking hotels in Las Vegas!
But How Do I Stay For Free?
Well, if you're already playing the points and miles game, redeem your points on a number of properties mentioned above. If you haven't, consider a credit card product with transferable points. The Sapphire Preferred card offers 50,000 points right now, which can be transferred to Hyatt, United, Southwest, Marriott, and more. If you're spending a short weekend in Vegas, this sign up bonus alone will cover your weekend.
Or, you can always do it the tried-and-true way: bet big on Hard Six on the craps table and get a comped suite from the pit boss. Sometimes, that doesn't work so well, though...