A reader recently asked about planning a trip to Las Vegas as a special treat for her husband:
"I'm planning a surprise trip to Las Vegas for my husband's 70th birthday and wonder if you have any advice for me. It will be the second or third week in August, and since he usually does all this Internet stuff, I am looking for some suggestions. I'm thinking a Sunday or Monday to Friday junket."
I normally do not use this space to answer individual trip questions, but Las Vegas is such an important destination that some ideas might be welcome to a lot of other travelers.
This response is aimed at someone who plans to fly to or from Vegas. If you drive, you can stop reading now. I also assume that for a special occasion you'll want to splurge a little, here and there, and not look for the lowest possible cost.
My reader is already ahead of the game in specifying a midweek trip. Vegas is still a weekend-peak destination, and you'll generally enjoy both lower costs and less crowding if you can visit midweek. Of course, midsummer will almost surely be furnace-hot, but just about everything is air-conditioned.
Obviously, you'll want flights that best suit your home airport – nonstops, if at all possible, and at convenient times of the day. For a real splurge, you might fly first class, but those fares are so high that it probably isn't an option unless you're an exalted frequent flyer with access to upgrades. So you're probably stuck in coach. And if you have a choice, five airlines stand out as top choices:
- If you live near Boston, Los Angeles, or New York, JetBlue flies nonstop to Vegas with by far the best coach product of any domestic line. It also offers pretty good connections from smaller communities in the Northeast.
- If you live near Denver or Milwaukee, nonstops on Frontier offer a "Classic Plus" package with increased legroom, checked baggage, and a bunch of minor benefits at reasonable cost – a worthwhile splurge.
- Southwest flies to Vegas from lots of cities. It provides a reasonably good product and doesn't charge anything for two checked bags each.
- United also flies to Vegas from lots of cities, and its Economy Plus seating, with extra legroom, is a good splurge.
- Allegiant's product is pretty poor, but it flies to Vegas nonstop from places other airlines ignore, including our reader's home near Bentonville, Arkansas, and my home airport of Medford, Oregon. But it typically flies only two or three times a week, usually timed for stays of three, four, or seven days in Vegas, but not five or six. And schedule times may not be the best, either: The return flight to Bentonville leaves Vegas at the ungodly hour of 6:40 a.m. In general, if Allegiant's schedule works for you, its fares from its small cities are usually better than any other line's, and it offers some pretty attractive air-and-hotel packages. But watch out for all the fees – including several "opt out" choices that, presumably, it will have to stop doing once the new DOT rules on airline advertising go into effect.
Where to Stay
For that special occasion, you will really want to stay at one of the giant casino hotels on the Strip. Fortunately, you can find elegant accommodations on the Strip for a fraction of what similar accommodations would cost just about anywhere else. These days, the folks who keep track of such things continue to rate Bellagio as Vegas' top accommodation, but other very highly rated spots include Four Seasons, Mandalay Bay's "The Hotel" tower, Wynn, and the Venetian. Think large rooms – many double the size of a typical hotel room – plus all the other stuff you expect from a giant Strip hotel.
Chances are, you'll have a tough time scoring a really good deal at Bellagio: August rates on Expedia start at around $300 per night. But you can find rates in the $150-$200 a night range at a handful of the Strip's other five-star hotels, any of which would rate as a splurge. If you're willing to take pot luck, Hotwire currently shows several five-star options in August for less than $100 per night, and I doubt that you can go wrong with any of them. You might do well with Priceline, too. And several Allegiant air-and-hotel packages also offer five-star options for less than $150 per night.
What to Do
You'll certainly want to take in one or more shows while you're in Vegas. Several websites provide information on what's showing and sell discounted advance tickets. Among them: LasVegas.com, Vegas.com, Lasvegasshows.com, and Showslasvegas. If you prefer to wait until you arrive, several booths along the Strip sell discounted show tickets. And the casinos provide a lot of free entertainment, as well.
For restaurants, you'll probably want to refer to TripAdvisor, the Zagat Guide, and Fodor's restaurant coverage. In my experience, buffet meals at the giant hotels are a great deal, but "feature" restaurants can be expensive.
Las Vegas offers all sorts of other activities, from golf (great courses, but it's hard to beat the heat), swimming, and a long list of sightseeing tours. If you haven't seen it, Hoover (Boulder) Dam/Lake Mead is a must, and a longer excursion to the Grand Canyon's South Rim makes a great day trip.
Even though your hotel will offer more than you can possibly do, you'll want to circulate among the others or even venture into the older downtown area. The easiest way to navigate the strip is on the "Deuce" public bus that plies up and down the Strip 24/7, every 12-15 minutes most of the day and evening. A two-hour ticket costs $5, but $7 buys you a 24-hour pass, and $21 covers three days. The Las Vegas Monorail is maybe more fun than the bus, but it covers less of the Strip, is a bit less accessible and costs a bit more.
For Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and the Grand Canyon, you can find lots of day bus tours. But if you feel the same way about sightseeing buses as I do, you'll rent a car for the day. Otherwise, you certainly don't need a car – or its associated parking charges – for your stay on the Strip.
You can make all these arrangements pretty easily through the various online sites you usually use. Keep in mind, however, that many online travel agencies do not display Allegiant and Southwest fares.
Depending on how much of a "surprise" you want this to be, make sure your husband (and you) have all the documents you need to get through airport security.
It's hard to imagine that anyone who visits SmarterTravel or sends me emails "doesn't do all this Internet stuff." Arranging a trip like this virtually requires getting online, and if you aren't comfortable making travel arrangements that way, enlist the help of someone who does. Either that or get to a good travel agent. Those are really you only practical options.