How to Enjoy Las Vegas Without Losing Your Shirt

We are planning a surprise trip to Las Vegas for my sister-in-law's birthday (if you see her, don't tell her!). Of course, this means that I am looking into ways to make the most of this experience for the least amount of money … or at least make sure that I don't end up blowing way more than I planned.

Traveling to Las Vegas has a couple of unique budget hazards that can result in a lot of unplanned spending. Before you go, make sure you have a game plan for accommodations, gambling, and entertainment "opportunities" that you will encounter in Las Vegas, because these, in particular, can cause you to leave all your money behind in Sin City.

Book strategically

You can get great deals on accommodations in Las Vegas, especially if you avoid dates when major conventions are scheduled and a high proportion of rooms are booked. Check Vegas Means Business for details about conventions and try to pick dates with the smallest number of convention visitors scheduled for the best chance to find a cheap, high-quality room. Also avoid dates of major sporting events that bring out sports gamblers and can spike up hotel rates. (See also: 9 Simple Ways to Save on Hotel Stays)

Gamble smarter

The smartest move is to simply decide not to gamble and avoid losing money. But I decided if I'm going all the way to Las Vegas, I would at least try gambling since it's such a core part of the Vegas experience. Going to Las Vegas without gambling would be like traveling to Napa Valley only to avoid anything that has to do with wine or vineyards.

If you're going to gamble in Las Vegas, there are some things you can do to improve your chances, or at least reduce the amount you are likely to lose and how fast you are likely to lose it.

The math on slots

Slot machines are easy to play, but casinos make most of their money from these machines, not just because of their popularity, but because of the edge to the house on odds of winning. The payback from a slot machine typically ranges from 99 percent of the money that is put in down to 90 percent or less. Looking at this in terms of entertainment value, playing a 25-cent slot machine with a 90 percent payback costs the gambler about $12 per hour on average. Playing a $5 slot machine with the same odds costs about $240 per hour. Slot machines that cost more to play tend to have a better payback than less expensive machines, so you may be able to find a $5 machine that does better than 90 percent payback.

Tables odds

If you want a better chance to win than slot machines, table games have much better odds. If you learn to play, these games have a lower edge to the house of down to around 1 percent:

  • Blackjack
  • Craps
  • Roulette
  • Baccarat
  • Video poker

Looking again at cost per hour to play, let's say you are playing blackjack with $3 bets using a basic strategy with a 1 percent house advantage at 70 bets per hour. That would result in $210 wagered and a loss of $2.10 per hour, on average. This seems much less painful than playing slots!

I plan to practice a little blackjack and try my luck since it has only about a 1 percent edge to the house and is easy to play. Even though I know I'm likely to lose money overall, I want to at least try it for entertainment value. If I win some money, I'll have some great Las Vegas stories to tell.

How to avoid losing your shirt

  • Practice at home first. Don't approach a table to bet if you are not familiar with the game. It is too expensive to "learn on the job."
  • If you decide to gamble, sign up for the player's club to get a card you can use to track your time and money spent gambling.
  • Wear a watch, or at least keep track of the time. Casinos look the same at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., with no windows and no clocks. They want you to lose track of time and keep gambling.
  • Set a maximum budget for gambling, keep track of your losses, and stop if you run out of gambling money. It may be tempting to try to win it back, but stop. Walk away.

Seek out free Vegas entertainment

Another big potential money pit in Las Vegas is the expensive shows and amusement park rides. Before you go to Las Vegas, spending $89.99 for a ticket to see the Criss Angel magic and illusion show may not be a priority. But this can seem like a cost-effective alternative to feeding money to the slot machines once you're there. Or looking at the $89.99 magic show ticket can make that $64.99 ticket to see Penn & Teller can seem like a real bargain.

With all of the expensive things to do in Las Vegas, it is refreshing to have some good options that are totally free:

  • Free volcano eruption nightly at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. in front of the Mirage on the Strip.
  • Three trams provide free transportation on the west side of the strip between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio, Mirage to Treasure Island, and Excalibur to Luxor to Mandalay Bay.
  • Free craps, poker, roulette, and blackjack lessons at the Golden Nugget downtown.
  • Clark County Wetlands Park has 2,900 acres and 15 miles of paved multiuse trails, plus 18 miles of unpaved trails.
  • Fremont Street Experience, nicknamed "Glitter Gulch." Enjoy free music and Elvis impersonators, plus a light show on the hour from dusk to midnight.
  • Pinball Hall of Fame gives you a look at pinball history for free, and you can play for 25 cents to $1 per game.
  • Silverton Casino's Aquarium has tropical fish and stingrays, plus a mermaid show.
  • Marjorie Barrick Museum on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus has two art galleries with Latin American and pre-Columbian works.

When you have your nightly entertainment planned ahead of time, and it doesn't cost a thing, you'll be less likely to be lured to an expensive show.

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How to Enjoy Las Vegas Without Losing Your Shirt

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