Lessons from my 40th in Vegas

Chances are that you have been to Vegas or that you want to go. Or that you have been and you want to go again. I was lucky enough (get it, “lucky”?) to head across to the fabulous gambling capital of the world for my 40th birthday with my lovely and understanding wife. She even agreed to leave the kids at home.

There is an overwhelming amount of things to do in Las Vegas and therefore a lot of different ways you can spend (or lose) your money. We learned plenty, and when you travel to the other side of our huge planet, stay for a week and then turn around and return down under, there is bound to be some wisdom to impart. At least I hope so.

See some sport

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The United States are the best at doing sport, they know what the fans want and how to put on a remarkable show. After we landed and checked in we set an alarm for 6pm, had a short nap and then headed along to cheer for the UNLV Fighting Rebels, immersed in some serious college basketball action. And it was epic. We caught an enthralling home-team overtime win against Boise State on the night we were there at the famous Thomas & Mack Arena. For me to sit there (jet-lagged) and look up at the 1990 NCAA Championship banner along side the retired numbers of NBA players whose cards I collected as a kid (Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony) was rather special. With that sort of firepower all the same age, it is no wonder they won the national tournament that year!

…when you travel to the other side of our huge planet, stay for a week and then turn around and return down under there is some wisdom to impart.

Ice hockey in the middle of the desert? Absolutely! As great as the college basketball was, it was nothing compared to the NHL game. I’m not sure anything is like pro-sports in Vegas. When the NFL’s Raiders arrive look out. This was a bucket-list moment for me, twenty-five years in the making and the epicenter of our entire trip. My beloved Calgary Flames were in Vegas to face off against the reigning Western Conference champions, the Golden Knights. The two teams occupied the top placings in the standings heading into this match up. It finished 2-1 in favour of the home team but I was just engulfed by the experience and full of enough adrenaline to get over the loss. Especially considering… you know? We were in Vegas!

Downunder Dad waited 25 years to see his Calgary Flames live. (Credit: Downunder Dad)

Go Dutch

If you are Australian like us then definitely get yourself an ING bank account which waives all international ATM fees. The withdrawal costs are sometimes over US$10 just to get your cash, especially along The Strip. Isn’t that insane?! I am sure other countries (and other banks) have equivalent deals, it saved us hundreds of dollars. Well worth investigating.

Be flexible

You cannot do everything that you have planned. Your days will be busy and your nights will be hectic. We only scratched the surface of the stupidly optimistic to-do list I developed before we departed. I was reading blogs, watching YouTube and listening to podcasts. Here is a look at my actual pre-departure list:

Golden Knights NHL Game * (Personal sporting nirvana)
Poker Tournament at Mirage * (Adrenalin fueled fun)
Pinball Hall of Fame
Moorea Club Heated Pool
Neon Museum
Absinthe Nightclub
High Roller Observation Wheel with Bar
Bellagio Fountains Show * (Iconic, as described)
Foundation Room, Rooftop Terrace at Mandalay Bay
College Basketball at UNLV * (Well worth while)
Gospel Brunch – Mandalay Bay * (Stunning surprise packet)
eSports at Luxor * (Underwhelming and uninspiring)
Junipers at Park MGM
NY Taxi Roller Coaster * (Spectacular, shaky views)
Monday’s Dark Comedy Club
Mirage Volcano * (OK, not great)
Flamingos at The Flamingo * (Majestic and alluring)
Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens
Carrot Top

Container Park * (Average and atmosphere-less)
Slotzilla Zipline * (Un-frickin-believable)
Big Ern’s BBQ * (Authentic novelty)
Binions Casino – Free pic with $1m

Poke Express – Genuine Hawaiian
Mirage Buffet – Beer & Wine included
Peppermill Restaurant * (Nostalgic, old-school Vegas)
Secret Pizza Place
Rhum Bar at Mirage * (Everything heavenly)
Wicked Spoon Buffet
Tacos El Gordo
Velveteen Rabbit
Herbs and Rye
Beer Park Rooftop Bar
Hash House a Go Go

H&M Shopping – Caesars Palace * (Meh, wife happy)
Makeup Shopping and Service * (Meh, wife happy)
ESPA at Vdara
Outlet Mall * (Time consuming bargains)
Gun Range (yep on my wife’s list, not mine!)

That’s the extensive list that we had with us while we were sipping champagne on the big red kangaroo (Qantas), headed for the US of A. Rather long eh?

I’m not sure anything is like pro-sports in Vegas. When the NFL’s Raiders arrive look out.

What I will now do is go back over the above list and add an asterix to the items that we actually did get around to doing. It comes to a total of 16 out of 39, or just 41%. Like I said, you won’t get to do everything.

Just for fun, let’s see if I can describe each of the things we did with just three words or less. I’ve gone and done it and you have most-likely already read it, moving on.

Get your “Gospel” on

Stunningly astounding. Via our MyVegas app and MGM membership we scored a buy-one-get-one-free ticket to the House of Blues Gospel Brunch at Mandalay Bay and it was bonkers. The food was extraordinary, the best we had in Vegas. But beyond that was the show and the music. The talent on display was a delight, a privilege to see in person. Leave all of your preconceived ideas behind, this show is for everyone (including kids), just get yourself along for a gorging of Gospel love and some seriously great grub.

The talent on display was a delight, a privilege to see in person. Leave all of your preconceived ideas behind, this show is for everyone (including kids), just get yourself along

I will forever tell anyone who will listen that this is the best use of your time and money in Vegas. Can you tell I enjoyed it?

Quality, comfortable shoes

I am sure you want to look your best in Vegas, but make sure your style priorities overlap with some capable footwear. My wife’s FitBit told us that one day we WALKED over 32 kilometers, that’s nearly 20 miles. We averaged over 28,000 steps per day. Do not skimp when it comes to your feet.

Stay on the strip

Just like with real estate, when it comes to your home base, your Vegas hotel HQ, absolutely no doubt location is the key. Stay as close to the middle of the strip as your budget will allow. It is worth the extra money, particularly if you are visiting for sight-seeing purposes and less for the budget draining, grown-up gambling games.

The Bellagio in all of her nighttime glory, stunning. (Credit: Downunder Dad)

For your reference the middle of the strip, in my estimation and opinion, is the intersection of South Las Vegas Boulevard and East Flamingo Road, basically the Bellagio fountains.

"It just takes some time,
You're in the middle of the ride,
Everything, everything will be just fine,
Everything, everything will be all right..."
- Jimmy Eat World, 'The Middle'

There are compelling cases to be made for staying at old-school Vegas, otherwise known as Fremont Street, and we very seriously considered it. However, I believe that this is a recommendation better suited for those tourists who live a little closer to Nevada than we do.

Fremont Street is old-school Vegas. Definitely visit, don’t be tempted to stay there. (Credit: Downunder Dad)

My opinion is that if you need to board an international flight to get to Vegas then don’t muck around, stay where the chaos lives. There is plenty to see around Fremont Street, but there is a whole lot more along The Strip.

What is your number one tip for people heading to Vegas?
Simply comment below.

Spend your money while awake

We all want to stay at the Cosmopolitan and have an outdoor balcony view of the Bellagio fountains, it would be amazing and look radical on Instagram. However, like many things in Vegas “it’ll cost ya” – plus tax, plus tip.

Remember you are in Las Vegas! How much time will you be spending in your room anyways?

Bally’s, The Flamingo, Planet Hollywood, Harrah’s and The Jockey Club all have great deals at different times with the same mid-strip position benefits, for a much more reasonable price. Spending less on your room gives you more money for play time.

With all of the options available, competition among the properties is constantly fierce, and you will find the one that suits you. In many instances you can even go ahead and book a hotel room knowing that if the price drops or you see a crazy deal elsewhere you can cancel for free.

I will forever tell anyone who will listen that this is the best use of your time and money in Vegas…

If I went back to Vegas for a third time (and I am not sure I ever will) these are the hotels I would strongly consider, in a rough order of personal preference – and like Twitter using an explanation of less than 280 characters to explain why.

6. Tropicana
Personal favouritism. I think she is gorgeous with friendly staff and a clean vibe. Not the worst location near MGM Grand and New York, New York.

5. Mirage
Great poker room. Rhum Bar out front is a stunner. Good quality Vegas times had by all, wherever you go around this property.

4. Caesars Palace
If you are going to pony up the fancy dollars, this or Cosmo would be my picks. Caesars has it all, especially if you love pools and nightclubs and shopping. Who doesn’t?

3. Cosmopolitan
Outdoor balconies overlooking the Bellagio fountains, say no more. To be honest I found the property very full of noisy and nosey passers-by (like us), but if crowds are OK by you, everything else will blow your mind.

2. Park MGM
The Strip’s newest resort when we visited (the old Monte Carlo building) was Park MGM, and we loved it. Eataly is a brilliant idea, alfresco-style indoor dining that resembles an Italian marketplace. We frequented Eataly nearly every single day of our visit, best gluten-free pizza ever! Proximity to the arena for all events. A real surprise.

1. New York, New York
This just suits our style. We had more meals here (and drinks) than anywhere else. Duelling pianos, tex-mexican, cocktails, decent coffee, drinks specials, oh and a roller coaster. Take my money you delicious yankee bastards! Great spot.

…you wouldn’t really consider Trump International would you? If so, I am not sure we can be friends.

Conversely, to keep the balance, these are The Strip hotels that I would overlook, regardless of price. Ready? Drumroll. Do not stay at Circus, Circus or Hooters or Treasure Island or SLS or Excalibur. If you would like to know more, just contact me directly and I will elaborate on the negativity in private.

Also you wouldn’t really consider Trump International would you? If so, I am not sure we can be friends.

The Cosmopolitan showing off all her multi-level crowded chaos. (Credit: Downunder Dad)

Look the likes of MGM Grand, Bellagio, Wynn, Paris and The Venetian are all fine I am sure, it is just for me, for the value, I would gravitate towards the others mentioned. I personally spent over twelve months shopping for our hotel deal and was tempted by plenty, but mostly the six listed above.

Beware of Mandalay Bay and The Stratosphere, both are fine hotels full of novelty activities like a wave pool and an observation tower with rides on top, respectively. I have spent plenty of time in each of them during multiple Vegas visits. However, they are far away from the action. Often they have great deals which can be tempting, but I categorise them as great places to visit, if you find the time to venture that far out.

No regrets

The older I grow the more it becomes apparent that adults just love to behave like children, freedom is intoxicating. During your time in Vegas you will be leaving your worries and responsibilities at home, like we did along with our kids!

If you want to spend US$1,000 on black jack in one sitting then go for it. If you want to smoke weed at 10am while walking around outside among the crowds of tourists then go for it (that’s legal in Nevada). If you want to try every buffet on The Strip and then slam shots of Tequila until you vomit, then go for it. If you want to frequent strip clubs and sex shows and even sex clubs then go for it. If you want to play penny slots until the waitress gets to know your name then go for it.

Just be safe, be respectful, be polite, tip appropriately, be friendly and don’t be a wanker.

In Summary

Las Vegas is more expensive than it used to be, our visits were ten years apart and things have changed during that decade. The main difference is the weaker Australian dollar, this affected everything we did. It hurt our bank account.

The view from The Bellagio, gazing across The Strip to The Flamingo, Bally’s and Paris. (Credit: Downunder Dad)

Nevertheless, there is nowhere on earth like Vegas baby.

Overall we had a fantastic and memorable experience, apart from one night. On one particular evening I was a little too fantastic and things became a little less memorable. Vegas won and I lost. Which brings me to our final lesson…

“Free” drinks are dangerous

Our lovely cocktail waitress at Casino Royale looked like a Brenda, so we called her Brenda, she had no idea why and fair enough.

We spent over two hours playing craps and tipping her a dollar for each drink she brought our way. We chatted and made friends with the dealers, staff, security officers and other players. I was drinking vodka and dry at a rapid rate, much quicker than my wife was downing her gin and tonics. We were having a great time.

In the US standard shots of spirits are at least twice the size of those in Australia, I forgot about that, oops. I certainly remembered when I eventually emerged the next afternoon – extremely hungover and next to a furious spouse.

Oh shit, what had I done?! I did not even remember leaving the craps table and here I was at 3pm awakening in our sun-drenched hotel room. I apologised immediately for… well whatever I did.

As it happens the main thing I did wrong the evening prior was… disappear.

My wife went to the bathroom and specifically told me where to stand and wait. When she returned I had vanished. She grew quite panicked and I was nowhere to be seen. She was concerned for me but also found herself alone in Vegas at something-o’clock-in-the-morning and miles from the sanctuary of our hotel.

She was concerned for me but also found herself alone in Vegas at something-o’clock-in-the-morning and miles from the sanctuary of our hotel…

After a frantic and rather extensive search in the vicinity of my last known location, she had to decide. She concluded it was best to cross Las Vegas Boulevard so she could hail a taxi south, directly to The Luxor which is where we were staying. Hoping that at some point over the next 24 hours she might find me again.

As she pressed the button to cross the busy road she saw me, there I was drunk dancing to a lonely busker, trying to sing and tipping him more than he probably deserved. I was so happy to see her I gave her a big… nothing. I got no love, I got whacked and shoved into a taxi. I was in the best mood (apparently) having a great night. My wife was not in the best mood.

Despite all this she still went downstairs and grabbed me a bacon and egg bagel for my hangover, I couldn’t even eat it. All’s well that ends well I say.

Some people just can’t handle Vegas.

Brenda’s name was actually Lisa!

Downunder Dad: Independent, Aussie and Personal undefined

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