Las Vegas on the Cheap? You Bet.
Bused and Nearly Busted in Vegas, Where Even the Tofu Is Magical

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

$669.66: My vacation budget. How far will it travel? With any luck, maybe more than 2,000 miles.

Where does my money go? To Vegas. But in a good way, not a baby-needs-a-new-pair-of-Manolos way. For $484.17, I nab a nonstop, round-trip flight from Reagan National to Vegas, with two nights at the MGM Grand, the Old Hollywood-themed casino resort on the southern end of the Strip. I save at least $65 by booking this Orbitz package, which leaves me with more money to see Vegas my way (nature and shows before slots and debt). My imaginary accountant gives me a proud pat on the back. $185.49 left.

Darn, I have to pay rush-hour Metro fare ($2.55) to National, but -- bonus -- the fare is reduced ($1.35) for the return. I keep this small victory to myself. $181.59 left.

Outside the Vegas airport, I stand wistfully next to a man with a limp pompadour who orders a limo for his group. I slink away like a street urchin and ask about the bus. At $1.25, public transportation is cheap, but I am warned about its frequent stops. Instead, I opt for a shared-ride shuttle, which costs $12 round trip and drops passengers off at their resorts' doorstep. $169.59 left.

After tossing my bags into my 18th-floor room (obstructed views of the casinos and snow-dusted mountains), I head to the bus stop. My destination is Springs Preserve, an environmental center a few miles northeast of the Strip. While standing around for the No. 203, I find a $4 coupon for the preserve in a visitors booklet, a small reward for this Godotesque wait. After about 20 minutes, the bus arrives, and I hand over a buck-twenty-five. $168.34 left.

On the bus, a local offers me a valuable piece of unsolicited advice: Each ride costs $1.25 (no free transfers -- boo, hiss), but a full-day pass costs only $2.50. I drop another $1.25 into the collection box. $167.09 left.

I am losing more time than money with this bus-capade. For the second leg of this journey (I have to make a connection), I stand in the wrong direction for the right bus number. Cold from the desert chill, I buy a coffee and a roll from Starbucks for $1.98. "The bus is coming at 3:07," shouts an employee as I trundle to the correct stop. It is now 2:45. I wonder if taxis cruise these parts. $165.11 left.

I almost kiss the first staff member I see at the 180-acre Springs Preserve, a serene slice of nature amid retail blight. First, I am so happy to have finally arrived. Second, the admission is usually $18.95, but thanks to a holiday special, the rate drops to $8 after a certain hour. (The coupon cannot be combined with the holiday rate.) I am told to hang for five minutes. This time, I wait with pleasure.

The facility relies on themed hiking trails, an eight-acre botanical garden and a variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits to teach visitors about the Las Vegas Valley. I start my tour at the Origen Experience, a learning center that resembles a video arcade imagined by Al Gore. I play a computer game called "You Don't Know Dewey," in which an animated droplet quizzes me on water-related topics. After guessing wrong on such questions as "True or false: On Sept. 3, 1970, a hailstone the size of a watermelon fell in Kansas?" (True? No, false. It was the size of a cantaloupe. Jeez, Dewey.), I realize how ill-acquainted I was with Dewey.

It isn't all fun and games, of course. I do walk away with some tidbits that would impress a roomful of water conservationists: Washing machines use 40 gallons of water per load, older toilets consume 3.5 gallons of water per flush, a one-minute shower drinks up two gallons. I feel dirty for being so clean. In the outside exhibits, I'm able to fill my cute-animal quota (that certainly wasn't going to happen on the bus): a gray fox curled up like a kitten and two cottontails standing on hind legs, ears alert and white tails twitching.

On the way out, I swing into the gift shop and browse recycled items transformed into enviro-chic wearables: a tasteful bracelet made of a silver fork and a pearl, a tote constructed of old billboard panels, a little black bag made from tires. Upstairs at the Wolfgang Puck cafe, the menu leans toward gourmet comfort foods, such as black truffle turkey pot pie. I'm tempted to settle down with a bowl of butternut squash soup and listen to the serenading three-piece band stationed in the corner. But then that little accountant in my head starts crowing, and I set off for the bus stop. $157.11 left.

I try, I swear I do. I walk up and down the darkening street and cannot find the proper bus stop. I can see the blindingly bright lights of the Strip (who couldn't?), but the distance is too far for this pair of feet. Then I spot a cab idling in a driveway and hop in. The fare is $20, but I savor every click of the meter. $137.11 left.

My body is screaming for an $80 white ginger lily sugar rub or a $70 aromatic hot oil scalp massage at the MGM Grand spa, but instead I downgrade my desires to a $10 gym pass. Runner-up prize: a granola bar, an apple and a bottle of water, available to all fitness center guests. I squirrel away the granola bar for leaner times. $127.11 left.

With my package, I received a $25 food credit, applicable to the majority of MGM's esteemed restaurants. The discount is not valid at either of Joël Robuchon's eateries or Emeril Lagasse's New Orleans Fish House, but I can still sop up the vittles at Michael Mina's Nobhill or Seablue, Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak or Wolfgang Puck's Bar and Grill. When the dinner bell rings, however, I'm craving Japanese food and steer my appetite toward Shibuya. The menu is a fanciful read of sushi, sake, teppanyaki, Wagyu beef and other specialties, but my eye falls on the cold tofu plate at the "market price." M/P for lobster, sure thing, but for tofu? The waiter explains how the chef flew to Japan to sample different types of tofu, settling on this creamy variety, which is exported to Vegas on a limited basis. Hence, $22 for an ice cream scoop of bean curd. (For some greenery, I pair the tofu with a quartet of seaweed salads, and for good karma, I add a $6.50 tip. So, my total bill comes to $19.21.) Though some might balk at the price, the presentation alone is worth it: The bowl of tofu is surrounded by a bed of black rocks, with a tuft of grass and an orchid fueling the illusion of a miniaturized Japanese garden. The dish emits a soft white mist from, as I learn by digging around, dry ice. It was a Zen riddle solved with chopsticks. $107.90 left.

And for dessert, a cup of Haagen-Dazs mango sorbet for the overpriced fee of $6.41. But I bow to the sweet tooth. (This is also my evening's entertainment, as both MGM clubs -- Tabu and Studio 54 -- are closed for the night.) $101.49 left.

Tix4Tonight, a discount ticket outlet on the Strip, posts its day's offerings at 9:30 a.m. At that hour, a small crowd already has converged around the displays scrolling the shows and reduced prices: "Jersey Boys" for $116, Cirque du Soleil's "KÀ" for $122.30, "Mamma Mia!" for $41.25, Gregory Popovich's Comedy Pet Theater for $17.50. After scanning the board and jotting down my picks, I join the line outside, where we pass the time by swapping show critiques, dinner recommendations and grumblings about the wait. Tickets go on sale at 10; 12 minutes later, an employee announces that "Blue Man Group" and "Phantom of the Opera" are sold out. "There are four locations, and the stuff goes like pfft," he says, demonstrating the tickets' disappearing act with the fluttering of his hand. "Make sure you have two or three other choices."

After doing the math and weighing my nutritional needs, I have to rejigger my wish list: 1. David Copperfield; 2. "Ice," an acrobatic show performed by Russian skaters; 3. "Stomp Out Loud," a drum-fueled spectacle. At $64.45, Copperfield is the most expensive, but he's a classic. I hand over my credit card, plus a $2 coupon I found online. $39.04 left.

Excitingly, my budget grows by five cents and my meal ticket is punched at the Riviera Hotel and Casino, where anyone who signs up for its casino club receives a free buffet and a slot-machine card worth anything from $1 to $1,000. The lunch buffet, which normally goes for $12.99, is a surfeit of greasy food from around the world and America's strip malls: cheese enchiladas, pot stickers, waffles, prime rib, salad bar, bagels, fruit cobbler, soft-serve ice cream. After eating enough for two meals (and leaving a $2 tip), I head to the casino floor to practice my slot skills. No surprise, my card contains only $1. But that dollar can grow into $20, $50, $300. Or it can drop to zero. Wisely, I know when to walk away -- at the card's last nickel. $37.09 left.

Siegfried and Roy's famous white tigers are retired and spending their post-career lounging at the Mirage hotel's Secret Garden, an outdoor space replete with draping greenery and piped-in jungle noises. The $15 fee is steep, but you get two wildlife areas for the price of one. At the Dolphin Habitat, six dolphins swim, spin and flash their smiles in the facility's multiple pools. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are not trained to entertain a la SeaWorld but are part of a research facility. Yet even without a bucket of fish as bait, the dolphins leap and frolic, performing like pros for the crowd. $22.09 left.

Before the Copperfield show at the MGM Grand, I squeeze in one free activity. (I'd armed myself with a printout of gratis distractions, in case my discipline lapsed and I risked my whole budget on the roulette wheel.) At the CBS Television City, inside the MGM Grand, viewers play TV critic by screening a show, then letting loose with comments and opinions allegedly reviewed by studio suits; I suffer through the sitcom "Rules of Engagement." If it gets canceled, or never happens, you can thank me.

Showtime, rubes. The legendary illusionist appears (yes, like magic) onstage straddling a motorcycle, then harangues the crowd for not laughing loudly enough at his jokes. Despite his churlishness, the man is magical. He makes a tissue bob in thin air, walks through a giant whirring fan and causes 13 guests to go poof, only to reemerge in the audience. The most mind-boggling trick involves a set of numbers proffered by random folks that later match the figures on the license plates of his grandfather's cars. As if that isn't enough, his grandfather's dream vehicle, an aquamarine convertible, appears on a large platform under which a guest squats. Later, trying to crack the mystery of how the car appeared, I track down Car Guy, who tells me that he never heard the drone of an engine or Copperfield calling out, "Park it here, quick." Magic, indeed. Still $22.09 left.

After the show, I grab a meal at the 24-hour Studio Cafe: oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins ($6.89, with tip). With my budget sliding toward single digits, I want to be sure that I have at least $5 to gamble. So, I eat breakfast for my midnight supper. $15.20 left.

The Enchanted Unicorn slot machine takes all but $1.05 of my initial bet. Yet I still believe . . . in unicorns and slots. $11.25 left.

Jackpot! I hit two acorns, a maiden and a unicorn. I don't really understand what that means, but who cares: I've won $54.90. Back up to $66.15!

I'm tempted to treat myself to some shopping at the MGM or a flashy limo ride to the airport. But instead, I tuck the cash away in my wallet and earmark it for my next vacation.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company