Las Vegas on the Cheap? You Bet.

Bused and Nearly Busted in Vegas, Where Even the Tofu Is Magical

Greasy food, poky buses, enchanted unicorns: Las Vegas has something for everyone. And rising to the challenge of a tight budget, Travel staffer Andrea Sachs proves you don't need to win a jackpot to enjoy a stay in the city of casinos.
Greasy food, poky buses, enchanted unicorns: Las Vegas has something for everyone. And rising to the challenge of a tight budget, Travel staffer Andrea Sachs proves you don't need to win a jackpot to enjoy a stay in the city of casinos. (2005 Photo By Brian Jones -- Las Vegas News Bureau)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009; Page P01

$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.

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