At 1 a.m. on a Sunday, as my new boyfriend and I sat exhausted on a curb, I looked up to see the Eiffel Tower. Not the real one, of course, but the glitzy replica in Las Vegas. There it stood next to the equally flashy Paris balloon, modeled after the historic version launched by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783.
“We’ll always have Paris,” I said, taking a swig of vodka from our shared flask. Or, at least, a kind of copy of Paris that’s a lot closer and less expensive.
We had wanted a romantic getaway, but I didn’t have a lot of cash to splurge on Europe. Las Vegas seemed more affordable, but could we visit the city of sin at a discount price? I had a hunch it was possible if I played my cards right.
Luckily, my guy had insider knowledge, having lived in the city previously. He knew the right gravel pits just outside the main drag for the best views of the lights, knew how to glean the beauty in all that artifice, and how to get the maximum free entertainment possible.
We went into our faux-glam adventure with some plans that were a bit of a gamble — some that worked, and a few that we figured out along the way. I thought I could observe Las Vegas with an air of detachment, especially if I wasn’t fully investing in its many sinful delights. What I found is that its seductive rhythms have a way of moving through you, even for just a little while. Here are some tips for Vegas on a budget.
Save on airfare and lodging
I stepped out of my comfort zone and booked a flight on Spirit Airlines for $103 each, including seat fees of $31 each so we could sit together. We didn’t, however, pay to bring a carry-on bag — whatever we brought had to fit under the seat in front of us.
That means packing light. All I packed was my laptop, a bathing suit and two outfits. I layered up with the cutest clothes I own and hoped I’d be able to stay stylish for the whole vacation. In the end it made bouncing from one hotel to another a lot less burdensome.
Vegas hotels were a lot more expensive on the weekend. We attempted to solve this problem by booking a downtown motel on the weekend and then a foray at the Luxor on Sunday and Monday, for only $78 a night. We loved the faux-Egyptian Luxor. It came with not only an outdoor pool, but access to the wave pool at the Mandalay Bay one casino over, where we buoyed gently in the late afternoon light.
For the weekend, we had originally booked the Desert Hills Motel for $112 a night. Alas, our reservation was canceled via e-mail on Friday, right before our departure. After a moment of panic, we settled on the art deco stylings of the historic El Cortez for $347 on Friday night, in downtown Las Vegas near Fremont Street. Our room’s walls were green, and the bed was lined with white vinyl padding. It was glorious. (To make up for that expense, on Saturday we stayed with my boyfriend’s brother, who lives in Las Vegas.)
Walk or ride
We only took one Lyft ride, declining to go in on the cryptocurrency investment scheme pitched by our driver. Otherwise we were on foot, using bike-share or riding the top level of the Deuce, the double-decker bus on Las Vegas Boulevard. On one ride we nabbed the coveted front row and had a view of all of the lights and tourists and billboards as we rode down the Strip.
Avoiding gambling might seem strange since that’s a major Vegas draw, but I was happy to pass on it. It got a little depressing watching people turn into zombies getting sucked into the slot machines.
Find free activities
It took a bit of planning to catch free attractions like the erupting volcano outside the Mirage, the trapeze act at Circus Circus, the mermaid show at the Silverton and the madrigal singers at the Venetian.
I especially enjoyed the intricately choreographed Bellagio fountains, timed to music and lights. We missed the madrigals, but I loved the sweet opera singing by a gondola plyer floating through the Venetian’s “canal.” My other favorite spot was standing under Chihuly’s art blossoms in the Bellagio lobby.
Take a day trip
We took one day trip to the desert. The Valley of Fire is a landscape of luminous amber, with red rocks that have been swept by wind into swirling formations of sandstone. It cost $10 to get into the park, and we managed to catch a ride there by car. A closer option is Red Rock Canyon, which has a similar sandstone look, Triassic fossils and petroglyphs.
Get off the Strip
Some of our best times were venturing off of Las Vegas Boulevard. In the late 20th century, “The Strip” overtook Fremont Street as the main place for casinos. Fremont Street still has casinos, of course, plus the very fun and free Fremont Experience, with trippy videos displayed overhead on the world’s largest video screen.
Off Fremont, downtown has a more relaxed feel. The Downtown Container Park, an outdoor food court made from shipping containers, felt fresh and neighborhood-y. We split a pickle-filled Cuban sandwich with lots of mustard from Bin 702 for $13, as “Beetlejuice” played on an outdoor screen.
The Downtowner, a 1950s diner, is the kind of place where you might strike up a conversation with a stranger in the wee hours, which we did.
We explored the Las Vegas Arts District on bikes rented for $2 through RTC Bike Share. The area is teeming with a more creative energy. I had a pleasant avocado toast for $15 on the patio at 7th & Carson, and enjoyed the Garden, a queer cocktail spot covered in foliage.
Splurge on one thing
Truth be told, vacationing on a budget got a little tiring. As we shared a turkey sandwich, Doritos and Gatorade from a gas station, sitting in the shade across from a giant billboard of David Copperfield as tourist helicopters passed by, I decided we needed a little vacation from our cheap vacation.
On our last night, we splurged on a six-course meal ($50 each, plus wine) at Marrakech, a Moroccan restaurant on Paradise Road. I loved the tent ceiling and cushioned seats, and I appreciated the extravagance of watching a belly dancer as we dined on our lush meal.
Walking back to the Luxor on Paradise Road, we watched the glimmer of the Strip in the distance.