A visit to Sin City can be hugely expensive or surprisingly cheap, depending on how well you plan ahead and how you want to spend your time. I recently spent two weeks in Las Vegas and left with a wealth of travel tips for the budget conscious – or newly budget conscious, just in case you find yourself in Vegas and out of luck! The Strip certainly isn’t just for gamblers, and there are lots of inexpensive, family-friendly options as well. Here are a few favorites guaranteed to entertain without emptying your wallet (sadly, I can’t say the same for the poker tables and slot machines).
Welcome to Las Vegas Sign: No visit to Vegas would be complete without a photo in front of this iconic sign. Located on the Strip just south of Mandalay Bay, the sign has been gracing photos and drawing crowds since 1959. It’s a small drive from the usual Vegas attractions, but a new parking area makes visiting easy at any time of day, provided there aren’t too many tour buses.
Fountains at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino: Even if you’ve never seen the “new” Ocean’s 11, you’ve probably heard of the famous Bellagio fountain. It’s a Vegas institution and one of the most impressive free attractions on the strip. More than 1,000 powerful jets of water rise up to 245 feet in the air, set to a variety of epic musical numbers, from classical music to showtunes. On weekdays, shows are every 30 minutes from 3-8 p.m., and every 15 minutes from 8 p.m. to midnight. Weekend displays begin at noon.
CBS Television City at the MGM: Ever wanted to be part of a TV test audience? Well, now you can. The sign-up booth is by the MGM pool, and you can take part in several showings throughout the day. Screenings run about every half hour from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and usually last about an hour. As a thank-you for my participation, I received a packet of coupons for various spots on the Strip (think discounted ice cream, hot dogs, pretzels, etc.). I didn’t really use them, but the experience itself was interesting and fun. Top Tip: For an even more rewarding experience, check out the TestAmerica center in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood – some tests pay cash!
World’s Largest Chocolate Fountain at the Jean-Philippe Patisserie in the Bellagio: Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the best food-themed free attraction. This remarkable chocolate fountain circulates more than 2,100 pounds of molten dark, milk and white chocolate at a rate of more than 120 quarts per minutes. The rough, aquamarine glass fountain stands more than 27 feet tall and it really is impressive to watch the chocolate stream over the edge. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I could actually smell the chocolate as well. Mmmmmm!
Volcano at the Mirage: Originally unveiled in 1989, this was Vegas’ first free attraction on the Strip. It’s since been renovated and provides a pretty impressive display of pyrotechnics, set to rousing tribal music. I watched from the curb across the street and was surprised we could still feel the heat (at one point, the volcano shoots fireballs 12 feet into the air!) at that distance. Shows are every hour on the hour from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Sirens of TI at Treasure Island: One of the more lengthy free shows, this display involves a lot of drama as a group of pirates, complete with giant, mobile Man-o-War, take on the Sirens of TI – a band of sexy temptresses. It’s a little more adult than some of the other street shows and takes place in front of Treasure Island at 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. every day.
Fashion Shows at the Fashion Show Mall: In addition to boasting some swanky shops (though not nearly as many as the nearby Wynn Hotel!), this shopping mall is home to open-access, live fashion shows every weekend. Shoppers gather to watch models stride down the catwalk every hour on the hour from noon to 6 p.m. Whether you’re there to catch the latest fashions or just to people watch, it’s a fun, free experience.
Streetmosphere in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian: Deep within the winding halls of The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian is an amusing replica of St. Marks Square. Here, strolling performers, including Italian opera singers, musicians, jugglers and costumed actors entertain guests and shoppers. Schedules are posted in the square, but in my experience, catching a performance is a bit hit or miss. I’ve stumbled on a few great performances, rather like you would in a real Venetian square, and few that were underwhelming. In any case, a walk through the shops is entertaining and always provides an opportunity to catch my next free attraction.
Singing Gondoliers at The Venetian: You can pay to ride a gondola through the indoor or outdoor canals, but it’s just as entertaining to wait by the landing stage and watch the boats return. Onlookers applaud as each gondolier sings his or her guests back to the dock. Some of them are quite impressive!
Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand: This is fun attraction, particularly for young children. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, you can watch the lions prowl around their wilderness habitat. Top tip: arrive close to opening or closing to catch an informative talk from the animal handler.
Conservatory at the Bellagio: An impressive display of horticulture and artistic imagination, the flowers and displays in this glass-covered arena change with the seasons and are always impressive. Be sure to visit the butterfly conservatory with its exotic tenants and romantic, fountain-covered walkways. Also near the conservatory is the Fiori di Como, a remarkable, not-to-be-missed blown-glass ceiling by Dale Chihuly.
Fall of Atlantis Fountain Show at the Forum Shops, Ceasars Palace: In this animatronic fountain show, Greek gods come to life as King Atlantis decides who will succeed him. Shows are every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday. I’ve never managed to catch this show but have heard that it’s a hit with the kids! If this doesn’t work, there’s a remarkably huge aquarium down the hall – the biggest of Vegas’ free aquariums – to keep the young ones occupied (it worked pretty well for me, too!).
Aquariums galore (at the Mandalay Bay, Ceasar’s Palace and Mirage, to name just a few): If you miss the colossal one at the Forum Shops, there are plenty more. The 53-by-8-foot lobby aquarium at the Mirage contains 20,000 gallons of salt water and is home to sharks, stingrays, eels, puffer fish and sea bass.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start. Pair it with a few Vegas brochures available in most hotel lobbies and a good map and you’re well on your way to some good, cheap, Sin City fun.