Wednesday, August 8, 2018

I interrupt my Vegas vacation for a mid-week report

Thanks to a buddy who is essentially committing four hours for a massage at a national chain commonly found in suburban strip malls, I have time on my hands.

And only because of my own idiocy, I have the capability to provide a mid-trip report here in the greater Vegas area.

Never mind the fact I haven't written one thing about my Fourth of July week visit.

This trip is essentially an annual gathering of college friends. Beef, Woody and I all know each other through college, and have all traveled very different paths since our time stomping the campus grounds of our western Wisconsin alma mater.

This wasn't intended to be an annual trip when it started humbly enough in 2012. Beef was living in Boston, Woody in Milwaukee and me in Minneapolis. Woody wanted to travel to Boston and visit Beef, and he encouraged me to join along. The itinerary was light, but the primary goal was to attend a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Woody has been attending games at MLB parks for years, and as of last year has been to all 30 parks. I've never shared his goal, but through previous travels I've attended games with him in Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Baltimore.

Now I'm on a quest to visit all 30 ballparks, too.

Since 2012, Woody and I have taken a few trips to destinations around the country. Some of those trips were second visits by him to a ballpark he has been to before, some were to destinations on his list.

In 2013 we went to Texas for games in Arlington and Houston. In 2014 we went to Pittsburgh. In 2016 we went to Florida for games in Miami and St. Petersburg.

During that 2016 trip, we called Beef, jokingly, and asked when he was going to join us in Florida. Much to our surprise, he wished he could have done so. He's not a huge baseball fan, but he would have enjoyed touring Florida with us.

So last year he joined us for half of a road trip that included MLB games in St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati. This year we were aiming for a trip to San Francisco and Oakland, but we had to postpone it. When looking at the replacement possibilities that made sense for 2018, we decided we'd visit Phoenix.

Woody and I had discussed the Phoenix trip a few years ago. We decided that when we did it, we'd go to Vegas and drive over to Phoenix. Woody hasn't been to Vegas since 2000, and is always curious about how places have changed since he last visited. He doesn't love Vegas, but liked the idea of revisiting a city he had been to a few times for work purposes.

And as a bonus to our Phoenix game, we agreed we'd have to see a minor league baseball game in Vegas.

So with plan B in motion, Beef flew into Minneapolis last Friday, spent the night at my place and flew out with me on Saturday afternoon. Woody flew in from Milwaukee a couple hours later. Well, three hours later, as his connecting flight into Vegas was delayed about an hour.

Beef and I had picked up our rental vehicle for the week and checked into our accommodations for this very atypical Vegas vacation. We're staying at a timeshare metropolis.

Beef is a government employee who happens to work for the military. He gets access to some of the deals offered to those who are serving in the military, and one of those deals is access to cheap use of timeshare units at places all over the country. (And perhaps internationally, I don't know.) For three of us, a regular hotel room might not been the best arrangement. But a timeshare unit has worked out great, even if we're five miles south of the strip.

We're staying at Grandview, an eight-building complex with a ridiculous number of units. It's across the street from South Point, where I've never been, and it was cheap. Our total bill for 7 nights is less than $400.

There are pros and cons of a timeshare unit in Vegas, and perhaps I'll detail those another week. For now, on with the trip report.

So what do three dudes do on a Saturday night in Vegas? Grandview gave us discount coupons for the Silverton buffet. No, not the South Point buffet right across the street, the buffet a couple miles up the freeway. So we went there. With coupons we all got a 50-percent discount on our meals. For Saturday night's buffet, which has a bit of a Hawaiian theme, the cost is $24. We paid $12 each.

Decent food, slightly disappointing overall variety. The place was quite busy at 8:30, and they made it clear that at 9:15 the food disappears. Service was a bit lackluster. They cleared plates, but didn't seem interested in refiling drinks.

Food was decent, and I ate too much, but I didn't love it. I wouldn't hurry back, and I'd rather have a normal meal than pay $24 on a Saturday night for their buffet. But at $12: What a bargain!

I was on fumes by Saturday night, so after our late buffet we came back to the timeshare and had a beer, purchased prior to Woody's arrival at a local Walmart. There was no wild Saturday night in our futures.

Sunday comes, we're a bit slow to get the wheels in motion, but Woody and Beef go to the fitness center for a while. I decline, as I brought the laptop with me, as there were a few work-related odds and ends nagging at me, and I didn't want to let them go unattended prior to Monday morning. So I spent an hour or so working on my first morning in Vegas.

Perhaps I could have left the computer at home if I had worked longer on Friday night back in Minnesota. I was up until 3 a.m., but Beef and I spent a couple of hours having beers and playing pinball at the ultra-hip retro arcade bar in Minneapolis. Guys have priorities.

Brunch for us was at the South Point buffet. Good, and slightly cheaper than advertised since a portion of the buffet is under renovation and therefore they don't have as many serving stations as usual. They had plenty to offer and we liked it better than Silverton.

Our Sunday afternoon began with an hour or more of pinball at the Pinball Hall of Fame, and then we headed to the strip for some old-fashioned sightseeing. We started at Tropicana, which is still a nice, old-time property devoid of any atmosphere or energy. It's sad, it wasn't that way 20 years ago.

We moved over to New York New York where we wandered around like typical tourists. I'm pretty sure neither Beef nor Woody had ever seen the inside of the place. I warned them that many of the strip casinos wouldn't be quite so ornate.

From there it was over to MGM, which I hadn't set foot inside in at least a decade. I didn't recognize anything, as it has been renovated plenty since the days when I roamed the behemoth.

We did find Level Up, the millennial-inspired gaming area that mixes arcades and gambling. As everyone else has reported, it's not very lively. Beef played a $1 game of giant Pac-Man, so I guess the concept is a success.

They did have the community gaming stations there, but weren't dealing community blackjack, or whatever they refer to the concept as. I am mildly interested in trying it, but it may not happen on this trip.

Woody, who isn't much of a gambler, decided to put a few bucks in a machine at MGM. With not much of a buy-in, he managed to trigger a bonus round that paid him $91. It was pretty entertaining to watch, and he was quite proud to be a winner.

We decided that Sunday night's dinner was going to be at Ellis Island, where we went to the BBQ restaurant, and used the reliable Las Vegas Advisor coupon for one free meal. Everybody was fat and happy, and the price was right.

We stuck around long enough to redeem the coupon for three free drinks at the bar. Woody wasn't drinking, so he tried his luck on the slots at Ellis Island. He had won another $30 or so on a machine there before we sat down for dinner, so he was convinced he was on a hot streak. That ended with the chicken and ribs, evidently.

After Ellis Island we returned to Grandview. I still had an hour or so of work to do before bed. Woody and Beef went to South Point. Beef wasn't interested in staying long, but wanted to go for a short stroll before calling it a night. More than an hour later Woody returns, without Beef. We were asleep before he returned, and I still don't know what the hell he was doing over there since he's not a gambler, either.

Monday morning arrived and we made eggs and toast in our Grandview unit. That was enough to get us started for the day. We were off to Phoenix for our baseball game. We had about five hours of driving ahead of us, and the game started at 6:40 p.m.

We had plenty of time to spare, but a major accident on Highway 93 south along a two-lane stretch of undivided highway, ate up that spare time. Had we passed through that area 10 or 15 minutes earlier, perhaps we would have avoided it. But traffic was closed in both directions and we were stuck on the highway, along with hundreds of other cars in both directions, for about two hours. We started to doubt we'd be going to Monday night's game.

But we made it to our hotel, a short walk from the ballpark, with little time to spare. We got to our seats at Chase Field just as the game was beginning. What a relief.

It was a fun game, albeit a long one. The home team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 in 14 innings. The Phillies were leading 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, and had no idea more than an hour of baseball was yet to be played as the bottom of the ninth began.

Since we hadn't really had lunch, and didn't eat anything at the ballpark, other than peanuts, a late meal was necessary. We drove to a nearby In-N-Out for a midnight meal.

Tuesday's itinerary concluded with a return to Vegas, and I'll detail that further when after this trip is completed. I have a busy two days ahead of me, and Beef is due to return any moment from a massage he was seeking four hours ago.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Pinball: The best bet in Vegas

Slot machine players are as superstitious as they come.

Anybody who plays the slots frequently will eventually determine which machine is lucky, which game is the best for bonus payouts and which machine or game never pays anything.

I've never been much of a slot machine player. Even with fancy bonus games and giant video boards that turn a slot machine into a miniature video game, I'm just not that interested.

My favorite machines to play in Vegas still take quarters, and they rarely pay anything back. But dollar for dollar, the best entertainment value I find in Las Vegas is a pinball machine, and I can find plenty of them in Las Vegas at the Pinball Hall of Fame.

I learned about the HOF the same way many others have, through an article extolling the jaw-dropping sight of dozens of pinball machines, ready to play, in one place. I don't remember where I saw the article, but it was prior to January 2007. Since that time there have been countless articles, blog posts and tips from me, and others, to check out the best bet in Vegas.

I was a typical '80s kid. When video games exploded, I was hooked. Sure, I spent money on comic books, baseball cards and candy, but plenty of my dollars went toward Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and the games that followed.

I didn't play a lot of pinball during my youth, but for some reason I was drawn to one of a handful of pinball machines at the mall arcade in the early to mid-80s: "Space Shuttle." That was the only pinball game that I'd play with any regularity.

Until college. I dabbled with a game at the video store in downtown River Falls, Wisconsin, during the late 1980s. I can't definitively what that game was, but I'm pretty sure it was "High Speed." There was a modest fascination circa 1992-93 with "Cue Ball Wizard." It's a fun game, and was in a local bar. I was still in college, and of drinking age.

My last dabbling with a specific pinball machine was circa 1994. As a young college graduate who commuted between Small Town, Wisconsin, and the Minneapolis suburbs every weekend, I'd stop at a truck stop along the way, and it had a game room. I found "Tee'd Off" there, and I was hooked. So much so that nearly 20 years later I'd buy one of those machines.

I played my share of video games throughout my life, and never lost my love for those '80s video games. When I was in St. Louis in 1994 I visited some sort of arcade museum that had playable video games from the '80s. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Little did I know that 20 years later we'd be seeing "barcades" paying homage to those same machines.

I enjoyed the sometimes simple home video games of the '80s and '90s as well. I'm not a modern video game player. I haven't bought a home video game system in more than 20 years, and I don't anticipate doing so in the next 20 years. My old systems have been sitting in a storage bin for years. I just don't have the time to enjoy them, especially since I spend too much time online obsessing about Vegas.

In 2007 I had no intention of becoming a devotee of pinball, but my natural curiosity for arcade machines of yesteryear changed my life during a January trip to Vegas.

I didn't typically rent a car back in those days, but I needed one for a portion of  that trip. Yes, needed it. (I suppose I could have paid for cabs to get where I needed to go, but I probably would have spent as much on cab fares as I did on the rental car. (Long story for another blog post.)

Since I had the rental car, I made a point to find my way to the first home of the HOF, since I had read about it and was too curious not to see it. I wasn't a huge pinball fan at the time, but that all changed when I stepped into that strip mall arcade and found 100 or more pinball machines crammed inside, along with a smattering of vintage video games. I didn't have a ton of time to spare that day, maybe 90 minutes, but playing pinball games from multiple eras, all at one place, was incredible. I don't exactly know why, but I was hooked.

Since then, every trip to Vegas has included a visit to the HOF, if not more than one. I play some of my old favorites, including "Tee'd Off," which is playable in my basement right now. And I play games I've rarely, if ever, plugged quarters into.

Yeah, I can find pinball machines all over the Minneapolis area, and I'll play pinball locally on a regular basis, but there's nothing like the HOF. You not only get a healthy variety of machines from different eras, you get a chance to play games that are rather rare and hard to find elsewhere around the country, even with online maps that tell you what bars and arcades have machines in your area.

Beyond the 200+ pinball machines in the HOF today, there are a couple dozen classic video games, and a variety of odd, quirky machines that you probably never knew existed. Some of these old gaming machines, such as an electro-mechanical poker machine, are simple, yet amazing to play. That quirky poker machine is from the '50s. It doesn't have a screen or a computer inside of it, and yet it knows how to assess the poker hand you've made from a bunch of bouncing balls that fall into the holes of the playfield. Simple, yet fun.

But yeah, the pinball machines are the primary reason I'm there.

So why is it I have this late-in-life fascination with pinball? I'm not entirely sure, but I have a pretty good idea.

I've always loved video games, and pinball is a similar concept. You're using skill to succeed at a game. A friend I met a couple of years after that 2007 Vegas trip, who owns several pinball machines, did a nice job of explaining the appeal of pinball to me. He noted that unlike a video game, where your game is bound by the limits of a programmed environment, there's a physical element to pinball that can't be programmed. Yes, the targets and playfield are designed, and there are rules to the game, but all the skill in the world can't overcome the fact that withing the playfield of a pinball machine, you can make the same shot 99 times in a row, yet that 100th shot might not roll the same way, even when you think you'd hit the shot the exact same way.

That's not to say the game is random, but it definitely has an element to it that's not subjected to computer programming. Couple that with challenging shots, rule sets that provide bonuses, such as multi-ball play, to the game, colorful graphics and innovative designs elements, and suddenly you have a game that's far more compelling than your realized.

Because I play a mix of pinball machines I'm good at, and games I'm not, I will spend several dollars per visit. But I typically spend less than $10 during a two-hour visit to the HOF. Other than people watching, name a better source of entertainment that costs less than $5/hour.

There's no jackpots to be won at the HOF, but I come away a winner every time I visit. For my money, it's the best bet in Vegas.

Monday, July 30, 2018

So what does it really mean for pinheads? Is the Pinball Hall of Fame temporarily closing?

PINHEAD: A pinball enthusiast. Not to be confused with a certain, hell-raising pinhead.

Thanks, Mental Floss, for your clarity on the matter.

An otherwise slow news day in Vegas started with news that the Pinball Hall of Fame, a Vegas attraction that has been going strong for more than a decade, is moving to the Vegas Strip.

I'm a pinhead. I played such games occasionally throughout my life, but it was the Pinball Hall of Fame that light my fire in January 2007. More about that another day.

I've said it many, many times. There's only one thing on my must-do list whenever I'm in Vegas, and that's visit the Pinball Hall of Fame. I may make it to Ellis Island every trip, but if I had to choose only one of the two, pinball wins. Every time.

The HOF is the brainchild of Tim Arnold, a Minnesota native (if I have his story straight) who got into the amusement device business as a teenager, made a pretty penny during the video game revolution of the 1980s, amassed a huge collection of unwanted pinball machines and retired at a relatively young age to Vegas, shipping hundreds of machines from Michigan to Nevada.

He started an informal version of the HOF in a pole shed, or something of that nature, and eventually opened an arcade, composed of primarily pinball, but a smattering of video games, as well. That first HOF location was further east of the building where his arcade resides today.

With plenty of machines still in a warehouse, he moved closer to the Vegas strip circa 2009. His new home was perhaps twice the size. It wasn't fancy, it wasn't luxurious, but it has done the job.

Today's news came via a posting at a pinball fan website, Pinside. It looked to have been posted late Sunday night, and told a long, sometimes confusing story of how the HOF is slated to move to the Vegas strip, across the street from Mandalay Bay. The site, purchased for more than $4 million, was once home to a modest hotel which has been gone for about 18 years, by all indications. The lot has been undeveloped ever since.

As I did my part to help spread the news to the masses, there was confusion about the immediate future of the HOF.

My theory is that in his announcement, Tim attempted a little misdirection. This is how he started a discussion thread on the Pinside forums: " I am saddened today to announce that our current location on Tropicana will be closing as soon as we can wind up our affairs.....AND MOVE TO OUR NEW LOCATION ON THE STRIP!"

He titled the thread "Pinball Hall of Fame to close." So everyone reading the post was expecting the worst.

And if Tim was closing the HOF, it wouldn't be a total surprise.

The HOF operates as a nonprofit, and runs on volunteer labor. Volunteers watch over the arcade while it is in operation while Tim works to repair machines. There are always machines in need of a repair. With approximately 200 machines on the floor, there's no way to keep them all operational. And from what I understand, other volunteers visit the HOF occasionally to assist with maintenance. I was once told a guy from Canada was visiting for two weeks and volunteering to assist with maintenance.

The place thrives thanks to the volunteers, with Tim steering the ship. He's gotta be in his 60s by this point, and while there's no reason to suspect he's going to give it up any time soon, people have wondered what would happen should be no longer be willing or able to oversee the maintenance and operation of the arcade.

So yeah, it was entirely possible Tim was announcing he was going to shut it down.

Instead the plan is to build a new arcade on the south end of the strip, an arcade that should at least double the capacity of the current location, and provide better space and amenities for visitors. There are financial pieces that need to be in place before all is said and done, but the wheels are in motion. You can read the details, all of them, for yourself here:

Because of Tim's announcement that the current location will close as soon as the HOF winds up its affairs, and the title of his post, there's a belief by some that the current facility will close in the near future and the machines will sit idle until the day comes, if it comes, that an elaborate new building is built upon the strip.

I doubt that, given what Tim wrote in his explanation.

The HOF is a nonprofit entity, and there are pictures and newspaper articles taped up around the arcade noting significant contributions to charity over the years. We're talking six-figure contributions. That's a lot of quarters.

I have no idea where the cash came from, but the HOF had about $3.6 million in reserves, according to Tim. In order to buy a strip parcel for $4.6 million, the HOF has taken on $1 million in debt. For that reason, "We will stop almost all our charitable giving for the near future. This hurts me personally a LOT as that is why we started this project."

Why would he have to announce that charitable giving is going to temporarily cease if the current location is going to close in the near future, and income will drop to nothing? Without saying so, Tim seems to be implying that the HOF will become the benefiting charity. Instead of turning over $100,000 to the Salvation Army or Red Cross, the HOF will keep the cash to help pay off its loan.

It would make no sense for the HOF to take on $1 million in debt for a land purchase and then cut off its income source on Tropicana Avenue for an indefinite period of time.

More indication that the HOF isn't closing its Tropicana doors: The organization owns that property, and isn't planning to sell it until the new arcade is open on the strip. Tim explains that the HOF owns its current site, and an adjacent, empty parcel where some sort of building once sat. (You can see faint traces of it.) Building a larger facility three miles from the strip doesn't appeal to Tim, so building anew at the current site is not desirable.

The current properties are valued at about $2.7 million, and Tim explained that the sale of the properties would reduce the construction costs of the new arcade, which he projects will cost between $3 and $4 million. But the properties won't be sold until the new arcade is open on the strip.

And why is that? Because the Tropicana arcade will continue to generate revenue until it's time to move the machines to Las Vegas Boulevard. If the Tropicana arcade is closing soon, there would be no reason to hold onto the properties until the day the new arcade is up and running. It would be far less expensive to warehouse the silent machines and sell the property prior to the bill comping due for the new arcade's construction.

That's reason enough for me to conclude the Tropicana arcade is not closing. Tim's posting concludes with one final statement that supports my conclusion.

To ramp up funding for the new arcade, the HOF will be selling memberships that will provide benefits, now and when the new building is complete. Basically, the organization is looking for support beyond the quarters that are dropped in its machines, something it hasn't ever done before. Tim outlines membership levels and benefits and notes that, "We will also be selling memberships live in the museum via a special vending machine."

Now why would you sell memberships via a vending machine at your arcade if you're planning to close the arcade in the near future? You wouldn't.

I wouldn't be shocked if the HOF temporarily closes for a week or two if and when the time comes for moving the machines to the strip. Although it's possible they'll keep one of the locations open during the transition. Either way, I don't expect the machines on Tropicana Avenue to go silent any time soon, if at all.

There's no timetable for the project, although Tim suggests that a new arcade is more than a year away. My educated guess: We won't see a new arcade open for business for two full years, at the earliest. And if I'm correct, you'll continue to have daily access to pinball at the Tropicana arcade well into 2020.

There's no need to go on tilt if your next Vegas trip isn't until 2019.

Monday, June 4, 2018

How am I going to Vegas twice this summer?

I've been going to Vegas since January 1997. Most years I've made at least one trip, but there were a few years when I never made it.

I didn't keep detailed trip reports of my visits. The Internet was barely a thing in 1997, nobody was thinking about blogging or posting trip reports. I'd love to have a list of the trips, travel companions, nights spent, hotel(s) occupied and fortunes lost over the past 21+ years.

By my calculations, I've been to Vegas more than 30 times. My first solo trip was 27 hours. I spent less than 24 hours in Sin City during a trip to Laughlin several years ago. I tend to go at least five nights when I travel these days.

I started traveling solo to Vegas circa 2004, before I knew that was a thing. I figured if I couldn't find a friend who could commit to a trip, why should I forgo a visit? I've done the solo trip at least a handful of times, including Halloween 2011. My first Halloween in Vegas. I loved it so much that I've spent five of the past seven Halloweens in Vegas.

For a few years I was averaging two trips to Vegas per year, but that is no longer the norm. My girlfriend and I started dating in early 2012. She went to Vegas with me for Halloween that year. She doesn't love it like I do, but she loves the cheap vacation, and knows it's one of the few places I want to go. So for most of the past six years we've split our vacation time between Vegas and a destination of her choosing. I won't go to Nashville with her, but in recent years we've been to San Antonio, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, New Orleans and, as of a month ago, Key West. I had been to three of those places and liked them well enough that I was willing to return, but they're not places I plan to visit annually.

I was in Vegas last Halloween, and I expected my next visit to Sin City to be this coming Halloween. That changed a few weeks ago.

For the past several years I've been getting together during the summer with one or two college friends and attending a Major League Baseball game at a ballpark I've never been to. In 2012 I was in Boston. In 2013 I was in Dallas and Houston. In 2014 I went to Pittsburgh. In 2016 I was in Tampa and Miami. Last year I went to St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

This year the trip was supposed to be to San Francisco and Oakland. Actually, it was supposed to be to happen last year, but it was postponed. A few weeks ago it was postponed again.

That's because it's not cheap to get to San Fran when you want to go by train from Chicago, and that's part of the San Fran itinerary. One of my buddies, Woody, has been saving Amtrak points via his Amtrak credit card for about five years, but it's not cheap, or easy, to convert the points into the train ticket we want. So three or four weeks ago we postponed the train yet again and considered other destinations. Woody has been to all 30 current ballparks as of last year, so now he's doubling back to previous destinations, in part because I'm going to try to get to all 30. I've been to 18 of the current ballparks as of today.

We considered three cities as options for our 2018 trip after we aborted San Fran for the second consecutive summer. There were a few cities we ruled out this year for various reasons. Our options were San Diego and Anaheim, Kansas City or Arizona.

Kansas City is easy to visit any year I want. It's about six hours from Minnesota. And it's not far from Woody in Milwaukee. Our third friend, Roast Beef, lives in Boston and doesn't always make it on our baseball trips. He has family in Kansas City, so I thought that might have appeal to him, but he preferred to go somewhere that would feel more like vacation this year. He found great rates on weekly timeshare rentals, and soon we were booking seven night in Vegas during that same early August week we had blocked off for San Fran.

Why Vegas? Woody hasn't been there since 2000, and is curious to see how different it is. He doesn't love it, but he had been there a few times during the 1990s. I'm pretty sure he made his first trip to Sin City before I did.

Woody also knows that I have long wanted to see a minor league baseball game in Vegas. So the idea was that we'd go to Vegas for part of a trip and drive over to Phoenix for an Arizona Diamondbacks game. And that's what we're doing in two months.

Fun fact: Beef has only been to Vegas once, to the best of my knowledge, and that was with Woody and me in April 2000. So the three of us will return together more than 18 years later, and it will be the first return visit for both of these guys. I've been there at least 25 times since then, and probably 30. Needless to say I'm the driver and tour guide for this trip.

The thought of hot summer nights in Vegas never crossed my mind a month ago when I was in Key West. I was sure I'd be going to San Francisco this summer. And within days of returning from Florida: Boom, a bonus visit to Vegas.

I still intend to go to Vegas for Halloween, so this is most definitely a bonus trip.

And then a funny thing happened late last week.

My girlfriend and I have stayed at The Orleans a handful of times, although not since 2015, as we stopped getting good offers from our favorite Vegas casino. We're not high rollers, but we'd get decent offers that would entice us to stay and spend money there, as opposed to downtown.

Although I put in more time gambling at Orleans than my girlfriend does, she was the only person to get an email offer last week. She priced a five-night hotel stay over Fourth of July week and found that we could stay there for $257, resort fee included. (It's waived for this offer.)

Obviously the Fourth of July week isn't a super busy week, and reservations are light, otherwise she wouldn't be receiving a $50/night offer. Although Vegas isn't her first choice for a vacation destination, she knows how cheap it can be, and she wants an excuse to travel this summer if at all possible.

Last year we jumped through the necessary hoops to score a great deal from Southwest Airlines. She signed up for two credit cards and we used them to charge the minimum required on each within three months. We earned bonus miles for both cards, and my girlfriend earned a companion pass from Southwest for the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018. We have only used it thus far to go to Vegas last fall and Florida this spring, but my girlfriend has plenty of points left in her account and wanted to go somewhere this summer and fall. So with free airfare for both of us to Vegas and a $250 room for five nights, she offered to go to Vegas in less than four weeks.

Needless to say, she didn't have to twist my arm.

I have yet to tell my buddies I have booked a pre-Vegas trip for our August Vegas trip. I'm still in awe of the fact that five days ago I was tickled by the fact I'd get to go to Vegas once this summer. And now I'm going twice.

And yes, Halloween in Vegas remains on my to-do list this fall. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

15 minutes for tips on how to go about saving a few bucks on a trip to Vegas

Occasionally I get a request for advice on things to do, ways to save money, etc., regarding Vegas. You go annually, people notice.

I received a request from Randi for some advice today. Randi and her husband Luke live here in Minnesota and are looking to go for 2-3 nights, and like most people, their budget isn't unlimited, so they're looking for ways to save a few bucks. Randi has been to Vegas for the past few years, attending an annual conference. But that hasn't afforded her a lot of time to see Vegas for herself, but I suspect it gives her a few ideas of what she might like to do. All I know is that she doesn't have a strong preference for her hotel. So I'm going to make a few recommendations without the benefit of knowing ultimate preferences. I'm also going to see what I can come up with in only 15 minutes of typing. So here it comes, unedited. Start the clock:

When booking airfare and hotel, there are two ways to go about it. There are packages that you can book, thru Travelocity and other providers, and you can book air and hotel separately. Spend time comparing costs for your chosen hotel and nights, both ways, and do it a few days in a row, at minimum, so you can get an idea of what a deal is for your itinerary.

If you book airfare, consider Southwest. Bags are free, and they're competitive. It's a bit goofy of an airline, and you can't fly direct, but if you can afford the extra 90 minutes or so on each leg of your trip to fly through Denver, you can save $100 or more on your trip. That pays for a fancy dinner. Sometimes you'll even find a good rate via a direct carrier, such as Sun Country. I say avoid Spirit airlines.

Hotel deals are hard to find. YOu can find them, but not as easily, and not as spectacular. Figure out what property you want, more or less, on the strip and downtown. Then watch and pray.

My philosohpy, if you paln ahead, you can buy airfare at the lowest rate, and get a godo deal on a hotel, probably at a time when the airlines aren't having sales.

As for your costs once you get there, every casino wants to make money any way it can, and will charge you plenty if you dont' care. Since Luke is a culinary master, he'll be keenly aware of cost versus quality. When it comes to quality and fine dining, there aren't many corners to cut, but when it comes to eating decent food at a good price, there are options. There are more options downtown, and I can list a few if you stay downtown. If you stay on teh strip, there are options, too. Assume you're going to watn to spend cash on a fine meal somewhere. You'll pay plenty for a restaurant with Giada's name on it. But if you want good meals at low prices, we can point you to a few. You're not going to eat a fancy steak for $10 at dinner, but you need not pay ridiculous prices for a lot of meals, if you're willing to sacrifice a few minutes or more per meal to get a good deal. AGain, that's something I'd speak more to once you have an itinerary.

TRansportation: No matter where you're staying, if you need to get back and forth, use Uber or Lyft. Most casinos make it easy to access them somewhere on the property, and so many people report such significant savings that it's crazy to use a taxi. Since yoru time is limited, I don't recommend using the bus very often. It's slow when teh strip is busy. In the morning, if you're going north from MGM to the the Wynn, it might not be so slow, but don't rely on the bus to get you places otherwise.

There are food discounts avialble, the best of those is in a coupon book I wrote extensively about. Here's the link.

This isn't a way to save thousands on your vacation, but it will easily save you $40, or more. I'll skip my speech about gambling benefits of the book. There are benefits, but don't factor that into your equation.

Show tickets. If you want to go to the biggest name shows, you'll pay plenty, and deep discounts are typically tricky to see. Most evening shows don't come cheap, but there are some decent, entertaining shows that do rely upon selling discount tickets around Vegas on teh day of teh show. This is tricky, you have to get up in the morning and go stand in line at one of the many ticket broker booths, but some people are happy with teh savings they get. I think you can get 2-for1 to Zombie Burlesque pretty easily without a lot of work.

I'm out of time. I'll provide better suggestions as yoru planning dictates.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book review: 14 things to do in Vegas before you die

Among the things given to us when we checked in at Tahiti Village last October was a sheet listing 100 things to do in Vegas.

I didn't inspect it closely, but I kept it, thinking I would critique it at some point via this blog. Instead I threw it away. 

Now I'm curious to know what that list contained, and if it was as bizarre as the 100 things listed in a 2016 book, "100 Things to do in Las Vegas Before You Die."

I was perusing my local library's Vegas book collection not so long ago and found the book. It is written by two former writers for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You'd expect it would have great details and great local perspective. Well, not so much. 

The book's preface notes that it lists "bucket list" items for both the tourist and the Vegas area resident. Many of the items aren't worthy of any such list, regardless of your residency status. There are some interesting, obvious and bizarre suggestions in the book, and here's a sampling of what you'll find in the book. I'll leave it to you to decide which entries are interesting, obvious or bizarre. 
  • The book has a list of craft breweries and places to find craft beers, both in the touristy areas and in the suburbs. I'm not sure going to a craft brewery in Henderson really needs to be on a bucket list, but for the uninitiated, the book gives you a clue that you can sample local, small batch beer at a few casino properties.
  • Enjoying a meal "al fresco" warrants an entry, and offers three suggestions of places to eat outdoors. You haven't lived until you've eaten an outdoor meal at Paris Las Vegas.
  • If you want to drink or dine at a "Vegas dive," there are a few suggestions, although the book doesn't tell you why you should visit Frankie's Tiki Room. Hint: Don't go there for the veal.
  • I had no idea there were wineries in Pahrump, but if I die tomorrow, I don't think not having visited one will be near the top of my regret list.
  • I'm not sure why tasting boba tea in Vegas is critical for tourists or residents, but a place called Cafe Teaze has servers who wear lingerie. Suddenly I'm interested in trying boba tea, otherwise known as bubble tea, as best as I can tell. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of this before. I had to look up this place to learn more about it. Located in Chinatown, it changed its name to Milk Teaze at some point, evidently, and a Facebook page for the business notes that as of late January the location has closed due to a lease issue. But the owners promise to find a new location.
  • An eclair at Jerry's Nugget gets an entry, although nowhere is it mentioned that this should be the last item you knock off your bucket list, for safety reasons.
  • Three happy hours are worthy of mentioning on a page dedicated to the topic. Perhaps they should have limited the book to 99 things.
  • Celebrating Oktoberfest in Vegas is a must-do, so they say. Yes, make sure to experience a knock off of the German celebration at Hofbrauhaus, by all means.
  • White Castle at Casino Royale makes the list. Of all the chains that aren't called McDonald's, White Castle is the one to highlight? A "tip" at the bottom of the page, which is found on a bunch of the entries, mentions a few other chains you can find, including In-n-Out.
  • Two entries are set aside for gambling and exploring the strip. Do we really need bucket list items for such general activities that are a lot of the reason people come to Vegas in the first place?
  • Glorifying an EDM DJ at an expensive nightclub makes the book's list of things to do in Vegas. If I live another 50 years my life will be incomplete when I die.
  • I haven't lived unless I've experienced the National Finals Rodeo, allegedly.
  • Going to a concert, at places such as Bunkhouse Saloon, Brooklyn Bowl and The Pearl is unlike anything you'll ever experience in Milwaukee. The "go to a concert" page does note two festivals that take place annually, although it tells you nothing about why you should go to all the trouble to attend Life is Beautiful.
  • I had no idea that I could discover a desert oasis at Wetlands Park. I can't recall seeing any chatter or discussion about this county park, where you can ride your bike, allegedly. I'm curious to learn more about this park, wherever it is.
  • You can pick your own produce at Gilcrease Orchard in North Las Vegas. You haven't lived until you've picked apples from a spring-fed orchard in the desert.
  • It turns out there are at least three parks in the area that have ponds stocked with fish. Catch a catfish from a stocked pond in Vegas before you die!
  • For some reason geocaching in Vegas is worthy of your bucket list. If you don't know what this is, it's a high-tech game of hide-and-seek. It's a great hobby that can be fun for the family, and can be a great way to discover and explore parks and other public areas near and far. I use to spend time enjoying the activity, and have done it in Vegas during a few trips. Some people like to do a little geocaching everywhere they travel, and I've done my share of it in multiple states while on vacations in the past, but I'd say skip going to the trouble of doing it in Vegas unless you've tried it at home first, are hooked on it and can't take a vacation from it.
  • There are three places to shoot a machine gun, or other firearms, the book reminds us, including AR-15s. I'm gonna guess a new printing of the book would include an edit of this page. 
  • You haven't lived until you have signed up for slot clubs at Vegas casinos.
  • Dancing in a casino lounge: Gotta do it!
  • You must savor an artisan cocktail in Vegas. You must. While four places to do so are noted, including The Cosmopolitan, nowhere does it note one of the most unusual cocktails you'll ever discover, the Verbena at Cosmo's Chandelier bar.
  • Witnessing a wedding, if not having your own, in Vegas is essential. I've never been to a Vegas wedding. What am I to do? According to the book, I can hang out at the wedding license bureau to see if there's a couple looking for a witness.
  • There's a Martin Luther King Jr. statue in North Las Vegas. It's in a historically significant area, I'm told, but I'd argue that visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached, and is now maintained as a national park, might be a better way to honor his memory.
  • Almost every review I've read says that Gold & Silver Pawn, famous thanks to the "Pawn Stars" TV show, is not worth the effort to visit. The authors think you need to go there before you die.
  • Somehow a nail spa that does fancy nail art makes the Vegas 100 bucket list. How much did Scratch Nail Spa in Henderson pay to be included in the book?
  • You gotta "drop some cash at the finest stores around." Until you do, you haven't lived.
  • For some reason you need to visit one of four record stores listed in the book, if record collecting is your thing. Why not list comic book and toy stores as two more items when you start running out of ideas?
  • If I had to judge the quality of this book based upon one thing, I'd base it upon how well it touts the Pinball Hall of Fame. As a devout pinball enthusiast who knows a decent amount about the place, I could tell you more than you'd want to know, unless you're a pinhead like me. As for the book, its summation of the hall of fame is lackluster. It gives you a basic description of the place, noting that there are machines from the 1950s through the 1990s, and cites a few machine themes. I'm not sure where their info came from, but it's a rather sloppy entry that could have done a far better job of detailing what you'll find. But the tip at the bottom of the page notes you can peruse the interior of it via Google Maps. The images are outdated, as many machines have been moved around, but it gives you a good idea, and a great view of a bunch of the machines you can find in there today.
The book is a compilation of information, some of which is outdated, naturally, thanks to the nature of Vegas. It has some good information about things that would be of interest to Vegas rookies as well as transplants who haven't had a chance to explore the greater Vegas area, but not enough to make it worth the $16 cover price.

The book falls short in a several ways. It gives you addresses for many places, but doesn't tell you where they are in relation to anything else, with limited exceptions. Sometimes it's obvious a business is in a casino, sometimes it's obvious a location is outside of the tourist districts, but plenty of times it's not very clear.

There are driving directions, and time estimates, for a few of the destinations noted in the book, such as ghost towns, but nowhere does it suggest which items are best suited for locals or which places are reasonably accessible for tourists who don't have their own vehicle to get around.

While prices are subject to change, there's rarely a hint of what it might cost to see a museum or attend a festival. Yes, I can do my own research, and that's what this book seems to expect me to do. I get it, it's not a visitor's guide with excruciating detail, but it has so little information about anything it references that it serves as little more than a book of ideas, ideas you can find on websites galore.

The book's title leads you to believe that it's a great resource full of great ideas, but it falls short on both counts. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What we can learn from the closing of two casinos

It’s not always location.

Those of us who spend too much time thinking about, reading about and talking about Las Vegas, when we’re not enjoying its excesses, know that many of the prominent Sin City casinos no longer rely upon gambling revenue to turn a profit from year to year. It’s well known that with increasing competition nationwide for the gambling dollar, Vegas casinos need to make money many different ways in order to turn a profit.

Two interesting casino developments of the past month have made me wonder if we’re at the point where it’s hard to make meaningful money off of gambling.

When Lucky Dragon closed its casino, (temporarily, it is claimed,) it was seen as a failure for a variety of reasons. The Dragon had opened its brand new, shiny, boutique casino/hotel barely a year earlier, and its casino traffic has been so bad that it could no longer afford to offer gaming.

The reasons most touted: The location was horrible, the gaming was unspectacular and the enticements were missing.

I’d agree.

The location makes Lucky Dragon a tough sell right now, and for the foreseeable future. It’s just off the strip, on the north end, where there’s little of excitement. Yeah, it’s close to the Stratosphere, but it’s a destination casino that doesn’t have the benefit of foot traffic like you would get at Cromwell or Casino Royale. If you want people to go out of their way to visit your boutique hotel, you had better give them something worth going out of their way for.

The fact that the property was designed to target Asian gamblers didn’t seem to help.

And it’s that gambling demographic that resulted in the mix of gaming offered by the casino. I have never set foot in the place, but it was touted as having appeal to the Asian gamblers of the world because it featured plenty of baccarat, and put less emphasis on other table games. Space is limited, and you can’t offer everything for everybody, but you need to have a niche if you’re going to put asses in the seats, especially when you don’t have 1,000+ hotel rooms feeding into your casino floor. And baccarat wasn’t the right niche, evidently.

I never paid much attention to any promotions or enticements that the Dragon was offering, but I never heard much talk about them, either. There were some simple free play or match play promotions, but if you want people to play your games in a casino that’s not convenient, and not in the most glamourous part of the city, give them some incentive, like a lower house edge. Perhaps single-zero roulette wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but offer low-minimum tables with a single zero and you’ll be the talk of the town. If couldn’t have made things worse, could it?

Better promotions and gaming odds would have drawn more people to the casino, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been enough. Perhaps the small casino/hotel couldn’t afford the volatility that a lower house edge exposes. (There’s evidence to suggest that.)

Wouldn’t it have been nice to know?

The one thing the Dragon couldn’t change is its location. Its out-of-the-way location is seen as a major detriment to its success. For any small casino to succeed in that location, it had better attract a significant percentage of its target market, or draw a lot of people looking for an alternative to the stinginess of the big players on the strip. And those people exist, without a doubt.

So, with or without more favorable gambling conditions for the player, if you could just plop the Dragon in a more prominent location near the heart of the strip, it would have a fighting chance of succeeding, right?

Not so fast.

This month has also included the closing of the Westin Las Vegas casino. All gambling was removed from the property, making way for a new restaurant, and meeting space, or something like that.

Yeah, that’s what’s missing, a restaurant in a hotel three minutes from the hustle and bustle of the strip.

The spin seems to be that this is some sort of evolution, some sort of plan, that phasing out gambling was a good thing. The latter seems to be true, but I’m skeptical its demise is by design.

When I first went to Vegas 21 years ago, my first day in town brought me to a cheap, if not free, afternoon magic show at the Maxim. The Maxim was a modest casino/hotel just off the strip, tiny in comparison to MGM, where I stayed on that first trip.

The Maxim had a bustling crowd that Thursday afternoon in early January. Who would have guessed that it was 21 years away from disappearing? Not me.

The Maxim eventually became the Westin. I’m not sure whose guidance drove off the gambling crowd, but I was in that joint a decade ago, after the Maxim name was scrubbed from the property.

I have no special insight. I don’t know why the gambling crowd deserted the property. Was it because it was poorly run, and people stopped coming, or did people stop coming because of the fickle nature of business, and the property failed to react.

A vibrant casino, just a couple of minutes from the heart of the strip, could no longer make a go of it. Is the competition from the major strip casinos too difficult to overcome? Perhaps, but close to the former Maxim is a smaller, less spectacular property known as Ellis Island. It is doing better than ever, despite having less to work with. Its casino isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Moral of the story: Location is important, and gambling is a tougher business than ever. It remains a viable business for the smaller, secondary casinos in Vegas, but it’s tougher than ever to succeed, and is far from foolproof. We lost the Maxim, and Lucky Dragon is dying on the vine. Casino properties in the tourist districts had better offer a lot of things for a lot of people, or they face a tough battle for survival.