Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I like saving $5 in Vegas

Disclaimer: The links to products listed below do not benefit me in any way, financially or otherwise.

For many years I bought coupon books here in Minnesota that were known as "Happenings." There are versions of these books around the country, and they still exist, although I think they're all known as "Entertainment" books now.

They're huge coupon books, and have deals for hundreds of businesses in the region they're sold. They typically sold for around $25, and were often sold by groups or organizations that used them as fundraising mechanisms. The organization would receive a commission for every book sold.

I remember my uncle telling me why he wouldn't buy the book: He didn't get a lot of use out of it.

I had a different perspective: If I used a few coupons without making special effort, and saved $25 or more, then I was winning. And so was the organization that sold me the book. Some people think they have to save $1,000 when they purchase a $25 coupon book in order for it to be worth their time, but I've never subscribed to that theory.

I haven't seen one of those "Entertainment" books in years, so I haven't purchased one in a long time, but I'm still a fan of coupons. I'm not going to be rich any time soon, so I'm happy to save money when I can, and I try not to go out of my way to spend money at restaurants just because I have a coupon in my wallet.

In Vegas there is no shortage of ads and gimmicks offering discounts for shows, meals and experiences. Quite often the coupon deal is little more than a marketing expense. Sure, you can pay full price for a ticket to see Mac King's magic show, but there are plenty of "free" tickets out there. That free ticket, by the way, comes with the one-drink minimum caveat. That one drink ends up costing about $15 for a weak single-shot drink. So it's hardly a free show by the time four people redeem their coupons for "free" tickets, but at $15 it's a good price for an entertaining magic show.

I'm not sure when I finally learned that there were coupon books available for Vegas, but thanks to online forums I discovered there was money to be saved at a variety of casinos, and money to be made, too.

"Entertainment" has a Vegas edition, but I've never seen it. From what I know, it's mostly geared toward restaurants and venues outside of the tourist districts. There are a few discounts for touristy destinations, but not enough to make the book appealing to the Vegas vacationer, from all indications.

One of the coupon books geared toward the Vegas tourist is the American Casino Guide. It has information about casinos around the country, lots of information about gambling and travel, some of which is specifically about Vegas, and dozens of coupons, many for Vegas. A small portion of the coupons are good at casinos around the country, but it's clearly a book aimed at the Vegas tourist.

The book can be had via Amazon for less than $15, typically. A small price to pay for all those coupons, right? Well sure, but in my experience the ACG isn't going to net a lot more in savings than your initial buy-in.

Many of the coupons are tied to off-strip and downtown properties. There are coupons that are for casinos on the strip, but that's a small percentage of the offerings, and some of those coupons aren't all that special. (ACG has a Mac King coupon, for example.)

The coupons are for restaurant discounts, attraction discounts and casino gambling benefits, such as $10 in free slot play or a $10 match play on an even-money table game bet. But there aren't a ton of those to be found in the book. Nonetheless I've been buying the book for several years now because for $15 I'd usually find at least two coupons that were worth more than the price of the book.

For example, for years the ACG has had a $10 match play at the Orleans, a casino where I frequently stay. The match play is like a free $10 chip. I have to bet $10 on a hand of blackjack or a spin of the roulette wheel in order to use the match play for $10, but if I win I receive $20 for my win instead of the $10 I put up, and the coupon is surrendered. If I lose, I lose my $10 and the coupon is surrendered. So I'm not guaranteed to receive $10 from the coupon, but it's the equivalent of making a $10 bet without risking my own money. Essentially I'm making a $20 bet on a hand of blackjack while only putting up $10 of my own money.

Coupons change from year to year, and I don't find as much value in the book as I did years ago, but there's enough value that I continue buying it, and this fall I'll easily get more than $15 value out of it through coupons to a few places that I regularly go to during my trips.

I was quick to invest in the ACG, but I was hesitant to buy the Las Vegas Advisor Member Rewards Book. The book costs about $40 delivered, and that seemed like a bit much. During my first few years of using the ACG I didn't buy a copy of the LVA coupon book.

What changed my mind? A few years ago I bought a used copy online. That's against the LVA rules, but the book is not registered to whomever purchases it, so the casinos are none the wiser. I bought the book for half its full price, and it was only missing a few coupons. I realized after using the book during my next trip that I was missing out on far more deals that were of value to me, so now I purchase the book annually.

The book has better coupons, and far more of them, than the ACG. Like ACG, these coupons are mostly geared toward off-strip and downtown destinations, but there are far better offers from front to back, and several of them are for restaurants on the strip. The LVA book has more two-for-one meal deals, from buffets to traditional restaurants, and more match plays and free slot play offers, as well. And there's a discount coupon for the Palms that can save you the entire $40 cost of the book if you play your coupon correctly. (Irony: I have never used the Palms discount.)

For my upcoming trip I will use LVA coupons for two different meals at Ellis Island, coupons for two-for-one buffets at one or two downtown casinos and gambling coupons for free play (or match play) at a few downtown joints, as well as Ellis Island. The food coupons will save me, and a friend, at least $20 each, as I'll split the bill rather than make my friend may full price for a meal. And even if I don't win a dime with the gambling coupons, I'll have had a chance to win cash. And I'll have to be unlucky if I fail to turn one $10 free play coupon into $10 in winnings via video poker.

A few simple stories of good fortune: I played three $25 match plays on roulette wheels and three $10 match plays on roulette wheels during a trip last year. (Most of these match plays came from the coupon books, but not all of them.) I won all six times. Even had I lost one or two, I'd have made money. And had I lost all three $25 bets, but won all three $10 bets, I'd have been out only $15 for my trouble. If I was really unlucky I would have lost $105 for all my effort. Since I was really lucky I won $210 for those six bets.

At Ellis Island a few years ago I had to earn my free play by playing $10 on my player's card before redeeming the coupon. I played keno at the bar and managed to win $12 before I turned in my coupon. The coupon offered from $10 to $100 in free play, and by luck of the draw I received $20 that day. I used that free play to play four $5 hands of video blackjack. I won all four hands, and cashed out for $40. I walked away from the casino with $52 in winnings, and my goal was simply not to lose any money. I wasn't a big winner, I know, but I nearly paid for both books with those winnings, and I was with my girlfriend that night. We used a two-for-one coupon at the BBQ restaurant, and that saved us more than $10 at dinner.

A story of bad luck: I played seven $10 match plays during a trip a few years ago, all at blackjack tables, and I won one of seven hands. Sometimes you're just not lucky. Had I won two of the seven I would have lost $10 on the deal. Had I won three of the seven I would have made $20. Instead I lost $40 by using match plays. I was quite unlucky that trip, but that was a small price to pay for the good luck and the $210 I won a few years later using my match plays at roulette wheels.

My advice: Buy coupon books if you tend to spend a lot of your time downtown. Buy the LVA for sure, but don't overlook the ACG if you know you'll easily redeem two or three of the coupons in the book. A list of the coupons in both books is available online through their websites.

Other things to remember:
• Most coupons require redemption at the player's club desk prior to redemption at a restaurant or on the casino floor. You'll need a player's club card at each casino, and that means waiting in line for a few minutes. Most coupons are limited to one redemption per cardholder per year, but if you travel with a spouse or partner, you can each get a book and redeem the coupons once on each person's club card.
• If you travel solo, the dining coupons are sometimes good for half off of a meal if you're dining alone. That's a nice benefit at the buffets, and the gambling coupons don't care if you're traveling solo or with five other people. If you're traveling with somebody, having two books is usually worth the trouble if you are both apt to gamble, or go to Vegas twice in the same year.
• LVA coupons technically must remain in the book until the time of redemption. That prevents people from trading the coupons or giving an unwanted coupon to a friend. The book is thin and easy to carry in a pocket or purse, however, so it's not a burden to carry around, unless you don't have pockets or a purse. The ACG is a much thicker book that's not as convenient to carry around to the casinos, but you can cut those coupons out of the book to take with you. You also need to have the membership card within the book when you make the redemption, although from my experience showing the card is rarely requested.
• Don't expect discounts to high-end restaurants at fancy casinos on the strip. They cater to people who don't care how much the meal costs, so they're not looking for penny pinchers like you.
• Don't buy the books expecting to save $1,000, and don't buy the books if you have to go out of your way to redeem the coupons. It's not worth that much trouble, but I like the idea of buying the book a few weeks to a few months in advance. That's like pre-funding your vacation. The money is spent long before you arrive in Sin City, and you did spend it, but it makes the money you budget for your vacation time go further, and that's a good feeling.

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