Budgeting for Las Vegas

Vegas: Reviews, Recap & Budgeting

While perusing Vegas, I had one major thought: how cool would it be to start a blog/offshoot where we looked at going to awesome places, but on a serious budget? And not just like, ‘oh, I’m on a budget,’ but like, ‘I have $750 to spend in total on this experience. How do I do it and not live on fast food and stay in a bed bug-ridden motel?’ I actually think this would a be a great multi-contributor blog for cities around the world, but that’s for another day, I suppose.

This dawned on me because I actually think I did a fairly good job of figuring out Vegas on a budget. Well, parts of Vegas. So, here’s a little rundown of what we did, how we saved some money, and recommendations for where to spend money if you have some extra cash allocated.

Budget overview for two

Flights: $504
Hotel (3 nights): $461 (inc. taxes & fees)
Transportation: $120
Shows: $160
Dining:  $650 (estimated; this is where we didn’t budget — more below)
Misc: $200

Total: $2095

Budget Breakdown

Looking at the grand total, it doesn’t seem like quite the budget-friendly experience that it could have been, but that’s primarily because I didn’t treat it as a budget vacay from the get-go. We could have done it much more cost-effectively and saved in some major spots. Here’s the breakdown of spending, plus pros and cons.

Flights: $504

Vegas came to be when my dad gifted us tickets to the Garth Brooks show at the Wynn. Knowing that was on both of our bucket lists, the trip was centered around that experience and was planned somewhat last minute. From SFO, you can get flights cheaper than $250 RT per person, but for booking within 3 weeks of the trip, those were the best prices I could muster. Our flights there were $74 each on United and our flights back were slightly under $180 each on US Airways. Add $25 each way for a checked bag. You can find some amazing deals on Virgin or Southwest (no baggage fees with Southwest) if you’re flying from SFO. If you have a top airline for budget travel from your city, please share below!

Hotel (3 nights): $461 (including all taxes and fees)

Okay, so I’m still a little mixed on this, but I think I did a pretty good job of budgeting on the hotel front. I didn’t want to book a surprise vacay and stay way off the Strip or stay in a run-down hotel at the South end. I decided to go to Hotwire to book and looked for a 5* hotel on the North end of the Strip. I ended up with the Trump for $108 per night plus tax. They also charged us a $25/night ‘resort fee’ (total BS) upon check-out. I have very mixed feelings about that experience (read my TripAdvisor review) and while it was definitely a great deal, I think there are better deals to be found at places like Mandalay Bay, Caesar’s Palace, the Mirage etc. Plus, I think those locations are better. If you want to go through Hotwire, I think it’s better to look for a 3 1/2 or 4* hotel on the Strip; more fun hotels seem to fall into that category, and seem to be a bit more well located.

Transportation: $120

This includes transportation to and from SFO, cabs around Vegas, plus the cab to the airport from the Trump. Our resort fee at the Trump included a shuttle that helped get us around during the day, but nighttime called for cabs occasionally. I scored a deal on a town car through Bloomspot and ended up paying $29 from SF city center to SFO. Considering the cost of parking at the airport ($15/day at least), I thought this was a better option. If you have a ride to the airport, you can save on this!

Shows: $160

One of the amazing shows we saw in Vegas!

During our stay we saw Le Reve and Garth at the Wynn. The Garth tickets were given to us as a gift, otherwise that would have been a pretty significant expense. The Le Reve tickets we were able to get a 2-for-1 discount on, scoring both (including taxes and fees) for $160. If you’re not adamant about seeing any show in particular, you can score day-of tickets at a lot of spots on the Strip. Alternatively, lots of places have deals on their shows depending on when you book.

Dining:  $650

Dining was a major expense for us; an expense that we could have cut down on had we tried a bit harder. Boat Shoes is a bit of a foodie (much moreso than I am), so I thought it would be fun to book two great dinners during our stay: STRIPSTEAK and Bouchon. In addition, we had dinner our first night at FIRST Food & Bar at the Palazzo. Firstly, many Mandalay Bay restaurants offer Restaurant.com gift certificates. I had $75 of restaurant.com credit, so I used that on a $50 certificate to STRIPSTEAK (the largest denomination they had) + a $25 certificate to FIRST. Even with the certificates, both restaurants ended up costing us more than I anticipated.

STRIPSTEAK, in particular, I found to be very expensive for what we got. Our bill was slightly under $200 with the certificate (gulp). I kept trying to figure out what we ordered that brought our grand total to that amount. It was a good meal, but I wouldn’t personally recommend it; there are many places that you can spend that kind of money and get an amazing (more unique) meal. Scratch that — there are many places that you can spend less than that and get an amazing meal.

Bouchon, on the other hand, had no gift certificate options, but I found to be a better overall value. If you’re looking for one great dining experience, this is it. Both of our entrees were under $30 (unlike the $45 – $65 at STRIPSTEAK) and were exceptional. We really did it — apps, entrees, dessert, drinks, etc. and our grand total was in the $150 range. Plus the experience and ambiance I found to be notably better than the previous night.

We actually didn’t really do lunch any of the days; we did brunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday and those meals kept us going until dinnertime. Friday we hit up the Wicked Spoon buffet at the Cosmopolitan for a whopping $22 each (+ $9 for bottomless drinks if you want to go that route — we didn’t). This was a major deal (it’s about $35 on the weekends, so be warned). In all honesty, I wish we would have considered doing an awesome buffet for dinner one night. You can score some sweet buffet deal for ~$45 each and have an incredible meal.

We also hit up Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill for brunch on Saturday (we loved our experience there last year) and walked out with a bill that was just under $50 with tip. I think brunch/lunch is actually a great way to try awesome chefs’ restaurants at a reasonable price point. They had many of the same dinner menu items, just in different formats and at a lower cost.

If you’re on a serious budget, there are tons of casual dining spots where you can grab an inexpensive bite. We could have saved hugely by doing a cool buffet instead of STRIPSTEAK on Friday! Don’t forget to look on Restaurant.com to save some money!

Misc: $200

This captures the extra spending we did while we were there. I only picked up a couple of things (a Margaritaville tumbler and a Garth hat for dad), but we also had our fair share of frozen daytime drinks and played a few hands of video poker (though $10 at a time kept us going for a while).

Obviously, I could have done a bit better with budgeting (most notably on dining), but I think we did pretty well for a rather gluttonous weekend. For our next trip, I’m going to set a starting goal and try to stay under a serious budget. There are so many awesome online tools for getting great deals — there’s no reason to pay full price for anything!

What are your guys’ top tips for traveling on a budget? Where do you save big?

Happy Travels,

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.