Vegas Virgins. What to Know Before You Go.

A guide for novices, newbies and nits.

Arming yourself with knowledge could help you avoid many common mistakes, making your first trip to Sin City more enjoyable and much more affordable.

Where to stay. If you play your cards right, your first visit to Vegas could be the only time you pay for your room, but booking that initial stay can be daunting. There are many options and a wealth of resources at your disposal. Perusing websites will provide all the information you need, but processing it may be difficult. Should you stay on the Las Vegas Strip? What about historic Fremont, the street where it all began? Or should you choose one of many locals casinos? These properties purportedly offer better odds, and often feature amenities like multiplex cinemas and bowling alleys.

Unquestionably, your first Vegas experience should be on the Strip. There are plenty of reasons to stay and play downtown or at locals casinos, but your primal Vegas expectations can only be met in the heart of the beast. This is where you will find the glitz and the glamor and the non-stop action you are probably seeking. You have approximately four miles of hotel rooms to choose from, starting with Mandalay Bay and going north to the Stratosphere.

If you are looking for a bargain, check out older properties like Bally’s or the Mirage. You will still get luxury accommodations, but at a much lower rate. The Flamingo is also known for good rates, and you can’t beat the location. Booking online will insure the best possible price and spare you a voice-prompted game of tag. Compare a few prices. Remember, two major corporations own almost all of Strip properties, but a few still stand alone. These include Treasure Island, Las Vegas Hilton, the Cosmopolitan and the somewhat unassuming Casino Royale.

How to get there. Deplaning at McCarran Airport can be a frenetic experience … much like being teleported from a sensory deprivation tank to the center of a carnival midway. Along with the standard airport retail, bars and eateries, you are bombarded with the electronic keening of hundreds of slot machines, which you should ignore. These machines have some of the worst odds in town and will sound far less appealing in a few days when you’re walking the other direction. Keep moving. You have better things to do, and better games to play.

Depending on your gate, you will probably navigate escalators and a tram before reuniting with your checked luggage, if you have any. Taxi stands and shuttle kiosks are located on the east side of the massive baggage claim area. For a taxi, exit through doors 1-4. For shuttles, the exits are 7-13. Shuttles are the cheaper option, at around seven bucks for a trip to the Strip. This isn’t necessarily a direct trip, and unless you are lucky, the bus will drop folks off at a half-dozen properties before reaching yours. It can be frustrating, but it’s also a good way to see the town up close and relish the maddening anticipation. However, if patience doesn’t rank high in your lexicon, take a cab.

You may encounter a long, snaking line between you and the taxi stand, but it will move remarkably fast. Tell the attendant who summons your cab if you are paying with a credit card. Many cabs in Vegas don’t take plastic. Once you are comfortably seated in the vehicle, announce in a friendly tone that you would rather not go through the tunnel, which adds unnecessary mileage to the trip. Some drivers will take your request at face value; others may get defensive and ask for alternate directions. Surprise the driver by actually telling him. “North on Swenson to Tropicana, Tropicana to Las Vegas Boulevard.” If you aren’t going to the Strip, just arm yourself with a Google map printout and read the directions to the driver. Or, better yet … memorize them. You’ll sound like seasoned Vegas veteran. Allowing for traffic, the entire ride to the Strip should take less than fifteen minutes, and cost several dollars less than twenty.

Cool your heels. Many people refer to Vegas hotel rooms as bag drops. You check in … you drop your bags … you head for the casino. But, why not take your time? More than likely, your bankroll will shrink a lot quicker than you think, so take this opportunity to set the pace for the entire trip. Slow down. Unpack. Hang up your clothes. Fill those empty drawers. Make yourself at home. Just remember, if you remove any items from the minibar, your credit card will automatically be charged--even when you just glance at the label and put the item back. If you pick it up, you might as well consume it … because you just bought it.

Gaming. If you are a novice, it's a good idea to read up on casino games before your trip. When you do this, you will be instructed to stick to the games with the lowest house advantage. These include Blackjack, certain Video Poker machines and, depending on whom you ask, Craps. Slot machines are not recommended. Roulette is frowned upon. But if you’re there to have fun, play what makes you happy. You’re on vacation, not cramming for the SATs. However, having a working knowledge of basic strategies couldn’t hurt. Also, you should never play games you don’t understand. And try to avoid playing while inebriated. There is a reason the drinks are free.

Join the club. Every casino has a players club and you should sign up. It’s free and relatively painless, although at times the lines can be long. The corporations have linked players club systems, so if you get a card at a Caesars or MGM property, it will be valid in any of their respective casinos and your rated play will be combined. By tracking your play, the casinos determine how much free stuff to offer as incentive for your return. As previously noted, your first trip may be the only one that requires payment for your room and meals.

Grease the wheels. Tipping is always voluntary, but in Vegas it is the lubrication that keeps the machine in motion. This is a service industry town. Taxi stand attendants, valets, cab drivers, baggage handlers, dealers, slot attendants and housekeeping all expect and appreciate a small gratuity. And don’t overlook buffet servers … two or three dollars per person is good. For cocktail waitresses, a dollar or two per drink is reasonable. A dollar per bag is a good place to start with bellmen or anyone who schleps your bags for you. Housekeeping should be tipped daily, the cash placed in plain sight on towels or a pillow--unless management has provided an obvious repository, like a card or a note. One to five dollars per day is reasonable. More is even better, if you are winning. This is just good karma. Imagine how insignificant that small amount of cash will be once you take it downstairs. You may as well do some good with it. Voluntarily.

Keep it real. You can’t do it all in one day. You can’t see it all in one week. Do not forget you eventually have to go home. Don’t let this devilishly effective insulation from reality make your decisions for you. And try to keep your gaming expectations in check. Be prepared to lose your gambling money. It happens. If you walk away with any cash at all, you beat the system. Because they want it all.

That’s simply the cost to having this much fun.

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