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Beating the odds in Las Vegas: with a little planning, you can live large on a small bankroll in Sin City. (Travel: Value Vacation).

Some people don't believe in luck. They say we create, through effort or karma, our own futures. So the source of the good fortune bestowed upon my husband and me on a recent weekend trip to Las Vegas is debatable, but wherever it came from, we sure felt charmed: We enjoyed great food and entertainment--without busting our budget.

Once known for its bargain buffets and free drinks, Las Vegas more recently has gone upscale with swank new casinos and restaurants. Though you still can lose all your money at the slots, now you can also blow a big chunk of it on a Wolfgang Puck meal and a luxury room. But you don't have to. We set a target of $300 for quality meals and lodging for two, tax and tips included. You might call it impossible. But don't forget that Las Vegas isn't just Sin City--it's also the city of dreams.

Our money-saving strategies: Go midsummer to take advantage of low hotel rates snagged on the Internet; eat off-hours for discounts at restaurants; and search out the city's great variety of free or low-cost entertainment.

DAY ONE: THE ORIGINAL LAS VEGAS

We were right in the middle of things in our large room at New York-New York, where we had a view of the roller coaster and the Statue of Liberty. It wasn't a bad deal for $74.99 a night. With 9 percent hotel tax, our two nights came to $163.48. Another great lodging bargain is the Golden Nugget, where rooms start at $59. Located downtown (a few miles north of the Strip), it's one of Vegas's original casinos.

From New York--New York, we crossed Times Square to stroll Las Vegas Boulevard--the Strip of Sensory Overload. We kept cool by circling through casinos to gawk at the Eiffel Tower at Paris, the volcano at the Mirage, and the canals and gondolas at the Venetian. We were in the land of spectacle, and the scenery didn't disappoint--even the passersby were entertaining.

At Treasure Island, misters above a wood-plank sidewalk cooled us as we waited for the pirate show (free). We'd missed it on two previous Las Vegas visits because high winds had canceled the performance. But this was the beginning of our lucky weekend, and it started off right: With a pirate yell and a flash of gunpowder, the ships came alive.

As evening settled in, we took a cab ($15, including tip) to the original field of dreams--old downtown Las Vegas, where the city's first gambling houses opened nearly a century ago. The casinos in downtown aren't as posh as the newer spots on the Strip, but the old-style flash, with lots of neon and a quaint charm, is the Vegas equivalent of a historic district.

We arrived just as the Fremont Street Experience (free) was starting. Every hour, 36 computers broadcast a rocking music and animation show on the 90-foot-high ceiling of the street's four-block pedestrian mall. The production uses more than 2 million bulbs. We watched dancing fish, dancing hats, and a tribute to 1970s funk.

Between the light shows, street performers, and a band that entertained the crowds, the evening slipped by. We'd been told the slots were looser downtown, so we headed for the penny slots at the Gold Spike. We could hardly call our gambling spree a loss ($1).

Lingering paid off in another way too: We hit Bay City Diner in the Golden Gate casino in time for the graveyard special, which starts at 10 P.M. Our tab for French toast, ham, and eggs, with tax and tip, came to $7. Then another cab ride ($15) and off to bed, dreaming of Lady Luck.

DAY TWO: CULTURAL LAS VEGAS

Saturday dawned sunny and clear. We breakfasted on pastries and coffee from the hotel's Il Fornaio Panetteria ($5) and used a coupon we'd received at check-in to get free biscotti.

Most summer days in Las Vegas you want to stay indoors, so we boarded a free shuttle to our first stop, the Elvis-A-Rama Museum, stocked with Elvis's cars, jumpsuits, and even handwritten letters. In front of the small stage's gold lame curtain, a young Elvis swiveled and crooned "Love Me Tender." The performance wasn't as grand as an evening show, but it was as goofy and fun. And it was definitely worth it for $9.95 each. Back on the Strip, we headed to the MGM Grand, where we visited another kind of king--a pair of big cats at the casino's Lion Habitat.

It was really hot by then, and we needed to cool off. We took moving walkways and a free monorail all the way down the Strip to swanky Rumjungle, at Mandalay Bay. A wall of water and fire at the entrance kept the interior dark and cool. Dinners here can cost a lot, but from 12 to 4 P.M., Thursday through Sunday, inexpensive grilled sandwiches are available in the bar. We lounged in the rustic leather bar stools and were cooled by the sound of rushing water. Tab for two sandwiches, $18.

Shuttling north again, we journeyed to Desert Passage, the mall between the Aladdin and Paris casinos. Though the shopping center has many familiar upscale boutiques, it also has roving performers inspired by the ancient spice trade route. We watched a man fold himself into a tiny box and bedecked belly dancers spin and swivel marvelously (free).

Across the street, Bellagio's Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (free) was a lush and sweet-scented retreat. We walked past the lobby's colorful glass flower chandeliers sculpted by Dale Chihuly and into the conservatory's collection of live roses and chrysanthemums--hundreds of them in an airy greenhouse. They were swirled into patterns and shaped into butterflies. A bride was being photographed on the stairway.

Dusk was settling over the neon city when we emerged, refreshed. We were just in time for the best free spectacle of them all--the fountains at Bellagio. As Luciano Pavarotti's aria soared, a thousand lighted fountains exploded and cascaded perfectly on cue. They were surprisingly expressive as they misted, fizzed, and arced over a reflecting pool.

Dinner was tasty Mexican food with a South American influence at the Venetian's Taqueria Canonita. Pork tamales, tacos with mole, and black beans cost us $32. As we ate, a passing gondolier serenaded his passengers.

We'd been impressed with Bellagio, so we returned for nightcaps and jazz at the Allegro Jazz Lounge. It was elegant and indulgent, all for $15.

DAY THREE: A REALITY CHECK

Sunday we had a real Vegas morning. We started with Krispy Kreme doughnuts ($2), then lounged by the hotel's small pool with Bloody Marys ($12). Would it redeem us to report that we also swam a few meager laps?

We knew we were getting low on funds, so we resolved to partake in only free activities after checkout (we left a $5 housekeeping tip). We stood in line for a free pull at the giant slot machine out in front of the Tropicana. We didn't win a Mustang, but we got free tickets to the small but interesting Casino Legends Hall of Fame inside the casino.

Down the Strip, we watched two free circus acts at the Circus Circus casino. Though the crowds were a little overwhelming, the strongman duo and the flying acrobats were impressive.

And this is where our luck came in. We added up our expenses and realized we were overbudget by $10.38. Ever the optimist, my husband dragged me back to New York-New York and, after putting $2 into a slot machine, won $25! After buying a shrimp salad and a beef rice bowl for lunch with a two-for-one coupon at Chin Chin Cafe ($13.50), we went shopping, ending up with souvenir dice ($2.07).

So maybe we didn't exactly hit our target. But doing Las Vegas for around $300 sure made us feel lucky.

RELATED ARTICLE: DAY ONE

$300

IN POCKET

Two nights at New York-New York: -$163

REMAINING: $137

Strolling the Strip and watching the gondolas: FREE

Cab to and from downtown: -$30

REMAINING: $107

Fremont Street Experience: FREE

Penny slots at the Gold Spike: -$1

REMAINING: $106

Late-night breakfast at Bay City Diner: -$7

REMAINING: $99

DAY TWO

Pastries and coffee at II Fornaio: -$5

REMAINING: $94

Elvis-A-Rama Museum: -$20

REMAINING: $74

Prowl MGM Grand's Lion Habitat: FREE

REMAINING: $56

Sandwiches and atmosphere at Rumjungle: -$18

Shop and watch roving acrobats and dancers at Desert Passage: FREE

IN THE HOLE: -$5

Stop to smell the flowers in Bellagio's Conservatory and watch the fountain show: FREE

Mexican fare at the Venetian's Taqueria Canonita: -$32 * $24 REMAINING

IN THE HOLE: -$10

Nightcaps arid jazz at Allegro Jazz Lounge: -$15 * $9 REMAINING

DAY THREE

Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Bloody Marys by the pool: -$14

Tip for housekeeping: -$5

REMAINING: $13

Score tickets to Tropicana's Casino Legends Hall of Fame: FREE

Amazing circus performers at Circus Circus: FREE

IN THE HOLE: -$1

Lucky slot machine: +$23

IN THE HOLE: -$3

Lunch with a 2-for-1 coupon at New York--New York's Chin Chin Cafe: -$14

Souvenir "lucky" red dice: -$2

TOTAL SPENT: $303

Saving a dime in Las Vegas

For general area information, contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (3150 Paradise Rd.; 877/847-4858 or www.vegasfreedom.com).

ENTERTAINMENT

* Buccaneer Bay Sea Battle. Every 90 minutes. 5:30-11:30 P.M. Treasure Island, 3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (800) 944-7444 or www.treasureisland.com.

* Casino Legends Hall of Fame. Tropicana, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (702) 739-5444.

* Circus shows. Approximately every half hour from 11:15 A.M.-12 A.M. Circus Circus, 2880 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (800) 444-2472.

* Desert Passage. 3663 Las Vegas Blvd.; (888) 800-8284 or www.desertpassage.com.

* Elvis-A-Rama Museum. 10-6 daily; $9.95 (free shuttle from the Strip). 3401 Industrial Rd.; (702) 309-7200.

* Fountains at Bellagio. Every half hour 3 P.M.-8 P.M. Mon-Fri, 12 P.M.-8 P.M. Sat-Sun; every 15 minutes 8 P.M.-12 A.M. Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (888) 987-6667.

* Fremont Street Experience. 8:30 P.M. and every hour 9 P.M.-12 A.M. 425 Fremont St.; (702) 678-5600 or www.vegasexperience.com.

* Lion Habitat. 11-11 daily. MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (702) 891-7777 or www.mgmgrand.com.

DINING

* Allegro Jazz Lounge. Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (888) 987-6667.

* Bay City Diner. Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, 1 Fremont St.; (800) 426-1906.

* Chin Chin Cafe, Grand Central Coffee Company, and II Fornaio Panetteria. In New York-New York. See "Lodging" below.

* Rumjungle. Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (702) 632-7408.

* Taqueria Canonita. The Venetian, 3377 Las Vegas Blvd. S; (702) 414-3377.

LODGING

* Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino. Rooms from $59. 129 E. Fremont St.; www.goldennugget.com or (800) 634-3454.

* New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Rooms from $60. 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S; www.nynyhotelcasino.com or (800) 693-6763.
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Author:Taggart, Lisa
Publication:Sunset
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:1815
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