Las Vegas: Great odds for cheap frills

With the iffy economy, high fuel costs and tight travel budgets, Las Vegas is dropping prices and betting again on bargain hunters. You can find an under-$40 room on the Strip and book luxury lodgings like the Bellagio and Trump International for less than $200. USA TODAY's Kitty Bean Yancey scoped out the odds of scoring a value weekend.

Lodging:

Hotel deals abound. Best time is midweek if no big conventions are in town, when you'll find under-$40 rooms on the Strip. Hooters Casino Hotel, just off the Strip, has $29 specials. I cruised sites including Expedia.com, VEGAS.com and visitlasvegas.com (the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority site) and looked at individual hotels' monthly rates-at-a-glance charts online. (I love that most Vegas lodgings have these.) For my dates, I did best by calling the Sahara Hotel & Casino directly and snagging $65 nightly, better than its Web rate. The former Rat Pack haunt is on the Strip (a plus), but has seen better days. No tuxes, just T-shirts for sale that read: "I swear to drunk, I'm not God." My bare-bones room had a stained carpet, no safe or minibar and an ominous sign warning you to look through the peephole before admitting anyone. But the mattress was OK, and it passed a bedbug check.

• Sahara Hotel & Casino, 866-382-8884, saharavegas.com

Getting around:

I lucked out on a great Avis rate ($41 for two days, what round-trip airport cab fare can cost). Casinos have free self-parking; a car makes it easy to cruise for bargains. Other options include airport/hotel shuttles, Las Vegas monorail or $5-a-day "the Deuce" bus pass.

Dining:

Cheap food is bait to get you to gamble. But if you eat and run, you're the winner. In two days, I spent what I normally would on a nice Strip joint dinner, thanks to a tutorial from lasvegasadvisor.com president Anthony Curtis. (His members get a coupon book that pays for itself in deals.) He piloted me to off-the-Strip Ellis Island Casino & Brewery, where the draw is a decent $6.99 sirloin dinner with big salad, green beans, potato and home-brewed suds or root beer. All you do is join the players' club. (Like those at other casinos, it's free.) I used a coupon on the placemat to double my winnings on a hand of blackjack. That $10 "dessert" paid for my meal.

Other cheap eats: a 99-cent half-pound hot dog at the Slots A Fun arcade on the Strip; $3.50 ham-and-white bean stew with cornbread and seven pats of butter served in a Styrofoam container at a diner-style counter at Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel downtown.

And after a price leap to $1.99, Vegas' most famous snack (20-plus shrimp in a sundae glass at the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino downtown) is still 99 cents with a players' club card. Though dished out at a charmless cafeteria counter, they've been upgraded and are quite good. Thrown in for free: go-go dancers in sequined bras and feathered headdresses undulating on platforms alongside the gaming tables. They're a recent addition, Curtis says.

My splurge: the well-reviewed Cravings buffet at The Mirage, at lunch when it's $19.34, with tax and beverage. Fill your plate at a dozen-plus food stations, including all-you-can-eat shrimp. For the first time in years, Vegas buffet prices are holding steady or inching downward, Curtis says.

Attractions:

Nix $100 shows at Tx 4 Tonight booths, where you can get half off (usually not for big draws such as Cher, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas).

I paid zip to see Bobby Slayton, "the pit bull of comedy," by joining Hooters' players' club. The act included biting, un-PC jokes about fat bridesmaids, ethnic groups and whiny wives. The audience hooted, but I hit the door — only to lose $5 at video poker. Curtis, a former professional gambler, tried to clue me in on the mathematical laws of probability, but, hey, I'm a word person.

Other Vegas freebies include the Mirage volcano (dormant now in preparation for a gee-whiz upgrade due in December), Bellagio fountains that spurt in time to music (get a great view for the price of a $6 beer or $11 glass of wine at its lakeside Fontana Bar) and Treasure Island Hotel and Casino's Sirens of TI battling "pirates" in an outdoor lagoon.

While Siegfried and Roy's white tigers now cost $15 to view in an elaborate garden at the Mirage, you'll see lions cavort, free, in a habitat adjoining the MGM Grand's casino. Brother-and-sister "Dude" and "Marina" had the crowd oohing, aahing and photo-snapping as they wrestled playfully behind safety glass near gurgling slot machines.

Downtown Vegas — spiffed-up, budget-friendly Glitter Gulch, now rebranded as the Fremont Street Experience— boasts a laser/music extravaganza.

• Hooters Casino Hotel, 866-584-6687, hchvegas.com

• The Mirage, 800-456-4564, mirage.com

• Bellagio, 888-987-6667, bellagio.com

• Treasure Island, 800-288-7206, treasureisland.com

• MGM Grand, 877-880-0880, mgmgrand.com

• Fremont Street Experience, vegasexperience.com

Lessons learned:

Underestimating how frugally I could eat and turning $50 allotted for gambling into $82, I should have upgraded hotels. I could have stayed cheaper at locals' favorite Station casinos, or thrown some cash at the chic Trump International Hotel & Tower (as low at $159 this fall) or The Venetian ($155 during my visit, tourists I met said). A pricey hotel could have been in the cards, had I foresworn a $15 chair massage and $64 shopping spree at the vast Las Vegas Outlet Center.I didn't need another pair of shoes, anyway.

• Las Vegas Outlet Center, 702-896-5599, lasvegasoutletcenter.com

How do you stretch your dollars in Las Vegas? Share your budget strategies below.

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