Sept. 22, 2010 -- Las Vegas may be the city where you can lose your shirt and plane ticket home at the roll of the dice, but it's also a city full of bargains and amazing freebies for savvy travelers willing to look in the right spots.
While there might not be such a thing in life as a free lunch, there are free shows, snacks and even a free chance at striking it rich.
In that spirit, we have put together a list of some of our favorite free activities in Las Vegas.
"There's more free stuff here than basically anyplace," said Anthony Curtis, publisher and owner of the discount tourist guide Las Vegas Advisor and one of the foremost experts on cheap Las Vegas. "We've been on the bandwagon for two decades that Vegas is the place to go for the cheapest vacations. The discounts on everything are just amazing."
Curtis notes that everything from meals to hotel rooms are subsidized by tourist gambling dollars. If you keep your gambling budget in check, everything else can be a steal.
The best example of that might be with the dining deals. Consider the $6.95 steak dinner at Ellis Island that includes a 10-ounce filet-cut sirloin, salad, garlic green beans, choice of potato, and a microbrewed beer. (Don't worry, we will get to the absolutely free items in a second.)
"Each casino needs to do something bigger and better than the last one. They tear one down, put a new one up. It has to have some type of attraction to get people to come to that casino," adds Anne Banas, executive editor of travel website SmarterTravel. "That's why you see so many of these free shows to lure people. Of course, you have to walk through the casino to get there."
To find the best deals, do some planning upfront. The biggest mistake people make when they get to Las Vegas, Curtis said, is that they haven't thought about what they are going to do.
"They get here and there's sensory overload from the ads, the billboards and all the things that are flashing at them. They don't know what to do," he said. "Once you get here, I would open everything, in terms of freebie magazines, things they put you in your room, things they want you to sign up for at the club booths. I would do all of those things. People tend to shy away from giving your name out. In Vegas it's the other way around. You want to give your name out."
Ten Best Free Things to Do in Las Vegas
Fountains of Bellagio: More than a thousand fountains at the Bellagio dance to music ranging from Pavarotti to Sinatra. Sold as the most ambitious, choreographically complex water feature ever conceived, this free show is sure to amaze you. Each performance is unique in its expression and interpretation and ranges from opera to classical to Broadway tunes. Depending on time of day, the show starts every 15 or 30 minutes in front of the casino.
"That fountain show at the Bellagio is just absolutely insane. It's gorgeous. I think it's one of the coolest things you can do in this city," Curtis said.
Weekly Football Contests: The M Resort offers a free contest for gamblers to try to pick the NFL teams will win each week. First prize each week is $5,000, and you don't have to risk a penny to take your shot. There is also a chance to win $150,000. The chances of winning are pretty slim, but hey, it's free. Coast Casinos also have a weekly football contest with $30,000 in prizes.
Circus Acts: Experience the world's largest permanent circus … above a casino floor at the aptly-named Circus Circus. There are acrobats, trapeze acts, jugglers and all your other favorite circus acts in the middle of the casino's kid-friendly midway. Performances start at 11 a.m. daily and go well past a toddler's bedtime.
Flamingo Wildlife Habitat: Appropriately enough, the Flamingo resort is home to a flock of live Chilean Flamingos. These birds, along with a collection of other feathered friends, hang out in the hotel's very own wildlife habitat, or the closest thing to it on The Las Vegas Strip. There are also swans, ducks, koi and turtles relaxing by the waterfalls and the tropical foliage.
Cheap Las Vegas Vacations
Ethel's Chocolates Factory Tour: Free, self-guided factory tours show every step of candy-making in the chocolate factory.
"It's something to do that doesn't have to do with gambling. It's in a little quiet area and you get free samples at the end, so you can't argue with that," Banas said. "It's a great thing, especially if you are there are with kids."
After seeing the sweets, check out the adjacent Botanical Cactus Garden, Nevada's largest. Based on the English landscape model of naturalistic design, Ethel's Botanical Cactus Garden features four acres of drought-tolerant ornamentals, cacti and other succulents. More than 300 species of plants can be found on the grounds, half being cacti.
Rio Masquerade Show in the Sky : This Carnival-like show is unlike anything else in Vegas. Performers ride floats that hang down from tracks on the ceiling of the casino. There is music and dancing, and plenty of free trinkets are thrown from the floats. Each unique show brings a new level of energy and excitement to an already-loud casino floor. Shows are hourly from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. (For $12.95, guests can actually get a spot on some floats and participate in the show.)
"That's like a 12-13 minute production," Curtis said. "These are actors, these are real performers up there singing and dancing. Some of these are fairly elaborate."
Fremont Street Experience: Located in Downtown Las Vegas, the Fremont Street Experience offers free nightly shows featuring 12.5 million lights and 550,000 watts of amazing sound. The show is often paired with free concerts and other special events. It's a modern twist on old-school Vegas. The show starts every hour on the hour from 7 p.m. to midnight. On the east end of the street, walk through the outdoor Neon Museum, which hosts some of the old hotels' neon signs.
Sirens of TI: It used to be a standard pirate show; the British fighting the pirates. But then Treasure Island rebranded itself as the hipper TI and added some sex appeal to its pirate show. Enter the Sirens of TI. There's still plenty of fighting and explosives but now some scantily-clad women are in the mix. The plot, if you need one, is that the sirens lure a band of renegade pirates into their cove with powerful and captivating melodies. Shows are every 90 minutes each night.
Best Free Las Vegas Attractions
MGM Grand Lion Habitat: The lion has been a part of the MGM heritage for many years, beginning with the legendary Leo, whose roars have welcomed generations of moviegoers to epics of the silver screen. Now visitors to the MGM Grand casino can see several African lions and cubs. The lions live in custom accommodations on an 8.5-acre ranch 12 miles from the casino but are brought into the hotel's habitat where 35-foot glass walls allow guests to view the lions from all angles. The area is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Volcano at the Mirage: This is the freebie that really started it all. The volcano at the Mirage erupts at the top of each hour from 8 p.m. to midnight, spewing smoke and fire 100 feet above the water. But this isn't the same show from the casino's opening in 1989. The Mirage has joined forces with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, Indian tabla sensation Zakir Hussain and Fountains of Bellagio design firm WET to create an all-new audio/visual spectacle.
There are plenty of other free things to do in Las Vegas and the convention and visitors authority has a full list of all the free activities in the city.