How Not to Lose All Your Money on a Work Trip in Las Vegas

Vegas BellagioLas Vegas, land of $6 ATM fees and $16 whisky shots. I recently arrived in this mid-desert oasis of entertainment and booze for a tradeshow, where upcoming designers, such as the friend I was there to work for, showed off their wares by day and then retreated to the casinos by night.

We went to the casinos because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. The hotel where we were staying, and which housed the trade show, was also a casino, and getting out of it meant a cab ride or a significant walk in 107-degree heat. Our particular convention center, located right by a shark reef that boasts more teeth than the casino does slot machines (and for which I paid $18 to enter for 20 minutes), housed small-time jewelry and clothing designers—people who did not have money to throw away on said slot machines or shark exhibits. As a mere employee of one of these designers, I certainly did not, though the sharks proved too hard to resist.

Still, each day when the trade show ended, we had no choice but to pass through the slots and the lights and the booze as we headed back to our hotel room. We got paid daily for our work, to help cover immediate expenses like dinner and, energized by our cash gains, we realized quickly that abstaining was not an option.

Enter Linda, a veteran of the trade show, who taught us an important lesson as we stared dismally at a menu listing only $8 beers on night one. “The trick,” she told us, swigging down a Heineken that her new friend, a New Jersey construction worker she’d met earlier at the bar, had bought her, “is to put money in the slot machines, wait there until one of the cocktail waitresses comes by and asks if you want a drink, then grab the drink and cash out. It’s that easy, and you get a free drink.”

My three friends who I was traveling with, two designers and another helper like myself, took this advice to heart—and of course it worked. After having let go of a depressing sum of money from missing our original flight to Vegas (spending an entire day in multiple airports does not end cheaply) and realizing that getting anywhere off the strip, where food and drink were reasonably priced, was no easy feat from our hotel in the desert heat, we needed this shortcut to free stuff. And if that one worked, there had to be others we could rely on.

Following again in Linda’s footsteps, we did take advantage of the fact that, as a group of young women, men were happy to treat us to drinks and even some small food items. The groom’s side of a wedding party provided some wings and beer one evening (a perfectly round meal!), and Linda’s construction worker friend easily coughed up the cash for a couple of rounds when we saw him again.

As gratifying as this practice proved, the chauvinistic overtones left a bad taste in my mouth, as did the wings. We looked into cheaper food and drink options and found several. As it turned out, taking a cab to the nearest, off-the-strip grocery store and stocking up on healthy-ish snacks was less expensive than eating in our hotel every night, where just one room service item exceeded $20. Cabs in Vegas, and grocery stores, are much more reasonable than garishly themed hotels—surprise, surprise.

In-N-Out Burger proved another indispensible option for us. Within walking distance of our hotel, it offered satisfying meals for under $5 a head.

We got more elaborate. We began actively searching for deals. This led us to a drag show off the strip, where for $10 you got all the hard alcohol you could drink for as long as you remained at the bar. We stayed dancing around the unused pole, post-performances, for at least five hours.

We’d originally planned our flights so that we’d get one free day in Vegas to do whatever our glitter-following hearts desired after the tradeshow. When making this plan, the expenses inherent in such a day had not occurred to us. But by the time this day actually rolled around, we were no longer Vegas naïve.

We started the day with a beautiful buffet breakfast. Well, one of us did. The others casually waited outside as the chosen buffet-goer snuck all the muffins and pork buns and grapes and cupcakes (the last, a bad idea) she could fit into her largest purse. She got a to-go cup filled with several refills worth of bottomless mimosa. Though all of this may sound like a horrific meal, it was quite delicious, and quite worth it considering our low budgets.

Next, we took a trip to the one of the fanciest hotels on the strip. Filled with multi-million-dollar Jeff Koons sculptures commissioned by the hotel’s owner and a life-size merry-go-round made entirely of flowers, this hotel blew our brown-carpeted, Egyptian-themed hotel out of the water—an apt expression, since we came to this hotel for the water.

The pool extended from one entrance of the sprawling hotel/casino to another: two ovals connected by a long corridor of pool, shaded in areas by quaint bridges that allowed cocktail waitresses to grab drinks from the bar and saunter right across to serve patrons on the other side. You were absolutely not allowed in unless you were a guest or a guest of a guest. If you were the latter, one room card would let a total of three people pass by the elderly man guarding the entrance (we’d done our research).

Luckily, by this point, we’d uncovered the key to Vegas hotels: look like you belong, and no one will dare question your presence. So, with our few remaining muffins and a plastic container full of mimosa, we began the perfect end to our trip. Since the pool represented a full day of free, unlimited entertainment, we even had enough money to buy one overpriced but very tasty piña colada each … and tip our server.


This story is part of a series examining our financial vices.

Jessica Klein is a freelance writer living in New York. She doesn’t have a blog.



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