Friday, June 8, 2012

Tips on Planning a Group Trip to Vegas

Getting the gang back together in Vegas?  Good call.  But here are some suggestions to think about before you go through with it.

Who is going, and why?

Lots of people love visiting Vegas, but different people may like it for different reasons.  Here are some reasons people might want to go to vegas:

  • To gamble like a high roller
  • To gamble like a low roller
  • To play poker all night
  • To play video poker all night
  • To sunbathe at the pool
  • To have a spa day
  • To stay in a room for $25 per night
  • To stay in a five-star suite
  • To hike in the desert/mountains
  • To walk up and down the Strip
  • To hang out Downtown
  • To go out to dance clubs
  • To see Cirque du Soleil
  • To see a headliner
  • To go to a gentlemen's club
  • To gorge oneself at a cheap buffet
  • To gorge oneself on a ginormous steak and a lobster
  • To eat at a celebrity chef's restaurant
  • To eat at Lotus of Siam
  • To eat at a casino coffee shop
  • To drink a giant margarita
  • To get away from the kids
  • To show the kids the sights
  • To blow $100 over a weekend
  • To blow $10,000 over a weekend
  • Something in between

While there may be some overlap, many of these activities do not complement one another.  For this reason, it's a good idea to have a clear idea of who is going and what they are expecting out of a trip to Vegas.  

Be aware of their budget

Having been involved in several trips, not all of which I have planned, I think it is especially a good idea to get an idea of how much each person intends to budget.  Unless you are hosting other people and don't expect them to pay or reciprocate your generosity in any way, some of them might have a very hard time keeping up with your Kardashian-caliber lifestyle.  Or, if you are like me, they might all be fed up with your cheap ass for bunking up 8 people in a room downtown to save $20.

Don't avoid doing expensive things just to please the lowest budget in your group; however; understand if they want to do something else while you are doing those things.

Where to Stay

Most people who don't go to Vegas very often are expecting to stay on the Strip.  If several people are coming and getting their own rooms, I suggest planning your meeting place at or near Bally's, and letting people book their own hotel.  You can help by sending them a link to a booking web site.  Or if you want something slightly more hip, the Flamingo.  The reasons I suggest Bally's as the best possible place for a group is:
  • It has a wide variety of room levels, including usually very affordable South Tower rooms and suites, as well as more upscale North Tower rooms and suites
  • For people in your group who want something fancier, it is a short walk to Caesars' Palace, Bellagio, Paris, Planet Hollywood, etc.  For people on the cheap, there is the Imperial Palace and Harrahs.  There is no need for everyone to stay in the same place when everything is right there. 
  • It's centrally located and accessible for most things you would want to get to without needing a car or taxi.

As an alternative, you could choose a hotel like the Luxor, Tropicana, or MGM Grand, which are also centrally located and near other hotels at other levels.

If you are a bottom-feeder like me, keep in mind that it isn't just rooms on the Strip that are more expensive.  In fact, rooms are not actually always that much more expensive than other locations, particularly when considering the level of service and quality that you get.  However, everything else is pretty expensive on the Strip and dollars can add up quickly.  Blackjack will be at least $10 a hand in most places.  Basic coffee shop meals (say, a cheeseburger) run around $15 a person at lower-end casino coffee shops, more at higher-end coffee shops; expect to spend $25 with a soft drink, tax, and tip.  This due in large part to the fact that Strip casinos are mostly unionized; most other casinos are not, so their prices are lower.  The Strip is also very crowded, especially on weekends.  If you plan to go to the pool, you might not find a free lounge chair after 9:00 a.m., let alone two chairs next to each other.  Allow yourself plenty of time for standing in line, navigating crowds, and getting lost.

If you are more experienced, or if the crowd likes things a little rowdier and cheaper and will be with a group and gambling will be a significant part of the action, consider downtown.  This is especially recommended for a bachelor party-type group for whom amenities are less of a consideration.  There are a variety of hotels at different levels, but all of them are generally a good value.  However, rooms are smaller than what you will find elsewhere, since the hotels tend to be older.  I suggest the Plaza, which was just remodeled using furniture that was originally intended for the aborted five-star Fontainebleau, or the classic El Cortez, which is a fun place to gamble, has a very reasonably priced steak house (with a coupon in has some terrific offers on their web site.

For veteran-tightwads who drive to Vegas like myself, who just find the strip to be too crowded and expensive, off-strip is the way to go.  Orleans is usually a winner with this crowd.  However, nothing is within a short walk from these types of places.  This is not ideal for first-timers, party animals, or people expecting the Strip, because it isn't.

How many people are in your group?

In my experience, the ideal sized group for a trip to Vegas is about 4 people who know each other well.  Generally I have had the best experience with no more than three couples or six people flying solo.  
Sometimes you will necessarily have more than that.  If so, limiting your schedule is important.

Only schedule dinner

As noted above, people may want different things out of a trip to Vegas.  However, you are there as a group.  As the organizer, you need to balance these competing concepts.  In particular, you want to avoid a situation in which everyone wastes a lot of time trying to agree what to do, and then you run out of time.

The most successful group trips I have planned let people do their own thing most of the day.  I suggest planning only one group activity per day.  In most cases, this should be a meal - usually dinner, or perhaps brunch.  Dinner is good because it gets people together at a specific time and place, it's a situation when you can all sit together, and people can continue to do things in smaller groups afterwards if they so choose.

A good meeting place is a buffet.  It's usually something everyone can agree on.  The Bellagio may be a good suggestion: it's a place the big spenders will usually be happy with, and it's a reasonable once-a-trip splurge for the low rollers.  For what it's worth, it's also my wife's favorite restaurant in the world.  Different people have different favorites, so choose yours.

However, it has a very long line on weekends, so plan accordingly.  If you are telling people to meet for dinner at 8:00 p.m., you may need to get in line around 6:30 or 7:00.  Others can join you in line as they arrive.

Buffets also have one other advantage over other restaurants: each person pays their own way before they get in.  If you fear the awkwardness of how to split the bill after a group dinner, the buffet might be the way to go.

If you prefer a sit-down restaurant, consider something that everyone will be able to agree on.  Consider the budgets of different people.  Here are some suggestions that have something for everyone:

  • The Peppermill (next to the Riviera), a fun and swanky coffee shop, with the fun Fireside lounge - although call ahead to be sure they can accommodate your entire group, since all seating is in booths
  • Any casino coffee shop
  • A food truck meet-up
(If it's not obvious, I love coffee shops. The diner kind, not the Starbucks kind.  Casino coffee shops are almost always of high quality.  They are great for sitting for long periods of time and shmoozing, and everyone can usually find something they like on the menu, from cold cereal to prime rib of beef.)

If your group won't deign to sit around a coffee shop Seinfeld style, here are some other places to look for restaurants:

  • Las Vegas Advisor dining guide
  • Yelp
  • - but check reviews and with the others before dragging a group to a place you have a coupon for.  Some people may find this to be pretty tacky.

Be patient, but schedule a hard start

One thing you don't expect in Vegas is how long everything takes: Distances are misleadingly long, especially when walking; traffic on and around the Strip can be terrible, buses are missed, naps are taken, alarms are slept through.  Be patient, but let people know ahead of time that you will start eating dinner (or whatever the activity is) before too long.  Some people will be late, or may not show at all.  If you schedule dinner for 8:00, don't wait any longer than, say, until 8:30 to begin ordering.  Let people know in advance that you won't wait (but don't specifically say what time you will start ordering, so that people don't focus on that time instead of the reservation time). People may be late, or they may not show at all.  Don't be offended.  People don't have cars and may be lost or disoriented in a place that is designed to be disorienting.  If you try to call them, they may not respond because they don't hear their phone or, more likely, may not have reception in the casino.  They are not trying to be rude.  Just be patient and have fun with the people who made it on time, and the others can join in when they get there.

The rest of the time

All other times, let people do their own thing.  As noted above, different people are interested in different activities.  The bigger the group, or if people don't know each other very well, the more likely there are to be challenges in agreeing on an activity.  Even if everyone wants to gamble, that can mean different things to different people: you may play $25 a hand at the Wynn, but I'll be using match-play coupons and video poker promos at the Riviera or $3 blackjack at the Cortez.  I've wasted hours trying to get consensus.  Don't let that happen to you.


I always like having a car when I'm in Vegas. They are relatively cheap to rent, and parking (valet or self) is always easy and free.  For some reason I never really liked taking cabs, and I don't usually drink that much, especially in hot weather, since it makes me feel dehydrated and tired.  I also have been to Vegas enough times to know not to drive on the center strip (traffic can be horrendous), and I know most of the alternative routes.  If there is someone in your group like me, they are the obvious candidate for designated driver.  If not, cabs are obviously readily available.  Don't expect the designated driver to drive everyone around all of the time; presumably they didn't come to Vegas to be a driver.  If your flight arrives at the same time as his/hers, you can meet up and catch a ride to the hotel; otherwise, you may want to find your own ground transportation.

An Example

The best trip I planned to Vegas was with some of my old friends from school.  It was over a weekend, we stayed at the Orleans, and I planned 3 events: a Friday midnight meeting at the Orleans Courtyard Cafe coffee shop, dinner Saturday night at 9pm at the steak house on the top of Binions (back then it was still the Horseshoe), and sunday brunch at the Bellagio buffet.  The rest of the time was unplanned, and people winged it.  I and I think one other person had a car, others took cabs.   Some bet on sports, some played cards, I went to the shvitz (spa - more on this in a later post).  Nobody was there to see shows, etc.  There were 6 of us, we didn't all do everything together all of the time, but it worked out well and it wasn't rushed.

Did I miss anything?  Let me know in the comments.  Also, check back in the future as I update things occasionally.

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