I recently, went on a trip to Las Vegas to visit family, and in addition to providing a welcome dose of southwestern sunshine, it was a great way to further hone our frugal travel technique:
- Do your research
Much of the fun of travel lies in the anticipation - imagining and planning all the fun things you're going to do. I try to take a balanced approach to pre-travel research - I don't want to have every second planned out, but I do quite a bit of scouting beforehand so I have a sense of the major things I want to do, where they are, and what the constraints are (hours, costs, transportation, etc). That way, I don't overlook things and am not taken by surprise on the last day of my trip when I discover my number one destination is closed on Sundays. When I'm there, I plan my days around the big destinations I definitely don't want to miss, and then use my research to guide me toward other interesting places along the way. Nowadays I also always take my laptop with me to do more detailed research as my plans unfold.
My favorite way to do research is through blogs. City commerce sites are ok for getting a general sense of where things are, but they're not good for evaluating what's actually worth visiting and what's a mediocre tourist trap. It's local blogs that help you find the hidden gems and remove the chaff. Sites like Yelp and Chowhound are also helpful, but the detailed posts and pictures on blogs both provide tips and context for deciding whether a particular suggestion matches with your own preferences. Also helpful is checking out local independent newspapers for views and reviews - in this case the Las Vegas Weekly.
The best blogs I found for Las Vegas are:
- Living Las Vegas
This blog from several different contributors contains a wealth of information on the fun and interesting things locals do in Las Vegas.
- Vegas Musings
Lots of restaurant and bakery reviews with plenty of pictures
- One frugal foodie
This is mainly a cooking-oriented site with a frugal / vegan sensibility much like this blog. So there aren't a lot of Vegas-specific material, but it contains a few good local tips.
- Eating Las Vegas
Another restaurant blog with detailed posts and lots of pictures.
- Travel out of season
The end of January (when we went) is a great time to visit Vegas. The crush of drunken Midwesterners was much less severe than the last time I was there - although there was a noticeable glut of well-heeled Chinese, perhaps in town for the New Year. Furthermore, the hotels and restaurants were offering great deals to lure in the off-season crowd. Although the flight to Vegas was quite cramped, the red-eye back to Boston on Friday night was comfortably roomy.
- Grocery tourism
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to visit local grocery stores. They contain very few tourists, they give you a taste of local cuisine at very low costs, and you never know when you'll find an exciting new food or an obscure old favorite.
Overall, I was duly impressed by the Vegas grocery scene. I have no idea why, but I found both ethnic and conventional grocery stores there to be a step above those in Boston and even LA in terms of cleanliness, product quality, and selection. Folks in Vegas just do good retail. As was quickly apparent from my aforementioned food blog search, THE grocery destination in town was the International Marketplace.
I will have to write an entire post about it later - suffice to say that if I could only visit one place in Vegas, this would be it. International Marketplace is essentially 20 different ethnic groceries stores under one roof (except with even better stuff at equal or lower prices), in the space of a large warehouse store. Yes, it IS as good as it sounds, even for a jaded ethnic-grocery goer like me.
Other nice shops I visited were:
- Ethnic markets
- Mariana's market A great Mexican supermarket chain with several locations. The one we went to was clean and organized with a decent bakery and a wonderful selection of fresh chiles.
- Jones Market In the same shopping center as Diho, the Jones market is another well-stocked ethnic market boasting goods from all over Eastern Europe (although it seems to be run by Russians). It has an extensive meat and cheese counter, bakery, and greek-style take-out counter, and the aisles contain large arrays of honey, grains, spices, pickles, candies, and chocolates, among other staples. In addition, they have a fine selection of fresh produce.
- 168 Supermarket (FKA Diho) The best Chinese supermarket in town. While it's not huge, it is one of the best Chinese markets I've seen anywhere. It's much cleaners and better-organized than most Asian markets, and the goods are of generally higher quality. It has an excellent fresh seafood section with very good prices. Best of all, I was able to find an ingredient I've been searching for for about 8 years ... Konjaku jelly powder, the ingredient used to make those little jelly snacks in small plastic cups.
- Conventional grocery chains:
- Sunflower market
Your average neighborhood "healthy-food" grocery store.
- Fresh n Easy
A branch of the British retail company Tesco, Fresh n Easy's dot the Las Vegas landscape. It's a little bit like a mix between Trader Joe's and a conventional grocery store, but without TJs' unique items. If you haven't been to one before, stop in to check out the cheery design and the well-priced goods.
- Rainbow market
- Trader Joe's
- Sunflower market
- Ethnic markets
- Eat out off the Strip
Vegas is famously home to outposts of many international restaurant empires, but also has a burgeoning local food culture. We opted to bypass fancy restaurants to visit a few moderately-priced local spots.
- I had never had Ethiopian food before, and food blogs lead me to Mercat, located in a strip mall not far from the airport. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the somewhat-bland array of vegetarian dishes on the traditional teff yeasted flatbread, but the food certainly wasn't bad, but the prices were very moderate and the meat dish Patrick had was reportedly delicious.
- Sushi Loca
We hadn't eaten sushi in several years, and we were looking for a special restaurant to indulge our dormant cravings. Sushi Loca is quite a ways from the Strip on the outskirts of town (about 20-30 minutes by car), but it is very much worth seeking out. It reminded us of our favorite local sushi place Z Sushi in Pasadena, although not quite as good. However, their large menu of unorthodox rolls (with wacky names) definitely hit the spot.
My favorite was the "No pain no gain", a roll with spicy soft-shell crab and cucumber on the inside with tuna and baked scallop on the outside, all smothered in a sweet, mayonnaisey sauce.
- L'elysee Bakery
We visited every single Asian bakery in town, including Diamond, Sunville, and Provence. L'elysee was by far the best, with superb Chinese-style buns, cakes, and breads with a touch of French influence. And having checked - their prices aren't any higher than any of the lesser bakeries. It's also in the same shopping center as the 168 market and Jones market.
- Sushi Loca
During the trip we also found ourselves in need of chocolate molds, and so we took a trip out to Henderson to a little shop called Tempting Treasures. It's a very well-stocked shop for serious bakers and candymakers, and the selection of plastic chocolate/candy molds was stupendous. I picked up several candy-bar-shaped ones for myself, and I could definitely imagine visiting the store regularly if I lived in Vegas.