Las Vegas has always been somewhere we’ve wanted to visit but with four children it’s not been possible – both in terms of costs for flying all six of us over there and also thinking it wasn’t a great child-friendly destination.
Actually having now been there, we do think the children would’ve loved it but we’d decided our joint 40th birthdays would be a good time to go on our first ever holiday without them, now two of them are fully grown adults and the younger two are old enough to be happy staying with family and friends.
Having stayed in Vegas for a week and seen a lot of what it has to offer, here are our thoughts, advice and experiences, which we hope you’ll find useful if you’re planning on going to Las Vegas…
Flights to Las Vegas
Our first tip is to avoid arriving in Vegas on a weekend. A huge number of visitors arrive here every Friday and Saturday and with the notoriously slow US passport control process you might face very long queues at the airport – not something anyone wants after a 10.5-hour flight.
We flew on a Tuesday, landing about 5.30pm Vegas time and the airport was pretty quiet with relatively short queues.
Our flight was with Virgin Atlantic, which we can’t recommend highly enough.
Flying is one of my least favourite things to do – mainly because I’m tall and leg room is always a struggle, plus I suffer with bad travel sickness and just generally hate being on a plane. The idea of a 10.5-hour flight (the longest we’ve ever done) was filling me with dread.
But from the moment we arrived at check-in at Heathrow it was obvious Virgin Atlantic is a totally different experience.
And when we got on the plane – a virtually brand new Dreamliner 787 – the feelings of dread were replaced by excitement and happiness (not feelings I’ve ever had about being on a plane before, believe me!)
It helped that we had Virgin’s Premium seating – not quite full-on upper class with the lay flat beds, but a step up from the standard economy seats.
The seats were amazing – loads of legroom even for me at 6ft 2″ – and wide and comfortable with foot-rests and generally loads of room to spread out comfortably for the whole flight.
Looking at the Upper Class seats compared with the Premium seats, there’s a massive difference in price, but I don’t think Upper Class is massively different in quality and experience from Premium. It’s obviously nice to have your own lay down bed but these Premium seats were not that much worse – but were considerably less money.
The normal Economy class seats still looked like a better experience than on most other planes but nowhere near as comfortable as the Premium ones and the extra cost between Economy and Premium is definitely worth it.
The service for the Premium section of the plane just added to the enjoyment – a constant flow of drinks including wine and Champagne, snacks and treats (ice lollies, packets of sweets), an ‘afternoon tea’ with scones, jam and cream…
And the dinner was a delicious restaurant-quality meal served on proper china plates with knives and forks. Nothing at all like the aeroplane food most people are used to. We would actually have been happy if we were served that meal in a restaurant it was so good.
Each Premium seat has its own large TV with a Netflix-style catalogue of films and TV shows which, when added to the frequent service of food and drinks, all added up to make the near 11-hour flight a totally enjoyable experience.
Believe me, for someone who hates flying so much to say that being on a plane for 11-hours was actually enjoyable means Virgin Atlantic must be doing something pretty good! It’s hard to imagine ever doing a long haul flight with any other airline from now on.
Getting to the Las Vegas ‘Strip’
We had no special transport arrangements from the airport to our hotel – Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport is only an eight minute drive (in clear traffic) so we just got straight in a taxi at the airport exit and were at our hotel within minutes of leaving the airport.
Las Vegas Hotels
Bally’s is a slightly cheaper option and, despite being massive, is one of the lower-key hotel casinos in Vegas. Caesars Palace is the exact opposite: expensive and the most extravagant and enormous building you’re ever likely to enter!
The famous Las Vegas Strip (a long road known officially as South Las Vegas Boulevard) is lined with gigantic hotel casinos, each of which is a tourist destination in its own right.
Half of the world’s 20 largest hotels are on the Las Vegas strip. They’re unimaginably huge buildings with thousands of rooms (the largest has over 7,000 rooms) all built on top of massive casinos with thousands of gambling machines and tables in each one.
In a bid to attract the high rolling gamblers in to their casinos, each hotel has increasingly outrageous and extravagant displays, features or shows that seem to push the absolute limits of human imagination and engineering.
Literally billions of dollars are invested in each of these buildings – and every one seems to have the largest something or most-expensive something or other in the world. It makes for a city that’s just full of completely mind-blowing sights and experiences wherever you look.
The largest hotel (in terms of number of rooms) in Vegas is the Venetian – and our first experience of the excesses of this city were visiting the Venetian to find inside a virtually exact replica of the entire city of Venice.
All the famous landmarks of Venice are re-built (not to exact scale, but not far off!): St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, the Piazza San Marco – and a network of actual canals featuring real gondolas, on which you can ride just like in the real Venice.
All this is inside just one part of the Venetian. It is a totally incredible sight – and totally surreal to be sat in a cafe, looking up at a fake sky high above you, or in a restaurant beside a canal, with gondolas floating past you, knowing you’re actually sat inside a hotel!
Other sights you can expect to see in other Vegas hotels include the famous – and absolutely brilliant – fountain show at the Bellagio; the Mirage’s attempt to go one better with its erupting volcano fountain and fire show; a nature reserve at the Flamingo; a full-sized aquarium with sharks at the gigantic Mandalay Bay; The Luxor’s giant pyramid, Sphynx and light beam that’s visible from space…
We also loved the Stratosphere tower with its viewing platform, restaurant and thrill rides high above the Strip; New York New York’s replica NY skyline complete with Statue of Liberty and a full size rollercoaster; and the Eiffel Tower restaurant at Paris.
Special mention has to go to the almighty Caesars Palace – the most dominant property on the Strip and by far the biggest, most elaborate, most impressive building we’ve ever been in, anywhere.
The scale of Caesar’s Palace is impossible to describe and can’t be done justice to with photographs – you have to see it with your own eyes.
We stayed at Caesar’s for the final three days of our trip and, despite spending a full day and a half exploring it, felt we’d barely scratched the surface of the place.
There’s just too much extravagance to take in – the huge statues everywhere – bigger than houses; enormous water and fire fountain displays; elaborately decorated ceilings; the replica ‘Cleopatra’s Barge’; loads of luxury pools arranged in an extravagant Roman Baths setting; a 50,000 sq ft luxury spa; a huge nightclub with star DJs (called Omnium)…
Not to mention the full size ‘Forum Shops’ shopping mall – as big as any UK shopping centre – full of luxury designer shops and many restaurants.
Caesars Palace is just somewhere that needs to be seen to be believed.
We spent days just walking between and around all the Strip’s hotel casinos and, even after a full week here, couldn’t stop looking up at them and around them in absolute amazement and disbelief that somewhere like this even exists – there surely can’t be anywhere else like Las Vegas and its buildings on earth!
Another of the major draws of Las Vegas is the huge number of shows running at all the hotel venues pretty much every night of the week. There are literally thousands of shows up and down the Strip and, in typical Las Vegas style, they’re big, elaborate performances including lots of the world’s biggest name stars.
The likes of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani all have ‘residencies’, appearing several times a week at Vegas hotels like Caesars Palace, MGM Grand and Planet Hollywood.
What started out as one show for Cirque du Soleil has grown in to seven different variants of the acrobatic circus act at venues up and down the Strip including shows themed on Michael Jackson at Mandalay Bay and The Beatles at the Mirage.
We decided to see a show called Absinthe at Caesars Palace. It’s a smaller scale production than some of those big name star shows and is set in a marquee in the grounds of the Palace, which seats about 600 people in a circle around a stage in the middle.
We chose it because it had some of the best show reviews we’d read and had a mixture of amazing acrobatic acts and comedy. It was fun and impressive and definitely worth seeing – though not if you’re easily offended!
Eating and drinking
Needless to say there’s no shortage of options for eating and drinking in Vegas. All the hotels have plenty of restaurants from Michelin star restaurants to Starbucks and everything else in between.
Some of the most notable include two Gordon Ramsay restaurants at Caesars Palace, the Michelin starred Guy Savoy also at Caeasars Palace (where pretty much everything on the menu is $100+) There’s also a load of more reasonably-priced (though still not cheap) restaurants within Caesars Palace Forum Shops and also in the ‘Miracle Mile‘ near the Paris hotel.
The highest concentration of restaurants and bars seems to be down a street known as The Linq Promenade, which runs alongside the Linq hotel and casino. We found a couple of reasonably-priced places down there too.
One thing important to me is a decent breakfast and I was relieved to find Buca di Beppo, situated inside Bally’s casino, which did a huge all you can eat buffet breakfast for $13 – by far the cheapest breakfast option we found anywhere, and which totally filled us up with energy each day.
Drinks are expensive pretty much everywhere around the Strip – I paid $16 (over £12!) for a pint of Stella in one restaurant. But if you’re gambling in a casino drinks are free!
Waitresses walk around the floors of every casino and if you’re putting money in to machines or on the tables, they’ll ask if you want drinks and will bring you anything you want for free (except for a tip of perhaps $2 or $5 or so).
A couple of times we just sat at a slot machine with a couple of dollars in it in order to get some free drinks – and happened to win on the machines too while we were at it!
Gambling is obviously what Las Vegas is all about. It’s the reason the city exists and the primary reason why over 40-million people flock there every year.
As it happens, this isn’t what attracted us there – we hardly know anything about gambling at all and spent much of our time totally baffled about the rules and conventions of all the different games and machines.
Most of the casinos offer gambling lessons to beginners like us, scheduled at certain times each day – typically in the mornings and afternoons.
A couple of things stood out to us about gambling in Vegas. One was the unimaginable scale of the casinos and the vast number of machines and tables that stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction in every hotel.
Thousands and thousands of slot machines flashing and beeping away 24-hours a day, crammed in to every available space. Even if you go to a bar to get a drink, every bar literally has rows of slot machines built in to them so you can keep gambling while you wait for your drink to be served.
The Roulette and Blackjack tables have the more glamorous appeal and there were plenty of people clearly staking thousands – sometimes tens of thousands of dollars – on these in every casino.
But we were told by a driver who took us on an excursion one day that it’s the slot machines that are the real money spinners for the casinos – and you can see why.
For one thing, there’s just so many of them – and obviously they don’t need employees to run them like a table game does. It seemed the overwhelming majority of players in all the casinos weren’t flamboyant, glamorous high-rollers arriving on their private jets (though there were plenty of these); they were ordinary-looking Americans sat there, alone, blindly feeding hundreds of dollars in to these machines at literally every hour of the day.
Jet lag had us waking up early every morning so we were often heading through the casino to breakfast at 7am and, even at this time, it was full of these gamblers sat at the slots, free beers and free cigarettes in hand, just ploughing their money relentlessly into them.
It definitely seemed to us like it was these guys who are funding the multi-billion dollar buildings, the replica volcanoes, fountain displays and Eiffel Towers.
The gamblers in Vegas who were having fun are those who’ve come with the intention of spending a set amount of money for fun – and if they lose it so be it; the fun was had whilst playing and a win is just a bonus.
Unsure and unconfident on the tables, we stuck to trying our luck on the slot machines and a couple of times managed to convert a few dollars in to $100 wins.
But the psychological effect of Vegas slot machines is so powerful it was virtually impossible to resist ploughing our winnings back in and losing them all again! It’s really no surprise that the owners of some of these casinos are amongst the richest billionaires in the world!
The Las Vegas Strip is the centre of all the action but there’s plenty more going on away from the Strip.
We also visited Fremont Street, which is a couple of miles away from the Strip (accessible by bus or taxi / Uber). This is actually officially Las Vegas – the Strip is technically outside Las Vegas in an area known as ‘Paradise’ and Fremont Street is the original Vegas strip.
The ‘Fremont Street Experience’ is an undercover main street with street performers, artists, shops, restaurants, bars and of course casinos – though all on a smaller scale than the Strip.
Walk the length of Fremont Street and you’ll arrive at the ‘Container Park’ – a collection of small businesses – shops, bars, restaurants, a kids play area and a grass area with seating around.
The whole area has a very different, far more laid-back and relaxed feel to it than the Strip and we were able to sit outside with a few drinks for a couple of hours listening to the music and enjoying the warm sun – something we could never do in February back at home in the UK.
If you happen to be in Vegas on the first Friday of any month head to Fremont Street for a huge open air party with live music.
One word of advice – if you see a group of ‘street performers’ running a stunt show where they leap over a row of lined-up spectators avoid it immediately! It was just a huge scam in which they collected money from all the spectators (and even more from the participants) – pretty threateningly – and didn’t actually do anything at all worthwhile at the end of it.
Another sight worth heading to, if only for the photo opportunity, is the famous ‘welcome to Las Vegas sign‘. It’s about 3-miles from the centre of the Strip and is close to the Mandalay Bay and right next to McCarran Airport.
We caught the monorail to the MGM Grand and walked the rest of the way (it was nearly two miles but we were up early and it seemed a good way to spend the morning). The Strip bus service (the ‘Deuce’) has a stop right next to the sign too.
There was a small crowd of about 15-people there at about 10am and two guys offering to take photos of people in return for tips. We were glad they were there actually as with just the two of us we wouldn’t have been able to get a shot of the both of us with the sign otherwise – and the photos were pretty good.
The sign is literally in the middle of the main road but a pedestrian crossing has been installed and an area around it is barriered off to keep the tourists safe from the passing traffic.
Getting around the Vegas Strip area is pretty easy although bear in mind that the sheer size of the place means distances that look walkable are often much further than you first think.
The Strip is actually over four miles long and the best way of getting around we found was the Las Vegas Monorail.
It has stops at most of the major hotels and sights, is cheaper than taxis and avoids being stuck in traffic in a car or bus. Plus it comes and goes from each stop every eight minutes.
The other option is the Strip bus service – known as the ‘Deuce’. This has greater coverage than the monorail running all the way from Downtown Fremont Street, right through the entire Strip to its very end at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
It stops at pretty much every hotel on the way so is much slower than the monorail, especially as its progress along the Strip is subject to the traffic conditions, which can get pretty bad at peak times.
Taxis are the other option of course – including Uber – and we were able to get Ubers within minutes from everywhere in Vegas.
Bear in mind though that neither taxis nor Ubers are allowed to pick passengers up from the street. Instead there are designated pickup areas at each hotel and attraction along the Strip – easily found either through directions that come up in the Uber app or from signs for pickup zones at each hotel – all of which have long lines of taxis outside ready to collect passengers all the time.
Las Vegas Weather in February
Finally we thought it was worth mentioning the weather in Las Vegas. We were here in February for our joint 40th birthdays and didn’t know whether to expect it to be freezing cold or boiling hot.
As it turns out, it was a great time of year to visit. It was sunny the entire time (as it almost always is here) and a couple of times got a bit cold – mainly in the mornings and at night. But it was more jumper or light jacket cold than big coats and gloves cold.
It almost never rains in Las Vegas so that’s not something you even need to think about.
In the day it warmed up really nicely with temperatures similar to a summer day in England – low to mid 20’s or so. Definitely warm enough to sit in the sun in t-shirts and enjoy the change from normal February weather back home. Though on a couple of days temperatures did drop back a bit again.
Obviously the further through the year you go, the higher the chances of warm weather get. Remember Vegas is in the middle of the desert so in the summer it’s absolutely scorching with temperatures reaching the 40s or even the 50s in some cases.
We wouldn’t fancy it in summer – it’s not really the sort of place you want to be in scorching heat. Late winter or Spring seems ideal – Spring especially as that’s the time the hotels open their huge pool and sun lounger complexes – the one thing we missed out on during our visit which we would’ve enjoyed.