Top 10 highlights of my first (non-business) trip to Vegas

25 January 2016

My old college roommate and I had been planning our first Las Vegas trip basically since the day we became friends. That was about eight years ago.

Last weekend, we finally made it happen. On Thursday night, I flew from Boston to Detroit to meet my friend in his hometown, and on Friday night, we stuffed our wallets with cash and hopped on a plane to Vegas. We spent three nights there, and though I had spent time in Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for Casino City each of the past two years, this was officially my first non-business trip to Sin City.

And it was everything I ever dreamed it would be.

Now, I'm a pretty simple guy when it comes to Vegas. I generally don't play pit games. I don't really drink that much, and I hate going to clubs. I like playing poker, betting on sports and eating great food – and I especially love doing all three at the same time.

That said, here are the top 10 highlights from my first "for pleasure" trip to Las Vegas. I can't wait to go back in June.

10. Travel hacking cut down the costs

For those of you who don't know, I'm somewhat of a "points and miles enthusiast." Actually, that's selling myself short: I'm a travel hacking expert, and I refuse to pay full retail (or anything close to it, really) for overpriced travel costs.

I made a deal with my friend when we planned this trip. I'll take care of all the flights and hotels, and you get all the food once we get to Vegas. Easy deal for both of us.

This next bit will be a tad "inside baseball" for most of you reading this column. But here's how I paid virtually nothing (other than opportunity cost!) for two friends to travel to Las Vegas in style:

• I used 16,110 Capital One Venture rewards for my BOS-DTW flight on Delta in first class. (Out of pocket cost: $0. Retail value: $161.10.)
• I used 25,000 Delta SkyMiles for both my and my friend's DTW-LAS flights on Delta in economy. (Out of pocket cost: $0. Retail value: $398.20.)
• I used a $250 air travel credit from my Citi Prestige card for most of my friend's LAS-DTW flight on Delta in economy. (Out of pocket cost: $14.10. Retail value: $264.10.)
• I used 25,000 American Airlines miles for my LAS-PHL-BOS flight on American in first class. (Out of pocket cost: $0. Retail value: $595.)
• I used 100,000 IHG points for two nights at The Venetian Las Vegas. (Out of pocket cost: $70 for hotel "resort fee." Retail value: $737.36.)

For our third night in Vegas, my friend offered to pay the "casino rate" to stay at the Wynn (only $139), just because he loves that hotel. But as you can see, I spent less than $75 out of pocket for more than $2,100 in travel expenses, including two first-class flight itineraries, and all it took was signing up for a few travel rewards credit cards.

Saving money on travel is very easy. If you'd like to learn more about points and miles, travel hacking or just credit cards in general, feel free to reach out to me and I'll be happy to point you in the right direction.

9. I added six new $1 chips to my collection

I decided a few months ago to start collecting $1 chips from every casino I visit to play poker. Pretty lame, right? Hey, when the economy crashes again and people are out on the streets without a penny to their names, I'll be the guy with dozens of casino chips ready to be turned into sweet, sweet dollar bills.

I'll need to drive around the country to cash them in one at a time, but at least I'll have them!

Anyway, I was able to collect two chips in Detroit before we headed off on our Vegas trip, as my friend and I put in a session at MGM Grand Detroit Casino on Thursday night and another at MotorCity Casino on Friday afternoon. Then, in Vegas, I picked up chips from The Venetian Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas, Aria Resort & Casino, and the Bellagio.

My collection is now up to nine chips (I already had chips from Foxwoods Resort Casino, Twin River Casino, and Jumer's Casino and Hotel). I'm rich!

8. I took a big step towards hitting my 2016 poker goals

I set a goal for myself to play a combination of 500 hours of $1/$2 and $2/$5 no-limit Hold'em cash game poker in 2016, and an even loftier goal of making $30/hour at that volume. Five hundred hours is a lot of poker – it's almost 10 per week, on average – and while $30/hour is certainly attainable for a good $2/$5 player, it's a tough number to reach when you're adding $1/$2 to the mix.

I'm off to a good start thanks to this trip, however. After losing $95 in 5 hours and 15 minutes of $1/$2 in Detroit, I made $1,215 in 29 hours and 45 minutes of $2/$5 in Vegas. That brings my 2016 totals to $1,120 profit in 35 hours, or exactly $32/hour.

This is a small sample, of course. And I'll need to get out and play this weekend to stay on track for my 500 hours. But I'm pleased with my solid start to the year.

7. The Venetian poker room was awesome

I played just one session at the Venetian after arriving in Vegas late Friday night, but I was very, very impressed with the poker room. The dealers and floor staff were all top notch – on par with the Wynn, and way ahead of Aria and Bellagio. The tableside food service was absolutely delicious. I ordered bacon and eggs at 3 a.m. and they were incredible, and every other dish that came to the table while I was there looked awesome.

The Venetian poker room is also one of the larger rooms in Vegas, which makes it easy to get a seat at your game of choice as soon as possible. I tend to like card rooms with more intimate settings, but the Venetian has a warmer feeling than some of the "poker factories" I've played in like Foxwoods and the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa (though I still love you, Borgata).

Overall, here's how I summed up my Venetian experience at the time:

6. I went on an insane blackjack heater

After a great dinner (more on that later) and a quick poker session at Aria on Sunday night, my friend and I decided to head back to the Wynn to relax and have a scotch before bed. Unfortunately, none of the bars looked appealing to us in the moment, so we decided to sit at a $15 blackjack table and order free drinks.

I reluctantly put $100 on the table and put out a bet of $15. After losing my first two hands, I figured, well, this is going to be one of the more expensive glasses of scotch I've ever had.

But then I won a hand. And like any good blackjack player/degenerate gambler, I upped my next bet to $45. I won that hand. Then I bet $75. Blackjack! OK, now we're going somewhere. Let's bet $120. Double down? Sure. Boom! Dealer busts. Now let's bet only $135 and preserve some of our winnings. I won again.

I ended up winning nine straight hands, upping my bet in $15 increments every hand after I won the $120 double down. After finally losing and finishing out the shoe, I happily left the table with half my scotch left and an extra $900 in my pocket.

The moral of the story: Drinking and table games go very well together.

(Don't try this at home, kids.)

5. Uber worked really well, for the most part

Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft began operating legally in Nevada in September 2015, and let me tell you – they have changed the game for getting around the city as a tourist.

Taking Uber around Las Vegas was an absolute breeze and insanely cheap. We went from casino to casino for $5 at a time. Our trip to an off-Strip restaurant clocked in at less than $10. And my ride from the Bellagio to McCarran International Airport was only $15 – and my driver avoided major Strip traffic to make sure I made my flight on time.

The only difficulty I had with Uber was that some of the drivers didn't understand where the designated pick-up locations were at some of the hotels. At the Wynn, for instance, an Uber can drop you off at the "Main Valet," but it can only pick you up at the "South Valet." This was really only a problem one time on our trip, and I'd rather deal with that every once in a while than stand in cab lines and pay double or triple the price.

4. I fulfilled my dream of watching 10 a.m. football at the poker table

Like I said, there's pretty much nothing better than being served good food to your poker table while watching a game you've bet on. And when that game starts at 10 a.m., it takes the cake. On Sunday morning, I got up, took an Uber to the Wynn, bet on the Panthers at the sportsbook, sat down at a $2/$5 table, ordered brunch and had the time of my life.

My least favorite part of NFL Sundays, now that I'm an old man who is incapable of sleeping in past 9 a.m., is waiting all morning for the games to start. I hate waiting! If I lived in Vegas, this would never be a problem.

I wonder what it would cost to rent a place out there from September through February . . .

3. I swept my first (mini) teaser wheel

I've mentioned Nolan Dalla's patented "teaser wheel" many times before in my writing, but last weekend was my first chance ever to put it into practice – and I absolutely crushed it.

To save me the trouble of explaining the teaser wheel again, here's how I described it in a column last August:

A teaser bet is a type of sportsbook parlay whereby the bettor is able to adjust the spreads in two different games in exchange for paying a steeper price. For instance, in football, a bettor might pick two 7-point favorites to win, "tease" the lines down to 1 point for each game and pay the house a 10% vig (i.e., the wager price would be -110 for both teams to cover the adjusted spreads).

Nolan Dalla's teaser wheel takes the teaser and explodes it into a frenzy of NFL degeneracy. In a teaser wheel, the bettor will tease one team's line and pair it with every other game on the docket for that day. So if a bettor is confident the Patriots will cover an adjusted 1.5-point spread against the Redskins, he'll tease the Patriots and both teams from every other game — that's up to 28 bets, if there's no byes that week. If the Pats cover, it's a great day, because at least one bet on every game will win, and sometimes, both bets on a game will come in, if the final margin of victory is within six points of the spread. If, however, the Pats don't hold up their end of the bargain, the bettor loses. Every. Single. Bet.

Of course, because there were only four NFL Divisional round games, my bets constituted what amounts to a "mini" teaser wheel. And to make matters more complicated, the Wynn sportsbook was not offering teaser parlays during the playoffs. Rather, they had set teaser "props" already assigned on the board – with rake double what you'd find in a normal teaser.

Still, I was in Vegas, I wasn't about to leave the Wynn and I was determined to execute my first teaser wheel. So I picked the Steelers (+13.5) as my wheel spoke, and teased them with the Chiefs (+10.5), Cardinals (-0.5) and Panthers (+4.5).

The Chiefs, Cardinals and Panthers held up their ends of the bargain in the first three games. And when the Steelers lost to the Broncos by just 7 points in the late Sunday game, I had swept my very first (mini) teaser wheel.

Apparently, I wasn't alone. All eight teams covered their teasers in the Divisional round, and if you include scoring totals, 15 of the 16 possible teaser combinations cashed. So, I guess I picked a good weekend to go to Vegas!

2. I almost scooped a huge middle opportunity

Entering that Steelers-Broncos game with a chance to sweep my teaser wheel, I also had a unique opportunity to secure a "middle" and win even more money. Let me explain.

I had bet a total of $365 on my three teaser tickets and stood to profit $300 if the Steelers held up their side; they only had to lose by 13 points or less – or win the game – for me to win. Meanwhile, the Broncos were favored by 7 points over the Steelers at kick-off. That meant that if I bet on the Broncos against the spread (which I did, laying $660 to win $550), I would scoop all of my bets if the Broncos beat the Steelers by anywhere from 8-13 points. And if Denver won by 7, I would push that bet and still win the teasers. In any other outcome, I would lose no more than the original $365 I had put up for the teaser wheel.

For those who weren't watching, or who may not have realized this, Denver was winning by 10 points with 45 seconds left. I had the scoop all but in the bag. Then, Pittsburgh drove quickly down the field and kicked a meaningless field goal (well, they would have needed a miracle for it to matter) to cut the deficit to 7 points with just a few seconds remaining.

So, I pushed that bet and won my teasers. But I'm still calling that a bad beat.

1. Lotus of Siam

Lotus of Siam is a Thai restaurant located well off the Las Vegas Strip in a nondescript shopping plaza on East Sahara Avenue. As we rode up to the restaurant, my friend and I were all but sure our Uber driver was lost (or worse, kidnapping us). The outside of the restaurant does not do any kind of service to selling people on coming in to eat.

But then you get inside, and the place is packed. For good reason. Lotus of Siam was one of the best meals I have ever had, and set a new standard for Thai food that I didn't even realize existed. I'm actually salivating as I write this column – I'm quite sure I'll never have Thai food as good as this ever again (until I go back multiple times in June).

I did some research and consulted some friends who had visited Lotus prior to arriving, in order to optimize my order at the restaurant. The consensus was to go for the Garlic Prawns (10/10 unbelievable), the Crispy Duck Penang (11/10) and the Tom Kha Kai soup (10/10). We also ordered Pad Thai (9/10) and Chicken Satay (10/10), both of which were excellent.

Las Vegas is known for its eclectic dining options, many of which are highly renowned and very expensive. But I'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant I enjoyed more than Lotus of Siam. This is now a must for me any time I return to Vegas.

Related Links
Foxwoods Resort Casino Details
Jumer's Casino and Hotel Details
Bellagio Details
The Venetian Las Vegas Details
MGM Grand Detroit Casino Details
Twin River Casino Details
MotorCity Casino Details
Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa Details
Wynn Las Vegas Details
Aria Resort & Casino Details
Nevada Gambling
Ranked Online Poker Rooms

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