Getting to Know Las Vegas - Getting Around

Is that The Mirage or Just a Mirage? -- Maybe it's the desert that makes distances here so deceiving, or the fact that the buildings are so darned big that it makes them seem closer than they really are. But getting from point A to point B always seems to take much longer in Las Vegas than you think it will. We can't count the number of times we've said, "Here we are at The Mirage/Treasure Island/Bellagio and we have dinner/business/show tickets for Caesars/The Mirage/the Monte Carlo next door. We'll leave about 15 minutes before we need to be there." Thirty-five minutes later, after negotiating the casino crowds at our hotel, trekking through to the exit, using the moving sidewalk, tram, or our feet to get to the next stop, finding the entrance, negotiating the crowds there, and getting lost . . . we finally arrive. Barely. The moral of the story is to always give yourself extra time, even if you're just going next door.
It shouldn't be too hard to navigate your way around. But remember, between huge hotel acreage, increased and very slow traffic, and lots and lots of people -- like you -- trying to explore, getting around takes a lot longer than you might think. Heck, it can take 15 to 20 minutes to get from your room to another part of your hotel! Always allow for plenty of time to get from point A to point B.
By Car
If you plan to confine yourself to one part of the Strip (or one cruise down to it) or to Downtown, your feet will suffice. Otherwise, we highly recommend that visitors rent a car. The Strip is too spread out for walking (and Las Vegas is often too hot or too cold to make strolls pleasant), Downtown is too far away for a cheap cab ride, and public transportation is often ineffective in getting you where you want to go. Plus, return visits call for exploration in more remote parts of the city, and a car brings freedom, especially if you want to do any side trips at your own pace.
You should note that places with addresses some 60 blocks east or west of the Strip are actually less than a 10-minute drive -- provided there is no traffic.
Having advocated renting a car, we should warn you that traffic is getting worse, and it's harder and harder to get around town with any certain swiftness. A general rule of thumb is to avoid driving on the Strip whenever you can, and avoid driving at all during peak hours (8-9:30am and 4:30-6pm), especially if you have to make a show curtain.
Parking is usually a pleasure because all casino hotels offer free valet service. That means that for a mere $1 to $2 tip, you can park right at the door, though the valet usually fills up on busy nights. In those cases, you can use the gigantic self-parking lots (free on the Strip, nominal fees Downtown) that all hotels have.
If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you may want to consider obtaining an international driver's license. Also, international visitors should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.
Renting a Car -- National companies with outlets in Las Vegas include Alamo (tel. 877/227-8367;, Avis (tel. 800/230-4898;, Budget (tel. 800/527-0700;, Dollar (tel. 800/800-3665;, Enterprise (tel. 800/261-7331;, Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131;, National (tel. 800/227-7368;, Payless (tel. 800/729-5377;, and Thrifty (tel. 800/847-4389;
Car rental rates vary even more than airline fares. The price you pay depends on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you purchase insurance, and a host of other factors. A few key questions could save you hundreds of dollars.
  • Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
  • Is a weekly rate cheaper than the daily rate? Even if you need the car for only 4 days, it may be cheaper to keep it for 5.
  • Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you don't return the car to the same location where you picked it up? Is it cheaper to pick up the car at the airport than at a Downtown location?
  • Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise, you may be charged the standard cost. Terms change constantly, and reservations agents are notorious for not mentioning available discounts unless you ask.
  • Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flier programs, or trade unions? If you belong to any of these organizations, you may be entitled to discounts of up to 30%.
  • How much tax will be added to the rental bill? Local tax? State use tax?
  • What is the cost of adding an additional driver's name to the contract?
  • How many free miles are included in the price? Free mileage is often negotiable, depending on the length of the rental.
  • How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Though most rental companies claim these prices are "competitive," fuel is almost always cheaper in town. Try to allow enough time to refuel the car yourself before returning it.
Some companies offer "refueling packages," in which you pay for an entire tank of gas up front. The price is usually fairly competitive with local gas prices, but you don't get credit for any gas remaining in the tank.
Many available packages include airfare, accommodations, and a rental car with unlimited mileage. Compare these prices with the cost of booking airline tickets and renting a car separately to see if such offers are good deals. Internet resources can make comparison-shopping easier.
Surfing for Rental Cars -- For booking rental cars online, the best deals are usually found at rental-car company websites, although all the major online travel agencies also offer rental-car reservations services. Priceline ( and Hotwire ( work well for rental cars; the only "mystery" is which major rental company you get, and for most travelers, the difference between Hertz, Avis, and Budget is negligible. Also check out, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around.
Demystifying Renter's Insurance -- Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're insured. Hasty assumptions about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency's additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars -- even if you are involved in an accident that was clearly the fault of another driver.
If you already hold a private auto insurance policy in the United States, you are most likely covered for loss of or damage to a rental car, and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. Be sure to find out whether you are covered in the area you are visiting, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract. (Rental trucks, sport utility vehicles, and luxury vehicles may not be covered.)
Most major credit cards provide some degree of coverage as well -- provided they were used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent. If you don't have a private auto insurance policy, the credit card you use to rent a car may provide primary coverage if you decline the rental agency's insurance. This means that the credit card company will cover damage or theft of a rental car for the full cost of the vehicle. If you do have a private auto insurance policy, your credit card may provide secondary coverage -- which basically covers your deductible. Credit cards do not cover liability or the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party's vehicle. If you do not hold an insurance policy, you may want to seriously consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company. Be sure to check the terms, however: Some rental agencies cover liability only if the renter is not at fault; even then, the rental company's obligation varies from state to state. Bear in mind that each credit card company has its own peculiarities; call your own credit card company for details before relying on a card for coverage.
The basic insurance coverage offered by most car rental companies, known as the Loss/Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), can cost as much as $20 per day. The former should cover everything, including the loss of income to the rental agency, should you get in an accident (normally not covered by your own insurance policy). It usually covers the full value of the vehicle, with no deductible, if an outside party causes an accident or other damage to the rental car. You will probably be covered in case of theft as well. Liability coverage varies, but the minimum is usually at least $15,000. If you are at fault in an accident, you will be covered for the full replacement value of the car -- but not for liability. In Nevada, you can buy additional liability coverage for such cases. Most rental companies require a police report in order to process any claims you file, but your private insurer will not be notified of the accident. Check your own policies and credit cards before you shell out money on this extra insurance because you may already be covered.
Drive in Style -- If the idea of tooling around Las Vegas in a pedestrian rent-a-box just doesn't sound appealing, you can always indulge your fantasies by going with something more exotic.
Several companies in Las Vegas specialize in rentals of high-end, luxury vehicles -- the kinds of rides that normally are reserved for the rich and famous.
Rent-a-Vette Exotic Car Rentals (tel. 800/372-1981 or 702/736-2592; has a fleet from makers such as Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari, and Porsche, plus a stable of their namesake Chevrolet Corvettes. They even feature an Aston Martin Vantage, if you want to work out your inner James Bond while buzzing between casinos. Rates start at about $400 per day and go up from there -- sometimes, way up. The Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder will set you back a cool $1,445 per day, or roughly what you'll pay for 5 nights in a room at Bellagio or Wynn Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Exotic Car Rentals (tel. 866/871-1893; offers a similar line-up plus some big-guy toys such as Hummer H2s and Cadillac Escalades. And if you prefer Elvis over James Bond they even have some classics, such as a 1970 Cadillac Deville Convertible. You will need to supply your own Viva Las Vegas soundtrack.
By Taxi
Because cabs line up in front of all major hotels, an easy way to get around town is by taxi. Cabs charge $3.30 at the meter drop and 20¢ for each additional 1/12 mile, plus an additional $1.80 fee for being picked up at the airport and time-based penalties if you get stuck in a traffic-jam. A taxi from the airport to the Strip will run you $15 to $23, from the airport to Downtown $18 to $25, and between the Strip and Downtown about $12 to $18. You can often save money by sharing a cab with someone going to the same destination (up to five people can ride for the same fare). All this implies that you have gotten a driver who is honest; many cabbies take you the long way around, which sometimes means the shortest physical distance between two points -- right down the Strip -- but longest time on the clock and, thus, meter. Either way, you could end up paying a fare that . . . let's just say a new pair of shoes would have been a much more fun way to spend that jackpot. Your only recourse is to write down the cab number and call the company and complain. They may not respond, but you can try.
If you just can't find a taxi to hail and want to call one, try the following companies: Desert Cab Company (tel. 702/386-9102), Whittlesea Blue Cab (tel. 702/384-6111), or Yellow/Checker Cab/Star Company (tel. 702/873-2000).
By Monorail
The first leg of a high-tech monorail opened in 2004, offering riders their first and best shot of getting from one end of the Strip to the other with a minimum of frustration and expense. The 4-mile route runs from the MGM Grand, at the southern end of the Strip, to the Sahara, at the northern end, with stops at Paris/Bally's, the Flamingo, Harrah's, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Las Vegas Hilton along the way. Note that some of the actual physical stops are not particularly close to their namesakes, so there can be an unexpected -- and sometimes time-consuming -- additional walk from the monorail stop to wherever you intended to go. Factor in this time accordingly.
These trains can accommodate more than 200 passengers (standing and sitting) and make the end-to-end run in about 15 minutes. They operate Monday through Thursday from 7am until 2am and Friday through Sunday from 7am until 3am. Fares are $5 (!!!) for a one-way ride (whether you ride from one end to the other or just to the next station); discounts are available for round-trips and multiride/multiday passes.
Feelings are mixed about the monorail, which isn't generating the ridership as expected. A variety of behind-the-scenes issues, mostly having to do with money, may change the way it's run, extend the route, or even shut it down altogether, although that seems highly unlikely. None of this will happen before 2010, and even if it does change, it may not be in such a way that you will notice.
By Public Transportation
The no. 301 bus operated by CAT (tel. 702/CAT-RIDE [228-7433]) plies a route between the Downtown Transportation Center (at Casino Center Blvd. and Stewart Ave.) and a few miles beyond the southern end of the Strip. The fare is $1.75 for adults, 75¢ for seniors 60 and older and children 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under. An all-day pass is $4 ($2 for seniors and children). CAT buses run 24 hours a day and are wheelchair-accessible. Exact change is required.
The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) recently launched a service called The Deuce (tel. 702/CAT-RIDE [228-7433];, a fleet of modern double-decker buses that run the length of the Strip into downtown and near the airport. A one-way ride is $3 for adults, $1.50 for seniors 60 and older and children 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under. For $7, you get an all-day pass that lets you get on and off as many times as you like and also lets you ride all the other RTC buses all day. They even provide recorded color commentary as you sit in the mind-numbing traffic-jams that plug up the Strip most of the time. Exact change is required.
At this writing, it was unclear if the Arrow, classic streetcar replicas, will still be in operation. Let's hope so -- the old-fashioned, dark green vehicles are nice on the eyes and better still, air-conditioned. Like the buses, they run northward from Hacienda Avenue, stopping at all major hotels en route to the Sahara (not to the Stratosphere or Downtown), and then they go back from the Las Vegas Hilton. Trolleys run about every 15 minutes daily between 9:30am and 1:30am. The fare is $2.50 for a single one-way ticket or $6.50 for an all-day pass (free for children 4 and under). Exact change is required.
There are also a number of free transportation services, courtesy of the casinos. A free monorail connects Mandalay Bay with Luxor and Excalibur, and a free tram shuttles between The Mirage and Treasure Island. Given how far apart even neighboring hotels can be, thanks to their size, and how they seem even farther apart on really hot (and cold and windy) days, these are blessed additions.
Chopper Tom's Traffic Tips
"Chopper" Tom Hawley has watched Las Vegas grow since he was a little kid catching lizards in the desert, back in the '60s. A self-described "traffic geek," Tom reports from the helicopter and from the studio most mornings and afternoons in Las Vegas, on KVBC-TV/Channel 3. For further information on the following projects, tips, and much more, stop by Channel 3's website, at, and click "Traffic."
  • Monorail Mania: This 4-mile system is a larger, faster, and more modern version of the Disney hand-me-down that used to run between the MGM and Bally's. The Las Vegas Monorail now has seven stations sprinkled from the MGM to the Sahara, with a one-way fare running $5 per person. (Discounts are available for multiple trips.) You may have heard about some less-than-glorious months for the system, but we're happy to report that as of this writing, things seem to be in fine working order. The bad news is that the monorail has probably scuttled planned extensions to Downtown and the airport, at least for now.
  • People Movers Galore: Las Vegas has a greater variety of independent people-mover systems than any other city in the world, and they're a great way to get around without having to get into your car. In addition to the people movers at McCarran Airport, a variety of trains will take you from hotel to hotel. The Mandalay Bay Train whisks you from the Tropicana walkways to the Excalibur, Luxor, and Mandalay Bay hotels. Smaller shuttles operate between The Mirage and Treasure Island and between the Circus Circus Big Top and East Tower. A new train is set to connect the Monte Carlo and Bellagio with CityCenter.
  • Spaghetti Bowl: The "Spaghetti Bowl" is what locals call the mess where I-15 intersects U.S. 95. The entire thing was reconstructed in 2000, but some studies indicate that it's carrying more traffic than it was designed for, so don't expect a congestion-free ride.
  • U.S. 95 Widening: A 7-year project to widen the west leg of U.S. 95 (connecting to the busy northwest valley) is now complete. Though still busy in weekday rush hours, this freeway hasn't moved better in 20 years.
  • Keep Your Feet off the Streets: Local engineers have been trying to improve traffic on the Strip by separating the cars from the pedestrians. The first overhead pedestrian walkways opened at Tropicana Avenue, in 1995; similar bridges were completed at Flamingo Avenue, in 2000, and Spring Mountain, in 2003. Future pedestrian bridges will be installed at Sahara and Harmon.
  • Do D.I. Direct: Most visitors seem to get a lot of mileage out of the Strip and I-15. But, if you're checking out the local scene, you can bypass both of those, using Desert Inn Road, which is now one of the longest streets running from one side of the valley to the other. Plus, the 2-mile "Superarterial" section between Valley View and Paradise zips you nonstop over the interstate and under the Strip.
  • Grin and Bear It: Yes, there are ways to avoid traffic jams on the Strip. But at least these traffic jams are entertaining! If you have the time and patience, go ahead and take a ride along the Strip from Hacienda to Sahara. The 4-mile drive might take an hour, but while you're grinding along, you'll see a Sphinx, an active volcano, a water ballet, and some uniquely Vegas architecture.
  • Rat Pack Back Doors: Frank Sinatra Drive is a bypass road that runs parallel to the Strip from Russell Road north to Industrial. It's a great way to avoid the traffic jams and sneak in the back of hotels such as Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Monte Carlo, and Bellagio. On the other side of I-15, a bunch of high-end condo developers talked the city into rechristening a big portion of Industrial Road as Dean Martin Drive. It's still called Industrial from near Downtown to Twain, and it lets you in the back entrances to Circus Circus, Treasure Island, and others. It's a terrific bypass to the Strip and I-15 congestion.
  • Beltway Bypass: The 53-mile 215 Beltway was completed in 2003, wrapping three quarters of the way around the valley, allowing easy access to the outskirts while bypassing the Resort Corridor. While the initial beltway is done, some portions still need to be built out from half-beltway and frontage road systems to a full freeway -- a process that will take until 2013.
  • That Dam Bridge: In 2002, work began on a magnificent bridge over the Colorado River to handle traffic between Arizona and Nevada. It was supposed to be done in 2008, but a construction mishap has pushed that back to at least 2010. If you want to visit Hoover Dam, watch out for delays of an hour or more approaching the construction zone. The best advice is to start your trip by 8am, and especially to avoid midday on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • Catch the CAT: Some locals complain about Citizens Area Transit (CAT) bus service in certain neighborhoods. But the Strip routes are frequent and well serviced, running around the clock from the South Strip Transfer Terminal to the Downtown Transportation Center in the north. The no. 301 runs every 10 minutes during busy hours, and there's also a limited-stop express bus (no. 302) every 15 minutes. Other routes go for $1.25, but the 301 and 302 are the CAT's gravy trains and cost $2. Exact change, please.