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Stopping over in Sin City: The good, bad and ugly

Written by editor

Having to deal with a long flight from the East Coast or the Midwest can be really tough on your back and circulation; getting a blood clot from being cramped in a tiny seat for hours can be outright

Having to deal with a long flight from the East Coast or the Midwest can be really tough on your back and circulation; getting a blood clot from being cramped in a tiny seat for hours can be outright dangerous. I have found that breaking a flight into two segments is far more comfortable and a money saver to boot. Stopping over in Las Vegas, alternatively known as Sin City, is an excellent strategy for many travelers.

I don’t smoke, drink, gamble, use drugs or cavort with ladies of the night. How could Las Vegas possibly appeal to me? If you consider that flights into and out of Las Vegas are unusually cheap due to competition, you will find splitting tickets into two are lower than flying non-stop across North America. There are plenty of wholesome, family-friendly activities to enjoy during a two- to four-day stopover in Las Vegas.

I love the big name headliners who perform in Vegas – stars like Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Donny and Marie, Simon and Garfunkel. I regret never having seen Elvis, but he went on to the great peanut butter and banana sandwich deli in the sky while I was still a child. Ticket prices for headliners run from very reasonable to ridiculous. For handicapped patrons, there are usually reduced rate house seats available from the venue that the general public cannot buy.

I loved the Donny and Marie Show in Vegas. They still have their wholesome appeal and delightful repertoire. I admire their commitment to family, and feel a special affinity with Marie, who has suffered some really painful circumstances gone public, like being ridiculed for her weight and losing a child to suicide. A lot of people would go in to hiding, but Marie stayed committed to making her fans happy. I give her a mountain of credit for that.

A visit to Valley of Fire State Park is a gorgeous experience in color – the red sandstone formations appear to be on fire when reflecting the sun’s rays, which are well-positioned in the spring or fall. Made by the hand of God, and not by man, the magenta, gold, red, sand, and yellow hues are awe-striking. Once considered sacred land by the Native Americans, archaeologists have meticulously showcased petroglyphs carved into the valley’s walls.

We explored the Valley of Fire with experienced ranger Bruce Kniola, who led and drove a luxury Tour Trekker for Pink Jeep Tours. The vehicle is not a Jeep, it’s the “first-of-its-kind, high-end, all-terrain vehicle, designed and licensed to be custom-built to be the ultimate tour vehicle.” Having a history of back problems, I needed a tour that could cover rough terrain, yet offer a totally gentle ride; the Tour Trekker has reclining leather captain seats, large tinted windows, climate control (extremely important if you visit Vegas in the summer), and a long wheel base engineered to enhance stability and safety.

Safety is a big concern for me, because a visit to Valley of Fire can be quite dangerous. There are roads that suddenly end at the edge of a cliff, no guard rails, and few markers. You really need a guide if you want to enjoy the park in its splendor. Bruce Kniola was one of the very best guides we have ever met; not only did he have the geological expertise, but had a great personality to boot. We got bonus time on the tour, because no one had an early flight out of the airport, so Kniola extended the sightseeing by about an hour over the published schedule. Pink Jeep Tours also provided a small sandwich box for lunch, which we enjoyed while overlooking the scenery filmed in The Professionals with Burt Lancaster.

An evening dinner cruise on Lake Mead aboard the Desert Princess is elegant and romantic. Located inside Lake Mead Federal Recreation area, one must first pay to enter this lake park. However, if you are handicapped, you can receive a free lifetime “National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass” at the gate. It grants free entry to all the national parks in the United States. The dinner cruise itself takes place on a beautiful three-level paddle-wheeler boat reminiscent of show boats plowing the Mississippi during the era of Mark Twain. Our excursion started in daylight, then became a sunset cruise, and concluded as a moonlight sailing. We were served a delectable steak dinner and old-fashioned lemonade; they who wished to imbibe could avail themselves of the cash bar. The itinerary includes a close-up of the famous Hoover Dam and expansive bridge, as well as views of striking white cliffs. This is my number one pick for a fun Vegas excursion.

We stayed at the Las Vegas Luxor Hotel, inside the iconic pyramid structure. Like the real pyramids in Egypt, we saw some unfortunate damage and crumbling at the complex. Two elevators had large sections of the floor missing, just like pot holes in the roads in winter. Our friend, Judy Fitch, had recently stayed at the Luxor and warned us she felt the hotel was starting to really look tired. We were not impressed by any of the employees’ knowledge or service; they constantly gave us wrong information and seemed to be in bad moods. I did not get the impression that any of the employees were happy at their jobs.

One of the wheelchair attendants who escorted me from the aircraft told me Vegas is a tough town to live in. He told me he almost became homeless, because no one would hire him at his age. He said the corporations want to hire only very young people at low wages. “There are no 70-year-old interns in Vegas.”

I guess if hotels are going to offer rooms for twenty-five dollars and Spirit is going to sell two-dollar airfares to Vegas, then employees are probably not earning a mint. This was reinforced when I saw a Spirit flight attendant stealing food from the trolley cart and stuffing it into his backpack stored in the overhead bin.

The biggest disappointment was renting from Payless Car Rental. There were no cars available when I arrived at the counter, despite having a reservation. I had to wait for one to be cleaned. In the meanwhile, the clerked insisted I needed to purchase Payless’ insurance, at an outrageous price, claiming my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa would not cover the out-of-service fee in case their car got damaged and it had to be taken to a garage for repair. This scare tactic was quite unsettling, but I called his bluff. Then I notified Chase Bank, who assured me that Payless’ claim was untrue; it is common for car rental employees to receive a kickback if they can successfully push their company insurance on unsuspecting customers. Additionally, there were forfeiture signs posted about which read, “$10 per day penalty if you shorten or extend your rental days. $10 penalty if you switch charge cards from the original method of payment.” The actual amount I was required to pay at the counter was significantly higher than the reservation email Payless sent me claiming the “total cost including taxes and fees.” I found over 50 dents and scratches on the rental car; I had to mark all the damage before getting the key from the second counter. The whole rental was an ugly experience. After feeling I had been scammed, I took a look at the Yelp reviews for the Vegas Payless station. Sure enough, user after user reported incredibly negative experiences with this company. Renters called Payless “crooks, liars and scam artists.” Why isn’t the Attorney General of Nevada nailing them for these practices and shutting them down? Payless Car Rental is a subsidiary of Avis Budget. Shame on Avis for sitting by and letting this happen. I’m tempted to tear up my Avis Preferred Plus card over this.

Pharaoh’s Pheast Buffet at the Luxor has been renamed to the tacky moniker, “More.” Some Luxor room rates include unlimited buffet visits during the entire stay at the hotel, which turns out to be a really good deal if you like their food. We arrived ten minutes before they raised the lunch price to the dinner price, so we felt we got a good deal. The crab legs and shrimp were excellent; I mostly ate those as my meal. I thought the desserts were a bit downscale, but I wasn’t really there for desserts. The service was excellent and the environment looked extra clean. It doesn’t meet the standards of the Paris buffet, but it was fine for our purposes.

Almost every Vegas strip hotel tacks on ridiculous mandatory resort fees to your room rate after you check in. I am reminded how airlines used to play that ugly scam by advertising fares that were not the real price one has to pay. When will the government step in and forbid the practice by hoteliers? It is important for tourists to investigate the real cost of a hotel before booking any non-refundable rooms.

For families, I found The Excalibur to be a fun and well-appointed hotel. There were scores of costumed characters roaming about, interacting with kids. The Excalibur dinner show, Tournament of Kings, is first-class entertainment for people of all ages. Adapted from the tale of King Arthur, this live-action production takes place in a theater-in-the-round arena and immerses the audience in a tale of valor and treachery. Valiant knights ride mighty steeds and prove their chivalry amongst special effects and pyrotechnics. While knights fight, guests feast on a hearty three-course meal using the original utensil – bare hands. Tournament of Kings is an epic portrayal of centuries past, and it’s all in the name of honor, country, and of course, food.

Finally, the free Viva Vision light shows at Fremont Street Experience are a must-see in Las Vegas. Visitors enjoy a variety of light shows with dazzling, high-resolution imagery and state-of-the-art concert-quality sound. The Viva Vision screen is made up of 12.5 million energy-efficient LED lamps. Shows last about six minutes and run every hour from dusk to midnight or a little after.

The real benefit from a stopover is to break up a really long flight in a cramped plane. Airlines keep reducing coach seat space to the point of being downright miserable for some people. A stopover makes the journey a lot less arduous.

Friend Anton Anderssen at