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How To Experience Vegas On a Budget

By 9 September 2013 Las Vegas, Travel, United States of America
Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas sign

The glitzy city of Las Vegas in the state of Nevada, USA, is famous for excess, indulgence and gambling. This 24-hour party town is notorious for its lack of inhibition when it comes to celebrating all that is regarded by some as being tacky, and by others as being great fun; however, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Oh no. There are hotel suites hitting the $40,000 mark and cocktails that whet the whistle for a mere $3,000 in this town – everything in Las Vegas has a price tag, but luckily for those of us with more modest budgets, there is still plenty to get stuck into.

Cheapest time to visit Vegas

Las Vegas doesn’t have an off button so identifying a cheap time to visit can be hard. Generally speaking the months of July and August are quieter as this is when the temperature climbs. The slight lull means there can be some great deals on cheap flights to Las Vegas during the summer and it’s worth keeping a look out for bargains. Other ways to keep the budget down include avoiding weekends, the US Spring Break holiday, convention periods and New Year.

Where to stay

The Strip hotels can be pricey so head Downtown for better deals. Being in competition with the big boys means these hotels have to work harder to win business, making service levels and value for money high. Free transport to and from The Strip is usually included and prices for food and beverages do not carry The Strip premium – so all in all, staying a little away from all the action can pay dividends. That said, it really pays to shop around because some of the big resort hotels offer surprisingly good deals for groups or special offers for mid week stays.

Cheap food and drink

Las Vegas is famous for its all-you-can-eat buffets, and for saving money it’s a good idea to eat a main meal at lunchtime when it is even cheaper. Many of the casinos offer free drinks to entice gamblers in, even those just playing the slot machines – so it needn’t cost a fortune.

Free stuff

Inside the Venetian hotel Las Vegas

Pretend you’re in Venice at the Venetian Hotel

Las Vegas offers spectators and people watchers a fascinating spectacle and looking doesn’t have to cost a penny. Popular free shows include the Sirens of Treasure Island, The Bellagio Fountains, the volcano eruption at The Mirage, and The Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace. Those with a sweet tooth may enjoy a visit to M&M’s World, four storeys of chocolaty temptation next to the MGM Grand Hotel Casino. Alternatively, explore eight miles from The Strip to where Ethel Ms Chocolate Factory welcomes visitors for free. Those of a fishy inclination can view the giant Aquarium at The Silverton Hotel – a breathtaking seawater tank on a scale that only Las Vegas can do.

Not free, but for a reasonable price many pool parties in resort hotels are open to non-guests.  For a day by the pool with loud music and lots of fun, pool passes allow access to the luxury facilities of the hotel, without actually staying there.

Remember, not everybody who visits Vegas has a fortune to spend, but that doesn’t put off the 35 million visitors that travel there each year. With smart planning and plenty of research a budget break in party town is totally possible.

This is a contributed post brought to you by Aimee Claire.
Aimee is an enthusiastic, well-educated freelance writer with big ideas for the future,  She is fascinated with exploring new counties and experiencing their culture. 

Like this post?  You might be interested to read my previous post on 36 Hours in Las Vegas on a Budget.

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Sculpture Garden at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

By 3 October 2012 Photography, San Francisco, Travel, United States of America
In Golden Gate Park in the city of San Francisco lies the remarkable de Young Museum.  The building itself is an architectural masterpiece created with warm natural materials.  The museum houses a collection of American art from the 17th to 20th centuries, Textile art and art from Oceania, Africa and Central and South America.  
I visited the museum because it was included in the San Francisco CityPASS and I’m glad that I did.  General admission entry costs $11 for adults and is also valid for same-day admission into the Legion of Honor museum.  If you travel to the museum by public transport you can claim a $2 discount when purchasing your ticket on presentation of your MUNI ticket.  I spent a couple of hours exploring the permanent displays inside the museum before moving outside where I discovered the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden.
Well in my humble opinion this is the best bit.  The striking geometric lines of the museum building stand out against the backdrop of sky and lush garden.  The diverse array of sculpture in the garden adds another dimension.  There is a fantastic mix of textures that create a sensory experience.  The Garden is a photographer’s paradise!
Viewing the ceramic apples through the hole in this concrete sculpture
The giant blue safety pin in the sculpture garden at the de Young Museum
Bronze head in the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Collection of ceramic apples in the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Part of the structure of the museum building as seen from the Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Textured metallic sculpture in the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Weird and wonderful piece in the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Mix of metal and wool on this sculpture in the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden - de Young San Francisco
Bright green fern butting up to the copper wall of the de Young museum

Which is your favourite picture? I love the last photo with the bright green of the fern contrasting with the copper wall of the museum.  I’m just glad that my visit to the de Young coincided with one of my only dry days in San Francisco.  Most of the time it was raining.  Had it been wet I would have missed out on the sculpture garden, which would have been such a shame.  

By Rachel Birchley

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A Taste of the Wild West at Cowboy Camp in Arizona

By 1 October 2012 Travel, United States of America
Cowboy Camp, Arizona

Deep in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona lies Rusty and Betty’s cowboy camp.  These rustic stables are home to Betty’s Trail Rides where visitors can take a scenic horseback ride through the cactus laden countryside.  As part of a Trek America tour group I got to experience something regular visitors don’t: camping at the cowboy camp.

Camping in the Sonoran Desert
Sabina and I’s home for most of Trek

We arrived at the stables near Morristown about 1pm and set up camp before being given our trusty steeds for the afternoon.  My horse was a lovely grey one called Blue Boy.  He was very well behaved and I was glad because it had been a while since I’d been riding.  We were taught how to hold the reins Western Style – in one hand.  This took some getting used to.  I didn’t know what to do with my spare hand!

Horse riding at cowboy camp in Arizona
Me on my trusty steed Blue Boy
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
The trail through the desert
Lake Pleasant, Arizona in the winter sunshine
Lake Pleasant – in real life the sun was sparkling off the water like a jewel
Horse riding in the Sonora Desert surrounded by cacti
The view from Blue Boy
Saguaro cacti
Check out the size of these cacti!

The scenery was fantastic. We rode through acres of saguaro cacti and enjoyed views towards Lake Pleasant, which was sparkling blue in the winter sun.  As we rode up the hills and down through dry river beds I got to take stock and enjoy the peace and quiet after such a busy couple of weeks on Trek.

An old wagon at cowboy camp
Old wagon at the camp

Once we returned to the camp, Betty cooked us a traditional chuckwagon dinner on the camp fire   We tucked in to juicy steaks and baked potatoes, followed by chocolate cake that was cooked in a Dutch oven on the fire.  It was scrumptious.  My new friend Sabina, who I met on the first day of Trek, and I started drinking in the early evening and carried on in to the night.  This made trying to learn how to say “This chocolate cake is delicious” in German, Swiss German (yes there’s a difference – much more hacking and gagging!) and then Korean hilarious!  Betty played guitar and sung cowboy songs to us around the fire after dinner.  I really felt at ease in the great outdoors.  We finally crept to bed shortly after 11pm because we’d finished our vodka and it was getting cold.

Having enjoyed a great night’s sleep after all the fresh air we woke for fresh coffee and breakfast before packing away ready for our long drive to Desert Hot Springs, CA.
By Rachel Birchley

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Visiting the Grand Canyon in Winter

By 26 September 2012 Travel, United States of America

I feel so privileged to have been able to see the Grand Canyon, one of the wonders of the natural world.  Seeing the Canyon for the first time is one of those heart-stopping, jaw-dropping moments.  Clichéd as that sounds it really is that impressive.  My trip to the Grand Canyon was with my Trek America tour.  It was winter and snow covered the ground making the red rocks of the canyon stand out in contrast to the snowy landscape.

Grand Canyon from the South rim
My first view of the Grand Canyon

When travelling on a budget, sometimes there are things that you just have to splurge on.  These unmissable experiences might be once in a lifetime opportunities.  I had just 1.5 days at the Grand Canyon so made the decision to splash out on a 45 minute helicopter ride.  I may never go back to the Canyon, so decided that it was worth the $264.  The experience was exhilarating to say the least!  Having never been in a helicopter before taking off was actually terrifying!  The adrenaline was most definitely flowing.  Each passenger was discreetly weighed so as to ensure even weight distribution.  I was very happy to get a window seat, had I not I would have been very pissed off.  I was glued to that window for the whole trip.

Kaibab National Forest Grand Canyon South rim from helicopter
The Kaibab National Forest on the south rim

South rim of Grand Canyon from helicopter
And then the ground dropped away from beneath us

Grand Canyon from helicopter
Flying over the Grand Canyon
Snowy Grand Canyon with Colorado River from helicopter
Snow dusted rocks of the canyon
Helicopter pilot in action over Grand Canyon
Our pilot
Maverick helicopter tour Grand Canyon
The helicopter just after our tour

We stayed in Tusayan at the Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn.  The hotel is lovely and has fantastic amenities including a hot tub and sauna, which is great for relieving tired muscles after a day of hiking, and a fab sports bar with a bowling alley, pool tables and game room.  Having checked rates for mid January ’13, roughly the same time of year as when I visited, and rooms are available from $75 per night, which isn’t bad at all.

Our only full day in the National Park was spent walking around the various trails.  It was freezing so we didn’t feel comfortable attempting any of the steep trails below the rim.  We also visited a number of the hotels and restaurants to warm up and enjoy hot chocolate throughout the day.  Below are a few photographs of the day.

View of Grand Canyon from the south rim
This is a view that doesn’t get old.
Grand Canyon south rim trail snow ice
An icy path on the Rim Trail
Blanket of snow Grand Canyon south rim village
Wintery landscape in January
Baby deer at Grand Canyon
Baby deer just next to us on the trail
Rim of the Grand Canyon covered in snow
Snowy crevice

Getting to the Grand Canyon South Rim:
The South Rim Village of the Grand Canyon National Park is in Arizona and lies about 80 miles Northwest of Flagstaff.  It’s possible to get to the Park using public transport.  Greyhound run buses to Flagstaff and it’s possible to catch a shuttle bus to the Grand Canyon. Amtrak runs train services to Flagstaff and then a connecting bus service to the Park.  Driving is probably the easiest option.  If you are staying in Tusayan during the summer months a shuttle service runs between the town and the Park so that you can leave your car at your hotel.  There are less shuttle buses in winter but the Park isn’t as busy so parking in the Park would be easier.
By Rachel Birchley

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Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay

By 20 September 2012 San Francisco, Travel, United States of America
Alcatraz San Francisco as viewed from a bay cruise

When I decided to visit San Francisco in California, I knew that I just had to make a trip to Alcatraz.  This infamous prison is world-renowned for being a high security prison with an interesting history but what is less known is that Alcatraz Island is the site of the first lighthouse and US-built fort on the West coast of the USA.  Did you know that after the closure of the federal prison the island was occupied by Native Americans for 18 months?  Alcatraz offers a fascinating history and has many stories to tell.

Indians Welcome Alcatraz Indian Occupation

Alcatraz Island is managed by the National Park Service and is a popular visitor attraction.  Access to the island is only by Alcatraz Cruises, a private company.  Tickets are available from US$28 for adults.  This price includes the ferry, a self-guided tour of the island and the Cell Block audio tour.  I spent at least half a day on this trip so feel that the price is justified for the experience.

Alcatraz cell block inside

The highlight of the attraction is the audio tour.  The narration is by ex-prison guards and they are very bossy – at one point they tell you to hurry up!  It’s great fun and really informative.  You are guided around the cell block and stories about previous inmates are recalled to you.  The audio tour is available in several languages.

A typical cell in Alcatraz prison

Some of the buildings on Alcatraz Island lay in ruins and would be eery at night.  It’s possible to take a night tour of Alcatraz but I personally think you’d have to be mad to do that!  I hate the dark and things that make me jump.

The ruined officer's mess at Alcatraz

The view from Alcatraz towards Sausalito

Standing on the edge of the island looking back to the mainland and the skyline of San Francisco in the distance really brings home the distance between the two.  Prisoners must have been really desperate to contemplate attempting the swim.  It is not believed that anyone ever survived the swim.  I’m glad to say that the boat trip is not dangerous and everyone on board made it safely back ashore at Pier 33.

Silhouette skyline of San Francisco from the Alcatraz Cruises ferry.

Pier 33 is accessible by San Francisco’s MUNI system and is close to the famous Pier 39 with all its shops, restaurants and of course the sea lions.  Alcatraz Island like San Francisco can have very changeable weather and the weather on the island can be very different to that on the mainland.  Make sure you wear layers!  Also, there is no food service on the island and only water can be taken further than the dock so I’d advise planning your trip around meal times.  Trips to Alcatraz can sell out up to a week in advance so it is advisable to book in advance to avoid disappointment, especially at peak times such as holiday periods.  You can book online through Alcatraz Cruises.  E-tickets can be printed at home so there is no queueing on arrival at the departure point.

My trip to Alcatraz was amazing.  It was the highlight of my stay in San Francisco and I would highly recommend anyone visiting the Bay City take the tour.  It’s certainly worth it.
By Rachel Birchley

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