Travel Tuesday: Visiting Las Vegas in a Pandemic
Over the past few months, I’ve been pondering when I would be able to travel again. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I started discussing some possibilities for trips we could take while still feeling comfortable and safe. That’s when we decided upon a destination: Las Vegas, Nevada.
Cut to this past Sunday and we are now in Sin City at the beginning part of what will be a 10-day stay. If that sounds crazy to you, I’ll add that we also drove 20-hours to get here. So why did we decide that now was the time to visit Vegas and that it was better to drive instead of fly? And how are things now that we’re here? I’m excited to answer those questions and more as I share my experience of visiting Las Vegas amid a pandemic.
Why Las Vegas?
If I were to tell you that I didn’t drink and barely gambled, you’d probably wonder why the hell I was going to Las Vegas. It’s a fair question and one that deserves an explanation. With that in mind, here are a few reasons why we choose this unlikely destination for our first trip in months.
The last time we were in Vegas was during CES. Given the popularity of that event, room rates can balloon to ridiculous levels. However, during the off-season (or, as it turns out, during a pandemic), these rates come way down to Earth. Plus, thanks to the Caesars Diamond Status I obtained via status matching, I’m exempt from those dreaded resort fees when staying at Caesars properties. Therefore, I figured I’d put that status to work while it lasts and ended up booking a room at Paris for an average of just $25 a night. Meanwhile, to fill out the rest of our trip, we booked one night in a suite before our Paris stay, and then a subsequent few nights at New York, New York courtesy of a high roller friend who was able to get us comped. Thanks to all of these converging circumstances, our entire stay is a fraction of what we might spend in most other locations for comparable rooms.
Perhaps it’s the memories of visiting as a kid (it was the 90s after all), maybe it’s the fact that I used to roam the Strip a lot when my mom lived here, or it might be that my wife and I got married here, but we actually enjoy Las Vegas more than we really should under the circumstances. That’s why we were very sad to have to cancel a trip we had planned for May of this year. So, when the opportunity presented itself for this trip, we decided to give it a shot and give ourselves a change of scenery for a bit.
Truth be told, I did have some hesitations about coming at first. That was until my brother shared that he had recently visited and that the entire Strip was pretty quiet. Incidentally, while he stated that there was really no reason to come right now since nothing was happening, my wife and I both took that as a plus instead of a minus and started to plan our trip shortly afterward. Sure, shows on the Strip are fun and all, but we prefer just walking through the various resorts — something that’s made much easier when it’s empty.
That said, since we stared our visit during Labor Day weekend, it was a bit busier than it’s likely been in recent weeks. Still, I suspect that will change drastically starting today and last throughout the rest of our visit. Assuming that’s the case, I’m looking forward to experiencing an empty Strip for myself.
Now for the next big question: why on Earth did we drive from Missouri to Nevada (and, eventually, back)? Well, I have a few answers for that as well:
Originally, my wife suggested that we fly to Vegas for a few reasons — including the fact that we still have an Allegiant credit to our names and because the short travel time would mean more time here. However, after giving it some thought, I decided I’d prefer to drive for a few reasons, with the largest being the amount of control it would give us. For one, while some airlines are taking extra precautions such as blocking off middle seats, I don’t believe Allegiant (which is what we would fly to LAS from Springfield) is. Plus, with that airline only flying that route on Friday and Mondays, we would have been limited in our options. Thus, while driving certainly took a lot longer, we could do things on our own terms when it came to both scheduling and safety.
Ability to bring more stuff
To be honest, the bigger factor in our eventual decision to drive came down to what we could bring if we didn’t need to worry about flying. See, even though it’s cheap to get a room in Vegas at the moment, it’s a different story when it comes to food. Therefore, we figured we could save significantly if we were able to bring such things as our electric kettle to make pour-over coffee, snacks and breakfast items to keep us away from the surge-priced convenience stores, and even smaller amenities like the yoga mats we’ve been using more frequently as of late. Speaking of saving money, since most Las Vegas hotels have reverted to their old ways and brought back free parking for the time being, there was no expense on that front to consider either.
Road trip fun
I realize that a 20-hour drive probably doesn’t sound too attractive to most people. But, after being cooped up for the last several weeks, I was actually looking forward to a road trip. To that point, I was especially excited to drive through New Mexico, which I find to be one of the prettiest places to pass through. Alas, on the way here, this portion of the drive happened at night, which severely diminished said beauty. Luckily, we still have the drive back to rectify this as I also get some of my kicks along parts of what once was Route 66.
Our Experience So Far
At this point, we’ve only been in Sin City for a couple of days. Nevertheless, I have a few observations to share regarding what the Strip experience is like during these surreal times. This not only includes some notes on the overall experience but also some specifics about how the processes at two major Vegas chains work — so let’s get to it.
General thoughts on COVID Las Vegas
Before we get into my head-to-head comparison, I wanted to share some first-impressions we’ve had from arriving and walking around town a bit.
In every casino, hotel, and other indoor businesses in town, a face covering is required. To my slight surprise, compliance in regards to this rule has been quite high. Sure, I’ve seen a handful of people strolling maskless and a several more letting their mask hang below their nose but, on the whole, I have to say that people seem to be following the rules for the most part — which makes me happy.
One funny/depressing/surreal sight I did encounter while walking through one casino was someone removing their mask to smoke. However, after seeing this, I started to notice how much less smoke there was in general (although so many parts of Vegas now smell like weed — yuck). Then, I realized that there were signs in multiple parts of the casino that had been designated as non-smoking. While I can’t say with absolute confidence that these restrictions weren’t in place before, I feel like they’re a relatively new feature — and one I very much appreciate.
As for other interesting features, while strolling through New York New York, I noticed a hand-washing station in the middle of the casino floor, which also offered paper masks, gloves, and more. Meanwhile, there are also plenty of sanitizer stands to be found around each property. There are also six-foot distance reminders at many locations where lines form. Personally, there are a few other places where I think such signs would be helpful, but I’m guessing this was partially a symptom of what I assume was an influx in business over this holiday weekend.
For all of the efforts being made and the understanding of most guests, traversing the Strip does still lead to some awkward moments. A prime example of this involves elevators. While I’ve seen queues form at the ground level for those waiting to travel up to their rooms, things are a bit different on the way down. It’s almost as though you can see the calculation that goes on in someone’s head when they’re determining whether or not to hop aboard an already-occupied elevator or attempt to summon another one. I will say that, in some elevators, they have a four-person maximum, with stickers located in all four corners of the car. Still, I can’t tell you the sigh of relief I release whenever 1) the elevator arrives empty and 2) makes no stops on the way to our floor.
MGM vs. Caesars
If you’ve visited Vegas in the past few years, you’re probably aware that two main companies dominate the strip: MGM and Caesars. Incidentally, within my first two days of being here, I’ve already stayed at one MGM property (Delano at Mandalay Bay) and one Caesars (Paris). Therefore, I thought it’d be interesting to compare the guests experience between the two.
Since I was able to add my Mlife card number when booking my Delano stay via American Express (more on that in a future Travel Tuesday), a mobile check-in option was available to me with the MGM Resorts app. This required me to confirm that I wasn’t feeling ill, add a method of payment, and select my estimated arrival time. Then, once my room was available, the app updated, allowing me to access a digital key for my room. Additionally, there are kiosks near reception where you could grab a physical key card from a shoe of them, scan a provided QR from the app, and have the card properly programmed. Upon arrival, I did just use my digital key but later obtained a physical one just in case.
As for Caesars, I also already had an account with them (and actually booked directly through them), which made the process a bit easier. While I was able to check-in online similarly to MGM, there wasn’t a digital key option for this property. Instead, I received a QR code that could be used at self-service kiosks located in the main registration area. Instead of the tablet-based kiosks used by MGM for key printing, the kiosks at Paris were much larger and worked quite differently. After using my QR code to pull up my reservation, I had to insert my driver’s license to verify my identity. Then, I was able to request directions to my room and have the machine dispense keys.
Personally, while both methods worked pretty well, I have to say that I enjoyed MGM’s process just a bit better — mainly because there was absolutely no queue involved (not that there was really a line for the Paris kiosks, but there could be at peak times). While I’m pretty sure that both of these options were available before all of this, one thing specific to the pandemic I did notice about these procedures is that, since Delano was taking guests’ temperature as they got in line to check-in, those of us relying on digital keys avoided that. I’m not exactly sure how to remedy this but it seemed worth noting.
As we arrived to our room at Delano, we were greeted by a strip of tape across the door entry, meant to indicate that the room had not been entered since being sanitized. After breaking the seal, we found a letter further informing us of the resort’s current plans and policies along with a very 2020 amenities kit. This included a decently-sized 2-oz bottle of Purell, two Mandalay Bay face masks, and two stylus keychains that could be used to press things like elevator buttons or even be hooked around door handles to help limit contact. To me, this was a super nice and frankly fairly generous touch. Granted, I’m not sure if these were included in all standard rooms or perhaps were limited to the suites (Delano is an all-suites property). In any case, we actually really like the masks and the little stylus thingies have certainly come in handy thus far.
Meanwhile, our room at Paris featured a similar “sealed and sanitized” sticker on the door. Sadly, however, there was no such amenities bag to be found — personally, I was hoping for a mask with fleurs-de-lis or other French imagery. Again, this isn’t to say that Caesars isn’t providing such amenities for other guests in more premium rooms or perhaps other properties. After all, this room was $25 a night compared to $170 at Delano. Maybe I can still check the gift shop for that fleur-de-lis mask…
Elsewhere in the apps
Although I enjoyed the MGM app’s check-in process more and think that their application is a bit sleeker overall, one feature in Caesars’ app that I appreciate is a mobile ordering portal. Here you can view restaurants at different hotels and place an order for pick-up. This even included some table service locations that are currently offering take-out. As for downsides, while some locations are doing mobile ordering throughout their entire operating day, others seem to only be doing it on weekends (or Thursdays through Sundays). Also, having used the mobile ordering interface last night, it could certainly be a bit more polished. Nevertheless, it worked as intended and could have been a helpful option at MGM as well.
The bottom line
Even though MGM and Caesars are doing things a bit differently, each has taken several steps to ensure both safety and convenience. In turn, I’ve felt comfortable at all of the properties we’ve been to so far. Considering that it’s also only been a few weeks since their reopening — and this was likely their first big weekend back — I presume both will continue to make tweaks, making it an even better experience for returning guests.
Overall, as it stands right now, I’m pleased with our decision to visit Las Vegas this week. Between the precautions that MGM, Caesars, and other businesses have taken and our decision to drive instead of fly, I’ve felt comfortable so far (aside from a few awkward moments). Plus, once we do return home, we intend on isolating just to make sure everything’s okay. So while I might not recommend that everyone does the same as we did, I think it was a good move and a welcomed break for us.
Also published on Medium.