Monday, May 30, 2016

A Garden Meditation

Today, while weeding the garden, fingers and toes deep in the moist dirt, pulling up the offensive greenery, we could feel the impending thunderstorm in the air. The heaviness, the humidity...just a matter of time. Summer is here, and with it, the glorious thunder and lightning.

And suddenly we thought of Skittles (aka Nettie, aka Annette Ford) and the last time we saw her, when she came to visit for several days, mere months before she passed, when we ran from a prairie storm, and then we chased it with a vehicle, trying to see all the lightening possible, laughing about it all.

It has take this long to fully realize how rare a friend like that is, especially as years pass and age takes its toll; and how it's unlikely we'll ever have a friend like her again. Not that the loss of her wasn't deeply personal, but for so long we'd focused simply on how unfair her passing was, for her family, her husband, her child...she was so young, and the passing [still] unexplained.
Now, three quarters of a year later, we're reflecting on it in different that we're feeling more fully equipped to deal with it in a healthy way.

And from it, this garden mediation, simply came this.

It's a damn shame that it grows so increasingly difficult to find friends who will laugh wildly with you, running from a storm, and then try to catch that same storm with you.
A damn shame that society just isn't equipped anymore, doesn't create or foster the existence of those people as much as it should.
But maybe it never did? Maybe those kinds of people are the true unicorns. And you're lucky to have found a unicorn.

And then, sometimes, life will just take them away.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Frankie Goes to Vegas

While we have plenty of travel journals from over the past several years (for those posts go here:, this is less a travel journal entry, and more of a tips for doing Vegas.
This was the third trip to Las Vegas in the past 8 years, which gives a bit of credibility to what we're about to say.
The first trip was a week long, the second was 3 days, and this one was 3 and a half days.
Each trip was a bit different, the first two were with a group of friends (Canadians) - the base participants of which were the same both times. We were trained in the skills of chilling and vacationing by a very adept group of individuals, and shepherded on our first trip by a seasoned Vegas traveler. We'll call the culmination of both of these trips 'Trip A' because they shared so many similarities.

This third trip, however, was with James (The Husband). James isn't much of a drinker (he had a beer, one liquor drink, and a couple of glasses of champagne the entire trip. He did manage to drink almost a whole bottle of vanilla vodka over the course of the weekend, but you'd never know it). Nor is he much of a gambler.
Or a person who likes to be around more than a few people.
Also. He's British...the kind with underlying ginger (red-haired) characteristics (read: pasty) you can imagine how much he likes to sit in the sun (not at all, generally).
He DOES like to eat though, and so that's what he would probably say is his favourite thing about Vegas.
It goes without saying that the third trip was the least favourite from a "personal" perspective. Which is okay. It was a bit of a work-related venture, after all.
We'll call this Trip B.

The following is going to be a breakdown, from snout to tail, so to speak, from choosing when to go, to booking your flight and hotel, to leaving Vegas.

The Husband's main tip would be, this being his fist time: If you can, go to Vegas with someone who has been there before.

Las Vegas Boulevard, May 8, 2016 (c) Frank et al
Friends. Go with friends. *raises hands towards the sky* Go with a lot of friends.
The more the better. Go with people you can mix and match, swap off a few hours with different ones. Especially if you are going for more than three days. More than three days with the same three people, who you're probably sharing a room too much.
Limit the amount of couples in the group, too. Especially if you know that at least one of them is prone to fighting with each other no matter where they are.
So make it a friends trip, leave the other halves, the "better halves", at home. The combination of sexes is not as important (but obviously being the only girl, or only guy, on a group Vegas vacation can have its disadvantages).

UNLESS you're the type of person who doesn't like to party, drink, take part in some shenanigans, maybe do something out of the ordinary, etc. Maybe you just want to see a show, look at some lights, have a nice meal, and be in bed by 10. If that's the case go with someone like you. Seriously. You're not fun.

First, you want to go between Memorial Day and Labor Day. You just do. The weather the rest of the time isn't as stable. Yes. It's going to be hot, and probably dry those three month - but hot and dry Vegas is better than hot and wet Vegas, and it's leaps and bounds better than cool and wet Vegas.
Trip A (both) was during July-August - the time of year it's highly unlikely to rain more than a short sun shower and you can fry an egg on the sidewalk. You have to enter every casino along the strip just to get a hit of air conditioning (and maybe a fresh drink), or a shop along the way to get a can of something alcoholic and cold to drink (you can drink on the sidewalks in Vegas). You sweat just thinking about stepping outdoors and nobody wants to wear much clothing. It may sound terrible, but it's not. Terrible is wearing a short dress and open heels in chilly weather walking through puddles of water - as was the case with Trip B. Or wearing a light jacket. Or not going to Vegas in the summer.

Now. If you plan to venture outside of Vegas (something we have yet to do - but plan to) then you may be interested in going any of the other 9 months of the year - because hiking in the desert when it's pushing 120 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 50 degrees Celsius to the rest of the World) is probably going to suck cactus balls.
DATES TO AVOID: Chinese New Year Weekend, Presidents’ Day Weekend, St. Patrick’s Day Weekend, Easter Weekend, Mother's Day Weekend, Memorial Day Weekend, Father's Day Weekend, Fourth of July Weekend, Mother's Day Weekend, Labor Day Weekend, Mexican Independence Day Weekend (September), Columbus Day Weekend, Thanksgiving Weekend, Christmas Holiday, New Years Eve & Day 
So why avoid these dates? Do you like spending more money than you have to?
*See THE FLIGHT (AND HOTEL), and THE FOOD for more information about that.

For Trip A the flights were booked as a package with the hotel. You can find these types of trips all over online. The best for this, as far as we've seen, is Allegiant Airlines. They are a "small airline" with many direct flights all over the country. All three trips have been taken with this airline. They seem to have the best prices. For instance, Trip B was easily $400 cheaper per person than other flights during the same time frame, from airports near us. However, Allegiant has very specific days they fly to Las Vegas - Thursdays and Sundays - so you may feel pegged into a shorter trip than you want to take if you, say, want to stay five days.
***Be Aware: with airlines like Allegiant you will be nickle and dim'ed:
A personal item (like a purse or backpack) is free, a carry-on is $35+, a checked bag is $50+ [under 40 lbs]; if you book with a credit card you pay a couple dollars extra; want to make sure you sit next to your travel partnerI(s)? Pick your seats...but that'll cost you. Want them to print your boarding pass? That'll cost you, so print your own.
Once you're on the flight nothing is free - no little bag of pretzels or a water. You're not allowed to bring your own little bottles of alcohol anymore (it's against federal regulations now and results in a $3000 fine) but if you had a small 3 oz flask you could probably get away with buying a can of soda and discretely topping it up with the good stuff rather than pay $7 for an airplane version.
It all adds up.
As far as flights are concerned, always, always, shop around. And if you can be flexible with your dates you'll be better off and save some cash.

Trip B was booked separate, with flight via Allegiant and hotel, because it seemed like we'd save about $30-50 a night, via It was not worth it. Normally is the go-to pet favourite for all things accommodations. Up until Trip B it has been a great source for hotel savings everywhere we've went. Not so much for Vegas.

Having previously stayed at the MGM (for a week the first trip to Vegas) it wasn't too disappointing when James asked to stay there (because it's "the movie hotel") - even though we'd have rather stayed at The Aria because we'd stayed there the last time, it has more of a central location, and it's still pretty new, for about the same price. However, the MGM is a decent hotel as far as the comfort of the casino floor goes and the general ambiance. And the room there for Trip A was amazing, large, spacious, big comfortable bed, ample bathroom facility. Inside and out it was a great accommodation.

Turns out, however, it was disappointing.
For Trip B, the booking, we were what can only described as "banished" to the West Wing. This is clearly the older wing of the hotel - blocked off for discount travelers no doubt - but you don't know it until about halfway down the very long hall corridor when suddenly the wide hallway, with its tasteful wallpaper and carpet, narrow, and the hall gets a little darker, and the carpet not so fresh and clean in appearance or quality, and it's clear you're in some sort of discount hotel/motel alternate universe portal of punishment; and if you read reviews on, which we didn't bother to do until post-stay, as a guest of this wing you will not be the only one feeling that should have taken them up on their "$30 a night upgrade" at the front desk check-in. And question why they hate you for coming to Vegas and wanting to save some benjamins.

The room was pretty bad. Very visible signs of age; the shower leaked all over the floor; the water in the sink never got cold and was just sorta of weird tasting; the lighting throughout the room, including the vanity, was terrible (terrible mirrors and lighting are not a girl's friend in Vegas!); the toilet didn't really flush so great; the bedding and bed wasn't that comfortable (compared to that of Trip A), the air conditioning unit was loud; there were no common amenities you'd find in a hotel room like a fridge, microwave or coffee maker; the room was small and the hallway was noisy. The halls were loud - every time someone in the vicinity was entering or leaving their room it made it sound like someone was at your door - hearing people talking in the hall at all hours, however, is just par for the Las Vegas course.

So, we actually did not get an upgrade due to budget constraints. If it had been less of a work related trip, at a less than financially ideal time for The Husband (who was basically tagging along), then it would have been a mistake not to take the upgrade. You win some. You lose some. Next time we're skipping all together and booking an airport/hotel package, or directly with the hotel (which, by the way, sometimes comes with hotel credits and perks that you will not find booking through a budget travel site).

If you're going to do Vegas...DO VEGAS. It's not the time for a cheap hotel special like if you're going to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore, or to gaze on a big ball of twine or a world's largest whatever.

*Previously mentioned Dates to Avoid - Flights are a bit more expensive than the rest of the optimal time to visit Vegas, and the Hotels are also more expensive. Especially if you're staying near the venue where there's an event...

Other events to be aware of: Boxing matches, UFC fights, and other big sporting events. The price of your hotel may be increased significantly.

Hidden Fees:  Otherwise known as Resort Fees, these fees are not included in your online quotes or in your package booking the majority of the time and, depending on the hotel, can be upward of $30 per room per night. Which means if you're staying for three nights add $100+ more dollars to your estimate costs. These fees are to cover things like wi-fi access (this day and age that's an increasingly bullshit charge), access to the fitness center and a free newspaper. These depend on the hotel/casino and are unusually in fine print somewhere on their website.

Don't take a cab. Either take a shuttle or a (stretch) limo. Trip A involved taking a limo, which is inexpensive when the cost is split among a group of friends, and it is a wicked cool way to roll up to a hotel casino. Plus you can start drinking right away in a limo. It's just far superior.
The shuttle is okay. You may think that $15-18 (depending on if you pre-reserve the tickets) per person sounds like a lot because the airport is not that far from the strip, but with traffic it can cost a lot, and you'll have to (unless you're a dick) tip your cabby more than you trip a shuttle driver.

Some of these will be super obvious, but they warrant going over.
Top down - and these are a minimum. How many of each is up to you and your airline baggage restrictions:
1. A hat of some sort if you plan to be outdoors - that goes for men and women.
2. A top for each weather incident: tank, short sleeve, and a long sleeve (especially if you're going in a "colder" month).
3. A pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, a skirt and a dress.
4. Swimsuit - someting you are comfortable wearing before a buffet, and something you're comfortable wearing two buffets in.
5. Footwear
Shoes. SHOES. Ladies. Listen. You may think those 4 inch, 6 inch, whatever "whore" heels, you wanna strut your sexy badass stuff around The Vegas Strip on will be just fine for a night...but unless you are used to living in those torture decks break in something that's sturdy, comfortable, and sexy to wear with your dresses for your nights on the town.
Every single trip we have done this wrong. No more wrong that this most recent trip when the only comfortable pair of shoes we had was a pair of HokaOne running shoes we brought for using in the fitness center. Shoes that we've been running in for months. You get the smelly picture.
So choose wisely.
And men. You want a couple of pairs of shoes too.
At the very least you should all, men and women, have at least one pair of comfortable sandals - both for walking and for going from the pool to your room - which can be a very long walk all on its own.

Some other random things: Sunblock, After Sun lotion or gel (you will probably get a light burn if you haven't bothered with a base tan and don't spend much time outdoors normally), bandages (for when you don't heed the footwear advice), a water bottle, and at least one flask.

Alcohol is EXPENSIVE in Vegas. We know what you're thinking..."but I heard if you sit at the slot machines or gambling tables the waitresses bring you free alcohol"...and you're thinking right, but it's not that simple.
During Trip A, about 6 years ago, and the trip the prior year, the waitresses were great (depending on the casino, of course). They were really attentive and good with bringing the drinks (as watered down as they were).
Now? Not so good. They were hard to scout out, and when you got the rare one to bring you a drink they were weak. As James said, when we asked how the one drink he managed to get from a casino waitress was, "Well. I can tell she opened the liquor bottle in the vicinity of my drink".
And then there's the matter of free. The longer you sit waiting for the waitress to get to you, should she even choose to do so (we had one waitress who kept saying she'd be right back and she never actually stopped to take our drink order any of the times), and then wait for her to bring you a drink, you could easily drop $20-60 into a slot machine - depending on how fast you are at pressing the botton and how tight the machine is. Then if you actually get a drink you should tip $1-2 - $2 if you ever want to see her again. So it's not really free.
That's the casino floor (and that was the MGM, where we spent most of our slot time this trip).

Restaurants and bars can get pretty expensive. For example, Pub 1842 in the MGM, a double mid-to-low-shelf Gin with water was $22. Some dance bars have minimums for table service (if you want to go with a group of people and sit at a table together it can cost you into the thousands -getting a table is table service, otherwise you stand for the most part).

If you get the bottomless champagne/mimosa brunch option - which is mandatory at some casino buffets during certain holidays (and costs extra) - the champagne can be very low quality. [Note: The champagne at Mandalay Bay Seaside Buffet is way better quality than the champagne at the MGM Grand Buffet].

So what to do.

Bring a flask and a water bottle. Make your own drinks and carry them with you to cut down on at least some of the daytime drinking costs and if you plan to just plop your ass down at some slot machines.

There are places to buy liquor on the strip - Walgreen's, CVS, some random bodega-type souvenir shops, and some more upscale souvenir shops; and the price of the liquor is reasonable. A 750 ml bottle of Gin at the Walgreen's was about $33 after tax, which is absolutely reasonable, especially if you noted that what was equal to two shots (and you know what, it didn't taste like two shots) was $22 at the restaurant in the MGM.

Fill your flask (it's also handy to use if you wanna boost up those watered down "free" casino drinks should you choose that route), mix your drink in your water bottle (unless you're using it for something silly, like staying hydrated in the hot sun ;-p), and just go about your public drinking.
It's a personal favourite Vegas activity and it saves money.

THE FOODAhhh. The food.
The kind of excess that would make a Greek vomitorium blush.
But first...
While you're getting your liquor, grab some snacks to have kicking around your room. If you don't make sure to eat throughout the day you will not get your full value out of the buffet - should you choose to buffet. You have to keep your stomach working (it's science, look it up).
A favourite thing to do it get a giant pizza the first night that you have no intention on finishing at that time (unless your traveling posse is large) and then snack on that over the span of a few days.

At the buffet always choose protein first. Yes, the pasta looks good, but it will fill you up and stand between you and one of the many decadent protein options that can be found in Vegas - Kobe beef and spicy tuna hand roll at the Bellagio, shrimp and crab legs, sausages, roasts of every animal, exotic fish...

At brunch the mini waffles, pancakes, and french toast fingers may be calling your name, but they are just trying to steal the thunder of your heart from the breakfast links, the cheesy scrambled eggs, the smoked salmon, all of the amazing savory offerings - both traditional and non - that you can't get at your local Denny's, and the dessert table waiting in the wings. If you have room at the end hit up a mini waffle for some love, but don't blow it all on simple cheap starchy carbs.

If you decide to Buffet what you choose is probably up to several searches via the internet, and some recommendations from people you know.
Here are our recommendations: Mandalay Bay, and the Bellagio, are wonderful.
Mandalay Bay for brunch, and The Bellagio for dinner, specifically. They both have table service too, so a waiter or waitresses is bringing your drinks and you don't have to waste time schlepping to a soda fountain or a juice machine,
While there, the Mandalay Bay brunch had lamb osso bucco (and it was amazing), beef oxtail, and a good assortment of ethnic offerings (the pork sticky buns were great). The desserts at Mandalay for brunch were also a better assortment than that of the Bellagio at dinner.
Now. The Bellagio. It's literally a world renowned buffet. They have Kobe beef (look it up if you don't know what it is), blini with an assortment of caviar to choose from, a lot of sushi, piles of seafood, and enough roasted meats to make a grown man blush.
The buffet to skip is definitely The MGM Grand Buffet.

Don't go starving. You may think that's the answer to satisfying your gluttonous desires, but alas, it is not.

*Previously mentioned Dates to Avoid - during Holidays there is no Breakfast at most casino buffets- they default to Brunch - often being offered with all you can drink champage and mimosas.
Brunch costs about $10 more per person than breakfast. The price of all other meals are increased by about that same amount. So if you're paying for the meals of two people over three days and you buffet four times you're talking about $100 more to add onto your food budget

Note: While $30-40 on brunch may seem like a lot for a buffet, often times it's almost all you can eat in a day - you're likely to spend the rest of it digesting that meal and topping it with liquor. If you're the type to steer clear of restaurants (which are equally, and often more, expensive) you can probably get by with a food budget, for yourself, of about $75 a day.
If you're planning on eating at famous food chains - even if they are chains not available in parts of your state, like some of the people we shared an airport shuttle with, just go away now and never read this blog again. Seriously. Close the browser.

Plan on tipping.  Everywhere. There's guides about tipping you can look up so you can get an idea of the tipping structure. Do it.

Take the Trams when you can after you get a good hard walk of the strip under your belt. There are three free ones that have limited stops and they aren't very well advirtised, and there's the monorail - $12 for unlimited one-day, and a three-day pass is under $30 - it is totally worth'll save your feet and hours of wasted time walking...and just may allow you to pack that ultra high-heeled Single White Female kill-him stilettos, ladies.

If you can make it to one of the two outlet malls, do it. But make sure you have baggage allowance wiggle room. The Las Vegas North Premium Outlets have been a favourite two times running. This last time didn't offer a chance for shopping, but rather a walk through the lot of the Las Vegas South Premium Outlets. Either way you'll need a cab (or bus) to get there. It's worth it, especially if you want to get off of the strip for a few hours.

Fremont Street (Old Vegas) is also the summer. It's a great place to party...but don't plan on walking there, no matter how reasonable the distance looks like on a map. Take a bus or a cab. In the summer they have a load of outdoor events and it's like a big street party. Plus it's got all the old casinos, it's a bit nostalgic, and you can still get a circa 60s and 70s Vegas style$7.99/9.99 all you can eat steak buffet in some of those casinos. Just remember. You're going to get what you pay for...and maybe even more after a few hours.

Gambling. Obviously.

Eating. Duh

So here's the thing. In the combined two weeks of time spent in Vegas we've never been to a show or concert. It's not our thing. It's expensive, and unless we're gonna see Neil Diamond, we'll catch one of those acts somewhere else. And as far as theater...Fringe Fests are more our bag. We can't really give you any tips on those.

Oh. Strip clubs. They are expensive as hell. The best one, and this is based on a bias, is Sapphire. The bias is because it's the only one under our belt so far, and we spent more than 7 hours at it on one of our trips. The longer you stay past 2 or 3, the lower the "quality" the ladies, but whatever, they have boobs. Isn't that all that matters? Plus, being female, we are allowed to touch those boobs (and sometimes other parts). And we did, and ladies danced on our lap, and made faces about the boys/men who were leering at it all as if to say can you believe those losers these guys are (even though she was clearly going to enjoy the extra money from this happening) and it was a fun time. But expensive. Once you get there (don't take a cab, they say if you call the club they send a car to pick you up) you pay a cover charge (can be more than $30 just to get in the door), and then you tip the door guy if you want a good experience, and then there's the price of the drinks (no less than $15 each), and the lap dances (at least $20 each), and if you bring female friends with you then you better be buying them drinks (especially if they are "conservative" or "uptight" and you want to watch a girl dance on their lap and watch as another woman rubs her bare breasts all over her).

Walking. You're going to do A LOT of walking. Everything looks like it's close, but it's not. It's an optical allusion. Just getting to the pool at your hotel, or getting out of the hotel, can take 15-20 minutes.

Ask to have an extra hour added to your checkout time if you have an afternoon flight. They have "deals" if you want to make checkout even later, but if you're only looking for an hour you may be able to get it for free, and it can make a difference.
Pack all your bags before you leave the room, like if you're planning on a final buffet, so when you get back you have less stress to deal with. Get to your airport two to two and a half hours early as directed, the lines can be longer than you'd think.
And finally...
These days, if you're not careful, What happens in Vegas doesn't so much stay in Vegas, rather gets put on social media, and lives forever on the internet...(take people you trust.


So what did The Husband think of the trip?
"It's just a giant hole where you throw money"
But he wants to go back.

Vegas is way more commercial than the Vegas of old. People used to be able to go "on a shoestring"...that Vegas is dead. You can still do it thrifty...but is that really doing Vegas right?

The most important thing is go knowing you're going to spend money. Plan to spend more money than you plan to spend. Prepare for that so you can have a fun and relaxing time.
If you get a $60+ dinner bill for an appetizer, a burger, a double shot of liquor, and a beer? Don't panic. Laugh it off and move on. If we've learned anything from traveling with Canadians over the years it's how to take a chill vacation. Don't worry about it ON vacation, correct for it (like, don't go back to that restaurant, make sure to ask about the price of something if you're concerned about budget). If you worry about it on vacation you'll risk missing out on the fun you could have, and that's really the only reason for vacation - to have fun - not to stress.

Have fun in Vegas!

Our favourite Vegas song....

If you have been to Vegas and have any additional tips, advice, observations, please feel free to add them in the comment selection below! :-)