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Extraordinary Vacation Bargains

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By imuafool
August 11, 2009

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With some research and planning, anyone can find extraordinary vacation bargains and deals during this current economic/financial crisis. My family just returned from an 9-day vacation traveling by car from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas for 3 nights and touring 4 national parks, i.e., Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton and 3 nights at Yellowstone. Our trip was a mix of extraordinary cost savings and some worthwhile splurges. Here are our experiences and some tips:

1. I paid no $25 entry fee to any of the 4 National Parks and saved $90 because I bought a $10 Senior Pass (i.e., America the Beautiful/The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass) from a local U.S. Forest Service office before leaving on our trip. It's a lifetime pass for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, 62 years or older that allows my passenger vehicle and occupants free entry into any U.S. National Park and any fee charging U.S. Forest Service recreational area. The pass brochure lists other cost saving benefits.

2. 10 of my 16 gas stops were at Costco gas stations, conveniently located along Interstate 15 from Southern California to Pocatello, Idaho. I had access maps to all locations, downloaded from the Costco website. Their gas prices were lower than their competition. In Utah, I had to buy 91 octane premium gas because the other grade was only 85 octane, and my vehicle needed at least 87. The Costco attendant told me out-of-state customers either mixed half 91 and half 85, or alternated filling up with the two grades. The cost of 91 premium in Utah was still lower than 87 regular that I bought at my local Costco in LA because California and Los Angeles County taxes on gas are very high. The most expensive fill ups were in Yellowstone National Park where I had no choice but to pay $2.999/gal for 87 octane (vs. $2.429/gal for 87 octane at Costco in Pocatello). I'm a Costco stockholder and have an American Express/Costco card that gives me a 3% rebate on gas purchases. The Costco gas stops also allowed us to use the store's clean restrooms and buy what the L.A. Times listed as a best food buy, the $1.50 hot dog and soft drink.
[side note: I had an interesting conversation with the Costco/Pocatello Assistant Manager; I asked him when his store opened because it had basically the same new design like the new one that recently opened in my hometown; he said that they opened earlier this year and that there were no other Costco stores within a 125 mile radius. He showed me something new...self serve check out which I haven't seen yet in Southern California. He confirmed that Costco will continue to expand despite current bad economic times, after I commented that retailers like Wal-mart and Best Buy continue to expand and open new stores. He relocated from Seattle to hire staff and set up store operations and thanked me for using Costco stores on my trip.]

3. Before booking reservations online, take the time to check with a travel agency for better prices. At the online AAA site, I thought I found an excellent hotel room rate in Las Vegas ... $70 ($78.40 incl. tax) per night at the MGM Grand; however, at my local Southern California Auto Club office, the AAA agent found a much lower rate at $52.49 ($58.79 incl. tax) because she had access to all search engines for travel agents whereas online primarily Travelocity is used. So she saved me almost $20 per room night and immediately booked us for 3 nights at the world's largest hotel with 5,044 rooms, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This special rate was good only for Sundays through Thursdays. At check-in, the hotel front desk rep told me that this was the lowest rate that he had seen recently; the lowest ever was $49.99. This was a super deal when compared to the $118 rate ($130.08 incl. taxes & fees) that I would pay at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park for a small cozy cabin unit with a bathroom, sink, one double bed, one single bed and, of course, without TV and refrigeration; however, it came with a priceless view from our window and doorstep....Old Faithful geyser erupting every 90 to 120 minutes.

4. For our Yellowstone reservations, I had to go through Xanterra Parks and Resorts which manages all lodging facilities. Online nothing was available, but, calling a Xanterra agent got us a primo site (Old Faithful area) in a cabin for Friday, Saturday and Sunday; the agent said we lucked out because most reservations are made one year in advance and weekends are the first to get fully booked. The agent also made dinner reservations for us at the Old Faithful Inn; I highly recommend doing this because the huge crowds at the Old Faithful geyser head for the few eating facilities in the area.

5. Our primary reason for going to Las Vegas was to see two shows....Cirque du Soleil's KA at the MGM Grand and Disney's Lion King at the Mandalay Bay. For the KA show, we got a great deal, buy one full price ticket and get a second for $25; IMO the MGM theater did not have a single bad seat; okay, maybe the first several rows in the highest priced orchestra section which are too close to the stage. Online, seats were available on the sides, but talking directly to a MGM Grand ticket office agent we got center seats in the middle price range.The theater was packed fully at the first of two shows on a Wednesday night. The show was awesome, superb, continuous action and worth the price. The show sets were extremely sophisticated and mind boggling; the main stage looked like a floating platform that moved from horizontal to vertical many times; in one act, the platform was deep in sand and as it shifted to a vertical angle, the huge amounts of sand rained down below the stage level. While most of the time the performers were attached to lines, there were times when they were unattached and did free falls; I barely saw the safety nets below the normal stage level that caught them.

6. For Disney's Lion King, there were no ticket deals. However, I got a great deal, due to a bad seat. At a local Ticketmaster outlet, I picked $86 seats in the front row of the raised side section behind the $113.50/seat orchestra section, thinking that I would have no one in front blocking our view. All the lowest priced $53 seats and highest priced $113.50 orchestra seats were sold out. When I got to my front row aisle seat, I noticed that the stairway banister to our raised section blocked my view of the left side of the front stage and that I would have to lean forward to get a full view. In the next row behind us was a Canadian family with their 6 year old girl in the seat behind mine. I told the father that his young daughter's view might be obstructed and that my leaning forward might also be an obstruction; sure enough, his daughter's view was obstructed, and he switched to her seat and had a clear view. During the first half of the show, I had to lean forward whenever the performers were at the front left side of the stage. I noticed some empty seats in separated groupings of 2, 3 and 5 seats in the area below us and behind the orchestra section; in the middle were show production members directing the show. At the intermission, I looked for someone who appeared to be in charge and found the Disney employee who was running the entire show. When I told him about my seat, he said that the hotel theater management was aware of those seats near the stairways and that I should have been advised about this when purchasing the seat at a discounted price; I told him that I paid the full price with no disclosure. He said that was not right and he would take care of me and contact the hotel theater manager. In the meantime, a group people took the liberty to move from their assigned seats to these unoccupied seats. In a minute, the theater manager found me and very politely asked some of the people who had moved to these seats for their ticket stubs; these people quickly left without showing their stubs; the others did likewise when they saw what was happening. The manager asked me to have all my family members come down and take any of the unoccupied seats, which were reserved for staff production members and their guests and for VIP guests. I asked the Canadian family dad if his seat was okay, and he thanked me for asking. These seats were near the center and awesome. So for the second half, we got upgraded from $86 seats to $113.50 seats. I'm writing to Disney's CEO Iger and Mandalay Bay's CEO Hornbuckle to commend these two gentlemen who quickly responded to my problem in the short time during the busy intermission period. BTW, the show was superb, and the show sets were fantastic. Despite the current ongoing economic slump, The Walt Disney Company decided to go forward with their first ever theatrical production in Las Vegas with the premiere of the Lion King at the Mandalay Bay on May 15, 2009, which joined 7 other highly successful companies of The Lion King, currently running all over the world, including New York, London, Hamburg, Paris, Tokyo and Fukuoka, plus the North American National Tour. They must know what they're doing; the show that we saw was sold out, except for the VIP seats.

7. I loaded in my vehicle a 35-bottle case of water, a 32-can case of diet drinks, and a 40-quart Igloo ice chest on wheels with a tow handle. My wife prepared a bunch of fresh vegetables and fruits for traveling snacks and some sandwiches for the first day. In Las Vegas, water fountains are non-existent in hotel public spaces, and most hotel rooms do not have small refrigerators. With outside temperatures hitting 114 degrees, it was sure nice to go out with cold water bottles in a small insulated pack and return to our hotel room and have cold drinks readily available. It was also convenient and nice to have cold drinks on the road while in transit and touring all day in the parks.

8. The Las Vegas Strip remains pedestrian unfriendly, very unattractive and dirty. Several elevators to pedestrians bridges were out of order. Most of the entrances to the newer hotels are far from the main street sidewalk; several have moving horizontal walkways from the hotel entry to the main strip. During the heat of a summer day, it's brutal to walk from one location to another. The heat radiating from the sidewalks and the heat exhaust from vehicles are unbearable. Instead of using my vehicle, the best deal for getting about was buying a $7 24-hour pass to ride the Deuce air-conditioned, 2 level buses that go up and down the Strip; a single ride costs $3. Taxis are everywhere and easily accessible. There's an expensive monorail with a route in the wrong location; instead of within the main strip to service both sides, it's located behind the hotel casinos on the east side of the strip. It appears that the competing hotel casinos do not want to cooperate and coordinate any pedestrian friendly system; instead they want to keep their guests gambling, eating, shopping and staying within the confines of their facilities.

9. In Las Vegas, there's food everywhere with a wide range of varieties and prices. We decided to try some buffets recommended by friends. I researched and found two great deals. The Mirage's buffet Cravings had a special early bird dinner offering at $19.95 per person + tax available Monday through Friday from 3 pm to 5 pm; after 5 pm, the price went up to $24.95. The quality and variety of food were outstanding; a lady server made to order terrific salads, according to whatever ingredients that the guest pointed out. The second deal was a MGM Grand offering for an eat all day breakfast-lunch-dinner buffet at $29.99/person available Monday through Thursday; on Friday through Sunday the price went up to $39.99. The long lines late in the morning, around noon, and at 6-8 pm proved that this was an extremely popular offering. The MGM food manager told me that on Tuesday (July 28), the buffet set an all time record for number of patrons served. After the first show of the KA performance, we hurried to the MGM buffet and beat a huge crowd that followed. The MGM buffet offered fresh everything....freshly cut fruits, no food sitting a long time under heat lamps, excellent variety and quality. Overall, the MGM did an outstanding and efficient job handling the huge volumes of people at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

10. The dinners at Yellowstone restaurants operated by Xanterra were sub-par (all right, to be blunt, just horrible, awful) and way overpriced. They have a large captive customer base, no competition and thus no incentive to improve. The U.S. National Park Service needs to bring in Chef Ramsey (from Hell's Kitchen) or an equivalent to conduct a critical review, kick some butts and teach the kitchen crew how to cook some basic recipes and meals. The breakfasts were acceptable. The serving staff, mostly young adults, was the only positive thing; it was difficult tipping good attentive service, serving lousy, awful, expensive dinners.

11. There were also a lot of good retail shopping deals in Las Vegas. We hit the historically top two retailing areas in terms sales per square foot....the Fashion Show Las Vegas mall and Caesars Emporium. At Dillards (one of the anchor stores at the Fashion Show), I spoke to a high end clothing manufacturer rep, who was setting up a store display, about the local economy. He was a local Nevadan and related that retail sales were off about 50%, there were a lot less foreign visitors, the Las Vegas housing market was an absolute disaster, and unemployment is a huge problem. At other stores, employees reiterated the same thing. I finally retired my favorite 20 year old leather wallet; I bought a $40 Italian leather wallet on sale at Dillards for $12 and some leather belts marked down to ridiculous prices.

12. LBYM doesn't mean being stingy. I observed and met a lot of hard working employees who rely heavily on tips. The MGM Grand must devote some time training their employees right about customer service and doing their jobs well. I saw a lot of hotel guests sweating in the heat lugging their baggage from and to the parking structure to save a few bucks for tipping. I did not hesitate driving my vehicle to the hotel's porte cochere, and tipping the baggage guy to unload my vehicle and tipping the parking valet to take care of my car. I left the housekeeper a tip for cleaning our room for 3 days. The waiters and waitresses at the buffets were all very friendly and attentive and got tips from me. At Yellowstone, most of the housekeeping staff, waiters and waitresses were young adults from the U.S. and many foreign countries who also depended on tips.

13. Las Vegas offered some excellent free stuff to do. Here are some of our favorites:
a. The outdoor Fountain Show at the Bellagio: the best viewing area was on the south side where the horizontal moving walkways begin to the Bellagio front entrance;
b. The Pirate Battle at Treasure Island Hotel Casino; and
c. The Freemont Street Experience: a light show with music.

14. None of us are serious gamblers; however, we all got MGM Mirage players club cards and played the slots a few times.

15. Another good deal was our last overnight stay in St. George, Utah at the Comfort Suites, which provided a huge room with two queen-sized beds, small refrigerator, microwave and very clean carpeting, and included a full breakfast with eggs, yogurt, make your own Belgium waffles, creamy beef gravy and biscuits (in the Navy we called this SOS or sh*t on the shingle), fruits, cereal, milk, juice and coffee .... all for $76.22 (including taxes).

16. Lastly, the best deal of all....the free, priceless magnificent beauty and features of the four National Parks. Each park had an excellent program of free activities; I was surprised by the low number of people who took advantage of the guided tours led by park rangers. On one tour in Yellowstone, an Asian male foreigner told the ranger, "You talk too fast, like my banker. Slow down." She responded, "I can't help it. I'm from New York!" Everybody laughed. At Zion, the 7-mile long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is not open for private vehicle access from April to October. Like many other parks, Zion now relies on a free Zion Canyon Shuttle to move people around; since parking is extremely limited within the park, most visitors have to use parking areas outside the West Entrance in Springdale and catch the shuttle. Bryce Canyon runs a free bus shuttle, but allows private vehicles access everywhere. Yellowstone does not have NPS operated buses or trams, but the park rangers were quite vocal favoring mass transit. In September 1974, I remember bumper to bumper traffic everywhere in Yellowstone, but on this visit, there was almost no traffic, except at a couple major road construction sections near the South Entrance and between Madison and Norris junctions. According to a Yellowstone park ranger, visitations were up from last year, which was a significant down year. I've been to a lot of National Parks, and Bryce Canyon still remains my favorite. I haven't been to Denali in Alaska. Our next planned circuit during cooler weather will include revisiting the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, Arches and Canyonlands.

All in all, a super vacation! Wall Street, financial news, TMF boards, our investment portfolios, any job-related thoughts, etc. were completely set aside during our trip.

Ray