From September 1st-9th I was 5,000 miles away from home, on holiday in Las Vegas. Nobody goes that far without stories or photos…
We went to the Grand Canyon with the AirBridge Tours. We were picked up at 6am and after a few stops at other hotels were taken to a holding facility / check in place just off the strip. There, we waited the guts of an hour on the bus to get inside because there were so many other buses from the same company waiting to get in. By the time we actually got in to the building, were briefed by a guide, checked in and given our free ‘continental breakfast’ (which consisted of coffee, a small bottle of Sunny D and a single pastry), it was after 7.30am when we were ready to depart, for real this time.
We stopped at Hoover Dam on the way to the Canyon. Once at the back of the Dam where there is a small shop and viewing area and once at the front of the dam which is the more ‘familiar’ view of the dam. We’d ample time to roam around and take photos.
We also stopped in the middle of nowhere at a small shop / place with restrooms. I’m not sure why. It didn’t make any sense as we’d stopped at Hoover Dam less than an hour earlier.
From there we went on to the Canyon only to be told we’d be transferring to another bus.
We switched from a nice, modern bus (above) to what the driver told us he nick names ‘The Garbage Can’. This is because for about 9 miles before you reach the canyon welcome center, you’re travelling on dirt roads. It’s a rough, wobbly ride and the windows and overhead storage units were literally shaking and moving the whole way there. They don’t tell you that of course in the brochures… Once we reached the welcome center, we then checked in and got a helicopter ride down in to the Canyon.
They record the weights of everyone on board and position people accordingly so the chopper doesn’t keel to one side and crash due to uneven weight distribution (I’m reading between the lines there).
Upon take-off, all you can see is a huge rocky landscape, for miles away…
The chopper takes off from within a couple of miles of the canyon so for a while you’re above ‘normal’ ground and then before you know it you go from looking down a few hundred feet to ground to looking down several thousand feet to rocky ground. It’s a surreal experience.
Surrounded by rock, you navigate through more rock and the Colorado river appears…
You then start descending to a landing site where you can get out and take everything in from the ground.
As part of our $300 per person package, we also got a boat trip on the river which was probably the highlight. It’s only then that you can truly take everything in. We accelerated up the river at speed, cut the engine and then let the current take us back downstream, back to where we started.
Red rocks, brown rocks, brown water and the odd flash of grass, bark or cactus. As far as the eye can see in all directions…
Just as we were getting ready to get back on land and return to our helicopter pickup point, dark clouds started to appear. Apparently, the weather can change quickly here and you can see that yourself from the photos. It started to rain and later on, thunder & lightening but luckily we’d got back to base before all that.
That meant the famous skywalk (which we had intended doing) had to be closed however we were stuck for time as it was so we weren’t too disappointed.
There were forks of lightening appearing all over the place, so i thought i’d try my hand at catching one in a photo. I thought i didn’t catch any although i was sure i almost caught one perfectly. Turns out i did catch one although you wouldn’t notice really it… (look to the left of the photo below)
The Canyon (West Rim) has 3 main stops, all serviced by shuttle buses (4 if you include the welcome center). All are a good 5 minute drive from each other. For an attraction of the Grand Canyon’s glamour and status, I fully expected it to be well commercialised but it wasn’t. The shops / facilities / restaurants were disappointingly poor. There was definitely nothing ‘Vegas’ about the Grand Canyon, that’s for sure. The canyon & landscape itself is breathtaking but everything else could do with a major investment / revamp. The skywalk is relatively new so hopefully it’s the first of many new attractions / investments in the place.
We were told be that morning to be on the bus for 4pm so we can depart by 4.15pm. A group of 7 held the bus up and didn’t show up until close to 5pm. Not the tour company’s fault, just idiocy on their client’s behalf. We’d have liked more time to walk around and stop off at all the points but couldn’t because we were pushing to get back for 4pm.
On the way back we switched buses again from the ‘Trash Can’ to ‘Suzie’ after driving the ‘9 Miles of Hell’ and didn’t stop once until we got to back to Vegas. Had it been like that on the way out (without the waiting around, breakfast and silly stop in the middle of nowhere), we may have gotten more time at the Canyon itself. So all in all, Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon were spectacular (especially helicopter & boat trip) but the journey to and from there was only memorable because we’d an entertaining elderly driver who when he heard he had Irish people on board, announced to the bus “Oh, we’ve got the IRA on board, ladies and gentlemen”. There was a mention of leprechauns and luck too so Fáilte Ireland will be glad to hear it wasn’t all terrorist related stereotypes.
At first, I thought “Is this it?”. Whilst the hotels are impressive, the strip really just consists of hotels & some shops spread out over a few miles. However, once on the strip and inside Hotels you then begin to realise ‘hotels’ are much more than ‘hotels’.
Vegas redefines the meaning of the word ‘hotel’. Dolphin and wildlife habitats, shark reefs, gondola rides, shopping centers… these places should be called mini towns or cities… we stayed at the Vdara Hotel which is probably the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The ‘standard’ rooms would be called ‘premium suites’ in most hotels. Unusually for Vegas, it doesn’t have a casino plus it’s non smoking throughout but that’s the reason why we booked it. It looked & sounded luxurious in reviews and that’s exactly what it was. Having wandered in and out of dozens of hotels during our trip, we wouldn’t have swapped it. I struggle to understand how anyone could give it a poor review. Everyone we dealt with couldn’t have been more helpful.
(yes, that *is* a big bunch of canoes stuck together)…
Connected via a walkway to our Hotel was the equally stunning Bellagio Hotel.
It took about 10 minutes just to walk through it and get out on to The Strip (main street where all the action happens). The place is huge with long, grand corridors and boutique shops around every corner.
It has an indoor garden / conservatory and we usually stopped off at the nearby café for home-made ice cream. Expensive, but everything in it both looks and tastes expensive.
Their extravagant chocolate fountain in the window is enough to draw you over and trap you inside.
Other hotels worth a mention (that I was inside) are The Venetian and Caesars Palace. Loads to do, see & eat. Some other stuff we did:
- Titanic Exhibition in The Luxor
- Dolphin Habitat in the Mirage
- Jersey Boys (show) in the Paris Las Vegas
I’ll let the photos do the talking for the rest of the strip and hotels… ‘random’ would probably be the best word to describe these…
The strip would be walk-able if it were in Ireland. It’s not walk-able in Vegas. Why? The heat. If you were to walk a couple of miles in 40 degree heat (no wind, low humidity), with glass buildings reflecting sunlight all around you, your feet would either be melted to the pavement or swimming in your own sweat. Then there’s all the pedestrian walkways / bridges which involve walking up and down stairs to bypass about 12 lanes of traffic beneath you. They add to the physical demands of walking around in Las Vegas. Busing or driving is your only real option.
The Duece is a double decker bus that runs up and down the strip and stops at every major hotel. Everyone gets on at the front and you can pay for your ticket at the bus driver’s booth. This means that it’s pretty slow to get moving, particularly at the busier stops.
The SDX is an express bus that runs further up and down the strip but the stops are further apart. You need to buy your tickets in advance at a ticket machine (located at most stops), plus you can generally get on and off at 3 doors (front, middle & rear). It’s a lot quicker and less hassle to use if you’re prepared to walk (a bit) to where you need to go. Cost for a 24 hour ticket is $7 and you can use that on the Duece, SDX or both if you wish.
Most importantly, they’ve all got nice, cool, air conditioning which is the reason the majority of people use them, or at least i hope it is! Regarding airport transport, McCarron airport is a 5 minute drive from The Strip, almost walk-ably close. In the heat and with luggage though you’ll either get a cab or take a shuttle bus. I wanted to pre-book a shuttle bus online but as of now (Sep 2012) the shuttle bus websites are rubbish. Most are out of date. Terminal 2 doesn’t exist anymore (it’s been replaced by the new terminal 3) yet most companies don’t even mention terminal 3 on their websites (which is where i was landing). The one company that had a decent website are airline limo corp. I went to book something and noticed they ask for credit cards details in non-https format. No thanks. In the end i got tickets from them in the Terminal 3 arrivals hall and yes, they do collect & drop off at terminal 3. Return trip to any strip hotel costs $13.
Some other novelty features include slot machines at departure gates and ‘curbside check-in’ where you can quite literally get a taxi to the airport terminal and get them to drop you off at your airline’s outdoor check-in desk. Going off topic now, but something that’s really annoying these days is the size & location of departure boards in airports. This (scroll down a bit) is the departures board in Gatwick airport once you pass the shops. It’s ridiculously small. I didn’t have my glasses on so couldn’t see it. I put my glasses on and still couldn’t see it. You had to go right over to where those people are in the photo to see it i.e. 3 or 4 feet away from the thing. This results in huge crowding blocking up the main corridor – the only way to get to the departure gates. It’s really terrible design.
Those things should be huge and the first thing you see when you get past security. It’s the most important information you need once you’re past security, not the location of bars and restaurants which you can see dominates the photo below…
There are no direct flights to Vegas from Dublin so we went from Dublin to Gatwick with Aer Lingus, stayed a night in London, then flew out the following morning from Gatwick to Vegas with Virgin Atlantic. Everything was booked through expedia (entire package). The only thing i had to book myself was a hotel in London (expedia changed our flight to London from a 9pm flight to 11am one but we didn’t care because we would have had to stay in a hotel anyway or face 10 hours hanging around in an airport).
I was wary of Expedia. What about bags? Checkins? Connections? How does it all work? Can i check-in in advance online? It turns out our flights were booked on the one ticket with Virgin. Virgin and Aer Lingus have an agreement whereby Aer Lingus will honour Virgin’s baggage allowance so that effectively meant we could take a checked in bag for free with Aer Lingus to London. Instantly a saving of €30 per person had i booked that flight separately. Aer Lingus could also have checked the bags straight through to Vegas from Dublin but because we’d almost 24 hours to wait in London, we got them to send them to Gatwick only. We then had to check in as normal at Gatwick.
On the return leg, Virgin checked in our bags from Vegas to Dublin and also printed us boarding cards for our flight from London > Dublin via Aer Lingus.
You’d assume, because we had boarding cards, we could just connect at Gatwick without going through passport control & back through security. Wrong. The guys at the connections place in Gatwick wouldn’t allow us through despite the fact we’d boarding cards printed and also had our bag tags showing bags were checked through to Dublin. Instead we had to queue up at passport control, exit without any bags, then go up to departures and queue up to get through security. We’d about 2 and half hours to kill so weren’t in a mad rush but had there been less time between flights or bigger queues at security, Expedia might have had some questions to answer. The whole ‘procedure’ is unclear and they basically tell you to feck off and check out the rules of the different airlines yourselves.
I’d sent several contact requests to expedia before i booked and none were returned. That’s right, no replies at all to a potential customer willing to spend thousands on a package deal… I had to ring their expensive support number too when THEY changed the flight times on one of our flights. I couldn’t approve or deny that online, they insisted it be done over the phone. I called them in the evening time (within the hours listed in an email they sent me) and was put through to a unit which i’d been told had closed for the day so had to ring back the following day… despite all that nonsense with Expedia, i knew that in reality they had little to no control over everything else so provided they paid everyone for flights & hotels, i wouldn’t need to deal with them again. That was indeed the case. So overall, my experience of Expedia was poor. They’re not clear about exactly what you can and can’t do online i.e. checking in or checking in bags and should provide more than a ‘check with your airline’ footnote. They also don’t tell you what the procedure is for connecting flights, or if indeed they are ‘proper’ connecting flights at all. That said, they were cheaper than everyone else and a lot cheaper than booking things individually. So if you do enough research on what your package involves, you should be ok. I wouldn’t recommend booking ‘blindly’ though. For example you could easily end up with an overnight stay in an airport or having to pay for baggage for one part of a trip.
Trip of a lifetime
It’s great have seen Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in particular. They’re some of these places that you hear about and see a lot of in movies or books but don’t really appreciate until you’re there studying them with your naked eyes. I’d go back (to both).