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If you are a serious gambler than nothing can be more interesting than a trip to Las Vegas and maybe extending that to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. I know that would probably be nirvana for racing and gambling tragics like me so let me pass on a few tips from my recent trip there that may be of assistance to you.

Firstly the trip. Make sure you book it and plan it at least six months in advance. You save an absolute fortune on air fares and accommodation if you book six months in advance. Don't believe what they say about being able to pick up cheaper accommodation when you get there. It doesn't happen. The best value accommodation in Las Vegas is what they call their "internet special" price packages. Warning: they are not refundable so if you start booking in advance you really have to go on those dates or you do the dough that you've paid in advance.

The easiest way to select the accommodation you require is to go down to your nearest travel agent and get a hold of one of their glossy brochures and then do all the bookings yourself online. No - its not all too hard and quite good fun if you do it with your traveling partner one night while sipping a glass or two of red wine and trying to work out the dates! The other good part about booking and paying way in advance is that if your are using the "fantastic plastic" to pay, a lot of your costs are known and well and truly paid for before you actually use them!

Firstly the air fares. We looked at so many online air fare special sites and airline sites, we went crazy. Qantas, Delta, United, V Australia, every travel agency known to mankind - we visited all their sites. Without doubt the cheapest for us, (two adults and at the time we wanted to go), was V Australia. They fly new Boeing 777 aircraft direct Sydney - Los Angeles or Melbourne - Los Angeles. About 14 hours going over and 16 hours coming back. Good on board entertainment (tons of movies to watch), reasonable food, almost adequate leg room if you are tall like me and felt safe in their newer planes.

Going from Los Angeles to Las Vegas you've got all sorts of options. Fly of course. But we went by bus from a mob called Luxbus. This is very worthwhile. Takes about four hours and you drive through the desert (Death Valley type desert) on freeway all the way and they supply good food and drink in quality bus conditions. Quite well priced and, again, very worthwhile just to get a handle on how big and dry the whole place is and what an amazing place to build a city like Las Vegas. Recommended investment of your limited time over there.

Where you stay in Las Vegas determines your enjoyment of the place. You simply must stay somewhere close to the geographical middle of the strip to get the maximum enjoyment or you will be walking for miles and miles to get places. The casino-entertainment "strip" is long - very very long. No - VERY VERY long. You'll notice in the brochures that some places are very cheap compared to others. Inevitably you will find that this is because they are at the extremities of the strip. What you save in accommodation costs you'll more than burn in taxi fares.

We stayed at the Monte Carlo Casino. It's reasonably close to the "middle" and quite well priced. Our 6 nights on the 27th floor with king size bed non smoking suite was just over $500. A bargain. Cheapest nights to stay in Vegas are Sunday through Wednesday so if you "time your run to perfection" it will be really well priced. The Monte Carlo casino has about 3000 rooms. Others are bigger. Others can also be more expensive. We found the Monte Carlo suited us fine in both terms of quality and price. Again we booked and paid 6 months in advance. (Non refundable)

Understand that these casinos are nothing like Australian casinos. They are HUGE. The Caesars Palace casino is bigger than the Launceston CBD. No, Narelle, I'm not exaggerating. It is bigger. Huge place. Thousands of tables of all descriptions of games. Poker machines as far as the eye can see. Absolutely amazing place. Most casinos operate 24 / 7. The downside of it is that if you go down early for breakfast to the "buffets" you'll be dining with the left over drunks from the night before. Security is very good though and they never become a problem. By the way, security people there have NO sense of humour. Can't blame them for that though.

The games at the casinos are limitless. Some strange (three card and four card poker) - if you don't really understand the game DON'T PLAY! A golden rule.

Blackjack is fairer there than here in Australia in as much as the dealer "declares" if they have blackjack after the first two cards are dealt. They do this by having a small glass "magnifying" glass type apparatus in the table that only they can see what their second card is if their first card is an ace or a ten. The hand is then finished. This saves you from investing any more on the hand only to lose - for example, you may always split 8's etc etc. I think it is fairer.

Be aware that all tables don't pay the same odds. In the one casino I was dabbling in blackjack at one end of the "room" paid odds of 6-5 on a $5 table but 2-1 at the other end of the casino. I have no idea why other than at the 6-5 end of the casino was also the end where some half clad chicky babe got up on the bar and did some kind of dance and threw beads at people (don't ask me - looked like some kind of a Jerry Springer Show impersonation) while the games went on around her. Other than that - no idea!

Smoking is still permitted at the tables in Vegas so be prepared to be sitting next to people smoking everything from Marlboros ($4.75 a packet of 20 and they complain about the high price) to big thick chunky cigars. The cheaper casinos stink. The more upmarket ones have invested a small fortune in quite effective air conditioning "super systems" - according to those dealers I asked. They will never ban smoking there though they have in other public dining-entertainment areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The big thing for me was observing the Racing & Sports Betting "bars" they have in all casinos. They are truly gigantic. The one at the MGM Grand Casino is the biggest thing I have seen. The wall alone, with all the odds from the on course totes, the sports betting odds on baseball, basketball, college football, NFL is bigger than the wall at Myer or your local Kmart with multiple multiple huge screens - really is flabbergasting. Here's the kicker - most people don't bet on horse racing. It is perceived as the "realm of the shady operator" by most punters and they concentrate on sports betting.

By way of example, the one day I really took notice was a Friday (I think) at a small track called Finger Lake (?), or something like that, where they had an 8 horse race where the total on course win pool just before they jumped was around $23000. Now you know and I know that if it was a similar race at a Friday meeting Nowra there'd be 30k to 40k in just one of our TAB win pools and there are ten to twelve times more people in the USA than here in Oz so you do the sums!

Every casino Sports Betting room has individual "booths" that you can hire / reserve / use that have their own computer screens and audio / visual feeds. Unbelievable. The manager of each sports room walks around doing the PR bit with their biggest punters who get free of charge food and drink for as long as they sit there betting. There are many many people who spend their working/waking hours in these places. Unreal. Your local TAB may pale by comparison!

Every casino had their poker rooms. A lot of them run tourneys every day at 9am, noon, 3pm etc etc - hundreds of them to choose from all over Vegas. Early morning buy in price was as low as $15. Some as high as $200. Name your price - take your pick - whatever you wanted. Most casinos had individual "sit and go" buy in tables operating 24 / 7. Poker is big here.

By comparison I have to say I was disappointed by the Kentucky Derby......not only because some 50/1 pop won it but just with general "vibe" about it. Media coverage was fair to average but nothing like the build up to the Melbourne Cup, particularly on local TV media. Just didn't have the same buzz and most people couldn't have given a "rat's" about it. Churchill Downs was okay.

If you are going to fly around in the USA they charge like wounded bulls for checked in luggage which obviously you are going to have. You are almost better off going first class as luggage is free and not that much more expensive that walk on economy. Apart from that, the limited first class seating is really spacious and comfortable, they have their own first class security lines which are virtually straight through with no hours of standing in line, (terrorists apparently don't travel first class!) and the food and drink is great. So spoil yourself and spend the money! It's only money after all is said and done! We used Virgin America which has just started over there and they have brand new aircraft as well. White leather seats in first class - only 8 per plane. Love it. Pity I can't afford it - but just loved it. :-)

Is Vegas/ Disneyland / San Francisco a worthwhile holiday experience - especially with no kids now they've all grown up? Is the Pope Catholic? We just had the best time. Now all we need is a few winners to pay for it all!

(Note: Airlines / hotels / casinos mentioned here are not some sort of financial arrangement. Pity really. Would have made it even better value!!!!)

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