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Published: Tuesday, 8/28/2007

Las Vegas is still fun, but no longer cheap

LAS VEGAS - Next time you go to Las Vegas, you could easily drop a couple of grand - and that's even if you don't gamble.

The old days of cheap fun in Vegas are mostly gone. The $6.95 pig-out, eat-all-you-want buffets have been replaced by fancier, and no doubt better, buffets for $30 or more.

And the brand-name restaurants that are clones of the originals in New York or Chicago could set you back $100 to $150 or more per couple.

Vegas hotels used to practically give away rooms to get you into the casinos. But now, a decent hotel room will run $150 to $200 or more a night.

You can still get an occasional free drink while you gamble, but the gambling part is likely to cost you much more than in the past.

The $1 and $5 tables are just about extinct. Start with $10 per bet at even the smallest and cheapest casinos.

To get a freebie beer at a casino bar, you need to have at least $10 in a video-poker machine (and odds are, you'll lose that in a few minutes). Otherwise that beer will probably cost $4.50 to $5.

At poolside, get ready for a $7 beer or a $15 margarita.

And leave your quarters at home.

Even though you can still find 25-cent slot machines, they mostly accept only bills. If you win, you'll get a voucher - and you get your winnings out of an ATM-like machine.

Blame it on progress, or success, or the growing corporate influence.

It could simply be that Las Vegas is outrageously popular as a destination, not only for vacationers but also for conventioneers.

It could also be that corporations have spent many billions of dollars on mega-resorts in the last decade and now understandably want to reap a profit on their investment.

Of course, one reason things are vastly more expensive in Las Vegas is that's what the market will bear.

The city drew 39 million visitors last year and took in $39 billion, including $8 billion of gambling revenue.

The city, with 150,000 hotel rooms, was host to nearly 24,000 conventions last year, for 6.3 million delegates who spent about $8 billion, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.

Adding to the appeal is the city's flourishing club scene. The nightclubs are doing very well. And so are the traditional shows - but you can forget show and dinner for $15; now you'll get the show and maybe two drinks for perhaps $80 to $100.

Not surprisingly, all of this activity has boosted land prices in Las Vegas to more than $20 million an acre on the Strip.

Vegas is still a lot of fun, especially if you are lucky enough to win some of your money back.

But somehow it seemed more fun when it was down and dirty - and cheap.

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