Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Quick Trip Review: Rethinking Total Rewards

For several years now the wife and I have made Las Vegas a vacation mainstay.  Since 2008 we've visited there around 2-3 times per year, watching shows, seeing the sites, gambling (less and less as the years pass) and genuinely just having a good time.

For most of that time we've been MLife loyalists, staying at Excalibur, NY/NY, Luxor, Mandalay Bay etc. On a couple of occasions we also slept at Circus Circus (don't recommend UNLESS you have children) and Treasure Island.  On the two occasions that we stayed on Fremont Street we went local and stayed at the Golden Nugget.

One group of hotels we never seriously considered were the Caesar's Group also known as Total Rewards Casinos. The reason for this, mostly, was that for a while they were generally old and, to be honest, a little rough around the edges. The group's flagship, Caesar's, was looking a little threadbare, and the other casinos, Bally's, the Flamingo, Harrah's and Imperial Palace were in various stages of disrepair, Planet Hollywood and Paris were nice, but pricey considering the MLife alternatives.

Recently however, Caesar's has stepped up their game.  The Forum Shops at Caesar's have revitalized the property as has the opening of Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill and (more importantly) NOBU Hotel and restaurant which, along with some high-profile entertainment residencies, has revitalized their flagship hotel.  Recently, the Flamingo has been spruced up, as has Bally's with the introduction of the Grand Bazaar Shops.

The most important update however was the conversion of the dilapidated and falling into ruin Imperial Palace to the Quad, and eventually the LINQ. This also coincided with the controversial building of the LINQ promenade and High Roller Observation Wheel.

Last weekend we took advantage of a Total Rewards semi-annual sale (which seems to occur once per quarter rather than semi-annually) and decided to spend our 17th wedding anniversary trying something new at the LINQ.

For starters, here are a few pictures of the room:

The rooms, while still new, are fairly small, but the beds are comfortable and the water is hot (which wasn't always the case at Imperial Palace near the end).  They do come with 47 in. flat-screen TV's which is nice, the room safe is easy to use and there is complimentary water (nice in Vegas August heat). While the art on the wall is odd at first, if you partake in one of the hotels many bars you can come back in the evening and argue what it says.

Where Total Rewards really impressed me was in the pre-checkin experience. Let me explain. When I stayed at MLife properties I always had to call two or three days in advance to confirm my reservations. I never got contacted or anything of the sort. In other words, the onus was on me to figure things out.

For Total Rewards, I received multiple e-mails both confirming my reservation (helpful) and offering shots at either discounted upgrades or amenities.  For example, the first e-mail that I received was about a week-out from my trip, informing me that the property had our reservation confirmed and that resort had the option of early check-in.  That I would receive an e-mail the morning of my arrival (I did) and that I could check in there (I did) arrive at the hotel, and that I would receive a text where to get my tickets when I arrived.  This meant skipping the check-in line, and also gave us flexibility arriving, since the bell desk would hold our bags should we decide to go play/have a cocktail, and then bring them to our room when we arrived.  Does MLife offer this?  I have no idea because they never contacted me to offer it.

The second e-mail that I received offered us a shot at an upgraded room for a discounted rate, it also offered us discounted tickets to ride on the High Roller.  If you select the upgrade, and the upgrade is available, you get charged the extra dollars per night. If the room is not available, then no harm, no foul, you get your regular room.

The third e-mail I received invited us to eat at different restaurants with discounts for each.  Yes, I realize that each of these e-mails were trying to sell me something but they're things that you probably want to buy. Given that free upgrades in Vegas are non-existent (unless you are a fairly high-roller [we're not] and even then let's discuss the meaning of "free") and that meals in Las Vegas can run well into the hundreds of dollars, every discount is appreciated.  While we had different plans this trip it's something I might consider in the future.

One annoyance at the LINQ is their wake-up call. It's a recording of Guy Fieri hollering at you (as he does) to come down to his place.  Granted, it did wake me up but I've very little interest eating at an establishment with this menu. We did eat at Chayo Mexican and Tequila Bar which was very good, and I had a breakfast sandwich at The Nook which was...meh.

As far as the bars go we found 3535 to be nice while both Catalyst Bar and TAG Sports Bar were pretty normal casino bars where you play video poker to get comped drinks. At every bar however the bartenders were nice and the drinks came in a timely manner.  Of all the drinks the specialty cocktails at 3535 were my wife's favorite.

The LINQ has also brought back a revised, updated version of O'Shea's Casino which is a great place to grab a spicy bloody Mary the morning after.  If you're a fan of frozen drinks, you could do worse than the Purple Zebra which has a fairly large selection of drinking vessels available for selection.

One place I wanted to try, but something kept coming up was Squeeze Fresh Cocktails who had a drink menu that looked promising. Maybe next trip.  We also wanted to try Brooklyn Bowl which advertises Gluten Free fried chicken.  As a sufferer of Celiac the wife was very intrigued by this. There are several places to eat and drink, especially on the promenade that look interesting including Haute Doggery, The Yard House (which is a chain, and fun in Houston), the Tilted Kilt (which didn't make it in Houston), Off the Strip and the infamous chain Hash House a Go-Go, (Open 24/7)

Finally, the gaming.

We found the slot payouts to be fairly loose, much looser on this trip than any of the MLife properties. They have a small, but varied, array of slots ranging from pennies to $25 (the highest I found).  Curiously, the LINQ doesn't have a high limit room, choosing instead to have a high-limit slots "area" and the highest table limit I found was $25/hand on blackjack.

That's the good, now for the bad. All of the blackjack tables that I looked at had two rules that are very negative to the player. They all required the dealer to hit on soft 17, and they all paid 6/5 on BlackJack.  I found this all over the strip on the $5 & $10 tables but the LINQ was one of the few that I saw keeping the rule on $25 tables as well. Unfortunately, both of these rules are increasing in frequency on the Strip and, considering how full the tables were, there's little hope they're going away.  At this point, if you're a BlackJack player, I can only recommend that you move off the Strip for your gaming. And please, if you're just a casual player, do us all a favor and boycott these horrible tables. Only if people stop playing will this terrible trend go away.

My game is video poker, and while I did play at the LINQ their odds are fairly awful. To be fair, the odds are about the same at all Total Rewards casinos and are pretty much in sync with MLife.  Jacks or Better is typically 7/5 [or even, on a handful of machines 7/4] (I saw it as low as 6-5 at Caesar's), while Double Bonus is 7/5, DoubleDouble Bonus is typically 8/5.  I did find 9/6 Double/Double at NY/NY but the machine did not accept rewards cards.  If you're a serious player though go find those machines. (They're by the entrance by the reception desk. Three machines with red banners.) Again, for Video Poker, your best odds are to be found off the Strip.

In all, we enjoyed our stay at the LINQ and are planning to stay there again on our next trip to Vegas. The hotel trends younger than us demographically, but we didn't feel out of place and were never made to feel old or unwelcome by the staff. The big downside for us was the location of our room. Unfortunately, we were on the 2nd floor by the entrance to the pool, which means that we heard shouting every morning starting at the time it opened. We also had a horrible view. All we could see from our room was concrete pillars, other rooms, and a driveway.  We were also near the delivery zone so we heard the "beep, beep, beep" of trucks as well.

Still, with a little better room location it would have been fine, and since we're both fairly deep sleepers we made do.  Plus, I like to play in the mornings (when the tables are less crowded) and my wife likes to run so the early morning noise wasn't so bad.

For my next post I'll talk about some of the food we had, including some that was great, and some that was very disappointing. Thanks to my wife's ability to never forget to take a picture, I'll have more of them as well.