Lifestyles in military retirement: Las Vegas


(Gosh, I can’t wait to see what sort of spam is attracted to that title…)

A couple of weeks ago we spent four nights in Las Vegas. It’s been eight years since our last trip there, and it’ll probably be another decade before we “need” to go back.

Mainland readers of this blog might not know that Las Vegas has a special significance to Hawaii residents. Las Vegas is called the 9th island because so many of us spend a significant amount of time (and money) there. Gambling is still illegal in Hawaii so Vegas is a thrill. The Las Vegas cost of living is also lower than Hawaii and the climate is tolerable, so some locals retire there to be closer to their grandkids or to make it easier to travel. So many locals visit Vegas so frequently that one hotel caters to Hawaii tastes in cuisine and gaming, our weekly paper runs a local’s column on the latest Las Vegas events and deals, and local businesses fly cheap pilgrimages charters for weekend gambling trips.

Spouse was attending a national conference for a non-profit that she volunteers with, so some of the choices were made for us– like the dates and the Las Vegas Hotel. We arrived at the LVH on a Sunday afternoon and left early Thursday morning. The conference schedule left us free on Monday & Tuesday evenings but I was on my own Sunday & Wednesday evenings. After I safely escorted spouse’s luggage to our room, I was on unrestricted operations.

One of the conveniences of financial independence is that you can travel when you want to instead of when your employer finds the cheapest airfare. Hawaiian Airlines has a lovely nonstop morning flight that (with the time-zone change) gets you to the hotel right at check-in time. There’s no rush-hour or airport traffic on a Sunday morning. You get a nice nap on the plane so that you’re able to stay up late during your first evening. The extra cost over a night flight is totally worth the price. No more cheap charter redeyes for this guy. No more hanging around the casino glassy-eyed on that first morning, waiting for the hotel to “let” you check in.

The LVH, formerly the Las Vegas Hilton, appears to be a fading flower. I was surprised at how dirty the carpets are in the main hallways and how uneven the (concrete?) floors are in the corridor to the North Tower. The meeting rooms for the convention (several hundred attendees, plus a vendor’s gallery) have also seen hard use– torn wall panels, dusty lights with burned-out bulbs, peeled wallpaper, more dirty carpets. Our room’s shower faucet leaked, the bathtub spigot was letting water get behind the tiles, and the toilet had a leaky flapper valve. The Great Recession built up a maintenance backlog and management does not appear to be plowing cash flow back into the business. Hilton managed that hotel for years but apparently decided to cut their losses.

As an engineer, I gravitate toward blackjack. (Slot machines bore me to tears.) Eight years ago there weren’t very many ways to practice at home except to deal yourself around the kitchen table, but today’s websites & simulators are almost perfect replications of the odds. I kept it “simple” with basic strategy and high-low card counting and spent the last two months (20 minutes a day!) practicing and reading. The more I read, though, the more I realized that playing my best blackjack would still cause me to lose about $20/hour. If I bet heavily at the right times (without attracting attention to myself) then I might win as much as $500 over a two-hour playing session. The bell curve of three standard deviations around the statistical distribution is at least $1000 both ways, and unfortunately the high kurtosis has a negative skew.

In other words, as much as I enjoy the challenge of executing perfect basic strategy, I realized that I’d be playing for minimum wage. (Or possibly making a large financial contribution to the casino’s cash flow.) Even worse, Monday-Wednesday are not exactly peak casino business. If a table’s card count went against me then it’d be tough to find a new table, let alone blend in with the crowds. Playing good blackjack would be difficult unless I moved over to the Strip.

It turns out that the LVH casino is almost totally automated– electronic slot machines & video poker appear to be the perfect employees. They have 20 tables for dealer games but they’re not really active until the evenings & weekends. Casinos have also been shaving as many decimals off the blackjack odds as they can fool their customers into accepting, with gimmicks like paying 6/5 for a blackjack instead of 3/2. It pays to read the fine print on the table (with your reading glasses and a flashlight, if necessary) before you make a bet.

After a few minutes in the LVH casino, I knew I wouldn’t be gambling. I was immediately turned off by the dim lighting, the glaring flashing lights of the machines next to the tables, the high-decibel blaring of the large-screen TVs proclaiming the casino’s coming attractions, and the sound track in the overhead speakers. I would’ve needed earplugs and a headlight to survive that chaos for more than 20 minutes. (At least this trip the casinos seemed to be non-smoking.) I could barely handle walking through the room.

The LVH elevators play classic rock tunes. Spouse and I were happily banging our heads in time to the sound track until the awful realization hit us between the demographic eyeballs: classic rock has become elevator music. Ouch.

One nice feature of the LVH is “green service”. When you volunteer to skip a day of housekeeping, they give you a $10 coupon for anywhere else in the hotel. (I’d love to see the spreadsheet analysis of the housekeeping payroll savings.) I would like to think that the LVH rents rooms equipped with mini-refrigerators and coffeemakers, but we didn’t have them. Internet access was priced at $14/day and the room’s cable modem was broken. (WiFi worked.) Bottled water is $4/pint. It’s clear that we’re not expected to find the room a warm & comforting cave in which to hole up. Instead we’re supposed to be out & about spending money at the shows and gambling our butts off.

Monday night on the Strip was pretty quiet. The Metro monorail is a $10 round trip (per person) but it saves a lot of map-reading and walking. We enjoyed the Bellagio’s fountain show, which always impresses me. I’d pay $50 for an engineering under-the-fountains tour to see how the system shoots a three-inch stream four stories high in less than a second. You can feel the shock wave a hundred feet away, and then you can feel the temperature & humidity change as the water vapor disperses. I can’t imagine how they anchor the water cannons in the concrete without eventually cracking through the foundation of the pool. Or maybe they have an amazing system of hydraulic shock absorbers? We didn’t get over to Fremont or into any of the other casinos. We enjoyed one evening of shopping at the Miracle Mile and another evening (waaaaay off the strip) at REI buying Haleakala backpacking supplies. Every time we’re on the Mainland we end up in an REI store– maybe it’s time for them to open one on Oahu?

Otherwise we didn’t go looking for trouble. One of the conference attendees said that they saw a jumper off the top of the Stratosphere Tower (yikes!) but then realized that they were bungee jumping. People actually paid money for the privilege of doing it in the middle of a city. (Double yikes!) One of our cab drivers said that developers are planning not one but two Ferris wheels around the Strip, one of which is supposed to set a world record for size. That sounds a little safer. I wonder how those handle the 40-knot desert sandstorm breezes.

So what did I do with my time? Thanks to the recommendation of my friend Clif, I was blown away (so to speak) by the National Atomic Testing Museum. I spent nearly three hours there and could’ve gone back for more. The schmaltz and blind optimism of the 1940s and 1950s “atomic society” is unbelievable, as is the hubris of the 1960s. It was pretty grim to relive my 1980s ballistic-missile submarine days of “mutual assured destruction” brinkmanship with the Evil Empire. The construction, engineering, and instrumentation of the Nevada nuclear test sites was unbelievable. I was not amused to see one of “my” AN/PDR-27 radiacs in the display case along with other “primitive radiation detectors”. For all I know the Navy’s still using them.

When I wasn’t gawking walking around town I was working out, updating the blog, catching up on financial research, and reading. (I have a couple excellent book reviews coming up.) It was nice to have quality spouse time in one of the world’s largest adult playgrounds, and it was great to get away from the house’s daily chores & projects. But it was just as good to get back home.

I guess the best way to describe Las Vegas is a desert version of Waikiki’s “over the top” tourist culture– only with less surf. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to trying out a Las Vegas FlowRider…


Related articles:
Lifestyles in military retirement: Living in Hawaii
Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing photos
Lifestyles in military retirement: Napili Bay
Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater redux
Lifestyles in military retirement: learning to surf in Hawaii

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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2 Responses to Lifestyles in military retirement: Las Vegas

  1. Deserat says:

    Nords – as part of my current crazy travels, I got to spend a week in Las Vegas the end of Feb – hadn’t been there in YEARS. My experience was a bit different as I had to be there for a conference and attend it :-) I was staying at the Venetian. I had to laugh when I got there as I just got back from living in Europe – and have been to Venice a few times. This was Disneyland Venice, for sure. I cracked up at people taking pictures and thought that if they eased up on the gambling part of this, it would cost them about as much to actually visit the real thing….

    Most interesting things – I went hiking at Red Rocks on a Sunday morning – my colleague met me at 0700 on Sunday morning at the front lobby of the Venetian. The people you see around then are amazing – there was actually a couple like me going out for a hike, but that was not the norm! Hike was awesome and a great respite from the strip and conference.

    In general, I haven’t seen that many low cut, tight dresses with 4+ inch stiletto heels in my life – I asked if these were the ‘working girls.’ Nope, that’s the style nowadays for women going to Vegas… room at the Venetian – I had a suite – I finally counted 4 flat screen TVs in the room: one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom, one at the wet bar and one in front of the couch. I don’t have that many TVs in my house! I got lost at night when coming into the room trying to find my bed – finding light switches to be able to see where you are going was a challenge as well. Internet connection was OK – not as dynamic as I thought it would be.

    Best deal – the steak dinner off the strip – don’t remember the name, but got it off the ER Board. The bill for my colleague and I came to $26 – two steak dinners, two beers for him and a home-made root beer for me plus tip! This was nice after $12 glasses of wine and $5 cups of coffee – oh and no coffee in my room. Have to go buy it in the hotel restaurants….sigh. Hotel gym was filled up by 0600 – when it opened – people were waiting for machines…..I did weights, but even that got crazy as you were trying to find a place to do your reps.

    Did walk up and down the strip a few times – forgot how the desert air makes things seem closer than they really are. Had to go to the Trump a few times – nice thing about that hotel is it has no casino – it is a hotel – and the breakfast there was a good one.

    So, was an interesting trip back to Vegas….still don’t like the place much. Oh, I spent $20 at a poker slot machine – waste of money for me. I consider it my donation to the gambling economy.

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