An illustration of a person on the Strip in Las Vegas
Illustration by Melcher Oosterman

The First-Timer’s Guide to Las Vegas

Pointers on gambling, partying, and generally surviving your inaugural trip to a city that runs on mayhem.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
A slew of glitzy, trashy, action-packed, and generally thrilling ways to spend your days and nights in Sin City. Hit the ATM and follow us.

On your inaugural trip to the skanky desert jewel of the U.S.A, expect to adore it—especially if you, like us, are predisposed to recklessness with dice, staying out until daylight, “doubling down” as a concept, and generally loving anything super-deluxe.

A few months ago, VICE staff descended on Vegas tasked with writing a travel guide for the “bro, we party AND go there…”–ass publication that we love and are employed by. In the days leading up to our trip, we steeled ourselves for five full days of mayhem. And it’s no surprise that Vegas is rigorously insane—but we found plenty of practical methods for bopping through the city’s lurid unreality to have a so-fun-it-felt-sacred time. 


Now, Las Vegas can basically do whatever it wants with you, no matter what you plan. So a big piece of surviving the city is cutting down on the “Oh no, I’m dying?” feeling in order to sustain and fuel the “Woo, I’m DYING!! TO LIIIIVE!!!!!” feeling that we all came for in the first place. You just need a little pragmatism to guide you in the sheer RECREATION and SPLENDOR of it all (without ending up broke or broken). This is what pinned our feet to the ground as we surfed the heat, derangement, and elation of Las Vegas—we hope it helps you get your bearings out there, too. —Amy Rose Spiegel, deputy editor

1. When you’re out and about at night… become The Bullshitter. Cut the line, lie about being on the list, and fake out indignantly leaving when none of the above work. Once we huffily turned to go when we were denied entrance to a megaclub, they let us in instantly.

2. Walk the Strip one (1) time, and then never again. Ideally, you’ll knock this out right after you get to Vegas with a giant Miller Lite in hand. (Buy it at CVS, which sells the cheapest beer on the Strip.) Making that trek on foot gives you a good lay of the land, and an opportunity to see all the big, bougie places you’ll recognize from movies like Ocean’s 11—The Bellagio! Caesars Palace! MGM Grand!—along with the various characters who populate Las Vegas Boulevard: gaggles of ladies in elaborate showgirl costumes; two old guys doing “Veterans’ Karaoke” on a pedestrian bridge; rapping children who should probably be in school but are fully not; etc. It’s kind of fun the first time you do it, but, after that, the sea of sweaty bodies and tacky chain restaurants becomes borderline nauseating. It’s a lot like Times Square. Get in, get out, and never do it again.


3. If you’re new to gambling, get your feet wet in Fremont, a gritty, neon-soaked neighborhood about six miles from the Strip. The casinos there are stocked with low-minimum tables: You can wager as few as five bucks on blackjack, roulette, et al., whereas most casinos on the Strip force you to fork over at least $25 per hand/roll/spin/what have you, if not more. Warm up at El Cortez, a small, dark, vaguely seedy joint that’s been open since 1941, which has a special place in our hearts a) because it rips and b) because one of us won $180 there. Then amble across the street to the Golden Nugget, a glitzier spot with funky carpeting, outlandish light fixtures, and a wider selection of games than you’ll find at El Cortez. 

A person in a pool with a cocktail

4. Respect the sun and its lifestyle, which, like yours, will probably be far more extreme in Vegas than at home. How your days and nights go will be wholly contingent on how you account for the heat, so you can’t just wing it against 101° weather. At least two of us learned this the hard way after straight-up sizzling in a wave pool and then having to spend the rest of the day taking cold showers and also in bed because of debilitating sunburns and heat exhaustion. Prioritize shade whenever possible. Be militant about SPF maintenance. DRINK ELECTROLYTES. 


5. Some miscellaneous money-focused things to avoid (extra) price gouging: Buy cigarettes, alcohol, water, and snacks outside of the casinos and big hotels. Bring your own sunscreen for the above-mentioned heat-preparedness (we paid $60 for two spray cans in a resort—don’t be us!!). Also don’t pay for drinks at casinos—you don’t have to if you’re gambling, or if a friend is—but do heavily tip the servers who are bringing you free ones on a tray. Gas stations are your bro, and your cab/Lyft will stop for you if you’re courteous and tip heavily. (Not a lot of walking culture here. Take Lyft, not Uber—locals were FIRM about it for reasons we still don’t understand, but we abide by local wisdom.)

6. Don’t buy drugs at the club, and if you can’t at least get them from a friend of a friend, don’t bother. There’s anecdotally lots of fake and laced coke around, and if you’re not local, it’s hard to know if you’re getting anything close to semi-pure. The upside: Even when you’re sober, Vegas feels like natural cocaine. And weed/edibles are high-quality (and legal, as long as you’re 21)—one source strongly recommended the Henderson location of RISE Dispensaries.


7. CASH IS KING. Keeping a limited supply of cash on hand is also a natural cut-off point if you’re the kind of person who turns into a big spender five (free) G&Ts deep. Plus, you’re going to run into a lot of spots with big fat ATM fees, so arriving with a stack of bills could end up saving you in the long run. 

A money bag walking around

8. Pack equal parts sensibly and delusionally. Dress like you’re dressing for Miami, but with more dice-print clothing and blue, mirrored wrap-around Oakleys. Plan, over all, to wear as little as possible (that will also make suitcase room for more pairs of gorgeous shoes). Camp works NOWHERE like it works in Vegas: One of the best outfits we saw was a silk Burberry caftan worn with a straw fedora festooned with a huge diamanté dragonfly brooch obscuring the whole part of the hat that wasn’t the brim. Sounds unforgivable at home; was unforgettable in the taxi line outside of Caesars Palace.

9. Ask locals for recommendations. Some of our favorite places in Vegas were those we discovered on the ground, through conversations with regulars, bartenders, inveterate gamblers, and other folks who have long called Vegas home. They know what’s cool, what sucks, and what used to be cool but sucks now that some new owner took it over and gut-renovated it. Write down the spots they recommend in a running list, and flag them in Google Maps


10. On gambling: Decide how much money you’re willing to lose, and how much you want to win. Then stick to those numbers. It’ll keep you from getting sad weird because you blew an irresponsible amount of cash at the craps table, and give you a concrete benchmark for when to quit while you’re ahead. Set a nightly target—e.g., winning $100, or losing $200—and if you hit one, get the hell out of there. 

A person studying gambling

11. Also on gambling: If, like VICE’s Drew Schwartz, you don’t have much experience with it, study up on a few games before you get to Vegas. He spent two or three nights before his trip watching—and, somewhat concerningly, falling asleep to and then dreaming about—craps tutorial videos made by a guy who runs a YouTube channel called Color Up, as well as reviewing some literature on blackjack and consulting his dad, who loves roulette, about how to maybe win money at roulette. Even that minimal amount of preparation allowed him to walk into the casino with a baseline understanding of the games and a few basic strategies to keep him from losing all his money in like 20 minutes. 

12. A final note on gambling: Play pai-gow. Play the shit out of it. And always put a dollar on the button. We don’t have the space to explain what “put a dollar on the button” means, nor to explain how pai-gow works—you can learn the ropes here—but just trust us: It rules so, so hard.


13. Don’t expect the city to cater to your health. Pack an empty water bottle and a supply of trail mix and dried fruit in your carry-on for backup. And take some time to do some stretching or a light bodyweight workout in your hotel room before you head out for the day. Your body is definitely not going to thank you for anything you do in Vegas, but you’ll feel a little less deranged on the plane or car ride home if you’re keeping up some semblance of a wellness routine. 

A person exercising

14. Tip often, tip heavy. Guy who hailed you a taxi? Tip him. The lady who watched you lose $200 in 10 minutes at the blackjack table? Tip her. The cleaners of your disgust-o, trashed hotel room? Tip the shit out of them. If you’re throwing more cash around than usual, let that also apply to getting people paid! It’s always gonna be the right thing to help out the people helping YOU have an amazing time in Adult Disney World. 

15. Always look up. Indoors, Vegas has the very greatest ceilings in the country: butterfly chandeliers (at the Bellagio), unselfconscious Cupid frescoes (at The Little White Chapel, and also everywhere), gilded skies above in every room you enter. And it’s even better outside—big streaks of robin’s egg and tangerine, depending on the time of day.

16. If you’re looking to go out on a night that is let’s say… non-traditional (aka Sunday or Monday—everything else is the weekend), check the hours of the spots you want to hit. Vegas might have an all-party, all the time reputation, but some of the bigger spots on the Strip and bars in cool neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Arts District close earlier than you might expect (think 10 p.m. instead of 3 a.m.). 

17. If you stay in Vegas long enough, you’ll probably hit a point when you feel like if you drink another vodka soda, or walk through another casino, or see another massive video ad for the Blue Man Group, you’re going to explode. When you need an escape, go to Red Rock Canyon, a National Conservation Area about 30 minutes from the Strip. It’s a balm for the soul. Craggy, windswept towers of sandstone, the color of red clay, jut out of the desert. You can scramble up the rocks, which rose from the earth some 66 million years ago, and snake your way through the crevices that carve them apart. For a fully transcendent experience, rent a car—preferably a convertible—and reserve a timed slot to drive the 13-mile scenic route that winds through the canyon. Make a playlist of the prettiest music you know—which, for us, sounded like this—and let it wash over you while you gaze out at the rock walls all around you, awestruck, getting goosebumps, marveling at how beautiful the world can be.

Follow Katie Way, Drew Schwartz, and Amy Rose Spiegel on Twitter.

This story is part of The VICE Guide to Las Vegas, a no-holds-barred journey through the skanky desert jewel of the U.S.A. 

The VICE Guide to Travel Las Vegas