Money Saved is Money Won

To be a winning poker player, you need to develop a winning poker strategy.  95 percent of my columns are devoted to that – the math, psychology, game selection, and analysis necessary to make you better than the folks you are likely to be competing against.

But your bottom line involves more than just winning more than you lose in the game itself.  If you’re like me, and like to travel to poker-rich destinations, you also need to be concerned about how to leave a destination with your overall profit during a poker trip.  Your poker winnings are just one piece of a more complicated poker-vacation equation.  After all, if you win $1,000 playing poker while on vacation but spend $2,000 for the trip itself, you’ve bottom line is still $1,000 lighter.

This column is focused on the strategy of improving your bottom line by saving money when you are traveling to Las Vegas (or, by extension any other place) to play poker. I travel to Las Vegas at least once or twice a year for a poker playing vacation.  In July, I returned from the World Series of Poker (WSOP) at the Rio.  I had about $1,800 in poker-playing profit after playing in some tournaments and side games.  Had I gone the conventional travel route that my friends used, I would have broken just about even.  As it was, I was able to add over $1,000 to my poker account just by planning my trip carefully with an eye toward savings.  There was a lot of planning and strategizing involved in the successful trip – though surprisingly not all that much time on line executing my plan.  Let me share some of my thoughts with you.

The first question I ask myself is when and for how long I want to travel.  I have friends who go for six weeks and others who fly out for a long weekend.  Duration is a highly personal decision.  Do you have a family that will be staying at home?  Will they travel with you?  Will they join you once you are situated?  How long, ideally, do you want to spend in Las Vegas?

I find that the idea of a long Las Vegas poker vacation is often more appealing than the fact of it.  At first blush, given unlimited vacation time and resources, I’d probably embrace the idea of a full six weeks in Las Vegas.  What could be better than that?  Thinking and dreaming about all of the poker action is intoxicating.  I imagine the many late night eateries I love to frequent and I practically drool.  My head spins as I fantasize about the possibility of winning a WSOP bracelet.  Ah, the glory!

money saved
The reality is far less awesome and far more taxing.  For me, at least, there is some discomfort associated with being away from home.  I tend to miss my wife and home after five days or so.  I miss my pillow, my kitchen, my friends, and my routine.  I find that I don’t sleep well away from home and this tends to make me anxious and even more high strung than I normally am.  By the sixth day I am really ready to return to the creature comforts of my own bed.

For me at least, six days is enough of the full-time poker gambling scene.  But maybe you’re different.  If you’re a budding full time professional poker player, the idea of limiting your full-time poker play to six days is ridiculous.  If you’re a homebody, six days away may seem like an eternity.  So think about it first – making sure your poker eyes aren’t bigger than your poker stomach.

Once the duration is decided, you need to focus on the practical tasks of getting yourself there, getting housing, and the like.  Here’s what I do.  I focus on saving money.  Every dollar saved in overhead is another dollar added to my profit (or diminishing my losses) when I go home.

I check the schedule of WSOP events first –  to see what I might like to play.  I plan my trip around those events.  There are other poker events at the same time in other Las Vegas casinos that I also check out – (at the Venetian, Orleans, Binions, and Golden Nugget to name a few).  They might appeal to you.  You can check the schedules on their websites.  Once you do, you can determine, ideally, when you’d like to travel – making sure your stay in Las Vegas allows you to play in your favorite events.

Next is finding the right room.  Most folks I know call the hotel where they’ll be playing.  For the WSOP that’s the Rio.  They get the poker rate (there’s usually some special deal for the WSOP), then call their favorite airline, book their flight, and then book a car through one of the major companies.  I checked with all of them just to get a baseline of what a one week trip would cost my friend .

Rio WSOP rate:    $1017/week (average of $149/night plus tax and fees)

Airline (American)  $479/return (including all taxes and fees)

Car, Hertz              $379 (including all taxes and fees)

Average cost of my friend’s one week Las Vegas vacation: $1875

I was determined to beat that.  I wasn’t willing to stay in flea bags or taking anything but a direct flight.  But I figured I could do better on price without sacrificing quality.  I used a bunch of on-line sites to help me.  The first was Travelocity.  They had a feature that allowed me to plug in my domestic destination and find out the cheapest date to fly.  So I plugged in Las Vegas, leaving from Boston, and found out that there was a fare of $249.  This was the rate without taxes or fees.  With fees it was closer to $300. The site then gave me the dates when the flight was available.  I checked them against the dates I ideally wanted to be in Las Vegas to play in the events I preferred.  I found that there were no seats on the dates I wanted to travel at that rate.  But at least I had a baseline to do comparison shopping on some other travel sites.

I went on Hotwire.  I put in the ideal time I’d like to go.  They gave me the rate, the date, and the time, but didn’t tell me the airline.  I then went on Kayak.com, Orbitz, and Expedia to put in the same ideal time, date, and rate.  I saw what it would cost to travel through various airlines – and the duration of the flights.  I then made my selection.

There’s one last step that I have used to take advantage of promotions offered by airlines.  I check out coupons by doing a Google search for the airline and discount coupons.  I have gotten special 20 percent off codes that I’ve used to buy tickets directly from the airlines and from some of the discounters.  I also subscribe to vacation and travel discount listing services like travelzoo.com and sherman.com.  They send me the latest discount travel deals – often alerting me to special fares that I wouldn’t normally think of – like flying from an airport within an hour’s drive from my home base in Boston.  These services have saved me a bundle.

I found a low fare through Expedia of only a little over $300 including all fees.  I then set out to book my room.  There were many options for doing this – largely the same listing services that I’ve mentioned above.  I’ve had the most success with hotels.com and hotwire.com.  They seem to get the best deals and the best places – though with Hotwire, until you commit to the paid-in-advance reservation you can’t be sure where exactly the hotel  is  That has never bothered me because I always rent a car – so a few blocks either way hasn’t meant very much. I’ve gotten a two room suite five minutes from the Rio at the Extended Stay Suite for $39/night and I’ve gotten Palace Station for $29/night (including Saturday night.)  During a recent trip I found a great resort, 20 minutes from downtown, in the mountains of Mt. Charleston, for the unheard of rate of $8.50 a night!   I’ve gotten similar deals in other cities as well.

Getting a car is very easy and, most of the time in Las Vegas, surprisingly cheap.  But you need to shop around for the best price.  Use the searches I mentioned above.  I tend to start with hotwire and then use Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia to see if I can beat the deal they offer me with any other car rental place.  This year I found that with an online discount coupon I could rent a car through Advantage for $9.95/day.  There are outrageous airport taxes and fees – but even so, for a full week my charges came to $98.95.  I never take the insurance option because my credit card and regular car insurance cover it.  And I never take the gas option –  preferring to fill up before I return my vehicle.  I recommend that you do as I did.

The basics for this trip, including all taxes and fees:

Room at the Extended Stay Suite (5 minute walk from the Rio) $209.00 (including tax and fees).

Flight: non-stop to Las Vegas from Boston                              $309.00 (including tax and fees).

Car: a new compact from Advantage Rental Car                     $ 98.95 (we’ll round it up to $99)

Total cost of my one week Las Vegas vacation: $617

My friend’s average cost of their Las Vegas trip                     $1875 for a week.

My total cost for just as good a Las Vegas trip                             $617 for a week

Savings that I added to my bottom line: $1258

That’s without making inconvenient connections, using frequent flier miles, or staying in a no-name flea bag.

Think about it.  If you play $20/40 and make one big bet an hour, that’s over 31 hours of winnings!  And it only took me about two hours on the internet looking around for the best deal. Put another way, I just found a relatively painless and easy way to double my hourly win rate at $20/40 (and if you’re a lower roller, it’s an even greater savings).

Money saved is as good as money won!

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