I peer down a row of slot machines, and what do I see? Lions. Of course. This is Las Vegas.

These particular predators are shampooed before they are bussed in each day from a nearby ranch to pad around a multimillion-dollar enclosure on the gaming floor of the MGM Grand casino.

They do shifts. No one cat has to strut its stuff for more than five hours before it is swapped for one of its mates. The Hispanic immigrants handing out girlie cards on the Strip can only hope for such working conditions.

Gawking is a pastime in Vegas, and the best part about that is it's free.

It is possible to spend the better part of a day taking in the sights on Las Vegas Boulevard, known as the Strip, without spending a cent.

Each casino has its attraction. At MGM it's the lions. For Paris it is the replica Eiffel Tower. At the Bellagio the famous dancing fountains play every night - over 1000 water jets spanning a 3.4ha lake are choreographed to music. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder at the Venetian hotel and casino, the facade of which is a replica of St Mark's Square. The ceiling is painted to look like permanent twilight.

As you wander over bridges, past gondoliers and outdoor cafés you could almost be in Venice. As it gets dark, a large crowd gathers outside Treasure Island for the Sirens of TI - the casino's nightly pirate mini-musical. There are acrobatics, pyrotechnics and swordplay, all put on for the entertainment of the punters.

A tourist does eventually need to eat, sleep and catch a ride, and there are ways of saving a buck in Vegas.

Transport on the Strip is a breeze and relatively cheap. For $7 you can buy an all-day pass on the Deuce buses, which ply their way up and down the main drag every few minutes. You can also get a $14 all-day pass on the monorail. Various discount programmes are available. The Taste Las Vegas Meal Ticket costs $39.60 a day and entitles you to breakfast, lunch and dinner at a schedule of eateries around the town. The selection is somewhat limited but does include Planet Hollywood.

If you tire of fries-with-that cuisine, an alternative such as an authentic Mexican meal probably won't break the budget. Hussong's Cantina, modelled on a famous bar in Baja California, has just opened near the Mandalay. Chef Noe Alvala says you won't find "gringo" Mexican food here. An all-day Power Pass for $31.35 lets you in to as many attractions as you can manage. There is a good range, including the Liberace Museum, a ride up the fake Eiffel Tower, the theme park at Circus Circus, and Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden.

Decent accommodation can be found, albeit not in the thick of the Strip. The newly renovated El Cortez Cabana Suites is a stone's throw from Fremont St, the heart of "old" Las Vegas at the northern end of the boulevard, with rooms for $49. Compare this with $125 for a night at Treasure Island.

Entertaining as they may be, the plastic charms of the Strip can become overpowering, and Las Vegas' desert surrounds are stunningly beautiful.

If you want to experience the desert but don't want to spend time and money going as far afield as the Grand Canyon, try a half-day option such as Pink Jeep Tours' excursion to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for $94.

Obviously the most effective way to save money in Vegas is to stay away from the gaming floor. It's possibly not a popular philosophy. President Obama created a local outcry by remarking "you don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college". Obama clearly understands the art of budget travelling.

Getting there: Air New Zealand with partner airlines flies daily from Auckland to Las Vegas. Return economy fares from $2127.

Where to stay: El Cortez Cabana Suites, from US$49.

Discount vouchers: Las Vegas Power Pass and Taste Las Vegas. See visiticket.com.

What to do: Pink Jeep Tours' half-day excursion to Red Rock Canyon is US$94.

Where to eat: Hussong's Cantina
Maria Slade travelled to Las Vegas courtesy of Air New Zealand.