Just about any journey comes down to a matter of dollars and sense.
A forecast of more than 300,000 travelers descending on Las Vegas for the holidays — making it the No. 1 vacation destination for Christmas and New Year’s Day — inspired a question.
What’s the best way to get from McCarran International Airport to the downtown area?
Three colleagues and I agreed to put four popular modes of transportation to the test Wednesday by comparing the costs, routes, length of time and overall quality of service for a ride between the airport and the SlotZilla zipline at the Fremont Street Experience.
The millennial-age reporters of the group opted for ride-sharing services, with Jamie Munks using Lyft and Nicole Raz ordering an Uber. Assistant City Editor Tom Spousta hopped inside a taxicab, while I, reporter Art Marroquin, took a public bus operated by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.
Anyone willing to fork over a little more cash will have a speedy trip, as we quickly learned. Thrifty travelers might save money but lose precious time.
9:20 A.M.: THE JOURNEY BEGINS
We circle around, hit the stopwatches on our smartphones at the same time and head off from the baggage claim area inside the airport’s Terminal 1. Just outside the sliding doors, the cool December morning air hits Tom’s face as he makes his way to a completely empty taxi line.
Within one minute, he’s already inside a taxi operated by Lucky Cab, of course. The cab heads to the north end of the airport, then west on Tropicana Avenue and onto northbound Interstate 15.
Inside Terminal 1, Jamie pulls out her smartphone and selects “set pickup” from the Lyft app. A photo of the driver pops up, along with a description of the Hyundai Sonata just five minutes away from the designated ride-share waiting area on Level 2M of the airport’s parking garage.
Nicole orders a ride with Uber as she walks toward the waiting area.
I walk in the opposite direction and head down one floor below the baggage claim to an area ominously known as Level Zero. Just as I walk outside the doors, the Westcliff Express bus heads out, not to be seen for about another hour. I pay $6 for an all-access bus pass good for two hours and wait for the next northbound bus to arrive.
9:26 A.M.: RIDE-SHARE ARRIVALS
A Kia Sedona dispatched by Uber stops to pick up Nicole, followed about 30 second later by Jamie’s ride aboard the Hyundai sent from Lyft.
Both drivers head toward the airport’s southern exit through the tunnel and onto the westbound 215 Beltway to northbound I-15.
As they leave the airport, Tom’s taxi is already headed north on I-15 while I continue to wait at the bus stop. The driver’s best piece of advice is a tourist’s dream: Always take the freeway from McCarran to downtown Las Vegas, because surface streets take twice as long.
9:34 A.M.: THE BUS, AT LAST
A bus for northbound Route 109 pulls up to the bus shelter, and I quickly hop on board. Almost immediately, my nose is hit with a nauseating stench of body odor that must have been left behind by at least one previous passenger.
I take a seat near the back, where two men in their 20s discuss their plans for the weekend. In front of me, a mother and her young son sit quietly. Near the front, a grandmother is accompanied by three grandsons who turn out to be triplets. The bus takes off and heads north on Maryland Parkway.
At the same time, Nicole’s Uber driver points out Mount Charleston and other points of interest as they head north on I-15, apparently assuming that she is from out of town. He even recommends a show.
Not far behind, Jamie’s Lyft driver points out T-Mobile Arena from I-15.
Tom’s taxi driver merges onto U.S. Highway 95, winding his way through the Spaghetti Bowl into downtown. The skyline whizzes by. Just like that, he’s nearly there.
9:37 A.M.: FIRST ARRIVAL
After several minutes of pleasant conversation with the driver, Tom’s taxi reaches the designated finish line: SlotZilla. He pays $35.51 for the ride, plus a $7 tip for professionalism and friendly banter, for a grand total of $42.51.
After 16 minutes, 59 seconds, he steps out of the cab, victorious.
“Compared to my cohorts, taking a taxi presented that classic traveler dilemma of cost vs. convenience,” Tom said. “It was worth the extra bucks. This trip was smooth, stress-free — and the luck of the draw.”
Roughly around the same time, Jamie’s Lyft driver makes an odd choice by exiting I-15 at eastbound Charleston Boulevard. The chatty driver asks dozens of questions: Where are you coming from? Where do you work? Why don’t you have any luggage? The ride continues north on Fourth Street.
9:43 A.M.: SECOND ARRIVAL
Nicole emerges from the Kia Sedona and thanks her Uber driver. Her credit card is automatically charged $21.73 for the ride to SlotZilla. It took a little more than 23 minutes from the time she requested the Uber ride until she arrived in downtown.
“My Uber driver seemed to be driving faster than a lot of cars,” Nicole said. “But it was fun to try to see Las Vegas through the lens of a first-time traveler.”
UNLV comes into view as the Route 109 bus continues to creep north on Maryland Parkway, passing Harmon Avenue. It’s going to be a long ride.
9:47 A.M. THIRD ARRIVAL
Jamie is spotted walking toward SlotZilla because her driver did not want to get a parking ticket for dropping her off in front of the Fremont Street Experience. Instead, the driver left her a block away, leaving her to walk two minutes to the finish line.
The Lyft fare and fees total $19.96, and she leaves a $5 tip for a grand total of $24.96 charged to her credit card. Including the walk, the entire trip took 27 minutes and 24 seconds.
As my three colleagues wait in downtown, my bus continues north on Maryland Parkway, crossing at Flamingo Road. People get off, people get on. A recorded message blares from the speakers, warning bus riders that the schedule may run late due to ongoing road construction in the area — a constant theme familiar to Las Vegas Valley residents.
Jamie gets some coffee for a caffeine fix. The group debates whether they should walk south toward a bus stop where they might find me.
10:17 A.M.: END OF THE LINE
The Route 109 bus finally arrives at Bonneville Transit Center. End of the line.
From here, tourists can opt to catch a connecting bus south toward the Strip or north into the heart of downtown Las Vegas. It’s also the terminus for Route 108, which runs from the airport to the transit center by way of Paradise Road.
After the lengthy ride, I opt to stretch my legs and breathe some fresh air by walking the rest of the way to SlotZilla. I stroll north on Casino Center Boulevard, keeping a brisk pace toward Fremont Street, figuring I would probably get there just as fast.
10:23 A.M.: FINALLY THERE … ALMOST
Reaching Carson Street, I hear a few voices call my name. My colleagues wave at me as I cross the street to meet them. Although I didn’t make it all the way to SlotZilla, my journey ended at 1 hour, 3 minutes and 24 seconds.
Sure, I saved the most money, but being thrifty wasn’t worth the aggravation. As the holiday season cranks up, tourists will have to decide for themselves how they want to get around.
Staff Writers Jamie Munks, Nicole Raz and Tom Spousta contributed to this story.
Contact Art Marroquin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0336. Follow @AMarroquin_LV on Twitter.