Riding The Deuce and SDX offers the best and worst of Las Vegas
By Renée LiButti
I’ve lived in Las Vegas most of my life. And I’ve never taken a bus. Having had a car ever since I could drive, there was never any reason to. Plus, locals just don’t ride buses.
But I’ve always been curious about them. The Deuce, a glittering gold double-decker reminiscent of the iconic red ones in London, has been cruising the Strip since 2007. And last year, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada introduced a new bus – the Strip & Downtown Express (or, in abbreviated form, the SDX). This is a hybrid vehicle, also painted glitzy gold, which is designed to look and feel like a train. The SDX uses bus-only and high-occupancy vehicle lanes as well as bypasses most of the Strip, in order to provide faster service. But does it?
That was one of many questions I’d been pondering about Las Vegas’ buses. Some others included: Do they have strange smells and sticky seats? Who rides them? And how much time is spent waiting – and waiting – and waiting – at the stops?
The day had finally come to investigate (i.e., I couldn’t think of any better topics for a blog). I enlisted the company of two good friends, who shall remain unidentified to preserve their reputations – after all, locals don’t ride buses. We did some research using the RTC Transit Trip Planner available online at rtcsnv.com. Our intention was to catch The Deuce near Mandalay Bay, which is located at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard, and take it back to its point of origin at Fremont Street Experience in downtown. Then, after a few Viva Vision light shows and a bite to eat, we’d board the SDX for our return trip. One impressive feature of The Deuce and SDX bus lines is that you can switch between the two, thanks to several shared stops.
So that was our plan, and here’s what happened on our ride…
The outbound journey
Our expedition began around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening in February. It was cold outside, but not too cold. We all had jackets. After parking at Mandalay Bay, we walked toward Las Vegas Boulevard in search of a bus stop. Not immediately spotting one, we crossed the street to where a bus stop was clearly evident.
Unfortunately, it didn’t have a TVM. TVM stands for “ticket vending machine,” which is a very important device unless you happen to be carrying the exact amount of money needed to purchase your ticket. A TVM accepts both cash and credit cards. Basically, riders in the tourist corridor have a choice between two fares: $5 for a two-hour ticket or a $7 for a 24-hour pass.
As luck would have it, I had $21 in my purse so we weren’t fazed by the absent TVM. No other passengers were at our stop…however, a dour-looking couple came up to read the timetable, mumbled something about “the buses running much better that morning” and then plodded off. Three minutes later a Deuce appeared.
I hopped on, inserted my cash and collected our tickets. We awkwardly climbed the narrow staircase to the upper deck – and were immediately disappointed. Some passengers had already snagged the four seats at the front of the bus. We sat and sulked and started complaining about other things for good measure. For example, the advertising that wrapped the bus was blurring our visibility. Unable to cope, we crept off at the next stop, near Luxor, to wait for a better bus.
The following Deuce took a lot longer to arrive. According to the timetable, The Deuce bus line, which runs 24 hours a day, has a frequency of 12 minutes during peak travel periods, with 21 minutes being the longest off-peak wait. To our consternation, instead of a bus, more passengers began to appear. We stood tall at an indiscriminate spot along the curb, signaling to others with the air of first-comers that we were at the front of the line.
After what was definitely more than 12 but probably not 21 minutes, a Deuce showed up – one that didn’t have any annoying advertising on it. However, this bus pulled 10 feet past us and parked. We looked at it curiously for a while and held firm to our spot, only to see another passenger amble over – and, damn it, board. We made a beeline for that bus, and we were also allowed on. Hesitantly, we climbed the stars and discovered – hurrah! – the front seats on the right side of the upper deck were empty. We sat down with the thrill of victory coursing through our veins.
Eventually, the other passengers were loaded and the driver edged away from the curb, heading north on the Strip. The views from the upper deck were, like the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign boasts, fabulous. For the next several stops, we were captivated by the shimmering marquees and magnificent hotel facades. From the New York-New York skyline to the Fountains of Bellagio, an amazing show unfolded just outside our elevated window.
The inside of the bus was equally impressive. Would you believe our Deuce was spick and span? It had a sterile interior – a combination of shiny metal fixtures and seats covered with a brightly patterned fabric. In addition to audible announcements, a sleek flat-screen monitor informed passengers of upcoming stops. And nothing smelled.
Although the bus was clean, the same could not be said for all of the passengers. With each stop, larger groups of people, primarily tourists, boarded. We could hear a chorus of different accents and languages as they piled in. Some, particularly the women, were dressed to the nines, probably ready for a night on the town – while others were just barely dressed.
A man in thin oxford shirt buttoned only halfway up took both of the seats across the aisle from us. He must have been drinking because he was very talkative, yet he wasn’t speaking to any of the passengers. He also coughed a lot, which began to freak me and my similarly germ-phobic friend out.
Our bus continued to fill up and a chatty woman seated herself beside my other friend. At first, we found her narration about various Las Vegas landmarks friendly and endearing. A short while later, we wondered if there was any possible way to shut her up.
Like waves on an ocean, more people piled in at each successive stop. Few seemed to be getting out. Passengers were now standing side by side in the aisle.
TIP: If you want to get a good seat on the upper deck – or if you just want to get a seat – catch The Deuce at the beginning of its route. Otherwise, expect to be bumped and pushed around a bit.
This is a facet of Las Vegas that can be tiresome: unrelenting crowds. Even though it wasn’t hot on board, there’s little pleasure to be found in being part of a herd of people who are struggling to keep from falling over. At that moment, I was convinced we were in hell, but a glimpse out the window at the Strip reminded me we were just in Sin City.
Ultimately, we toughed it out. The driver was able to speed up, and the horde began to thin once we reached Sahara Avenue. After maneuvering past the Stratosphere and up Main Street, we arrived at the final stop. The time elapsed was one hour and 37 minutes. How did we feel? Inhaling the fresh air and exhaling a sense of hard-earned freedom, we’d never felt better.
For the next two hours, a merry ol’ time was had by three car-free and carefree bus riders. We explored Fremont Street Experience, where we observed people on the new zipline flying beneath the light-covered canopy. We also watched a woman in a neon green bikini pour a glass of water over her head and writhe around on the Main Street Stage. Then, we began our time-honored “Where do you want to eat?” tradition, during which we looked at and rejected countless dining possibilities. This continued until we were so hungry and fed up with making suggestions that we just walked into the nearest restaurant we could find…and it wasn’t half bad (usually it turns out to be 100 percent terrible).
The return voyage
Fueled up with food and high in spirits, we were ready to head back to Mandalay Bay. It was approaching 10 p.m. when we located the SDX stop on the northwest corner of Fremont Street and Casino Center Boulevard.
Many people had gathered there, but they were either waiting on other Express routes that travel to outlying parts of town or just hanging around. An RTC employee patrolled the curb, maintaining order and checking to see that passengers had their tickets before boarding.
Within 10 minutes, an SDX bus appeared. Like The Deuce, its frequency is remarkable, ranging from 12 to 15 minutes. But unlike The Deuce, the SDX doesn’t operate around the clock. It only runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Getting on this single-decker bus was easy. There are no stairs of any kind to climb. You simply step from the curb through a colossal door – seriously, three or four people could enter at once – and onto a platform.
The second leg of our journey started out in a very promising fashion. Instead of crawling, the SDX was rapidly covering a great deal of territory. The Bonneville Transit Center, the Charleston-area Arts District and the Stratosphere all flew by my window in a big blur. Before I knew it, we were crossing Sahara Avenue and powering down Paradise Road, the street that runs parallel to the Strip.
However, when we reached Flamingo Road and then turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard, conditions changed drastically. The Strip was packed with cars. If they were moving, it was in terms of inches not miles – and that’s no writer’s hyperbole.
At one point, with my enthusiasm quickly draining, I was on the verge of suggesting that we get off and walk the rest of the way. But then again, it was warm and very comfortable on this bus. The seats on the SDX are spread out. We each sat in a different row. There were no more than five other passengers on board with us for the duration of our trip. Plus, we had the Strip to entertain us with its impromptu theater.
At 10:53 p.m., slightly over an hour after we’d departed, what seemed like our never-ending story was about to wrap up. We alighted like knights arriving home after a quest and congratulated each other. I am now proud to proclaim: We are locals and we have ridden the city’s buses!
Of course, riding buses is not right for everyone…although recent stats issued by the RTC found that there’s a combined ridership of nearly one million people on The Deuce and SDX each month. These bus lines truly offer an experience unlike any other, one whose merits you should consider when planning your Vegas vacation. Just think of it like this: a $7 price tag for an all-day tour – that’s, perhaps, the best bargain you’re going to find in the City of Lost Wages.
- You’ll save money. This truly is the cheapest way to get around Las Vegas.
- You won’t have to worry about parking. That means no tight steering through a narrow parking garage where you’re likely to scrape your car against a support beam and no fumbling through your purse in search of a couple of dollars to tip the valet.
- You can go out on the town and drink as much as you like. (Note: Other passengers on the bus will not appreciate this, but at least you won’t get arrested for driving under the influence.)
- You’ll find it’s safer than navigating Las Vegas’ busy streets, where people from all over the world showcase their very different approaches to driving.
- You can use the time spent on the bus to appreciate the city’s one-of-a-kind streetscape (spectacular during day and night) or to read your Las Vegas travel guide.
- You’ll be less stressed out because bus drivers always know where they’re going – and you don’t.