The Trip Planning Matrix Returns


Michael James introduces his Las Vegas trip planning tool and allows you a glimpse into his genius mind as he maps out his current trip.

I have been to Las Vegas 16 times, but many times for just a couple of nights. This current trip is only the third time that my wife and I are enjoying an extended stay.

The first long trip was for our honeymoon in 2005. In planning that trip, Las Vegas was big and overwhelming so we only pre-planned a few things (a Lake Mead brunch cruise, the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur and the Mamma Mia! show at the Mandalay Bay) so there wasn’t any particular concern about tripping over ourselves.

By the spring of 2009 – which would be my fourth trip in 3-1/2 years – the city was less imposing but the number of unfulfilled personal interests was continuing to grow. Throw in the mix that I would be the Cruise Director for eight people, and the planning was awfully convoluted.

For example; some of our group on that 2009 trip wanted to go on the Vegas Mob Tour, which was only held on Wednesday nights, yet everyone wanted to see a show that was dark on Monday and Tuesday, leaving only Sunday as a viable evening for attending that show. If we wanted to attend the show, it had to be Sunday so that the others could make their plans for Wednesday. I started taking notes (even trying to utilize and sort 3 x 5 note cards) and had stuff strewn all over the house. Then it occurred to me… Excel!

The first Matrix included everything that my wife and I were going to do and when we would do them. If the others didn’t want to join us, they were free to organize their activities using The Matrix as a guide to what days and times were available. The Matrix worked to perfection.

So when the planning started late last fall as a three-day vacation for my wife to bowl the USBC Women’s Open Championships this spring somehow became five days of mid-Stripness, it was instantly clear that we’d need to harness the power of The Matrix.

GOAL:  Enjoy a six day / five-night vacation in Las Vegas.

The Goal – Enjoy a six day / five night vacation in Las Vegas.

The Objective – To enjoy the vacation without spending the entirety of six days and five nights gambling.

The Objective – To enjoy the vacation without spending the entirety six days and five nights gambling.

The Challenge – Utilizing specials, MyVegas rewards, advance ticket purchases and hours of favorite attractions.

Planning activities = not having to spend six days and five nights “winging it”.

The Challenge – Utilizing specials, MyVegas rewards and advance ticket purchases (as well as hours of favorite attractions) means not being able to spend six days and five nights “winging it”.

The Solution is... “The Matrix”:

Did you happen to notice the complete lack of available gambling time?

I started by entering the obvious stuff, like her scheduled bowling times and sleep (we’re both pushing 50, and neither of us has any interest in drinking ourselves silly, going to bed around 4:00 AM and taking 3 to 10 hours to sleep it off). Thanks to Southwest Airlines, the travel times didn’t have to be locked in, so I didn’t include them at the beginning.

I had begun a second tab on the spreadsheet, with categories for restaurants, shows, attractions, etc. We just brainstormed, at first, worrying about editing that list later on.

When we would see a deal for attractions or show tickets, we’d review The Matrix for available time, purchase the tickets, and then plug the information into the chart. “All Shook Up” at Planet Hollywood went in on Tuesday evening. “Raiding the Rock Vault” at the Tropicana seemed to fit well on Saturday night. The “Las Vegas Lights” bus tour was originally considered for late in the trip when we might be worn out. We decided instead to schedule that bus tour on the day we arrived as kind of a “Welcome to Las Vegas” event.

Before long, the trip and The Matrix started taking shape. There were still plenty of open spaces to fill, so we compared attractions with flexible times to the days that The Matrix said that we’d have time available. So a trip to Valley of Fire State Park was penciled in for Saturday after breakfast. We booked the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay on Sunday morning before she bowled. The Neon Museum / Mob Museum combo ticket was purchased for Tuesday.

Then we had to consider eating because at the pace The Matrix was filling it was becoming possible that we could miss eating for a few days. For the most part, we tried to schedule restaurants based on where The Matrix said we’d be. We scheduled breakfast at Eat to occur as we head to the Valley of Fire. We decided to relax with dinner at the Foundation Room at the Mandalay Bay after my wife’s bowling session at the South Point on Sunday. Gordon Ramsay BurGR at Planet Hollywood was a natural for before the “All Shook Up” show. The Bellagio buffet fit perfectly at the lunchtime pricing as the last thing to do before going back to the airport. Before we knew it, there weren’t a lot of gaps left to fill.

There was melancholy to putting the finishing touches on The Matrix, because as I see it, planning is half the fun. The truth is, we’ve had The Matrix set for over a month. I’ve kept my eye open for anything else that may interest us, but I honestly wouldn’t know where to put it without cutting something else.

Some attractions and restaurants didn’t make the cut. Lunch at Tacos El Gordo (a personal favorite) lost to Chow, as my wife loves fried chicken. I have also been itching to see the James Turrell “Akhob” inside of the Louis Vuitton at Crystal’s Mall, but that didn’t pan out, either.

On this trip, the lack of gambling time is kind of intentional as this is my wife’s special trip and gambling isn’t as important to her. Besides, I’ve got a trip to Reno coming up in May for the men’s national bowling tournament, and my fall Vegas poker trip will allow for further gambling degeneracy.

So in effect, you have my entire trip report. Amazing, isn’t it? Especially considering the trip doesn’t even begin for another week!

We even utilized a version for a vacation to New York City.

I do have one request, my dear readers. My wife is still not comfortable with my extreme celebrity, so please don’t use The Matrix to stalk me. The paparazzi can be crazy sometimes, so let’s not add to the pandemonium. If you’re going to be where I am going to be, send me a note, and we can meet, and you can buy me a drink. Appreciating your concerns in advance…

[Images: Robert James, Michael James | Cover Image: Michael Movestro]

About the Author

Michael James
Michael James is a true Vegas Nerd. First falling in love after hearing details of an aunt's visit in the '70s, and nurtured when the gambling bug hit as casinos started opening on every street corner across the country in the '90s. When not reading Vegas blogs and message boards, he's a metals buyer by day and a competitive bowler by night in Milwaukee.

22 Comments on "The Trip Planning Matrix Returns"

  1. It is freaky how close that is to the matrices I have done for my last few trips.

    Main difference, I have two time columns for EST and PST

  2. I always wing it. If there is something special then I will plan around it but most of the time I just go where my feet or the bus takes me. As far as groups I learned several Super Bowl trips ago that you just do what you want to do and touch base with others as the trips progresses. There is always someone who doesn’t want to do what the others want to do.

  3. Wow! That is awesome!!! Ever since my second trip in 2009, I have been using a similar “matrix” using Excel, only I never thought to actually give it a name, other than my Vegas Plan. I have several tabs in my “matrix”:

    1. Rental Car – helps keep track of my reservations and rebooking as rates drop.
    2. Flights – helps keep track of my SW flights, in case the fares drop.
    3. Itinerary – Complete schedule of our trip, very similar to yours, color coded and everything! This really helps me to visualize our days so that I can make sure my wife eats at reasonable times (since she is diabetic).
    4. Idea List – This is the ever evolving “bucket list”, and aides me in filling in any gaps in the schedule.
    5. What to Pack – This is my checklist to make sure that I don’t forget anything!
    6. Money Plans – This is where I keep track of all expenses, and helps me to see what I will be putting on the CC, and how much cash I will need to get from the bank.
    7. Results – This is where I log all of my gambling results.

    I have a separate file for each trip, using the previous trip’s file as a template when planning each new trip. It also helps when it comes time to write my trip reports!

    I totally agree that the planning is a huge part of the trip!!! Thanks for sharing this!!!

    • That’s good.

      I keep my gambling log on my phone in the Notes tab, as it is a quick ready-reference for me. But I like the rest of your tab ideas.

  4. Norm rivard | April 8, 2016 at 11:11 am |

    Does anybody really “party” in vegas anymore??? Maybe I should pist a matrix of OUR crazy trips!!

  5. I too have a similar spreadsheet, but only split down to Morning/Afternoon/Evening timeframes, plus a notes section per day to note the hotel I’m staying at and any ‘chores’ that need doing that day (eg. pickup/dropoff rental car or collect show tickets).

    I try not to overplan or worry if plans change, but I’d agree that some level of pre-planning is needed so you don’t just ‘waste’ the time drinking and gambling

  6. i plan exactly like you down to the excel spreadsheet! it made me happy to see others do it as well! i’ve got mine set up for our trip in June :)

  7. I love to pre-plan, fully knowing that Vegas doesn’t tolerate planning. I think I’ve considered Hoffbrauhaus a must-stop on the last 7 or 8 trips, but haven’t made it. Every time I go (which is too often), I learn something new

  8. Bill Brash | April 9, 2016 at 12:56 am |

    This time next week my wife & I will be in downtown Vegas,on a 14 night stay.We have been around 30 times now. Before each trip we print up details of our plans. Not computer savvy enough for a Matrix.
    We rarely, if ever, get even half of the plans done but that’s fine, with luck, there’s always next time.
    This time firstly we have made positive plans to ensure past mistakes are not repeated. Flight seats booked months ago in a row of two, so no being squashed by an oversized traveller. Slightly mixed packing, so neither of us left with nothing to change into, if a case is lost or late.
    Limo from the airport so no long hauling & resulting nastiness. Car rental from our hotel, so no searching for an obscure office or double taxi trips to & from airport. Our UK Mobile phones not on roaming, so no enormous bills.
    Gamble for fun & enjoyment not just for comps.
    There is more I’m sure, hold on, maybe we do need a Matrix!
    All that’s certain is the Las Vegas trips are always worth it & part of the fun is the planning or lack of for the “next trip”.
    We remember that we are very lucky to be able to travel there all the way from England, any other luck must be a bonus.

  9. So glad to see that I struck a nerve… The right way this time!

    We stuck to The Matrix faithfully, with one exception. Due to press deadline, I had to submit this article early last week.

    Then on Wednesday, we learned that Penn & Teller’s TV show “Fool Us” was taping this weekend. I got us tickets, then changed The Matrix accordingly.

    Now I hope it stops raining long enough to get some decent pictures at the Valley of Fire.

  10. JadubyaSwaggy | April 9, 2016 at 8:16 am |

    I travel with my wife and kids. I have a similar spreadsheet but our focus is on the pool and when/where we are eating dinner. Sometimes we see a show, sometimes we go to Container Park. Not an extensive amount of planning beyond that.

  11. rhinoman7 — your #5 is a good one. what to pack checklist. I keep a handwritten list with my luggage so that when I get ready to go somewhere, there is my reminder. of course I have to make some adjustments for expected climate, activities and such. over the years I have added and removed some things as well. I had no idea that so many people used this matrix / excel type of planning.

  12. Anteatergoat | April 10, 2016 at 12:02 am |

    I tried similar things on past trips, but my friends and family always seemed to change their minds on a whim (drinking helps that I imagine).

    As a way to still pre-plan as much as possible (because I’m one of those guys), I decided to create a Vegas “playbook”. Depending upon the situation, I could refer back to the playbook for sound advice on how to solve the group’s hankering for late night snacks or happy hour drinks, etc. Calling plays, seemed to work out much better than having a set schedule.

    • In the late 90s, I was bowling a tournament in Syracuse. The day my (now ex-)wife and I were packing to leave, the rest of the team and wives stood in my room (watching us pack) to decide what THEY were going to do the rest of the day.

      I wish I had a playbook then.

      Instead, learning from that experience, I tell my teammates what I am doing on any one day, and tell them that they are welcome to join me, and if not… they can plan on their own.

  13. Regarding Southwest Airlines: you said you didn’t have to lock in your travel times, and someone else eluded to sw fare drops. What are your tips on booking sw flights? Because that’s where a lot of our travel expenses go when traveling to Vegas from the Washington, DC area. Maybe that’s a different blog post…:-)

    • It’s really no secret. I check prices every single day.

      When I am first planning, I get an idea of what flight costs are, then I look at other months to get a gauge if the prices I see are “regular” prices or sale prices.

      When the fares for my dates go down, I am ready to buy them. Not all flights on each day are the same price, so I discuss the cost/benefit analysis of flight times with my travel companions.

      After purchase, I still check every single day (sometimes morning and night) to see if they drop further. If they do, I rebook the same flights at the lower cost to get the credit on a future flight. I travel to Nevada twice a year, so I am always able to use my credit.

  14. Jacqueline | April 10, 2016 at 1:54 pm |

    So glad to hear it’s not just me! I LOVE the planning part of the holiday, it’s so much fun. I also have a trip binder with all the info in sections that I take with me (coupons/ tickets etc) last holiday two different people stopped and asked me where I got it as they loved the idea! My poor husband was mortified…:-)

  15. Jacqueline — that made me lol.

  16. jackie franklin | April 14, 2016 at 9:31 am |

    I make an itinerary for every trip, in word though. (also for Disney) Friends and other family have used my lists as well.

  17. I used a similar schedule for my first several years of trips to Las Vegas.
    It was never as complete as yours and usually accounted for evening plans including shows, dinners and maybe happy hours.
    After many trips we only schedule some of the evenings and leave one or two open for last minute decisions.
    We have a long list of “favorite” restaurants and try to hit one new one every trip.
    On almost every trip , I would have every night locked down with firm plans and somebody would say “We should try eating at…….”
    or “I’d like to see………can we do that?”
    On big holiday weekends like NYE,Super Bowl I explain to my fellow travelers the importance of reservations.Outside of that we now leave a couple nights open.

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