Destination: Las Vegas, Nevada
Duration: 3 hours, 20 minutes
Average fare: From $198 via Southwest out of Hobby (check out Escape Houston for more on this dirt-cheap deal)
What to do: There's more to Las Vegas than casinos—much more. Heck, those glitzy gambling halls and bountiful buffets we all associate with Las Vegas? Those aren't even in Vegas; they're technically in Paradise, Nevada, an unincorporated "town" next door to Vegas. So shed your preconceived notions of the neon-hued desert city and explore everything else this corner of Nevada has to offer instead.
We suggest starting with the Hoover Dam, because not everything is bigger in Texas—sometimes we have to concede that glory to other states, and nowhere is that glory more deserved than at this modern marvel. Taller than the Washington Monument and thicker than the length of two football fields at the base of its 726 vertical feet, nearly 100 men died during the construction of the great dam between 1931 and 1936. If humans could build their own Grand Canyon, this would come pretty close. Just standing close to its perimeter will give you a dizzying sense of perspective that's second only to the roller coasters atop the 900-foot-high Stratosphere Tower back in town.
While you're out in the desert, take a hike—specifically at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, only 20 minutes away from the Strip. As its name would imply, this 300-square-mile park offers sweeping vistas of the red rocks that seem to erupt from beneath the sands of the Mojave Desert. If you're not into hiking—of which there is plenty to be had here—just enjoy the scenic 13-mile drive. (And if you're really jonesing for some action, the Red Rock Casino is only steps away.)
Much like Houston, Las Vegas isn't typically preservation-minded, tearing down and/or imploding whatever old thing is in the way of a potential new thing. To that end, we suggest patronizing two of the city's best local history museums to let them know that somewhere out there, someone cares about their past, even if it's just a visitor. The Neon Museum offers tours of its carefully restored casino signs and its outdoor "Neon Boneyard" by appointment only; the tours book up at least a week ahead of time, with the low $18 admission price as one of many reasons for its popularity. For another $20, you can also tour The Mob Museum seven blocks away; here, you'll find an unflinching if occasionally adulatory look at the impact organized crime has had on both Las Vegas and the world at large.
What to eat: The nationally-renowned Lotus of Siam should be on the hit list of any Vegas visitor, but don't stop there. After a meal of northern Thai classics like khao soi, make the short, 10-minute drive to Frankie's Tiki Room, where you'll be hard-pressed to find any fellow tourists. At this old-school tiki bar, the regulars still chain smoke inside and a killer souvenir—one of Frankie's own mugs—will run you $25, including the cost of the Nakalele Knockout or Wild Watusi served inside of it.
Any Texan worth their rim salt will appreciate the slogan at Lindo Michoacan: Save water, drink a margarita. And though it may seem counterintuitive to eat Mexican food even further away from Mexico, this classic Desert Inn staple knows its stuff, turning out specialties such as chilaquiles con tenera (yes, that's veal, and yes, that's a breakfast dish that's available all day) and tender beef tongue prepared six different ways.