Thanks to the casino resort renaissance that revived Las Vegas in the 1990s, the dusty gambling halls of old have evolved into full scale vacation venues.
According to tourism data compiled by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), Sin City attracted 42.9 million visitors in 2016, with the rate remaining nearly identical this year.
And that’s just Las Vegas alone.
When the East Coast’s gambling mecca of Atlantic City is added to the equation, along with 510 commercial casinos and 470 tribal gaming operations, more than 100 million Americans book gambling vacations every year.
But with so many venues to choose from, making sure your next casino excursion is perfect can be difficult indeed. Everybody’s circumstances are different of course, so a casino that comes highly recommended by your buddy might not be the best fit for you.
Should you go for the gusto and book a suite? Do those “Off Strip” casinos really offer better odds? Will the kids be entertained while you play?
These are all great questions to ask while preparing to book your next gambling vacation.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend several memorable trips in casinos across the country, either through my time playing professionally, in my capacity as a poker tournament reporter, or on vacation with the family. Over that time, I’ve developed a checklist that I like to use before booking my stay.
I don’t expect a casino to hit every mark on my list, but when I have a few options on the board, finding the place that checks off the most boxes makes decision time much easier.
1 – Affordability
Like I said earlier, people come from all walks of life, but whether you’re a high roller or a coupon clipper, saving a buck never hurts.
With that in mind, remember that “affordability” is all in the eye of the beholder. The goal here is simply to stick within your means and avoid overspending.
The best way to ensure lower rates on a room, no matter what the original rate happens to be, is dodging Fridays and weekends. The casino industry works on a natural sense of rhythm, and the weekends are always a sure bet to pack the building with guests. Accordingly, room rates rise on Friday and Saturday, before returning to their baseline during the week.
You can pull up any travel aggregator site you prefer – Expedia, Travelocity, Trivago…they all work the same way – to see this play out in real time.
One of my favorite “budget” casinos in Las Vegas is the Gold Coast, located just west of the Strip on Flamingo Road next to the Rio. If you wanted to book a two night stay there between Tuesday and Thursday, the rate comes to $32 per night. But change your dates to between Friday and Sunday, and you’re now spending $166 per night – more than five times the original cost.
Aggregator sites are also a great way to find the most affordable casinos in a particular area.
The Bellagio and the Venetian are both luxurious casinos complete with indoor and outdoor amenities, and both have held the prestigious AAA Five Diamond rating. These venues look and feel the same, but the Bellagio averages $149 nightly rates, while the Venetian is a touch lower at $129.
Perhaps a savings of $20 may not mean all that much to you, but it does to many folks out there.
2 – Luxury
Speaking of luxury casino resorts like the Bellagio and the Venetian, some vacationers will value extravagance over affordability.
If you’re a jet setter who doesn’t mind splurging for the good things in life, you may want to turn your casino vacation into something special. Luxury casinos are known for treating their players like royalty, lavishing them with comps, credits, tickets, and more.
To make that happen, I advise taking a close look at the latest Four and Five Diamond awards handed out by AAA.
Obviously, the Five Diamond properties out there are few and far between, as AAA only approves 0.3 percent of all hotels reviewed for the coveted status.
Within the Las Vegas city limits, you’ll find the following luxury casinos have earned the Five Diamond award in 2017:
- Aria Resort & Casino
- Aria Sky Suites
- Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas
- Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas
- Skylofts at the MGM Grand Hotel
- Wynn Tower Suites
As you can see by the Venetian no longer appearing on the list, competition for Five Diamond rating is fierce to say the least.
Selecting any of these casinos for your next gambling vacation ensures that you’ll be in the lap of luxury from check in to check out.
To help expand your options outside of Sin City, I also recommend perusing the lengthier list of AAA Four Diamond properties. These venues still rank among the most luxurious lodging in America, but they still have a few benchmarks to clear in order to secure Five Diamond status.
You can pull up the Four Diamond list here. From there, a simple CTRL+F search using the word “casino” will highlight no less than 61 venues throughout North America, from the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore, Alabama to the Tulalip Resort Casino in Marysville, Washington.
3 – Location
I’ve focused on the Las Vegas area for the most part, but as I alluded to in the introduction, gambling vacations can be enjoyed anywhere.
With nearly 1,000 casinos operating across the United States alone, not to mention hundreds more in Canada, Mexico, and abroad, you’re never far from your next gambling adventure.
In terms of international options, I enjoy the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas during the summer months, and Fallsview Casino Resort at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada when the temperatures dip.
Atlantis Resort combines the largest casino in all of the Bahamas with the area’s signature beachfront beauty. The property lives up to its Paradise Island home, offering a full-fledged waterpark, aquatic habitats where visitors can frolic with the dolphins, and pristine white sand beaches.
At Fallsview, the rugged surroundings of Niagara Falls are offset by a modern casino resort that rivals many of the Las Vegas mainstays. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a winning session at the casino before heading out to soak in the spray down at the falls viewing platform.
If your trip is confined to the US, I always recommend Las Vegas over Atlantic City, even if you live on the East Coast. The old boardwalk district you might remember from the Monopoly board is long gone, replaced by a seedy strip of rundown casinos that have seen better days. It’s definitely worth the price of airfare to avoid Atlantic City’s pitfalls by landing in Las Vegas instead.
With that word of warning dispensed, it’s true that the Eastern Seaboard is home to several intriguing options for a gambling vacation.
Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut ranks among the largest gambling venues in the world, combining six casino areas with a shopping mall and other amenities over nine million square feet of space. Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania has emerged as one of the region’s poker hotspots in recent years, and Rivers Casino Resort in Schenectady, New York opened this year to rave reviews.
4 – Variety
No matter where you spend your next gambling vacation, the odds are high that you’ll spend a fair amount of time on the casino floor. After all, that’s what a gambling vacation is all about.
In that spirit, you should do your best to select venues that offer a wide variety of gaming options. Generally speaking, the more floor space a casino has to work with, the more table games and machines it will have on hand. And on the same note, older casinos tend to maintain the same inventory over the years, while newer joints are more willing to bring in new gaming products.
Over the years, as I’ve expanded my casino gambling horizons, I’ve gained a great appreciation for a website known as the World Casino Directory. Using the simple search tool at the top of the page, I can pull up facts and figures about the gaming floor for seemingly every casino under the sun.
I remember a few years back when I headed to Phoenix for a visit with the in-laws, intending on booking a casino hotel to provide an escape valve from the familial stress.
The Valley of the Sun is home to several casino resorts, but when I checked their individual websites, I found only the most superficial listings for the games on offer. Blackjack, baccarat, slots, roulette, and all the rest were advertised, but the details about table placements and machine counts were left lacking.
With the World Casino Directory, however, I have all the pertinent information about local casinos at my disposal. That’s how I learned my original choice, Gila River Resort Vee Quiva, paled in comparison to a place I hadn’t heard of before — Talking Stick Resort.
The casino at Gila River Resort Vee Quiva only has 36 table games, 960 slot and video poker machines, and 16 poker tables onsite across 99,000 square feet of floor space. Over at Talking Stick Resort, I found 50 table games, 800 machines, and 47 poker rooms spread throughout an expansive 240,000 square feet.
Obviously, I cancelled my room at Gila River and never looked back, before enjoying beautiful accommodations and plenty of variety at Talking Stick.
Before booking your next gambling vacation, be sure to run a search for your preferred property on World Casino Directory ahead of time. If you aren’t impressed with the game variety, do some digging until you find a venue that fits the bill.
5 – Value
This one applies mostly to the more serious players out there, folks who know house edge rates and pay tables like the back of their hand.
As a casino gambler, your long-term bottom line is based on backing the best possible bets. Depending on gameplay setup, payout to probability ratio, house rules, and other factors, games and wagers are not always created equally.
For blackjack enthusiasts, cutting down the number of decks in a shoe from six to four shaves 0.06 percent off the house’s edge. The late surrender option pads the player’s equity by another 0.08 percent, but the biggest difference between games is the payout on blackjack. Tables that pay 6 to 5 on blackjack, rather than the more lucrative 3 to 2 rate, add a whopping 1.39 percent to the house’s advantage.
In roulette, single zero “European” style wheels (2.70 percent house edge) are much better than the double zero “American” alternative (5.26 percent). Higher denomination slot machines offer a higher payback percentage when compared to penny slots. Craps players benefit immensely when they’re allowed to bet bigger on the 0 percent house edge Odds wager, which is often capped at a few bucks per roll to reduce the casino’s liability. And in the world of video poker, “full pay” Jacks or Better with the 9/6 pay table holds a 99.54 percent payback rate, while inferior 9/5 machines drop down to 98.44 percent.
All things considered, knowing where to find the best bets in town is crucial to a serious gambler’s longevity. Casino games involve negative expectation wagers by nature, so folks out there who derive a living from their gambling rely on these slightly improved odds to get by.
Generally speaking, the smaller casinos located off the beaten path are more likely to offer player friendly tables and machines. These venues aren’t guaranteed a steady stream of tourists like the megaresorts, so their operators must compete for customers by reducing the rake, boosting payouts, and improving the odds.
Savvy players in search of value wind up eschewing The Strip for Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, where classic casinos like Binion’s Horseshoe and the California have been in business for decades. Outside of Vegas, you’ll have the best luck finding value at the tribal casinos that compete with larger commercial operations.
One of the most effective ways to scout the best games before your next gambling vacation is online research. Thanks to a few intrepid webmasters out there, several sites specialize in searchable databases designed expressly for sharp gamblers.
Video poker players should check out vpFREE2, an especially useful resource that allows you to search by region, game type, pay table, and a whole host of other metrics.
Perhaps you’ve been searching for the elusive full pay Deuces Wild game, one of the rare casino games to offer a positive expectation for perfect strategy players at 100.76 percent. Obviously, this machine is a rare for a reason, as casinos aren’t in the business of offering beatable games. Even so, a few clicks of the mouse on vpFREE2 and you’ll find Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno spreads a single full pay Deuces Wild machine. That one’s played at the nickel stakes, and you’ll find it to the right of the gift shop.
Tools like vpFREE2 are invaluable for players who know the value of, well… value.
If blackjack is your game, check out the Las Vegas blackjack survey assembled by Michael Shackleford, who is better known as the “Wizard of Odds.” This tool lets you click through various menus to sort every blackjack table in town, searching for 3 to 2 payouts and other favorable rules.
Same goes for craps, where the Wizard’s survey highlights games with the best odds and lowest minimum bets.
6 – Amenities
Casino resorts have evolved into full-fledged entertainment venues, and every venue shoots for signature amenities to set itself apart from the pack.
Picture the fountains at Bellagio, the shark tank/waterslide at Golden Nugget, the Stratosphere’s rooftop rollercoaster, or Excalibur’s nightly jousting tournament.
In each case, these extra amenities are designed to give non-gamblers a way to have fun. You might be planning to spend hours each day taking shots at the tables, but your significant other, kids, in-laws, and other fellow vacationers need to be accounted for as well.
Onsite amenities don’t have to be limited to the casino’s theme either. Everything from the presence of a Starbucks for that morning latte, luxurious spas for primping and pampering, bowling alleys, movie theatres, and showrooms all serve to accentuate a property’s appeal.
The most helpful guides to casino amenities can be found online, with TripAdvisor and Yelp providing gamblers’ reviews of their own experiences as guests. When you’ve narrowed the list down to a few casinos with similar gambling options, the place with superior amenities is always the way to go.
7 – Restaurants
The same can be said for dining options, as you’ll be eating three times a day (if not more).
A casino with rundown restaurants and a barebones buffet just feels depressing, even if you’re turning a profit at the tables. On the other hand, a losing session doesn’t sting nearly as bad when you’re stuffing your face with world class cuisine.
Today, many of the most accomplished celebrity chefs in the world run restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip. Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Giada de Laurentis, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay — the list goes on. Whenever possible, I always try to stay somewhere an elite chef calls home. It’s not every day you have talent like that on hand to prepare you a meal, so why not take advantage and expand your culinary horizons?
And you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy good eats at the casino.
The best venues strive to serve a balanced crowd, especially given the economy of late, so more affordable options like T.G.I. Friday’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, and the rest are a staple. One of my favorite places to grab a bite when gambling is Earl of Sandwich, a chain deli that serves up hot subs and soup for just a few bucks. And if you’re on The Strip, you’re just a few minutes’ drive from Chinatown, home to dozens of authentic dim sum spots and other Asian eateries.
To get you pointed in the right direction, check out this Thrillist guide to the best restaurant in every casino on The Strip.
8 – Shopping
When the winning is done, what better way to spend the spoils than a shopping spree?
In keeping with the movement towards turning casinos into entertainment complexes, many feel more like a mall than your traditional image of a gambling hall. Indeed, shopping venues like the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood and the Tanger Outlets at Foxwoods are legitimate malls, right down to the food courts and massive maps.
With a wife and two daughters in tow, I always try my best to find casinos with plenty of shopping options onsite. That’s easy when I’m gambling on The Strip, but it can be tough when the time comes to venture outside of Sin City.
Even so, expanding the perimeter to include the areas just outside of the casino is usually enough to find an outlet mall. Off the top of my head, I can remember shopping malls located just outside of Red Rock Casino Resort, the Morongo Casino, Talking Stick Resort, and countless others.
9 – Promotions
Finally, with almost every casino out there offering the same basic menu of games, it can be fun to hunt for interesting promotions.
I particularly enjoy bingo nights and slot tournaments, but the list of gambling promos out there is literally endless. The World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOP C) series might be coming to town, or maybe the sportsbook is hosting a handicapping contest. Whatever the case, adding another source of action never hurts when you’ve been grinding the same games for years on end.
Other promotions to look for include the “Party Pit,” where table game areas become adult playgrounds, complete with club music and go go dancers. The wife and I enjoy that one whenever we find it, as nothing beats a dose of nostalgia.
Now that you know the 9 things to look for when booking your next gambling vacation, you have all of the information to book your next trip. By following this guide, you can avoid complications and have the time of your life.