Cruise ship casinos: Everything you need to know about gambling at sea
Cruise ship casino gambling is a big deal to some cruisers. You know how you often hear people on a cruise ship planning their day around the entertainment, tours and mealtimes? Last night, I eavesdropped on a conversation where a group of six people was planning their entire next day around time in the ship's casino.
For other cruisers, the casino is more of an onboard curiosity than anything else. What are all those table games? Do people actually win money — or free cruises — playing in cruise ship casinos?
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If you’re curious, I've compiled answers to the most common questions people ask about cruise ship casinos. Some of the answers may surprise you.
Do all cruise ships have casinos?
Most large, mainstream cruise ships have casinos, including the ships of Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line (other than Pride of America), Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and Virgin Voyages.
Specialty cruise lines like Disney Cruise Line, Paul Gauguin and most expedition cruise ships do not have casinos. Premium cruise lines Oceania Cruises and Cunard have casinos, while Viking, Azamara and Windstar Cruises do not. (Windstar and Azamara actually removed casinos from their ships and repurposed the space.)
Among the luxury cruise lines, Silversea and Seabourn have casinos on their non-expedition ships; Regent Seven Seas has casinos on all its ships. Smaller luxury ships like those belonging to Ponant, Ritz-Carlton, Scenic and Emerald do not have casinos. River cruise lines do not have casinos on board, even on U.S. rivers where "riverboat" gambling is reserved for casino boats, not river cruise ships.
Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
Are cruise casinos open in port?
With a few exceptions, cruise casinos are not open while ships are in port. They are generally limited to operating while the ship is in international waters. This is why Norwegian’s Pride of America doesn’t have a casino. Since the ship cruises exclusively in Hawaii, it never leaves U.S. waters.
Cruisers are also often surprised to learn that the casino is closed on some nights during Alaska cruises. Cruises that sail from Victoria, British Columbia, to Seattle on the final night are a good example. The ship goes straight from Canadian waters to U.S. waters without ever reaching international open waters, so the casino closes the night before arrival in Victoria and does not reopen during the cruise.
Ports that currently allow the cruise lines to operate their casinos while the ship is in port include Bermuda and Malta, which require cruise lines to apply for a gaming license. Bermuda has allowed casino operations for licensed ships between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. since 2013. It’s an ideal situation as Bermuda has no land-based casinos, and many cruise ships overnight in port on Bermuda cruises. Malta, which does have land-based casinos, allows ships that have been approved for licenses to open their casinos between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Which casino games are on cruise ships?
Gaming in cruise ship casinos usually includes a mix of slot machines and table games, such as three-card poker, Caribbean stud poker, craps, blackjack and roulette. Regionally popular table games like Texas Hold 'em and pai gow may also be available on some sailings.
Can you win money in a cruise ship casino?
Most cruise ship casino games operate under the same rules and payout percentages you would find in a land-based casino; therefore, the answer is yes, you can win money in a cruise ship casino.
Social media posts and casino announcements would indicate that at least a small handful of people win four- and even occasionally five-figure slot machine payouts on a regular basis. But just as in a land-based casino, it's far easier to lose your stake than it is to win that kind of money.
How many casino points do you need to get a free cruise?
As at land-based casinos, each cruise line offering gambling on board sets its own criteria for earning perks through the line’s casino loyalty program or players club. Points are generally tied to the time played and the amount of money you gamble, including the money you win and recirculate.
Much like an airline loyalty program, casino points usually accumulate over a year, earning you better perks as you work toward increasingly higher status levels. Annual free or discounted cruises are one of those perks, often beginning with complimentary (aka comped) inside cabins at relatively low status levels.
Many casinos also let you match casino status from land-based casinos (or even other cruise lines), giving you a leg up. For example, I haven’t cruised with Carnival in a while, and I’ve never played in the line’s onboard casinos, but I signed up for the Carnival players club via its Fun Match program. When I registered, I uploaded an offer from a competing cruise line and a players club card from MGM. Now when I log in to Carnival’s website, I am shown casino offers that include free and discounted cruises.
Related: How to earn free cruises and perks with casino loyalty programs on land and at sea
Some cruise lines also issue instant awards for the number of points earned (i.e., money spent) on an individual cruise, regardless of status. That would be like an airline awarding free future flights to passengers who spent the most money on their flights, no matter their loyalty status.
Most mainstream cruise lines use comped cruises to fill cabins on dates they anticipate having a surplus of vacancies. These extra offers often appear random, but are generally targeted for marketing purposes rather than as rewards for high amounts of play. New players may receive these comps after low levels of play because cruise lines are always interested in attracting new casino players.
All of that adds up to the possibility of receiving a free cruise for a small number of points earned for cruising, as well as guaranteed free cruises as your points rise to the levels of play set out in the cruise lines' casino loyalty programs.
What is the best casino game to play on a cruise ship?
The best casino game to play on a cruise ship is the one that is most entertaining for you. Ultimately, you play to have fun, right?
The games that require a combination of skill and luck are the ones where the odds of winning are in your favor. For example, the overall odds on blackjack favor the casino by only 1%, while the casino has a 25% edge overall when it comes to slot machines.
Those odds mean the cruise lines operating casinos will favor slot machine players over card players, both in terms of the number of games provided and the loyalty perks awarded.
In summary, for winning money, the best games are skill games. For earning loyalty perks like free cruises, slot machines are the best choice.
Are drinks free in the casino on cruise ships?
Historically, drinks have not been free to cruise ship casino gamblers the way they usually are in land-based casinos. There are exceptions, however.
Free drinks in the casino are a perk of casino loyalty on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line. Reach the required level, and you'll earn free drinks from the casino bar, usually for a full status year. Carnival, Princess and Virgin Voyages also often throw in free drinks (either in the casino or throughout the ship) for individual comped cruises. Everyone actively gambling in the casino gets free well drinks on Celebrity cruises.
In addition, drinks are free in the casinos of luxury cruise lines like Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas because all onboard drinks are included in the cruise fare. On the big-ship lines, anyone who purchases a drinks package or cruises on a fare that includes drinks will also be drinking “free” in the casino.
Are cruise ship casinos regulated?
Cruise ship casinos are regulated in two ways. They typically adhere to the laws of the ship's country of registry. But because gambling normally only takes place while the ship is in international waters, cruise lines that sail from U.S. ports also adhere to the rules set out by the Cruise Lines International Association. Those rules state that all equipment purchased and installed on the vessels of member cruise lines will meet the regulatory standards of the Nevada Gaming Control Board or other licensed jurisdiction for payback and internal software.
Additionally, house rules must be made available in every casino. Each member cruise line is to post at every gaming table minimum and maximum betting limits for each game, and only adults are allowed to play the slots or the tables.
What’s the age minimum to gamble in a cruise ship casino?
The minimum age for gambling in a cruise ship casino is 18 in most cases, but there are exceptions. MSC Cruises has a minimum gambling age of 21 on any cruise with a U.S. port; otherwise, the age is 18. Some cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, raise the minimum age to 21 on Alaska sailings.
Related: The 6 best cruise lines for young adults
Do ships run casino tournaments?
Cruise ship casinos on mainstream cruise lines often host tournaments on board featuring various casino games. The list includes slot tournaments, as well as card game tournaments for blackjack and Texas Hold 'em.
Some tournaments are invitational, offered to casino loyalty members of a certain level only. These are often held on cruises hosted specifically for players who have reached that level. For instance, Royal Caribbean holds Signature cruises designed to pamper and entertain these top-level players.
Can you smoke in the casino?
Casinos are often seen as the last bastion of cruise ship smoking freedom (beyond small, designated areas on deck). But the number of ships that offer nonsmoking casinos is steadily growing.
Celebrity Cruises does not allow smoking in its ships' casinos, and the relatively small casinos on luxury ships are generally nonsmoking, as well.
Several lines have hybrid options. For example, some Carnival ships have separate smoking and nonsmoking casinos. Norwegian has separate smoking rooms on some ships; however, cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use are allowed in casinos on ships that don’t have separate smoking rooms. Princess does not allow smoking except at designated slot machines, and Holland America also has designated smoking areas in the casino.
Related: Is smoking allowed on cruise ships? A line-by-line guide
Do cruise ship casinos take cash?
Cruise ship casinos accept cash at both slot machines and table games. As an example, you can sit down at a slot machine and feed in a $20 bill, which is then converted into "credits" on the machine’s screen. The value of the credit depends on the denomination of the machine. Alternatively, you might walk up to a roulette table and lay down $20 and exchange that for chips.
The exchange of cash at machines and tables is a one-way deal, even when you win. Slot machines and dealers in cruise ship casinos don’t dispense cash. When you finish playing, you may be issued a paper credit slip to take to the cashier's cage for cash, or you may have your winnings loaded directly onto your onboard account on some cruise lines. At the tables, you will take chips to the cashier to exchange back into cash.
If you don’t travel with cash, you can find ATMs in the casino or at guest services. Alternatives to cash in cruise ship casinos are paper credit slips, which can be played as cash at either machines or tables, onboard credit or casino free play loaded on your stateroom account, or lines of credit arranged with the casino.
You can also charge gambling money directly to your onboard account like you would charge a drink at a bar or anything else on board. Fees for gambling charges vary among cruise lines, but in most instances, table games charge a service fee, and slot machines do not.
For example, my husband recently requested money from his onboard account at a blackjack table and was charged a 5% surcharge. The ship we were on was not set up to charge onboard accounts directly from the slot machines (sometimes they are), so I had to go to the cashier for a credit slip to play. I was not charged a surcharge, although if I had asked for cash, I would have been. Both of our charges were added to our final onboard bill.
Because there is no fee added to money for slot play, onboard casinos will usually put rules in place about how quickly you can cash out of the machine. The rules are designed to keep cruisers from using slot machines as ATMs to get either cash for the table games or to cash out onboard credit they’ve been given from the cruise line or their travel agent.
If you like to gamble, cruise ship casinos provide a fun way to spend a sea day or evening on the ship. You can take lessons to learn the games you don’t know how to play and even participate in tournaments.
Besides the fun of playing on board, many cruise lines have players clubs that offer onboard perks and even free cruises. And since the odds of winning are about the same as in a U.S. land-based casino, with similar regulations in place, cruise ship casinos are a safe bet for fun and entertainment — though we always encourage you to play responsibly.
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