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I earned a 'free' cruise in a ship casino — here's what it cost, plus tips for getting comped

Nov. 07, 2022
18 min read
Slot machines on Grandeur of the Seas cruise ship casino.
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This is a story about gambling, even though I’m not much of a gambler. Before starting research for this story, I don’t recall ever playing anything in a cruise ship casino. However, this is a story about how I played the slots in Royal Caribbean’s Casino Royale to earn a “free” cruise. Your results may differ from mine. Please gamble responsibly.

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of complimentary casino cruises. Were they mythical, or exclusively for high rollers? Could I start from nothing, take one cruise, stick to a strict gambling budget and parlay that into a free sailing? The idea was exciting — addictive even — and once it took hold, I couldn’t let go.

Even though I don’t gamble much, I do come from a long line of slot machine players. So I channeled the luck of my grandmother and dived into researching Royal Caribbean's Club Royale casino program, with the aim of beating the system and netting a comped cruise. Here's how it went down, what I learned and how much it cost me — plus tips on how you, too, can get “free” cruises from onboard casino play.

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How to get casino comps on Royal Caribbean

A casino comp is a free item or perk given out by a casino to entice you to play more. To earn casino comps on a Royal Caribbean cruise, you must first spend time and money gambling in the onboard casino, Casino Royale, being careful to use your Sea Pass cruise card to track your play. That gets you "rated" as a player in the line’s Club Royale casino loyalty program, which in turn gets you perks and comps based on a points system. (Note: These tiers are not related in any way to Royal Caribbean's Crown and Anchor loyalty program for frequent cruisers.)

You earn different amounts of points per dollar played depending on the game you choose. Slots earn points at a rate of 1 per $5 played, including re-played winnings; video poker machines earn $1 per $10 played; and table games earn points based on your average bet and time spent at the table (which is somewhat subjective). The number of points you earn in a 12-month period from April 1 through March 31 determines your tier level for the next 12 months.

Each tier level comes with perks and discounts; once you make it to the second tier, Prime, and beyond, you also get a comped cruise at the end of the current program year. Prime members, for example, earn a comped inside cabin and also get free drinks at the casino bar on every cruise as soon as the level is reached.

Note that a complimentary Royal Caribbean cruise includes cruise fare for two, but you still need to pay the additional taxes and port fees. You can upgrade comped cruises to higher category staterooms by paying an upgrade fee based on the price difference between your awarded category and your preferred category on the sailing you are booking.

Related: How to earn free cruises and perks with casino loyalty programs on land and at sea

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In addition to the rewards earned through the tier system, anyone, regardless of their tier status, can earn instant reward certificates while on board a cruise. These are awarded based on the number of points earned exclusively on your current cruise. The chart detailing the number of points required to earn an instant reward changes frequently and is only available on board at the Casino Host desk.

Each reward has two parts. The first part is the instant reward certificate, often a discount on a cruise or a comped cruise, which you can redeem when booking a sailing from a short list of select cruises within a certain timeframe. The second is a bonus reward that you only get if you book a cruise (or at least pay a placeholder deposit) through the Next Cruise future cruise-booking program while on board your current sailing.

For example, if you hit the 800-point level on a single cruise, you get an instant reward certificate good for $250 off select cruises, and an onboard booking bonus of a complimentary interior cabin on select dates. (Note that if you book the free cruise, you don’t also get the discount.) At higher point levels, the certificate earned may be for a comped cruise and the onboard-booking bonus is for free play (money on your account that is only valid for casino play). In this case, if you booked the cruise on board, you’d get both perks.

If you walk off the ship without booking a cruise or putting down a deposit for a TBD future cruise, you lose out on the bonus offer, though you can still redeem the instant reward certificate within the allotted time. Instant reward certificates get particularly tricky if you reach a high point level on the last night of the cruise.

The third opportunity for Club Royale members to earn rewards is the most mysterious. This is when the cruise line selects recipients based on demographic criteria such as age, place of residency, number of times cruised per year, average bet, average time spent in the casino or even marital status and sends them targeted offers, which can range from $100 off a cruise to complimentary junior suites. These marketing-based offers are usually limited to specific sailings, often with close-in dates, for a range of cruise lengths and cabin categories. Members report receiving them by snail mail, email or strictly via the Club Royale member website.

The more points you earn on a single cruise, the better your marketing offers are likely to be. Players who get marketing offers for junior suites are typically running quite a bit of money through the casino or did that at least once; a cruiser who gambles $20 on a cruise probably won't get marketing offers at all. There’s also no guarantee that once you start receiving these offers they will continue; they can stop as mysteriously as they start.

My journey to a free cruise mainly involves this last type of comp, but as you’ll see, a better understanding of the other types of bonuses could have helped us save even more.

How I earned a ‘free’ casino cruise

Quantum of the Seas. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

If I wanted to score a comped casino cruise, I first needed to go on a cruise and play in the casino. My main goal was not to spend too much (because that would take away from the value of the comped sailing), so I found a five-night sailing on Quantum of the Seas in early May when Alaska prices were low. My husband and I used Southwest Airline points for flights to Seattle to help keep our initial costs down.

Each evening, he played blackjack and I played slots. I set aside a budget of $200 for the slots. I arrived at that amount primarily because losing much more than that would exceed the value of a short cruise in an inside cabin, which is the most common comped cruise offering. Hubs set his blackjack budget at $500. My average bet per spin was around $1, sometimes as high as $2. I played on the same penny machine for the duration of the cruise. Hubs played at $10 blackjack tables, with bets ranging between $10 and $25.

At the end of the cruise, I still had my $200 and had earned 291 Club Royale points. Hubs had around $300 left and had accumulated 139 points. Note that I earned points while breaking even by putting my winnings back into the machine; those 291 points required $1,455 to be run through the machine (at $5 per point). The point counter in the machine does not distinguish between your original money and the money it paid out to you along the way.

At that point we had enjoyed a lovely Alaska cruise at a bargain price and had fun playing in the casino without losing too much money, so it was a win regardless of what happened next.

It took a full week following the cruise for our points to show up on the Club Royale Offers website. Two weeks after the cruise, the first marketing offer of $100 off a cruise showed up. I have now received a total of 20 of those $100-off offers. (Hubs received zero offers.)

On July 12, two months after the end of our May cruise, I received a marketing offer of a complimentary inside cabin for two. The cruises offered were all for the coming fall and were three to five nights long. Two weeks later I received another offer of a complimentary interior stateroom for two, also with fall dates. That list was for cruises of six to eight nights long. To date, those are the only comp cruise offers I have received.

How I turned a comp into a cheap vacation

Screenshot of Royal Caribbean email. MELINDA CROW/THE POINTS GUY

The booking window is narrow on these offers. Facebook casino friends had warned that rooms allotted for casino comps can disappear quickly, so I started my search for a cruise as soon as the first offer arrived. Again, my goal was to keep the cruise as "free" as possible.

My method was to log into the Royal Caribbean website, search for the specific cruises shown in the offering, then study pricing by walking most of the way through the booking process to see the real details, not that first-screen stuff, which often changes as you narrow down the choices. I was checking on two things: What are the taxes and port fees (which vary based on the itinerary and number of passengers, not the stateroom category) and what is the price difference between an interior cabin and an ocean view should I want to upgrade?

I started with departure ports we could either drive to or those I felt would involve a cheap flight. The first few sailings I looked at had large gaps between inside and outside cabin fares. I hit the jackpot, though, with a four-night sailing of Grandeur of the Seas out of Galveston. We live four hours from the port and the upgrade gap was only $33 per person for the cruise.

Cruise booking receipt. MELINDA CROW/THE POINTS GUY

I called the Casino Royale reservations line. After a hold time of only two minutes, I had an agent on the line helping me book my comp cruise. She quoted me $86.42 per person in "taxes, fees and port expenses," $33 per person for a "casino upgrade" and $58 per person for prepaid gratuities. The amount charged to my credit card was $354.84. The total charges for an outside cabin without the casino comp offer, plus taxes and gratuities, would have been $1,036.84, a savings of $682.

Related: Why it pays to upgrade your cruise ship cabin

Added expenses we incurred included $104 in fuel for driving to and from the port. I used 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points for an ocean-view room at the Baymont in Galveston for an overnight stay before the cruise. Port parking was $70 at a private lot. We also took an excursion priced at $79 per person. To help pay for that, I exchanged 5,000 My Cruise Rewards points from my Bank of America Royal Caribbean credit card for $50 in onboard credit.

I am a Diamond Crown and Anchor member with Royal Caribbean, which comes with four free drinks per day, so I did not spend extra on alcohol. Diamond C&A members also receive one free 24-hour period of Wi-Fi per person. We could have used that benefit for each of the two sea days and reverted to cell service in port in Mexico, which is free on my wireless plan, but Royal Caribbean was aware I was on board and supplied complimentary Wi-Fi for the duration of the cruise, something it sometimes does for media members.

At the end of the day, our total cost for two people for a four-night cruise was $636.84, or less than $80 per person, per day. That’s what I call an affordable vacation.

Our costly casino mistake

Casino Royale on Grandeur of the Seas. MELINDA CROW/THE POINTS GUY

We boarded our comped cruise hoping to come out of it with more points and better offers for both me and my husband. That meant we had to tweak our strategy from the first cruise. I increased my budget to $400; hubs budgeted $400 as well. We also decided he should play some slots on this cruise, as the consensus among Club Royale members on social media is that slot players earn points far faster (which had also been our experience on the May cruise).

I earned 318 points and came home with the $400 I budgeted, breaking even again. Like before, I stuck to penny machines, and bet an average of around $1 per spin. Hubs also broke even, bringing home his original $400. He earned 136 points on slot machines. His slot machine play was always $1 bets or slightly over and his blackjack bets were again between $10 and $25 per hand.

Here is where we made a costly mistake. When you’re playing on slot machines, the screen will tell you how many points you have earned playing on machines during that cruise. But if you’re playing table games, the only way to find out how many points you have earned is to ask the casino host. Even the host may not be able to give you an exact total, because there is a lag as pit bosses have to enter information manually into the system.

We checked on hubs’ point total from the tables mid-cruise; he had 56. We had no reason at that time to believe he would earn enough points to earn an instant rewards certificate, so we put it out of our minds.

The morning after we arrived home, I logged into each of our accounts to see if point totals had been updated. While there was no change in points yet, hubs had an offer listed as “2022 October Instant Rewards” for $250 off a cruise. I checked the blurry photo I had snapped of the rewards chart on the desk of the casino host and was excited to see that $250 off was the reward for earning between 800 and 1,200 total points on a single cruise. I was crushed though, to see that the Next Cruise onboard bonus would have been a complimentary interior cabin.

As I mentioned earlier, the comp cruise bonus is only activated if a cruise is booked or a deposit paid while still on board the ship. Since we didn’t do that, the certificate now was only valid for $250 off a select list of cruises.

When I looked at the itineraries included in his offer, I was surprised to see that some amazing comp opportunities would have been available, including seven nights on Wonder of the Seas from Rome in November. The cruises were between five and eight nights, mostly departing during the next two and a half months, but with September 2023 sailings thrown in as well. A call to the Club Royale reservation line got sympathy, but nothing else.

The hard lesson we learned is to never expect the casino to let you know you earned an instant reward certificate. We should have checked with the host at the end of our final evening of playing to ask if there was a reward certificate waiting for us. By not being proactive, we missed out on an epic comped cruise on a new ship in Europe.

Related: 15 ways that cruisers waste money on ships

Pro tips for maximizing casino play

Screenshot of Club Royale offers. MELINDA CROW/THE POINTS GUY

Between my online and in-person research into casino comps, I gathered some useful intel and tips that will help you make the most of your onboard casino play and related bonuses.

  • Two people in one household who receive offers with the same identifying code number (shown online and in emails) can combine their offers for a single upgraded room without an added fee. For example, two matching interior comps can be exchanged for one balcony cabin.
  • Once booked, you can’t swap a casino comp cruise to a different date unless your offer hasn’t expired. You can only cancel and have your taxes and fees refunded. Once an offer expires, it’s gone for good.
  • Casino points can also be exchanged for free play. The players’ screen on any slot machine will tell you the amount of free play you have available to transfer to the machine to play (it’s a fraction of the points earned). Using the free play reduces your total amount of points shown on the screen but does not affect points earned toward reward certificates or annual tier rewards. Most players wait until the final day of the cruise to cash them out.
  • If your goal is to keep your comp cruise cheap and possibly upgrade your category, shop for older, smaller ships. That usually helps keep the taxes and fees a smidge lower.
  • For the most comfortable lower-category cabins, go for newer, bigger ships. Freedom-class ships have amazingly spacious basic inside cabins. Or consider a Central Park Interior on an Oasis-class ship, which has a window and is a bit larger than even a standard balcony cabin.
  • If you earn an onboard instant reward certificate that has a bonus, but the Next Cruise desk is already closed, or an appointment is not available, the Royal Caribbean app has the option to pay a $200 Next Cruise deposit, which would have secured the bonus comp cruise for seven days. The deposit goes toward the taxes and fees owed and any upgrade you might want. To complete the booking, you call the casino reservation line.
  • It is prudent to introduce yourself to the casino host early in the cruise. Club Royale members report unofficial comps of free play, specialty dinners and onboard credit posted to their accounts by the hosts.
  • Even comped cruises will earn nights toward status in Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor loyalty program. Casino Royale players on social media report using casino-comped cruises to boost their Crown and Anchor status level, which leads to perks and freebies like my four free drinks per day.

Related: 21 tips and hacks that will make your cruise go smoothly

Bottom line

Casino on Quantum of the Seas. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

How does all of this information work for the average cruiser? Like any loyalty program, getting the full benefit of Royal Caribbean’s (or any other cruise line’s) casino rewards program poses a few challenges. Those who reap the most benefit are those with flexible travel schedules and those who live driving distance from a cruise port. Cruisers who also participate in the points, miles or loyalty programs of airlines, hotels, cruise lines and credit cards benefit by saving on additional vacation-related expenses.

Using comped cruises is more difficult for families, but there are opportunities to combine Royal Caribbean’s Kids Sail Free sales with a comp offer. Cruisers on social media report upgrading to suites large enough for multiple family members, and every penny saved by starting with a comp means more available to spend on the vacation.

What it really comes down to is whether you enjoy gambling in the ship’s casino. If that’s your thing, then absolutely, you should be checking your point totals, schmoozing with the casino host and watching for offers in your inbox and online. If putting money in a machine hoping for a good outcome seems neither fun nor responsible to you, then shopping cruise sales is probably a better route to a cheaper vacation.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by MELINDA CROW/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees