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Gambling for Freebies: What You Need to Know If Your Vacation Will Include Time at a Casino

Gamblers are a superstitious lot. They know that only a rube counts his money at the table, walks in the main door of a casino or whistles as he cranks the one-armed bandit. But even the most hardened cardsharp will tell you it takes little luck to finagle freebies from casinos. Having a plan can help, though.

“What people don’t understand is that they’re going to have to do more than go in and gamble for half-an-hour to get a free meal,” says Anthony Curtis, publisher of The Las Vegas Advisor and a winner of the World Matchplay Blackjack Championship. “It takes more than that, usually. You’re going to earn small percentages on the basis of what you’re a wagering, fractions of a penny for every dollar you lay out.”

Those may sound like lousy odds, but there are other factors at play. Every casino goes through quiet times during the year; the run-up to Christmas is notoriously slow for most casinos, as is the first week of January, after the New Year’s Eve crowds have dispersed. During those periods, and others, the gamers who are known to the casinos are the first to get offers for discounts and freebies.

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“When the casinos get desperate, they market to their own list,” says Curtis. “When they get deep down on their list, you may get something even if you’re not a big gambler.”

“What the means is anyone who gambles as a matter of course on vacation should join a players club,” he continues. “If you play at all, you should join. In fact, even if you never play you should join!”

Which casino club you join can make the difference between anteing up for lunch or dining on the house. In general, one accumulates “points” towards freebies faster at the smaller casinos, those that cater to locals. That’s partially because the value of their meals and accommodations are lower to begin with (a buffet at a Station Casino in Las Vegas, to give one example, will charge less than $15, whereas a headliner buffet like the one at Caesars Palace or Wynn will usually cost more than double that.) Casinos in the secondary cities are also likely to be more open-handed with freebies, meaning a frugal gambler might choose Laughlin or Reno over Vegas, should he be considering a Nevada vacation.

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The strategy’s a bit different for the peripatetic gamer, the bon vivant who is going to hit the slots in a number of different cities.  That gamer should choose a large casino chain, one with a players club that offers reciprocal privileges. Harrah’s, which owns 13 casino brands, is a particularly good bet, as it allows gamblers to accumulate and use points at any of their properties (and these stretch from Windsor, Canada to New Orleans to Kansas City).

Being in the right group and gambling at the right time can also make a difference. “One of the best strategies is to play at a casino when they’re having a bonus point day,” notes Curtis. “That is a dynamic way to get the best return from the player’s clubs. We keep updated lists of those on LasVegas Adviser.com. A lot of people plan their vacations around these bonus days.” Some casinos, again usually the smaller ones, offer additional points for senior gamers, knowing that they’ll fill the casino during the less-popular daylight hours.

Even casinos at sea are getting in on the game. About a year ago, Norwegian Cruise Lines  enlisted travel agents to offer discounts and free cabins to high rollers. It’s been the most pro-active of the mass market cruise lines in courting gamblers, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of CruiseCritic.com. “Whether the other casinos will follow Norwegian’s lead in actively discounting gamblers is unclear,” says Spencer Brown, noting that NCL’s parent company is one that runs river gambling boats.

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A final word of advice? Try your luck whenever you’re going on vacation to a place with a casino. “It can’t hurt to call up the casino before you arrive and say: here’s my players number, what can you do for me?” says Curtis.

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