If you're looking for a gambling vacation but don't want to visit a traditional spot like Las Vegas or Atlantic City, you should consider a cruise vacation. They operate much like land-based casinos, and the games and the rules are more or less the same as you'll find in Las Vegas. The dealers have the same kind of training. And the etiquette is more or less the same—you still need to tip your cocktail waitress and dealer from time to time.
Gambling cruises present certain differences too though, which we explain on this page. We also provide details of the various non-gambling activities that they have to offer, and some background on the history of gambling cruises.
We've recommended what we believe to be the best gambling cruises too, at three different price points, and compiled a comprehensive directory of cruises. This directory includes a short write-up about each one.
One thing you need to be aware of is that no matter what gambling cruise you take, you're not going to be able to play while you're in port. Casinos on cruise ships only take action when they're in international waters. So if you're going on a cruise with more activities than just gambling, and if you're hoping to get some money on the line during the trip, be sure to choose a cruise with an itinerary with a lot of days at sea.
Differences from Land-Based Casinos
Being aware of the differences before taking your first casino cruise is a smart move. Let's take a look at some of the biggest ones.
Most cruises ships have less restrictive age limits than land-based casinos. On almost all of them, you can play casino games for money if you're 18 years old. But in some instances, especially when the casino is near Alaska, the age is 21.
A lot of more modern casinos on land are non-smoking. That more enlightened philosophy hasn't extended to most casinos on most cruise ships. Many cruise ship casinos are smoking areas. Luckily for some, but not others, cigars are rarely permitted in cruise ship casinos. If you're devoted to avoiding second-hand smoke, you need to find out the latest on the smoking situation before buying your tickets.
The payback percentages for the slot machines and video poker games on cruise ships rarely compare to their land-based counterparts. The cruise ships figure that you're a captive audience, so you can count on their slot machines having a payout percentage similar to that of the payout percentage on an airport slot machine.
Why would anyone play a slot machine game with a lousy payout percentage?
Because it's the only game in town.
There's good news for poker players, though. The players in the Texas holdem games (and other poker games) held on cruises ships are rarely top-tier. Card sharks prefer to play in land-based cardrooms. That's an opportunity for the canny poker players reading this page.
There's also good news for low rollers. Almost all casino cruises have table minimums much lower than their land-based counterparts. Good luck finding a $1 per spin roulette table in Las Vegas—at least at anyplace you'd want to be seen. But finding one on a cruise ship isn't too hard at all. Most cruise ships offer table minimums of around $5, but $1 and $3 games aren't uncommon. Most of them also offer penny slots, too.
Non-Gambling Activities on Gambling Cruises
Unless you're on an old-time "gambling ship", where the only attraction is the gambling, you'll find plenty to do besides gamble on almost any cruise. These activities vary by cruise company, but here are some examples of things you can do besides gamble on a casino cruise.
Many casino cruises offer daytime classes on various topics, making the cruise a kind of on-the-water school. Cooking classes are popular, but other more obscure hobbies are common, too. Ice carving is one example.
Most cruise ships offer plenty of entertainment, and sometimes in the form of concerts. When we researched this page, we took a look at the kinds of shows available on Carnival, and we were impressed. Some of the concerts featured on Carnival Cruises in 2015 include Boston, Lionel Richie, Rascal Flatts, and Smokey Robinson.
But concerts aren't the only kind of show available on most cruise ships. Various stage shows are also available. Think of it as being the equivalent of a musical on Broadway or in one of the theaters in the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. For details on what kinds of entertainment are available, talk with the folks running the cruise you're considering.
You'll find exercise facilities of some kind on almost every cruise ship. If this is an important activity to you, ask the cruise line when booking your tickets what kind of fitness facilities they have available.
Good old-fashioned movies are also available on cruise ships, but some even offer movies in IMAX. If you love cinema, be sure to look for cruises which offer movie screenings. You can settle in for a movie while your significant other gambles the night away at the Texas holdem tables.
Most cruises will have several ports of call. You can leave the ship and participate in all kinds of activities on land. Just make sure you get back to the ship in time for departure. You'll find plenty of guidance on the cruise ship in regards to what activities to look for while you're in port.
Many cruise ships offer libraries with wide selections of books. Princess, for example, boasts of onboard libraries with over 2000 different books available. If your idea of a great vacation begins and ends with snuggling up in a corner with a great book, then find out if the cruise you're booking offers a library.
If you've never been on a cruise before, you're probably not sure what to expect. One thing you can look forward to is a wide selection of restaurants to choose from. The quality of these vary by cruise ship, but some of them are excellent. One downside is that the restaurants on cruise ships tend to price their food higher than they would if they were on land. That's because there's little competition for your dining dollars. You are, after all, a captive audience at least part of the time.
Theme park style rides probably aren't the first thing you think of when wondering what kinds of activities are available on a cruise ship, but maybe they should be. Carnival offers something called SkyRide, which is similar to riding a bike—but in the sky. WaterWorks is similar to the kinds of splashy rides you'll find in waterparks on land.
Many, if not most, big cruise ships have swimming pools. You know what to do there already—swim, sunbathe, and ogle members of the opposite (or the same) sex. We don't judge.
The History of Gambling Cruises
Gambling ships have been around for a long time, but they're distinct from gambling cruises. A gambling ship is basically a ship which does nothing more than offer gambling. Gambling cruises, on the other hand, offer all the usual cruise amenities in addition to the onboard casino.
Local laws inspired the creation and operation of these gambling cruises. In a coastal state where gambling is illegal, it's a simple matter to put casino games on a ship, then take the ship out 3 miles from the coast. At that point, you were in international waters, so local state laws regulating casinos no longer applied.
The international standard has since changed to 12 nm, which takes a little more time to get to. Operating the old-school gambling ships in this way is a little harder because of the added distance.
The concept has been around since the 1920s. One notable early gambling ship was the Johanna Smith, which used to be a lumber schooner. It was moored off Long Beach, California. It was in operation as a gambling ship until it was destroyed in a fire in 1932.
The SS Monte Carlo is another example of one of these early gambling ships. It ended its life as a nautical casino in 1937 when it shipwrecked off a beach close to San Diego.
Of course, some jurisdictions have stricter laws than others. Hawaii is probably the most anti-gambling state in the Union. They have absolutely no form of legal gambling there. Even cruise ships which normally offer gambling are not allowed to offer it in international waters if their final destination is a Hawaiian island.
At various times, the legality of ships used solely for the purposes of gambling has been questioned. In New York in particular, the legality of gambling ships has been questioned repeatedly, regardless of whether or not the actual gambling acts took place in international waters. Enforcement, though, has traditionally been minimal.
But it is now, and has been for a long time, traditional for ordinary cruise ships to offer casino entertainment as part of their package of amenities. These cruise ships face less scrutiny legally because they offer a wide range of entertainment. They're obviously not just trying to circumvent the law by traveling a certain minimum distance off shore. In fact, most cruises last several days.
Recommended Gambling Cruises
When we recommend hotels and casinos, we normally arrange them according to price range. That categorization doesn't apply as well to cruises, because almost all cruises—even the most luxurious of them—can be extraordinarily affordable.
But only if you're flexible with when you travel.
As a general rule, you can find cheap rates on a cruise during school season. The rates go up significantly when school is out.
Another trick to saving money on cruises is counter-intuitive. When you're booking a hotel room, you can usually get better rates by booking early. That's because hotels raise their rates as their occupancy levels rise—simple supply and demand.
But with cruises, you'll save money by booking at the last minute. In fact, the only advantage to booking far in advance is in terms of picking out which room you want. For budget travelers, that's a ludicrous luxury.
In fact, you can often get a rebate if you book in advance. Keep an eye on the prices for the cruise tickets, and if they drop, ask your travel agent or the cruise company itself to give you a rebate for the difference. Most of the time, this will be no problem at all.
You should also look for smaller ships. The smaller the ship, the lower the price of your ticket.
Here are our top recommendations for cruises at budget level, mid-range level, and luxury level.
Carnival prices are based on which ship you book. The best prices will be found on their older ships. The Carnival Ecstasy and the Carnival Inspiration are two especially good values. You can enjoy cruises on either of those ships for around $40 per night if you shop during the right time period.
Princess Cruises are often available for $100 per night or less. They offer over 700 different cruises in various parts of the world. They also have some of the best entertainment available on a cruise ship. Princess is also well-known for offering some of the best restaurant meals in the industry.
Not only is this one of the most luxurious cruise lines, Silversea Cruises offer more destinations than any other line—you can visit over 800 destinations on all 7 continents, in fact. No one serves better food or offers more luxurious amenities than Silversea, but be ready to pay for the experience. They don't list prices on their website, but you can request a quote based on when you're traveling.
Gambling Cruise Directory
You'll find blackjack, roulette, 3 card poker, and slots on their cruises. The minimum wagers on their tables games run between $3 and $5, making this an excellent option for low rollers. The minimum gambling age is 18 unless the cruise is sailing to/from Alaska, in which case the minimum age is 21. Their casino facilities are smoker friendly, and you can use cash, an onboard account, or a pre-approved line of credit to play.
Carnival also offers blackjack, roulette, 3 card poker, and slot machines. In addition, they offer video poker, craps, and bingo. Their minimum wager at the blackjack tables are $5, but the minimum wager at their roulette game is only $1. They also offer casino game tournaments on some (but not all) of their cruises. The minimum gambling is 18. They do not offer pre-approved lines of credit, so you'll need cash or an onboard account or both if you want to gamble on a Carnival cruise. They're smoker friendly, but they do make non-smoking areas available, too.
Celebrity Cruises offer a better variety of casino games than most. Not only do they have the standards (blackjack, roulette, 3 card poker, video poker, and slots), but they also offer Texas holdem, Let It Ride, and baccarat. Not all of their ships offer all the same games, though, so don't be disappointed if one of your favorite games isn't available. In fact, it might be a good idea to ask about your favorite game in advance.
Like most casino cruises, the table minimums are around $5, especially with blackjack, but they vary by game. The minimum gambling age is 18 except for Alaska sailings, in which case it's 21. They only accept payment via cash or an onboard account; they don't offer pre-approved lines of credit. Celebrity Cruises is unusual in offering non-smoking only facilities.
Costa Cruises offers blackjack, 3 card poker, 5 card poker, Super Fun 21, roulette, and slot machines. Their table minimums are $5 for all their card games, but they also run specials on certain days and times. You can play for just $3 per hand on port days from 8pm to 9pm, for example. Another special minimum is on roulette—you can play for $1 per spin on sea days from 2pm to 6pm. Their minimum gambling age is 18, and they only accept cash for payment. Like Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruises' casinos are entirely non-smoking affairs.
Crystal Cruises offers all the usual games—blackjack, craps, roulette, 3 card poker, video poker, Texas holdem, and slot machines. But they also make mini-baccarat available if one of their guests requests it. Their table minimum for all their table games is $5.
Their minimum gambling age is 18, and they deal in cash, onboard accounts, or pre-approved lines of credit. They also offer only non-smoking casino facilities.
Cunard Line offers a limited number of games, but they have some impressive minimums. You can play roulette for 25 cents per spin, which is an amount unheard of at even the most affordable low rent land-based gambling venues. You can also play $1 blackjack and poker games.
The minimum age is 18 for gamblers. They don't offer credit, so you need cash or an onboard account. They don't allow smoking in their casino facilities, either
Holland America Line offers all the usual casino games—blackjack, craps, roulette, and 3 card poker. They also spread Texas holdem games. Their table games have a minimum wager of $5 except for roulette, which is available for $1 per spin. They also offer penny slot machines.
They also offer a few unusual perks for gamblers. They have an onboard lottery, for example, and they also offer slot machine and blackjack tournaments. Like many land-based casinos, they also offer casino game lessons. Even more unusually, they have a frequent players club, which works just like a slots club at a traditional casino.
The minimum gambling age is 18, and they offer action in exchange for cash or an onboard account. They do have cash advances, but not pre-approved lines of credit as such. You can use a credit card to play slots onboard, but that card has to be registered through your onboard account. Holland America Line has smoker friendly casino facilities.
MSC Cruises offers traditional casino games like blackjack and roulette, but they also have some unusual offerings, like chemin de fer, punto banco, and trente et quarante. They also feature bingo games and slot machines.
The table minimums are a little higher on MSC Cruises than on some of the other cruise companies. They range from $5 to $10 depending on the game and the table. They also offer casino tournaments.
Their gambling age varies based on whether they're sailing in the Mediterranean (18) or in the Caribbean (21). You can pay for your action using cash, a credit card, or your onboard account. Smoking is allowed on all MSC Cruises, with one exception—the MSC Divina, which is non-smoking.
Norwegian Cruise Line offers baccarat, blackjack, craps, Let It Ride, Pai Gow poker, roulette, 3 card poker, and slot machines. They also spread Texas holdem games. They have one of the better selections of casino games available.
You can also look forward to blackjack and slot machine tournaments. They're also one of the only cruises to offer Texas holdem tournaments. Like a select group of cruises and many land-based casinos,
Norwegian offers free lessons on how to play the various casino games available there. They also have a Their minimum gambling age is 18, and you need cash in order to play. Norwegian Cruise Line is a smoker-friendly operation.players' reward program.
Oceania Cruises offer the basics—blackjack, roulette, slot machines, and poker. They have higher minimum bets than most cruises, too--$10 for blackjack on a couple of tables. They even have one table with a $25 minimum, which is far from a high roller table, but it's probably the closest thing you'll find on a casino cruise. They also have $5 tables available.
Their minimum gambling age is, as usual, 18. You need to bring cash in order to get into action. It's a non-smoking facility.
Princess Cruises offer a nice variety of casino games, including blackjack, craps, Let It Ride, 3 card poker, 5 card poker, and slot machines. They also spread Texas holdem games and have regular bingo games available. They offer blackjack and slot machine tournaments, as well as poker tournaments. You can also take lessons in various casino games. They have an onboard lottery, too.
Princess Cruises has a higher gambling age than most—21. But if you're dealing with them in Australia or the UK, they have the standard 18 year old benchmark. In Japan, the minimum gambling age is 20. They make payment available via your onboard account or via cash. They allow smoking, but they also have designated smoke-free nights.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers blackjack, "mini-craps", roulette, and slot machines. They also have poker games. They have a couple of $10 minimum blackjack tables, as well as a single $25 minimum table. All their other table games have $5 minimum bets.
You have to be at least 18 to gamble on Regent Seven Seas Cruises. You need to bring cash to gamble with, too—they don't offer credit or onboard accounts. Smoking is not allowed.
Royal Caribbean International offers blackjack, craps, poker, roulette, and slot machines. Their table minimums are between $3 and $5. You'll find some variation in what table games are available based on which ship you're on. If a particular game is important to you, ask before you buy your tickets.
Royal Caribbean International has blackjack and slot machine tournaments. They also offer a players' club and gambling lessons. You can also play in Texas holdem tournaments there.
Their minimum gambling age is 18, except for their Alaska sailings, which have a minimum age of 21.They also offer pre-approved lines of credit, cash, or onboard accounts in order to fund your action. Smoking is allowed.
Seabourn Cruise line offers a minimal variety of games—blackjack, roulette, and slot machines are always available. They only offer poker on certain days. Table minimums vary from $5 to $100, making them one of the only cruise lines offering anything you could remotely consider a high roller option.
Their minimum gambling age is 21. They accept cash or an onboard account for your gambling action. They also are one of the only casinos to accept traveler's checks for this purpose. Seabourn Cruise Line is a non-smoking outfit.
Silversea Cruises only offers blackjack, roulette, and slot machines. They do offer gambling lessons. Silversea Cruises are nonsmoking and accept payment via cash or cash advances. Their minimum gambling age is 18.
Windstar Cruises offers blackjack, poker, roulette, and slot machines, with a $5 minimum bet on their table games.
Their minimum gambling age is 21, and they only accept cash in the casino. Smoking is not allowed on Windstar Cruises—at least not in the casino.
Some Final Points
Gambling cruises are not only one of the most affordable ways to get into action, they also offer a wide variety of activities for your non-gambling travel companions. You can find casino games with the lowest table minimums in the world on cruise ships.
We recommend avoiding the slot machines, though—unless you're a real slots junkie. The payback percentages for slot machines on ships are significantly lower than what you'd expect to find in a traditional land-based casino. Still, it's the only game in town, and if you love slots, we don't judge.
You can find cruises in all kinds of price categories, but even the most luxurious trips can be booked at a fraction of the cost if you follow a couple of simple tips. Book at the last minute. Travel during the off-season. Shop around.