Now you may think that once you have put down the big bucks and paid for your cruise, that you are all set for an all-inclusive holiday of a lifetime. Well, not quite. There used to be a general rule-of-thumb that you would take the initial price of your cruise and then double it to include all the incidental expenses incurred onboard. That concept isn’t as relevant today, because more and more cruise lines are repricing and repackaging their offerings, and have started including more and more in the higher base price to entice the customer.
However, even if some of your onboard spending has been prepaid, you should still be battle-ready as cruise lines have mastered the fine art of being able to empty your wallet.
The first ingenious sleight of hand involves you not even having to spend your hard earned money – cash isn’t king on board, as everyone is required to use cashless payment. For anyone not familiar with cruising, when you check-in at your port of departure you will be asked to provide a credit card as a guarantee for any onboard payments. In return, you will be assigned your electronic cabin room key, which allows access to your stateroom and also doubles as an onboard cashless payment system. This magical bit of plastic will enable you to pay for almost everything on board ship – you simply hand it over and sign the receipt.
The more careful traveller still has the option of paying their bills by cash; this can easily be arranged on board by placing a sizeable cash deposit down – although for the vast majority life is much simpler with a credit card as a guarantee.
The beauty of cashless payment from the cruise operator’s perspective is simplicity and the ease of processing transactions, but it does also allow for endless opportunities to extract as much as possible from willing cruisers.
The fun starts as soon as you board – waiting on deck as the ship prepares for sailaway, magical cocktails on trays are offered by ever smiling waiters; these sugary delights carry a hefty price tag (especially on those cruise lines that offer colourful plastic ‘souvenir’ glasses). You can often spot a newbie cruiser who gleefully accepts the glass, takes a sip and then wonders why the cheerful waiter is asking them for a card and presenting a receipt for signature.
Now, let’s see go for a quick stroll around the ship and see what else there is, and where the money keeps rolling in.
A favourite place to hang out. Ever wonder why the casino is often strategically located in a high-traffic area with its infernal collection of gaudy lights, noise and organised chaos? They want to catch you off guard, as often as possible, and on impulse.
Not really a surprise then to find out that the casino is a huge money- maker for cruise lines. Onboard casinos are one of the few areas on board that rely on cold hard cash to fuel the slot machines and gaming tables – cruisers with onboard credit can often use up their excess credit in the casino, but sometimes with restrictions. Obtaining cash for the casino via your onboard account isn’t recommended as it usually involves very high service charges.
Head back on to dry land for a moment and you’ll find that even that oasis of sin known as Las Vegas, comes highly regulated. The Nevada Gaming Control Board oversees gaming and has laws and rules in place. The biggest moneymaker for casinos are – yes you’ve guessed it – the slots. Up to 85% of total gaming revenue now comes from the one armed bandits that seem to have sprung up like mushrooms across the state. Nevada state law requires a minimum return on slot machine activity, and for example, 1c slots have a return requirement of 75%. Slots on the strip have an overall return of around 88%. So a significant chunk of those empires, volcanoes, pyramids, city replicas and the other glittering towers are built on the premise of you handing over only 12c on every dollar gambled in a slot machine.
Well something like that anyway. Back to the point, and that is that on land, gaming activity is regulated. Turn your eyes seaward to the cruise industry, and what do you find? Ermm, no overseeing legally enforced regulation. Cruise lines are free to set their own rules and their payback rates. Why? well, firstly cruise lines only open and operate their casino machines and tables in international waters. That’s why cruisers hungry for a fix of their favourite slot machine will have to wait a couple of hours for the ship to leave port, head into open water and enter international territory. Secondly, cruise lines are registered and flagged to countries that operate under a ‘flag of convenience’, which in effect means little or no regulatory oversight.
Unofficially, data suggests that the rate of return on ships is around 80% but of course it is very difficult to authenticate this. It’s tempting to think that a return rate of 80% is not so bad, until you realise that in effect a ship’s profit margin is 66% higher than the casino profits on the Vegas Strip.
Can modern slots ever be ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ ? Well if you’ve ever played on board ship, you will swear that the machines have been more generous at a certain time (usually when you haven’t been playing it seems to me). The payout percentage will have been preset before the release of the machine – the computer chip installation contains a random number generator and a predetermined payout percentage, so the answer should be no – but it’s much more entertaining to continue to speculate on what the cruise line is doing to thwart the online gambler.