I'll admit it: I used to hate casinos. I'm frugal with my disposable income, and I never understood the appeal of sitting in a smoky, windowless space, throwing away perfectly good money and -- more often than not -- getting nothing in return.
However, after a few Vegas vacations with friends who love the thrill of gambling, my view of casinos has evolved. As my friends demystified the table rules and strategies, I've learned to see that gambling, when pursued wisely, is comparable with other entertainment expenses like going to a nightclub. And though I'd still rather hit the pool parties and the shows, I've learned how to have fun on the casino floor on occasion as well.
Gambling revenue in Vegas has declined since its peak in 2007, but it's still multi-billion-dollar industry. A trip to Vegas, Atlantic City or Macau is far more enjoyable if you know your way away around the casino that you probably have to walk through just to get to your room. These tips will help the casino-clueless enjoy themselves and not bottom out their budgets too quickly.
Know your limits
It's common knowledge that the odds are heavily stacked in the house's favor. So don't step foot in a casino without knowing the exact amount you're willing to spend, and the mindset that you probably won't be getting it back.
Understanding table limits is also key to not blowing your budget immediately. The table minimum is the lowest amount of money you can bet for each round, and it will usually be clearly posted on a sign by the table. A lower table minimum means you can maximize the amount of time you spend gambling. You can often find lower table minimums during non-peak hours like mornings and at off-the-Strip hotels.
Start with the games of pure chance
Slots require the least amount of effort or skill on the part of the player--just feed in some money, push a button and find out if you won or lost. But if you're like me, you'll quickly grow bored with them and want to have a bigger hand in your fate. Then it's time to head toward the roulette wheel.
Roulette is an easy initiation to table games, and few things are more iconically Vegas than the anticipation of watching the white ball skip across a spinning roulette wheel. Like slots, there is no skill required. Just place some chips anywhere on the board and hope the ball lands where you picked. But in the beginning, all you need to know is that placing a chip directly on a number (an inside bet) is the riskiest strategy with the biggest payout (35:1). Betting on a color, even/odd numbers or other broader categories (an outside bet) yields better odds but a smaller payout.
Once you're comfortable, learn the rules for the skill-based games
You've moved on from the slots and you've mastered the roulette wheel. Now it's time to set your sights on the more intimidating tables games--the ones that require some knowledge of the rules and strategy, such as blackjack and craps. Fortunately, many casinos are happy to welcome new customers by explaining all the rules during free gaming lessons. You can also find free tutorials online, or just tag along with a knowledgeable friend and ask them to do all the explaining.
When you're ready to hit the tables, pick one that's not too crowded, and don't be afraid to ask the dealer questions about the rules. If for some reason they aren't being helpful, just move elsewhere.
Follow casino etiquette
In general, basic courtesy is all you need to stay on the dealer's and other players' good sides. However, there are a few specific rules to know that will keep you from being reprimanded. Seats are for players only, and there's no cell phone usage allowed at the tables. Wait until the hand in progress is over before jumping in. And if you win, don't grab your winnings until the dealer pushes them toward you. You can always watch the table a bit to learn the etiquette specific to each game before joining--for instance, it's typically a rule that cards dealt face down should only be touched with one hand.
Don't forget to tip your dealer. Although whether and how much to tip is at your discretion, some common guidelines are to tip about half of your minimum bet every hour, or at least $5 an hour. Tip with chips, not cash. You can also tip your dealers by placing a bet for them.
Most importantly, have fun, quit while you're ahead (if you're lucky enough to get there), and don't be intimidated by the unknown -- chances are you won't be the only amateur at the table, and asking questions is a great conversation starter. If you're already a casino pro, share your tips for newbies in the comments below!
Kelsey Rexroat is an editor at Travelzoo and based in New York. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.