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Blackjack Insider Newsletter, Oct. 2004, #57

Las Vegas Rip-offs

By Scott Michaels

Scott Michaels writes for Video Poker Player magazine (http://www.vpplayer.com/) and has been an advantage gambler for several years. He specializes in video poker and blackjack play. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email Scott at scottmichaels@vpplayer.com.

In recent years, the cost of the typical Vegas vacation has increased substantially. The days of the $4.99 dinner buffet, $29 show ticket and $39 room rate are a thing of the past. Sure, a visitor can still see a second rate production for $29 and stay in a dump for $39, but a first rate Cirque-quality show, while staying in a nice Strip room? Fuhgetaboutit.

Today, many visitors to Vegas come for the shopping, food and shows. Gambling is an afterthought. These types of visitors are spending less time at the tables and slots. As a result, casinos can no longer operate their food & beverage and hotel departments as loss leaders because they arenít being subsidized by gaming operations. The Mandalay Bayís food and beverage department, for example, has gotten so tight that they stopped comping drinks for the average video poker player at their bars. This is a tradition that has been around for decades.

The recent consolidation of casino companies will only lead to further price increases. It doesnít take a degree in economics to know that less competition is rarely a good thing for consumers.

In today's Las Vegas, there is no shortage of rip-offs. Here are my Top Ten:

 

1.) Single Deck that pays 6 to 5 on blackjacks

Most visitors to Vegas casinos play blackjack or other games for entertainment, and do not thoroughly study the games. While there is always a chance of winning in the short run, it has been said that the built-in casino advantage is the "price of the entertainment" for the recreational player. But with the 6/5 short payoffs on blackjacks, the price is too high.

Let's assume you go to a movie once a month, and pay $8.00 for a ticket. Suddenly, the theatre increases its ticket price to $64.00. Would you still go to that theatre, when other similar theatres would charge you only $8.00? Or would you take your business to one of the $8.00 theatres? By playing single deck blackjack that pays only 6 to 5 on blackjacks, you are doing the same thing as patronizing the $64.00 theatre.

The casinos are taking advantage of the myth among casual blackjack players that "single deck games always offer better odds for the players". This is simply NOT true with the 6 to 5 game. Normal blackjacks pay 3 to 2. The house advantage on a normal single deck game is 0.18%. The 6 to 5 game has a house advantage of 1.45%, more than eight times the advantage the casino has on a normal single deck game

This isn't merely a matter of shuffling incomprehensible numbers around. Stanford Wong, author of Professional Blackjack, explains: "The math is easy. If the player gets paid 3/2 on a blackjack on a $10 bet, the player gets paid $15. If the player gets paid 6/5 on a $10 bet, he gets paid only $12 for a blackjack. That is a difference of $3, which might not seem like much. During a normal-speed blackjack game, the player averages five blackjacks per hour, meaning the player is shorted 1.5 bets per hour. In the case of a $10 bettor, he is being shorted $15 per hour!" (Las Vegas Weekly, 10/23/03)

UNLV professor Bill Thompson, who studies gaming issues, said, "This is incredibly stupid. Everybody knows blackjacks pay 3-2. Unless they're giving out free bottles of whiskey to everyone who sits down at the table, I don't know why anybody would play this game." (Las Vegas Sun, 11/13/03)

The house edge in a normal six-deck shoe is about 0.63%, much worse for the player than a normal single deck, but not nearly as bad as the single deck 6 to 5 rip-off game.

The Rio in Las Vegas has the distinction of dealing the worst blackjack game in all of North America. They deal a single deck game that pays even money for blackjacks. This game has a house edge of 2.77%, which is almost twice as bad as 6 to 5 and four times higher than the average six-deck shoe game in town.

Other blackjack games to avoid are Super Fun 21, games with continuous shuffling machines (aka CSMís) and games dealt with a sign on the table that states, "hand held multi deck."

 

2.) Las Vegas Taxicabs

Vegas cabs currently have the third highest rates in the country. Their rates are higher than cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and even New York City.

They have a flag drop of $3.00 and a $1.80 per mile fee. Taking a cab from the airport? Tack on another $1.20. In addition, youíll rarely see a cab in Vegas run a yellow light. Cabbies love yellow lights. Theyíll slow down a quarter mile before a yellow light. Why? Itís not because of safety, but because they charge a $22 per hour wait time in 20 cent increments. If youíve sat at some of those Vegas stoplights, youíll know what I mean. The light cycle at Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard takes nearly five minutes.

To add insult to injury, many cabbies will rip you off by taking "The Tunnel". This practice is referred to as being long hauled. For visitors staying on the Strip, there is no reason for a cabbie to take the tunnel unless there is an accident on the surface streets (Tropicana, Swenson or Paradise for example.) On a recent crackdown, Nevada Taxicab Authority investigator Rick Jones said, "Like shooting fish in a barrel, it's an epidemic."

"A lot of us do it," said Mahan Washington, a 29-year-old cabby who admitted to tunneling passengers daily. "It's adding about five more bucks to your fare."

 

"It's slow. I'm trying to make a living. We all do it," said driver Waldo Yepiz, who had to pay a $100 fine after getting cited for long hauling.

The above quotes were from the February 22nd, 2004, issue of the Las Vegas Review Journal, written by J. M. Kalil. http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2004/Feb-22-Sun-2004/news/23183279.html

I was long hauled a few years ago before I started renting cars. I waited for the cabbie to get to my destination and I unloaded my bag from the trunk. I then gave him the option of giving me a free ride or having me file a complaint with the Nevada Taxicab Authority because of his fraudulent driving. He wasnít very happy, but he got the point. Hopefully it saved a future unsuspecting tourist of being ripped off. Save the phone number of the NV Taxicab Authority on your cell phone in case youíre ever ripped off by a cabbie, (702) 486-6532.

If youíre on a guys trip and a Vegas cabbie offers you a free ride to a gentlemanís club, youíre getting no deal. This ride is far from free. The doorman will see you getting dropped off and heíll alert the cashier. Your cover charge just jumped $10 per head because thatís the kickback the cabbie gets when he/she goes around back and picks up his commission for dropping you off. I have also read reports that this same angle is also used by the brothels in Pahrump, so caveat emptor.

 

3.) Hotel fees and surcharges

Since when does a toll free phone call cost $1? If youíre staying in a Vegas hotel room, chances are thatís the price youíll be paying. This isnít a new policy; itís been around for years. Whatís new is that some hotels, such as Samís Town, charge $1 per day for local phone calls even if you never pick up the phone!

Even worse, some hotels, like some of the Stations properties now charge a $4.50 Ďresort feeí, which includes phone usage and other Ďresortí perks. I stayed at the Fiesta (a Stations property) recently, and while itís a decent place, itís far from what I consider a resort. My stay at the Fiesta was comped from a mailed offer I received. When I checked in, the clerk told me about this $4.50 fee. I explained to her that I was checking in on a comp mail offer. No soup for me, she still said I would be charged the fee. What a rip-off!

Have you seen those safes in some hotel rooms in Vegas? Theyíre not free either. Some places, charge you $1 per day (or more) regardless if the safe is ever used.

And donít even think about touching that bottle of water on the counter in your room. I recently saw one of these Ďcourtesyí bottles that had an $8.00 price tag. Tip: Right before heading up to your hotel room after a night on the town, grab a couple bottled waters from a cocktail waitress. That way you wonít be tempted to touch that bottle of water when you stumble out of bed in the morning with a throat that feels like sandpaper from the combination of too many cervezas and the dry desert air.

And finally, the energy surcharge. This fee is an absolute disgrace. I would venture a guess that the typical Vegas visitor spends an average of about 2 non-sleeping hours in their room per day. Even if they had every light (yes, even those 40 watt energy-consuming monsters) in the room on, had the TV blaring, and the thermostat set at 55 degrees, thereís no way a guest could use $3.50 in energy each day.

Station casinos recently settled a class action lawsuit regarding this fee. The settlement amount was (2) coupons totaling $5.50, issued to guests who stayed at a Station or Fiesta property from April 2001 through June 2004. Of course, these coupons cannot be combined with any other discount, so you essentially must pay rack rate to save your $2.75 per night. Wow, what a deal. Anyone care to guess how much the attorneys made on this deal? Again, itís the customer who gets ripped off.

If hotels want to increase revenue per room, just increase the nightly rate. These hidden fees and surcharges are an outrage.

 

4.) Airport slot and video poker machines

Itís no surprise that the machines at the airport are the tightest in Vegas. What is a surprise is the new policy that recently went into effect at McCarran International Airport. ALL cashouts, even for $0.25 require a handpay. Why? Because they want you to play until you lose all your money. The airport authority obviously knows many of these passengers only have a few minutes to play and do not want to bother going through the trouble of a handpay.

 

5.) The HarrahShoe

Yes, you read that right, itís the HarrahShoe. The casino formerly knows as Binionís Horseshoe is nothing more than a tourist trap now. Harrahs agreed to manage this property earlier this year after it was shut down by federal agents in January of this year. Harrahs slapped down some new carpet, changed a few mattresses and re-opened the property on April 1st. While it was nice to see the employees retain their jobs, many longtime Horseshoe customers have stated that they wouldíve rather seen the doors remain shut than to see whatís been done to this Vegas landmark.

The most shocking change Harrahs instituted was the removal of the excellent single deck blackjack that the Shoe was famous for. Itís now been replaced with the 6 to 5 rip-off version of the game (see Vegas rip-off #1 above for more information).

Wade Faul, Harrahs Vice President of Operations at Horseshoe, says, "The traditional single-deck blackjack game really isn't an option at this time."

Tom Jenkin, Harrahs Western Division President was quoted as saying, "We wanted to do the legend of Benny Binion proud." Benny Binion would not be proud of the tourist fleecing that is being perpetuated by dealing 6:5 rip-off blackjack at the HarrahShoe.

In the April 12th issue of "The Motley Fool" that talked about Harrahs re-opening of the Shoe, author Jeff Hwang states, "Unfortunately, some casinos still treat their guests like suckers" referring to 6 to 5 blackjack.

Benny Binionís motto of "Good food, good whiskey and a good gamble" certainly is not the motto that Harrahs has decided to abide by.

When the current HarrahShoe is compared to the old Horseshoe, itís a rip-off!

6.) Car rental fees and insurance

When picking up a rental car at McCarran, you might be surprised by a new fee. Effective May 1st, a new $3 per day charge went into effect for all rentals at the airport. This is in addition to the state and local taxes already in effect.

This fee is to subsidize the new consolidated rental car facility that will be built off terminal at McCarran. Once built, ALL auto renters will board a shuttle that will transport them to this facility. If youíve ever had the Ďpleasureí of experiencing this process, youíre in for a treat. Iíve gone through this in Cleveland and San Jose and the process leaves something to be desired. Since the shuttle is a Ďgenericí shuttle, operated by the airport authority, the driver could not care less if youíre a #1 Club Gold, Fastbreak or Emerald Aisle member (all examples of frequent renter programs), so you will not be able to receive the same level of service youíre used to. Picture the scenario of dozens of anxious tourists all crammed into one waiting area for extended periods of time in 110 degree heat waiting for the shuttle bus, because the airport authority is too cheap to run a sufficient number of busses. Iíll give even money odds on this one! Any takers on that action?

The other rip-off at car rentals is the hard sell on loss damage waivers (LDWís), also known generically as short term insurance. Iíve read reports that margins on this add-on are up to 70% for some firms. Itís not uncommon for this fee to be $8 per day. Would you pay $2500 per year for your auto insurance at home? I doubt it. Not only is the price of the LDW a rip-off, in most cases the coverage itself is unneeded.

Most personal insurance policies insure you on car rentals for personal use. If you have this coverage and get in a wreck, your carrier will handle the claim and pay the damages, less your deductible. Most insurance companies handle these types of claims as if you were driving your own vehicle, meaning you will likely be hit with an increase in your rates. Be sure you check with your personal agent at home prior to leaving on your trip.

Your best bet when renting is to use a credit card that offers primary car rental insurance coverage. Diners Club and some Platinum Visas offer this perk. Virtually all credit cards offer secondary coverage on rentals. Be sure to note the difference between primary and secondary coverage. Primary coverage means the credit card company will handle any claims. This means your personal insurance carrier will not even be notified of the claim and your rates will not go up as a result. Secondary coverage means the credit card company will only get involved after your personal insurance company has paid out policy limits.

 

7.) Tipping in Vegas

Everyone in Vegas has their hands out for a tip these days. While you never have to tip, in many situations the employees put you in a situation where you feel forced to tip them.

Donít get me wrong, certain service employees should be tipped well for proper service in Vegas. These include cocktail waitresses, food servers, and maids. Most of these employees are earning minimum wage and support their families on tips. A friendly and helpful casino dealer is also worthy of an occasional tip. Donít tip them too much; a dealer at the Hard Rock makes $80K per year with tips! Keep in mind that many bartenders in Vegas belong to labor unions and have a base salary that is substantially higher than minimum wage. This doesnít mean you shouldnít tip them, but itís something to consider when leaving them a tip.

On other occasions there are tips that are basically bribes, such as the $20 tip to hotel checkin clerk in hopes of scoring a Ďfreeí upgraded room. In this case, your Ďtipí is getting you something in return.

What I find aggravating is many of the others who are looking for a tip. I recently hit a .25 Royal flush jackpot ($1000, which does not require a tax form) that was a handpay. Employees came out of the woodwork. Letís set the record straight, it takes two employees (not FOUR) to be involved in a handpay: one to actually pay you and one to be a witness.

I had another occasion where I was too tired to schlep my familyís bags up to the room. One bellman unloaded the bags, tagged them, put them on a cart and they disappeared to some backroom. Obviously, a tip is needed here. I check in to the hotel and about 15 minutes later, a knock on the door and itís a different bellman! Because each of them handled the bags, the $1 per bag rule would seem to apply both. They double dipped me on tips!

Room service tipping is a complete insult (and I wonít even talk about the prices for room service food). You are forced to tip 18% before you even receive your meal. What happens if the meal takes 2 hours to be delivered? You tip 18%. What happens if the meal is not hot? You tip 18%. What if they bring the wrong order? They replace it, you get to wait again, and yes, you tip 18%. This 18% fee is typically listed as a "service charge" on the bill but itís nothing more than a spiffy phrase for a tip. On top of all this, some room service clerks act like they arenít already getting a gratuity and theyíll be overly friendly and helpful in a blatant attempt to get you to tip them AGAIN. Another great example of being double dipped on tips.

The tip plate at a buffet is another gripe. I guess I could see leaving a tip in a low end buffet where the cook goes out of his way to prepare something edible for you. But to tip a buffet chef (who is already knocking down a decent paycheck) where you already paid $30 just to sit down? No way, Jose.

 

8.) ATM fees in casinos

Ok, this rip-off isnít exclusive to Vegas. It seems every casino in the country charges an exorbitant ATM fees. Special consideration goes to the New Frontier in Vegas, which leads the way with a $3.50 fee, not including what your own bank will charge you. The best idea is to take the bankroll youíre comfortable playing with and leave those ATM and credit cards in the car or at home.

In todayís era of ticket in, ticket out technology (TITO), this is a disgrace. What they need to do is install TITO on all the machines, then install a TITO self-serve kiosk where players can cash out their vouchers whenever they like.

 

9.) Charging sales tax on a comp

A comp means free, right? In most cases yes, but not everywhere. At Coast properties in Vegas, when you pay for a meal with your points, they deduct sales tax from your points along with the cost of the meal. This means youíre paying about 7% more than you need to.

 

10.) Drink prices at shows and late night breakfast specials

As if paying $125 for that show ticket wasnít steep enough, they also gouge you on the drink prices. Iíve received reports that the Sahara charges $8 per bottled WATER. At the Rio a couple reported recently paying $25 for two alcohol drinks. And the most ridiculous report was from a member of the Mamma Mia audience at Mandalay Bay who paid $17.50 apiece for drinks.

Mac King and Ronn Lucas at Harrahs/Rio are Ďfreeí shows, but youíll pay $6.95 for a drink in order to get in. These shows are both easily worth that price, but paying $6.95 for a Coca Cola is a rip-off!

That cheap deal for steak and eggs sounds great. Oh, you want coffee with that? The price of your meal jumps 50%. A great example is the early morning special at the Barbary Coast. Price on the meal is (Ham/Eggs or Steak/Eggs) is $3.25 and a cup of coffee is $1.75. That price for a cup of coffee isnít necessarily a rip-off, but when that price comprises such a substantial percentage of the final cost of the meal, it is a rip-off, relatively speaking.

 

And there you have it, my Top 10 rip-offs of Las Vegas. Look for my next article, "How to Avoid the Top 10 rip-offs of Las Vegas" in the future.

Special thanks to the members of www.BJ21.com and the members of VPMail (www.vphomepage.com) who provided many of the ideas contained throughout this article.

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