Glitz, Sparkle, Money, and Chance: Comping Out on Top in Atlantic City, New Jersey
A seaside East Coast shadow of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, NJ has greatly improved the outer façade of the city since the gritty 80s. On top of its 12 casinos, the city has added a minor league hockey team and a baseball team as part of its efforts to attract tourists other than gamblers. Even so, the casinos remain the number one draw. Where else could you rub shoulders with movie stars, Arab oil sheiks, kings of small countries, and other such glitterati and combine it with the chance to win millions?
It is not uncommon for many middle-class gamblers to have the cost of their trip to Atlantic City completely paid for by the casinos. Nearly all casinos offer complimentary (or comps for short) offers and items for their patrons. Comps range from free drinks, free meals, free show tickets, to free hotel rooms. However, for the budget traveler, attempting to use the comp system to get yourself a free trip may be difficult. On the average, most casinos tend to comp patrons about $10-$15 for every $100 patrons risk in bets.
Always try to take advantage of the comp system even if you don’t think you gamble that much. Remember, casino profits largely come from the middle class. As such, there are always special promotions and deals to woo the average customer. Before you even plunk one quarter into a slot machine, make sure you sign up for a casino patron card, usually called VIP cards. These cards are how each casino tracks how much money you play, thus determining what kinds of bonuses and offers you receive. You can sign up (for free) at any customer courtesy desk. At all slot machines, there are slots for you to stick the card; at table games, always tell the dealer you want to be rated and they will find a floor person to rate your play.
With 12 casinos in Atlantic City, each casino tries to fill a different niche. The following is a brief description of each of the casinos. In general the smaller casinos, including Sands, Claridge, Hilton Grand and Resorts tend to offer more incentives to attract more gamblers. Trump casinos owned by real estate mogul Donald Trump, tend to rely on the Trump name to draw in patrons and generally has higher minimum bets (around $10 on the weekends and $5 on the weekdays). Caesars and Bally’s Wild West (formerly Bally’s Park Place) Casino are Las Vegas style theme casinos.
This casino list runs from Downbeach to Uptown. Since many Atlantic City residents use casinos as landmarks, the rest of this article will too.
Hilton Grand – Offers more freebies (ie t-shirts, keychains, etc.) to their patrons.
Tropicana – Offers annual historical/cultural exhibits. Recent exhibits have included Titanic artifacts, Torture devices through the years, and the dresses of Princess Diana.
Trump Plaza – Another Trump casino, located in the center of the city. Currently rebuilding the Million-Dollar Pier, formerly the Ocean One mall, which is a pier that stretches from the boardwalk out into the ocean which looks like a cruise ship When the pier reopens, the mall is expected to feature upscale retail stores like Prada and Gucci.
Caesars – Newly renovated, the most Las Vegas style of all the casinos; features a lot of big name performers such as Natalie Cole.
Bally’s Park Place and Wild West – located on the same place as its Monopoly namesake. Sits right next to the New Jersey Veterans Memorial and a charming little park by the boardwalk.
Claridge – “Smaller is friendlier”.
Sands – Only casino to feature more affordable options for food in a Mall-like foodcourt.
Resorts – First casino in Atlantic City, which was founded by Merv Griffin.
Trump Taj Mahal – High minimum bets, but also high opportunity for star-spotting; several movies filmed there; also has the hottest night club in town, the Casbah.
Showboat – New Orleans style Casino, last casino on the boardwalk.
Because these two casinos are not on the boardwalk, they have to do more to attract patrons, which means better deals for you.
Trump Marina – Another Trump casino, features a dockside arena by one of the local marinas.
Harrahs – Also has an arena and in the summer features a boating tour around Absecon Island.
Even before you arrive in Atlantic City, casinos are doing their best to get you there. Be sure to check your local papers for ads by local bus companies featuring cashback deals and subsidized transportation costs.
If you’re coming from New York City, Greyhound at Port Authority has deals with various casinos to reimburse you for a percentage of the cost of your roundtrip ticket. These refunds range from $10 on the weekend to $18 mid-week, depending on the time and day that you’re going. In NYC, you’ll pay the full price of the roundtrip ticket ($23 M-Th, $27 Fri, Sat, Sun) and receive a casino coupon for some portion of the cost of your ticket. The bus will take you to a casino (make sure you get off at the casino, NOT the Atlantic City bus station, or you won’t get any money back). Once you arrive at the casino, a representative will come to your bus and give you another coupon, for your Greyhound coupon as you leave the bus. DON’T LEAVE THE BUS UNTIL THE REPRESENTATIVE GETS THERE or you won’t get any money. Take the coupon to any change booth on the gaming floor, and they’ll give you cash for your coupon.
If you can speak or read any Asian languages, especially Chinese, make sure you take a look at the Chinese newspapers, because often casinos will offer their Asian patrons even better deals. One casino in Atlantic City, works with a Chinese bus company in Chinatown to charge their patrons $20 for the roundtrip, while the casino gives them $30 back. In essence, you’ve made $10. However, you’ll only find out about deals like this if you speak and read Chinese.
Similar offers going to Atlantic City can also be found from other bus companies and travel agencies in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, so remember to check local newspaper listings for ads.
There is regular train service from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. It’s faster, and more comfortable than the bus service, however, at the time of writing, there were no known comp offers similar to those offered by taking a bus.
More about the City – Off Boardwalk Areas
Considered by many to be the main attraction (other than casinos) of Atlantic City, the boardwalk is a conglomeration of 99 cent souvenir stores, casinos, and local fast food places. The farther uptown you go, the more touristy and crowded the boardwalk will get. Heading downbeach, after you pass the Hilton Grand, the boardwalk becomes almost completely residential and more quiet. Here is where you can see multimillion dollar beachfront homes, some houses with entire sides made out of glass to allow for the ocean view.
Pacific Avenue, Atlantic Avenue and Arctic Avenue run across the length of Atlantic City and are parallel to the beach and Boardwalk. Most other avenues are cross streets of Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic.
Pacific Avenue, the Avenue closest to the Boardwalk, is considered pretty sketchy, with a mixture of pawnshops, bars and strip clubs. However, Pacific Avenue is fine in the daytime, but once it starts getting to the late hours of the evening, you might want to stick to the boardwalk. There are a few cheap motels along this strip, which should be ok.
Atlantic Ave, the next street over, parallel to Pacific Avenue, has a bit more legitimacy than Pacific Ave. From Missouri Avenue (Trump Plaza) heading towards the northern end (towards Showboat), Atlantic Ave. becomes an economically developing shopping street, featuring a variety of largely African-American owned hair salons, discount clothing stores, music stores and other small businesses.
The area at the base of the Atlantic City Expressway (which connects Atlantic City to
Philadelphia) and behind of Trump Plaza is currently being redeveloped into an outlet mall, which will feature stores such as Coach, Prada, Nautica, Gap and others. As of Spring 2004, there are only a few stores open, with more expected to arrive in time for the summer tourist season.
Arctic Avenue is mostly residential, with a smattering of convenient stores, ethnic grocerers, and gas stations.
Uptown is considered all avenues past Missouri Avenue. Once you pass Showboat, Atlantic City becomes more and more of a mixture of rickety tenements and abandoned buildings. In particular, while the section of the boardwalk north of Showboat may be nice in the day time, you should NOT go there at night. Lately though, the city has become more active in trying to revitalize the area. Uptown also connects over to the residential island of Brigantine.
The Downbeach portion of Atlantic City consists mostly of middle class areas. Going further downbeach into the communities of Ventnor, Margate, and Longport, you will find the areas becoming higher and higher on the socioeconomic scale. The above areas consist mostly of residential areas of year-round residents or those with enough money to rent and own summer houses. The beaches in this area may be cleaner, but beware: you will not be allowed on the beach without paying. Ventnor, Margate, and Longport all charge beach usage fees in the form of beach tags. You can buy either seasonal tags allowing you to use the beach all summer, or temporary tags for $2 allowing you passage for a week. Before Memorial Day, beach tags run around $12-$15, however the price jumps up after Memorial Day.
There are no hostels or bed & breakfasts in the area. In the summer time, room rates go up drastically. On a weekend at the height of summer, a room at a chain motel will run you about $50-$60. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a cheap motel for around $25-$30/person on the weekdays a block or two from the boardwalk.
Sleeping on the Beach
If you are determined to go in the summer, but you have little cash, and you don’t mind sleeping in the outdoors, you might be able to sleep on the beach, but ONLY in the daytime. Sleeping under the boardwalk or on the beach at night is not recommended because much of the homeless population in Atlantic City does that. As a result, there are routine police sweeps of beach areas and underneath the boardwalk at night, which will get you arrested.
Instead, stay up all night, check out the casinos, the nightlife and clubs, and then when morning comes, buy a beach umbrella and just spend the day sleeping on the beach underneath the umbrella. You’ll have to put up with beach sounds of people talking and kids playing, but in general it’s a pretty relaxing thing.
In the summer, there are outdoor faucets and showers for people to wash off sand that you can take advantage of, though most, if not all, are open showers with just a showerhead attached for a pipe. (Ask the lifeguards the locations of shower pipes where you can wash sand off.) Watch out though, because if you take off other than what is acceptable beachwear in America, then you will be fined for indecent exposure.
Jitneys (small mini-blue buses) run up and down on Pacific Avenue and are a great way to get from casino to casino quickly, if you don’t mind the $1.50 fare. Jitneys only run in Atlantic City.
Taxis are very very expensive, and you generally cannot hail them on the street: you have to place a phone call to them.
Places to Eat
Atlantic City is not exactly known for great food and aside from a few exceptions, there’s a reason. Unless the casinos are comping you free food, stay FAR AWAY from casino buffets, which vary in quality. Most casino food is overpriced, and you are likely to find food of similar quality at lower prices elsewhere on the island. The only restaurants in the casinos really worth visiting are the upscale ones, but even those vary in standards depending on the season and the chef.
Cheap food in Atlantic City generally leans above $5. There are very few where you will leave feeling full for less.
White House Subs
2301 Arctic Ave
(Near the Atlantic City Bus Terminal, Trump Plaza area)
Local legend has it that this was where the sub (also known as hoagies and grinders) were invented. Producing the best subs since 1946, the joint is covered with pictures of stars like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who used to have these sandwiches specially flown out for them to Las Vegas. If you are a meat eater, this is a place not to be missed. A whole regular Italian sub (a little less than 2 feet long) is $10.10 while a half sub is $5.05.
164 St. James Place (cross is Boardwalk, but is not on the Boardwalk, Resorts area)
Decent food, decent prices, especially the daily $1.95 lunch special usually featuring a soup and sandwich.
3124 Atlantic Avenue (about 2-3 blocks from Hilton Grand)
Their suppliers are the exact same ones as the casinos, (in some cases even better) and in fact, when some of the upscale casino kitchens of certain Asian restaurants can’t handle the amount of eggrolls or fried crab claws needed for a banquet, they will order them from this place. This is also where the local Chinese eat. Try the fried spicy calamari: it’s heaven.
Pho Hoa Cali
3808 Ventnor Ave (cross is Trenton Ave, slightly past the Hilton Grand)
A family-owned Vietnamese restaurant, this place serves the best quality Vietnamese food to be found in the area. Nearly all the local Vietnamese eat here. Entrees are around $6-$7 with appetizers around $2-3. It’s a great place for lunch or an informal dinner.
James Salt Water Taffy
1519 Boardwalk (cross is New York Avenue, near Resorts)
Inside Tropicana Casino
Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy
1325 Boardwalk (cross is Ocean Avenue, near Resorts)
Inside Bally’s Wild West Casino
Invented in Atlantic City, salt water taffy is THE thing to bring back as a gift to family and friends. James’ Taffy is chewier and melts in your mouth much more easily, while Fralinger’s Taffy is harder and lasts longer. Both stores feature a variety of flavors ranging from strawberry to root beer to mint. Other things to try include Fralinger’s chocolate covered molasses paddles and James’s macaroons.
Tony’s Baltimore Grill
2800 Atlantic Avenue (cross is Iowa Avenue, near Trump Plaza)
This is only notable place in Atlantic City that is open 24 hours. Another Atlantic City tradition, even New York pizza connoisseurs won’t be too disappointed with their pizza. This place also features a selection of seafood, which I’ve heard is not too bad. Entree prices range from $6-$25.
You can also find more local restaurant information here, although many of the Atlantic City restaurants they list are overpriced for the quality of the food they serve. (Again, there’s a reason that Atlantic City is not known for amazing food.) Even so, it’s a got a pretty good listing of other area restaurants that you can get to if you happen to have a car.