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LONDON TRIP REPORT

LONDON TRIP REPORT

by Steve Bourie

Steve Bourie is the author of the best-selling, "American Casino Guide" book. The book is deeply discounted in our BJI store.

Note: Steve and his wife visited London and several casinos there for six days during December 2012. This trip report is published with permission of Steve Bourie.

My last visit to London had been in 1970 when I was on a summer break from college and I remembered having a great time. Therefore, I was eager to, once again, see "one of the world's best cities" as it is referred to by many travelers.  I was also curious to visit the city's casinos and see how they compared to casinos in the U.S.
 
In planning for the trip I wanted to use some of my American Airlines frequent flyer miles and it was interesting to see how they could be used and the costs involved. It seems that when redeeming my miles for a round-trip ticket from Miami, Florida to London on American I also had the option to fly on British Airways because the two airlines have a code share agreement.
 
When using frequent miles the tickets are free, but you still have to pay any taxes associated with the tickets and there was quite a big cost difference between the two airlines. If we chose British Airways, the taxes were about $1,400, but if we flew on American the taxes were only about $450. Naturally, we flew on American.  I tried to find out why taxes were so much higher on British Airways, but I never got a definitive answer and the closest I got was "each airline is different."
 
My best guess as to why the taxes were so high is that in the United Kingdom there is a 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) which is assessed on any item as it passes along in each step of its manufacturing process. There are some items, such as fuel, which are taxed at only 5%, plus other items, such as food and children's clothing, which are not taxed at all. The food tax exemption, however, doesn't apply to restaurants.

Although airline travel isn't "manufactured" we were charged a 20% VAT on our hotel room so I am sure that there is some form of VAT imposed on the free tickets issued by British Airways and that would explain the hefty fees.
 
The VAT seems to drive up the cost of everything and it makes London a rather expensive place to visit. The city was declared the 10th most expensive city in the world in a September, 2102 travel article on CNN.com and it doesn't surprise me.
 
A few months before our trip I booked our room via the Internet at a DoubleTree hotel in Westminster, which is a good location since it's short walk to some of the major tourist attractions, such as Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.


The Tower Bridge in London is a world famous tourist attraction.
There is an admission charge to visit the upper spans of the Tower Bridge.

By reserving several months in advance I was able to lock in a room rate of about $275 per night, which turned out be a very good idea because when I checked the rates about four weeks before our trip the rates had gone up by a total of more than $1,000 for our six-night stay.
 
Naturally, we visited a lot of web sites for information about visiting London to choose the attractions we wanted to visit and also to get advice on transportation options for getting around the city. One of the best sites for this information is www.visitlondon.com, which is operated by the city's convention and visitors bureau.
 
Taxis in London are expensive! Therefore, we decided on public transportation and chose to buy an Oyster Card which is a pre-paid electronic card that you simply swipe when getting on a bus, or when entering and leaving the Tube (British name for the subway system).
 
We bought our Oyster Cards cards in advance and they were mailed to us in the U.S. for an extra fee of about $5. That turned out to be a good idea because when we took the Tube from Heathrow Airport to our hotel in London there were about 25 people waiting in line to buy their card at the station.
 
Our Oyster Cards came pre-loaded with  £15 (about $24) of credits, but you also have the option to order them with more credits. There is a  £3 one-time activation fee for each card, but the cards never expire and you can always add more credits. You can buy credits at an electronic kiosk for as low as  £1, or at the ticket window with a credit card for a minimum of  £5.
 
We added credits several times at tube stations using my credit card. One word of advice here about using your credit card in a foreign country. You should be sure to check before leaving home to see if your card's provider will charge you a currency transaction fee when making a charge outside the U.S.
 
Unfortunately, most card providers will charge about three percent, but a few won't charge that fee, so be sure to ask ahead of time. We charged most of our expenses to a credit card that didn't charge a fee and that probably saved us close to $100.
 
One other good thing about the Oyster Card is that you are getting a discounted price. If you were to pay cash every time you used the bus or Tube the cost would be higher. To encourage travel during off-peak hours, the discounts are lower if you travel during rush hours (Mon-Fri 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.).
 
We never traveled on the Tube during rush hour as we had heard that the trains were completely packed and we wanted to avoid it. However, our return flight was at 11:00 a.m. on a weekday which meant that we would have had to be on the Tube at 8 a.m. during prime rush hour, so we opted to take a taxi to the airport, which cost around $90. Didn't I say the taxis were expensive?
 
We frequently used the Tube, as well as the bus, and the service was very good. We never had to wait very long and the double-decker buses were lots of fun!
 
When choosing the attractions we wanted to see we visited a few different web sites to get some ideas and we ended up buying a six-day London Pass at www.londonpass.com With that card you are given free admission to more than 60 London attractions and it can save you some money. The six-day pass costs about $140 and if we had to pay the individual prices for the attractions we saw, the cost would have been closer to $195. They also offer a 1, 2 or 3-day pass, but the six-day pass seemed to offer the best savings.
 
With the London Pass you are also given a guide book, which is helpful, plus for some attractions you are given access to a special admissions window and you can avoid the long lines. The lines weren't especially long when we visited, but I could see that feature being very helpful during the summer months when it's much busier.


It's FREE to visit the New Scotland Yard sign in London!

Of course, we visited the most popular attractions, such as: the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral. We also took a 45-minutes cruise on the Thames River from the Westminster Pier to Greenwich, which is home to the prime meridian (0 degrees longitude) and Greenwich mean time, as well as the Royal Observatory which has played a major role in the history of astronomy and navigation.
 
One place we didn't visit is actually the city's most popular paid attraction. The London Eye is a 443-foot tall ferris wheel with 32 enclosed passenger capsules. Each capsule can hold up to 25 people who can remain seated, or walk around.
 
I guess we were more interested in visiting historic places rather than riding a ferris wheel. My favorite place was Westminster Abbey because there were so many famous people buried there and it had been the site of so much history, including the coronation of every ruler of England since William The Conqueror in 1066.
 
My wife preferred St. Paul's Cathedral because we were able to climb several staircases to reach the top of the Cathedral's dome. Originally built in the late 17th century the dome reaches a height of almost 28 stories and it offers some fabulous views of the city.


A scenic view of London and the Thames River from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.
There is no elevator. You must walk the entire 28 stories to the top - a total of 1,161 steps

One other place that we both agreed was fun to visit (and it was free!) was Harrods Department Store. That place is massive! It just seemed to go on forever and you could easily spend a whole day there. We only spent about an hour-and-a-half and when we got a little hungry we asked a clerk "where is the restaurant?" "Which one?" he answered. "We have 28."
 
Of course, one of the main reasons for visiting London was to see some casinos and through the years, my only recollection of U.K. casinos was that all were considered private clubs and if someone wanted to visit one they were required to register for membership at least 48 hours in advance. The casino then had to approve the player's membership application, or they wouldn't be allowed in the casino. However, applicants were rarely turned down and the whole procedure was just a legal formality.
 
I found out, however, that in 2005 the law was changed and all U.K. casinos can now be open to the general public with no waiting period required. If desired, a casinos can still require a membership and some of the higher-end casinos, mostly located in the Mayfair district, still have this policy in place. The usual fee is  £1,000 (about $1,550) for a lifetime membership.
 
In writing to the U.K Gaming Commission for facts and figures I was surprised to learn in their response that they don't keep track of the square-footage (or meters) of each casino's gaming floor, so they couldn't tell me which was London's largest casino based on that measurement.
 
I was informed that the city's two largest casinos are the Hippodrome and the Casino at The Empire, which both have about 40 table games and both are located in Leicester Square, which is a major tourist area. In doing some later Internet research I found out that the Hippodrome had recently undergone renovations and was the larger of the two, with 90,000 square feet of gaming space, as compared to 55,000 at the Empire. Since those were the two largest casinos, that would make the average U.K. casino relatively small compared to the average Las Vegas Strip casino. For example, the casino gaming area at Harrah's Las Vegas contains a little more than 90,000 square feet.


The Hippodrome Casino in London's Leicester Square. 

All U.K. casinos are free to set their own operating hours and most of the larger ones are open 24 hours, while the smaller ones open in the afternoon and close late in the morning. The minimum gambling age is 18 and, interestingly, no casino is allowed to have more than 20 slot machines.
 
The part about the slot machines was very surprising because in the U.S. the average casino makes about 75% of its profits from electronic machines. Evidently, in the U.K. it is the table games that are the big money-makers with roulette being the most popular game.
 
In advance of our trip I was able to make arrangements to take an escorted tour of two London casinos: The Casino at The Empire and the London Playboy Club. Both casinos are operated by London Clubs International, which is owned by U.S. based Caesars Entertainment, the world's largest casino gaming company. Some of the casino brands owned by Caesars Entertainment include: Harrah's, Bally's, Caesars, Flamingo and Horseshoe. 


The Casino at The Empire in Leicester Square in London shares its building with the Empire Cinema.
Above the signage for the casino and cinema is the Empire Casino's outdoor terrace.

At the Empire our host was Justin Carter, Assistant Venue Director, and he explained that they were allowed 40 slot machines because they had two gaming licenses. He also said they had no video poker and only offered slot machines, which didn't surprise me. As I always tell everyone: "casinos make more money from slot machines than video poker!" Therefore, with such a limited allotment of machines to put on their gaming floor they are certainly going to choose slots over video poker.
 
The minimum bet on slots in the U.K. is one pence (about 1.5 cents) and the maximum bet is £2 (about $3.10). There are no wide-area progressive machines offering huge jackpots since the maximum payout allowed is £4,000 (about $6,200). One especially good thing about winning a jackpot in a U.K. casino though, is that all gambling winnings are tax-free!
 
The Casino at The Empire has its own player's club called "Player Rewards" and the card is valid at all nine  London Club casinos throughout the U.K. The system was not tied into the "Total Rewards" club offered at Caesars Entertainment casinos in the U.S., but Justin said that they hoped to eventually merge the two programs.
 
Non-alcoholic beverages are free to players at U.K. casinos, but there is a charge for alcoholic beverages unless a gambler has earned "comp" privileges and those will vary from casino to casino. The tipping policy is similar to that in U.S. casinos where tips are encouraged for friendly service from the dealers.
 
The table games offered at The Empire included blackjack, roulette, three card poker, punto banco and pai gow tiles, plus there was a poker room.

Although its name was totally different, punto banco (player banker), was actually the same game as baccarat that is played in any U.S. casino.
 
I believe that the pai gow tiles and three card poker games were played the same as in U.S. casinos, but I definitely know that the blackjack and roulette games were slightly different.


A view of the main floor at the Casino at The Empire in London.

At first glance, the blackjack rules were pretty good: six decks, dealer stands on soft 17, double down on any two cards; split any pair; resplit any pair (except aces), split aces receive one card each; insurance offered and no surrender.
 
For a player using perfect basic strategy this works out to a casino advantage of about 0.41% However, the procedure for the dealer getting a hole card is different in the U.K. and it requires a slight adjustment to basic strategy.
 
In their blackjack games the dealer initially receives one face up card. The players then play out their hands and after they are finished the dealer then gets a second card. This procedure is called "no-peek," or "no hole card." The problem arises when the dealer has a 10, or an ace, as a first card because if you double down and the dealer gets a blackjack you will lose, even if you get 21.
 
According to blackjack expert Michael "Wizard of Odds" Shackleford, the casino's mathematical advantage is not changed but "the player should be more conservative about doubling and splitting when the dealer has a potential blackjack. Basic strategy changes are to hit 11 against a 10, hit two 8’s against a 10 or ace, and hit two aces against an ace." More of Mike's gambling advice can be seen in his videos on our YouTube channel at www,youtube.com/americancasinoguide
 
Roulette was definitely the most popular game in the casino because, besides the live games, there were also 60 electronic terminals, about the same size as a slot machine, where players could make bets on up to four live roulette tables elsewhere in the casino that were displayed on a TV screen in the terminal. Minimum bets on the live roulette tables began at £1 (about $1.55) on individual numbers, or £5 (about $7.75) for outside bets, but at the terminal the minimum bet was just 20 pence (about 31 cents) and the maximum was £1.
 
There were also 30 "auto roulette" terminals where players could make bets on games with automatic wheels and no live dealers.
 
All of these roulette games were much better than in U.S. casinos because they were all single-zero wheels which made the house edge only 2.70% as compared to 5.26% for double-zero wheels found in the U.S. Even better, for anyone making an even-money bet such as red/black, odd/even or low (1-18)/high (19-36), the casino would only take half of their bet if the spin result was zero (green). This lowered the casino advantage to only 1.35% which is a relatively good bet.
 
As we were walking through the casino with Justin I noticed a table with a double-zero wheel and I asked him about it. He said it had been installed about six months earlier and I couldn't help but notice that there were about three times as many people playing the double-zero than were playing the single-zero wheel at the next table.
 
This was amusing to me because these people were playing at a table with a casino advantage of more than double the single-zero wheel. All they had to do was change tables to cut the casino advantage in half, but they just didn't know any better. Hopefully, you know the difference and will never make that same mistake!
 
In concluding our tour of the casino Justin took us to the second floor to the Icon Bar for a drink. It was an intimate location with a style reminiscent of a French boudoir, with chandeliers, antique wallpaper and crimson furnishings. There was also a balcony with a fabulous view of Leicester Square and Justin pointed out a secret entrance at the end of a hallway that he said is sometimes used by celebrities.


The Icon Bar at the Casino at The Empire with a view looking out onto the outdoor terrace

It turns out that the casino shares its building with the Empire Cinema next door which often holds movie premieres and the special entrance is sometimes used by movie stars who would prefer to head upstairs for a drink rather than attending all of the premiere festivities downstairs. We didn't happen to see any celebrities that day, but it was intriguing to learn about the "secret" entrance.
 
After visiting the Casino at the Empire our next stop was later that evening at the Playboy Club.
 
This was the Playboy empire's second foray with a club in London. Their original club opened in 1966 and it was one of the world's most successful private clubs with a casino. It frequently attracted many A-list celebrities and other night-life revelers until it closed in 1981.
 
The new club tries to replicate that same ambiance in the heart of London's ritzy Mayfair section, which is home to many luxury hotels, as well as the headquarters of many of the world's major corporations.
 
The new Playboy Club opened on June 4, 2011 in a 17,000 square foot, two-story building. It's open 24 hours daily (except Christmas) and an annual membership costs £1,200 (about $1,860), plus there is a one-time joining fee of £1,000 (about $1,550). A lifetime membership is also offered for £15,000 (about $23,250).


The outside of the London Playboy Club at night.

We were met that evening by Bunny Sara who is the club's "Bunny Brand Ambassador" and she gave us a  tour of the entire complex.
 
The first floor serves as the heart of the club's entertainment and is the home to Baroque, a club lounge offering a live band, as well as DJ's and a dining/drinking menu consisting mostly of champagne and caviar. The club boasts one of the most extensive vintage Champagne lists in Europe; including such rarities as Dom Perignon 1971 which sells for thousands of dollars.

 
Baroque offers one of the most extensive lists of Champagne in Europe.

The other area on the first floor is Salavatore at Playboy, which is a cocktail lounge and bar named after Salvatore Calabrese, one of the world’s leading cocktail experts.
 
An intriguing part of the area is a long display case showing many of the rare and vintage spirits in Salavatore's collection. One of the most interesting was simply a broken bottle with quite a backstory. Bunny Sara explained to us that the bottle was valued at £50,000 (about $77,500) because it had held a rare 224-year-old cognac that Salvatore was going to use to create the world's most expensive cocktail. Unfortunately, a customer at the club, who ordered two glasses of the prized cognac at £5,050 (about $7,825) a glass, accidentally broke the bottle while holding it by the neck to look at it.


The display case at Salvatore at Playboy showcases the cocktail lounge's many rare and vintage spirits.

About three months later, on October 12, 2102, Salvatore was able to find a replacement cognac to make his prized cocktail which was declared an official Guinness World Record holder as the world's most expensive cocktail, selling for £5,500 (about $8,525).
 
We then headed upstairs to visit the casino and the first area we encountered was the Players Lounge which was a sports bar with numerous TV's showing live sporting events. We also passed by the Dining Room where Executive Chef, Judy Joo, who is widely know for her appearances on the Iron Chef TV series, serves up an array of Asian-themed specialties.


Hugh Hefner was in attendance for the grand opening of the London Playboy Club on June 4, 2011

Directly across from the restaurant was the casino, which was rather small, but well appointed. Once again, the casino was limited to 20 slots. As expected, the blackjack games had the same rules as at the Empire, but the minimum bets were higher, starting at £10 (about $15.50).
 
The roulette games also had the same rules as at the Empire, but again, with higher minimum bets of £5. There was also one full-size fully electronic roulette table with minimum bets starting at only £1.
 
There were also a couple of rooms, where the doors were closed, and these were the private salons that offered games at even higher limits than on the general casino floor.
 
I hadn't gambled at all in these London casinos, but it suddenly dawned on me as to what I would need to do about currency if I wanted to gamble since I only had U.S. dollars on me.
 
Bunny Sara then explained that I would simply go to the cashier cage and exchange my U.S. dollars for chips that would be valued in British pounds. Later on, when I went to cash in my chips, I could either be paid in British pounds, or I could be paid back in U.S. dollars up to the amount of my original buy-in. For any amount over that buy-in, I would be paid in British pounds.


American Casino Guide author, Steve Bourie, with Bunny Sara at the London Playboy Club.

We never did get around to gambling, but I must say that we both thought the club was beautiful and we had a great time, even without partaking in games of chance!
 
My overall impression of casino gambling in London is that it was pretty good.  The blackjack games had rules that would require $50 minimum bets at many Las Vegas Strip casinos and the single-zero roulette games were excellent - better than any games you would find in the U.S.
 
The only thing I found a little odd was the lack of slot machines since they are so extremely popular in the U.S. In speaking with the casino reps they weren't quite sure why the 20-machine limit was in place, but the thought was that perhaps it was done to discourage problem gambling? That sounded like a logical reason, but then we realized that Internet gambling is legal in the U.K. and you are free to play slot machines for 24 hours a day in your home, so that put a hole in that theory. Whatever the reason, I am sure that, eventually, the rule will be phased out and more slots will be put on the floor.
 

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