The much-heralded May 22, 2009 opening of the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, PA, on the site formerly occupied by the Bethlehem Steel Company. The new casino was exciting news for this depressed area along the Lehigh River in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The Sands Casino Resort, one of 12 currently operating land-based casinos in Pennsylvania, not only draws large numbers of local players, but also visitors from surrounding areas. The casino is located 82 miles from New York City, 50 miles from Philadelphia, and only 10 miles from Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom as well as 6.7 miles from Lehigh Valley International Airport.
It will not be Sands Bethlehem much longer though. In March of 2018, Sands Corp. sold the property for $1.3 billion to Alabama tribal casino company Wind Creek.
Rooms and suites
While many visitors come just for the day, another option is to stay one or more nights in the 4 Diamond hotel on the same property. There are a total of 302 rooms and suites, starting in size with the 400 square-foot Deluxe King Room. If more space is desired, other options include the Executive Suite (about 800 square feet) and the Presidential Suite (about 1,200 square feet). All of the rooms and suites offer the following amenities:
- 42-inch flat screen LCD HD TV
- Glass-enclosed shower
- Single-cup coffee maker
- In-room safe
- Media hub and free wireless high-speed Internet
- Free continental breakfast
- In-room remote checkout
The suites also include:
- Double-sink vanity
- Soaking tub
- Separate living room and dining area
- Queen-size sofa sleeper
- Separate powder room
The Presidential Suite includes two 4-inch flat screen TVs, two refrigerators, dining facilities for up to eight guests, and an optional adjoining Deluxe King room.
Unlike the casino, all of the hotel rooms and suites are non-smoking. Accessible rooms are available on request. Rooms can be booked either by phone or online.
Besides the hotel and the casino, the Outlets at Sands Bethlehem allows guests to take advantage of a wide range of other amenities without leaving the property. Restaurants, entertainment, shopping, and a salon and spa offer plenty of options whenever one wants to take a break from the casino. And on top of all that, two special features make this place perfect for families with kids: Cyber Quest and Kids Quest. Unfortunately, there is no pool anywhere on the premises.
While there is no specific mention on the website of discounted or comped rooms, a variety of special packages are available whereby guests might save a little over the cost if each component is paid for separately. The packages include accommodations for two guests for one night plus the following extras as listed:
Outlets at Sands Bethlehem package
- Sunday-Thursday $186/night, Friday $239/night
- $50 gift card for the Outlets of Sands Bethlehem
- $10 voucher for purchase at Tommy Hilfiger
- $10 free slot play per person
Steelworks Buffet & Grill package
- Sunday-Thursday $169/night
- Lunch or dinner buffet for two people
- $10 free slot play per person
Stay & Game package
- Sunday-Thursday $158/night, Friday $199/night
- $10 free slot play per person
Stay, Game, & Dine package
Same as above but with a $50 or $100 food voucher. The cost with a $50 food voucher is $194 Sun.-Thurs. and $234 on Friday. The cost with a $100 food voucher is $224 Sun.-Thurs. and $274 on Friday.
Golf packages are also available, featuring an outing to a Lehigh Valley golf course.
Outlets at Sands Bethlehem
While the different Pennsylvania casinos are quite similar in terms of game offerings, one unique feature of the Sands Casino Resort which distinguishes it from the other casino properties in the state is the Outlets at Sands Bethlehem. Unlike the casino, which is restricted to guests age 21 and older, the family-friendly mall located steps away offers a hubbub of activity for guests of all ages.
The mall includes stores like:
- Bass Pro Shops
- Calvin Klein
- Kay Jewelers
- Tommy Hilfiger
You can buy everything from clothing, shoes, and accessories to jewelry, housewares, and specialty gifts. It is open Sunday-Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The eateries at the Outlets at Sands Bethlehem cover everything from fast food places and a buffet to full-service casual restaurants (like Carnegie Deli and Burgers and More) and upscale restaurants (like Emeril’s Fish House and Emeril’s Chop House). Emeril Lagasse and “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro are two celebrity chefs whose presence reflects the current trend at many casinos to offer cuisine from instantly recognizable names.
Don’t expect to find world-class entertainment the caliber of what is frequently offered in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. However, guests at the Sands Bethlehem can enjoy lounge acts, concerts, and comedy shows.
Cyber Quest and Kids Quest
Cyber Quest is a family-friendly arcade offered in conjunction with Kids Quest at multiple casino resorts around the country. A wide variety of games allows kids of all ages to be challenged and entertained as they play to their heart’s content and even have a chance to win great prizes like plush toys, iPads, and more. Children under age 12 must be accompanied by an adult; those over 12 can attend on their own. It is not necessary to carry cash; instead, cards can be purchased in advance preloaded with credits, which the player swipes at the chosen games. On Saturday nights, guests can compete in special Cyber Quest tournaments, where every hour the top three scorers win prizes.
Parents who might be worried about their kids being exposed to games with violence or other inappropriate content can relax. Cyber Quest offers youngsters safe, clean fun.
Alternatively, while you are in the casino, shopping, or otherwise occupied, your kids can be safe, happy and well cared for under the watchful eye of professionally trained staff at Kids Quest. This nationally recognized supervised childcare and entertainment program accepts children year-round of any age from 6 weeks to 12 years old. Your kids will be grouped with other kids in the same age bracket. Older children can choose from activities like:
- Rock climbing
- Manipulative toys
- Arts and crafts
- Video games
- Separate tiny tot room includes age-appropriate toys for infants and toddlers.
Kids Quest charges for its services by the hour, and the rates are reasonable. For an additional fee, Cyber Quest and Kids Quest visitors can have kid-friendly snacks and meals at the Quest Café. Parents of very young children might choose to bring them to Kids Quest between 10 a.m. and noon any weekday when they will have an opportunity to join their kids for “Playtime” before leaving them in the center’s care.
Who can play in the casino?
The casino is the one part of the resort that is off limits to children. All Pennsylvania casinos, including the Sands, limit play to guests age 21 and older, and this rule is strictly enforced. However, children are not welcome at the Sands Casino.
Security and fairness
All Pennsylvania land-based casinos, including the Sands Casino, are licensed and regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB). Each casino must adhere to the strict regulations regarding permissible games, rules, and payouts set forth by this agency.
Furthermore, any time a particular Pennsylvania casino considers adding a new game on a new twist on an existing game, it must receive permission from the PGCB. Therefore, players at the Sands Casino can rest assured that all the games on the casino floor are fair and in accordance with PGCB standards.
The Sands Casino in Bethlehem, PA is open 24/7. It is a fairly large casino, housing about 3,000 slot machines and around 200 table games, as well as a separate 30-table poker room. Since slots are by far the game with the biggest options, we will start with a brief description of what this casino has to offer slots players:
The most impressive feature of the Sands Casino slot games is not only how many there are, but the tremendous variety. Slot players comprise a very diverse group of people, so it is commendable that this casino doesn’t assume the same slots fit all. Instead, it responds to the challenge by giving you more than enough choices to help you find the kinds of games that are best suited to your own personal tastes and bankroll.
Denominations range from one cent to $100, in other words, this casino has suitable games for everyone, from penny players to high rollers. All of the slot machines come equipped with bill acceptors.
In addition to familiar favorites you have played before in other casinos, the slots at the Sands incorporate many unique themes. Anytime you are in the mood to try something different, you will be able to do so. For those craving an extra dose of action and excitement, there are also lots of multiple coin machines with many paylines and interactive bonus screens offering extra chances to win. Progressive jackpot slots offer another exciting option. Some of the newer slot games you can try at the Sands Casino include:
- The Hangover
- Wheel of Fortune Triple Spin Extreme
- Michael Jackson
Payouts could be better
One aspect of the slot games at the Sands Casino players complain about consistently, however, is that the slots are too tight. These complaints are understandable because the average return to the player (RTP) of only 89 to 90 percent is certainly not great. In fact, it can quickly swallow up your bankroll if you play too long and are not careful.
According to a 2014 Post Gazette article, back in 2008, prior to the availability of better paying table games in Pennsylvania casinos, slot machines did offer a better rate of return, over 91 percent. However, the fact that many players have now switched to table games, combined with the relatively high 55 percent tax rate on Pennsylvania slots, has contributed to the rate of return on slot games now being lower. Meanwhile, since Pennsylvania regulations only require slot payouts to be 85 percent, the Sands, and other casinos offering average payouts of 89-90 percent on their slots, are not out of compliance.
Frequent, small payouts might give some players the illusion for awhile that they are winning, but ultimately, they sense the reduced payment and therefore be hesitant to keep coming back without an incentive. That incentive frequently comes in the form of free play. Note that all of the room package deals described in this review include $10 free slot play. It is not really free because it is built into the cost and, in addition, the casino knows that the majority of players will continue to play with and lose their own money long after the initial $10 is gone.
Like any good all-purpose casino, the Sands Casino offers a wide variety of other games besides slots, including all of the following:
- Mini and midi baccarat
- Pai Gow
- Texas Hold ‘Em Bonus Poker
- Criss Cross Poker (similar to hold ‘em, but with the community cards dealt in the shape of a cross and additional betting options)
- Three card progressive poker
- Let It Ride
- Caribbean stud poker
- Sic Bo
- Big Six
- Casino War
If you decide on roulette, be sure the game you are playing is the European version with just a single zero on the wheel and not the American version of the game with both a single and double zero. European Roulette has a house edge of only 2.71 percent as compared to a significantly higher 5.2 percent house edge in American Roulette.
Blackjack is clearly the game which offers the best rules for the player, so we will cover that game in more detail, including a special version offered at the Sands Casino that you might want to try called Switch Hands Blackjack. We will also discuss the Live Dealer Stadium Games, specially designed for lower stakes players and the separate poker room.
Blackjack is played all over the world, but certain rules vary from one casino to another. These rule differences can make the game either more or less favorable to the player. The good news for blackjack players in Pennsylvania is that the uniform rules for licensed casinos in that state, which are summarized below, are among the best in this country.
- Six decks, machine shuffled
- Blackjack pays 3:2
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- Doubling down permitted on any 2 cards
- Doubling down after splits
- Splits up to three hands (except aces)
- Late Surrender
Being that blackjack is a game of both luck and skill combined, knowing and using the correct basic strategy is also important. Under those conditions, the house edge for this game is only about .4 percent.
The following side bets are also offered. Since these have a higher house edge than standard blackjack bets, limit your use of them, if at all, to occasional small bets.
21 + 3 Xtreme
If you make this optional bet and your two cards and the dealer’s upcard create certain types of 3 card poker hands, you win 5 to 30x your bet.
Free Bet Blackjack
Double downs and splits (including doubling down after splits and resplits) are free for those who select this option. However, the catch is that you can only double down on 9, 10, and 11. In addition, if the dealer busts with exactly 22, the only hand that will beat it is a blackjack. Otherwise, your own live bets push rather than win (unless you made a Push 22 side bet).
This is a side bet that your first two cards will total 20. A player hand of two Kings of Spades vs. a dealer blackjack pays the jackpot.
This side bet wins if your first two cards are either AK suited, a straight flush, a pair, or a straight. You also have the option to either collect your winnings or add them to your original bet. In other words, you can play the hand partly with the house’s money!
Blackjack players seeking a low stakes table might have a problem at this casino. The lowest minimums at any time are $10 and only on weekdays. On weekends and holidays, while there are some $15 tables, they fill up quickly.
Live dealer stadium games
One possible alternative for players who want to play for smaller stakes than the regular table games allow is the separate room with stadium-style seating offering low-limit, live dealer electronic roulette and baccarat betting terminals. (While blackjack does not appear to be offered at these terminals at the present time, it certainly seems like another possibility down the road.)
Players insert cash or a ticket into a machine, choose the table(s) where they want to play, and proceed to place their bets just like at a regular table. If the player win, the winnings will be paid automatically to their terminal. The presence of a live dealer makes these games just as exciting as playing at a regular table, but less intimidating for beginners. Also, other players in the room will have the same bets going against the same dealers, so it is not uncommon for loud cheering to erupt when a lot of people win simultaneously.
The poker room, like the rest of the casino, is open 24/7. Unlike the rest of the casino, it is entirely non-smoking. Plasma TVs and table side dining provide a pleasant atmosphere. Limit games are $3-$6 and up, however, so very small stakes players might not be able to find a suitable game. The $1-$2 no-limit games are reportedly easy to beat.
The Sands Casino has a loyalty rewards program called My Sands Club. Membership is free, and just for joining, you immediately receive special discounts, as well as become eligible for exciting promotions and additional rewards based on play. Cardholders may receive free bonuses while playing slot machines. They also receive free self parking and online access to their account. You can visit the My Sands Casino Center on the casino floor to sign up or ask program-related questions. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Comp dollars are awarded based on play. They can be used anywhere on the property, either in the hotel or any of the shops, restaurants, entertainment, or services, including Cyber Quest and Kids Quest, at the Outlets at the Sands Bethlehem, as well as for valet parking. The website does not go into detail about how much play is required to receive a given number of comp dollars, but players have commented that the casino is tighter with its comps than they were expecting.
Sands Casino Resort is a fun place to visit any time of year and especially if you bring your family. Unfortunately, many guests have complained about the overriding smell of smoke both in the hotel lobby and the casino. Even though the casino has separate smoking and non-smoking areas, the rule is apparently not strictly enforced. This situation clearly needs to be fixed.
Players also feel that the slots are too tight and the comps system could be more generous. Also, it is unclear whether high rollers are awarded special VIP benefits. On the other hand, the resort offers many great features:
- Superior accommodations
- First-rate dining
- Shopping mall
- Cyber Quest and Kids Quest
- Great blackjack games
Sands Casino Resort
77 Sands Blvd.
Bethlehem, PA 18015
1-877 SANDS (1-877-726-3777)