Are Airport Slots Really So Terrible?

Airport Slots

It’s easier than ever to find slot machines thanks to gambling expansion across the United States.

Most states confine their slots to casinos. But some states have extended slot machines to convenience stores, bars, and restaurants.

You now have numerous options with regard to finding these games. But there’s one place that you’re strongly advised against playing: airports!

Airport slot machines are notorious for offering low payback. Therefore, it only makes sense that people steer clear of these games.

But are airport slots really as bad as their reputation? Find out as I discuss more on these games and if you should really be scared to play them.

Where Do You Find Airport Slot Machines?

The only two American airports that feature slot machines are McCarran International (Las Vegas) and Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Pennsylvania is strongly considering offering slots at their airport. But for the time being, Nevada is the only place in the US that has airport games.

This makes sense when considering that Vegas and Reno are two of America’s biggest gambling destinations. You can get off a plane and start spinning the reels right away in either of these locations.

These slot machines are also perfect for when you’re waiting for flights and want some entertainment while you’re passing the time.

Of course, McCarran International offers a much larger selection of slot machines, because it’s the more heavily traveled airport. 48.5 million passengers fly in and out of McCarran every year.

Reno is no slouch with 4 million passengers annually. But this number is dwarfed by how many passengers use the McCarran airport.

That said, go to Las Vegas if you want the wider selection of airport slot machines.

Why Do Airport Slots Have Such a Bad Reputation?

Slot machines in airports are notorious for offering the lowest payback of any land-based establishments. Many gamblers will do everything they can to avoid playing slots at an airport because they don’t want to waste their money.

Of course, the problem with land-based slot machines is that they don’t display payout percentages. This means that we have little idea on how airport games compare to slots found in other locations.

Compounding matters are that Nevada-based gaming reports don’t specifically discuss a return to player (RTP) for airport slots. Instead, they only cover broad areas like the Las Vegas Strip, downtown Vegas, and nearby Boulder City.

The only real evidence that airport games pay less than other slot machines is a 2001 survey by Michael “Wizard of Odds” Shackleford.

Obviously, 2001 is a long time ago as far as the gaming world moves. But Shackleford did manage to prove that the McCarran International Airport has tighter slots than any Vegas casino.

His survey shows that Vegas airport slots only offer 85.02% RTP on average. Compare this to the Palms Casino, which topped the list at 93.42% payback.

This is over an 8% difference, which is massive as far as slots RTP goes. You would’ve lost an extra $8 on average if you played in the McCarran airport versusPalms Casino at the time.

The drawback to Shackleford’s data is that it’s currently 17 years old. Things may have changed to some degree for airport slots versus other venues.

At the same time, though, I’m inclined to believe that slots RTP hasn’t gotten much better at McCarran or Reno-Tahoe.

Why Do Airports Offer Lower Slots Payback?

Slot machine developers offer different RTP schedules that casinos can choose from. Most gambling establishments select payback that’s competitive with other area casinos.

After all, they don’t want gamblers quickly losing all their money and vowing never to come back. Furthermore, the casino is still profiting off their slot machines no matter if the RTP is 8% or 12%.

Airports differ, though, because they’re not technically competing against other casinos. Instead, they have a built-in advantage since many travelers use airports to visit Vegas or Reno.

In contrast, nobody goes to McCarran International or Reno-Tahoe International just to play slots. They can just as easily play at regular casinos and enjoy better gaming atmospheres.

Airports know that they don’t have to be competitive with local casinos because they’re always going to have customers hanging around. A certain percentage of these customers naturally become interested in slot machines as boredom sets in.

Yet another reason why airports can get away with offering low payout percentages is because they’re not counting on repeat players.

Sure, many travelers may use a specific airport multiple times in their lifetimes. But for the most part, these gamblers will play slots for a short while and not come back for a long time (if ever).

If these gamblers get stung by airport slots, then it’s not like they’ll simply choose another casino. Instead, their play is a temporary deal that vanishes when they fly out of the airport.

How Airport Slots Compare to Regular Casino Slot Machines

Airports may have less incentive to offer high payout percentages to gamblers. But that’s not to say they want to completely rip everybody off.

The McCarran and Reno airports’ reputation would only become worse if they lowered their slots RTP to Nevada’s 75% state minimum — which no establishment does.

Long story short, you at least have some chance of winning with airport slot machines. But how do these odds compare to standard land-based games?

Here’s information from a 2017 UNLVCenter for Gaming Research report, which shows slots payback in various areas of Nevada:

Nevada statewide slots RTP

  • Penny slots = 9.83% house edge
  • Nickel slots = 5.46%
  • Quarter slots = 6.94%
  • Dollar = 6.06%
  • Multi-denominational = 5.23%

Las Vegas Strip

  • Penny slots = 11.64% house edge
  • Nickel slots = 8.21%
  • Quarter slots = 10.52%
  • Dollar = 7.41%
  • Multi-denominational = 6.47%

Downtown Las Vegas

  • Penny slots = 11.03% house edge
  • Nickel slots = 6.36%
  • Quarter slots = 5.73%
  • Dollar = 5.38%
  • Multi-denominational = 4.94%

Boulder Strip (26 miles from Vegas)

  • Penny slots = 9.54% house edge
  • Nickel slots = 3.56%
  • Quarter slots = 3.69%
  • Dollar = 4.30%
  • Multi-denominational = 4.47%

Washoe County (Reno & Tahoe)

  • Penny slots = 6.94% house edge
  • Nickel slots = 4.51%
  • Quarter slots = 6.77%
  • Dollar = 4.42%
  • Multi-denominational = 4.36%

One thing I’ve noticed about slots payback is that it’s gotten gradually better since the UNLV Center for Gaming Research began releasing these reports. I estimate that payback has improved by an average of 2% over the past 15 years or so.

If we apply this improvement to Shackleford’s report, then it’s reasonable to assume that McCarran and Reno airport slots offer an average of 87% RTP.

This payback is far from outstanding. But you can see that it’s at least competitive with Vegas Strip slot machines.

On the other hand, Sin City offers much better payback than airport slot machines in non-Strip locations.

Airport Slot Machines Compared to Online Slots

The nice thing about airports is that they offer free Wi-Fi. This allows you to use your smartphone to play online slots and other casino games.

You have a much better chance of winning with slots if you simply play online while waiting at airports. Internet slots typically offer around 95% payback regardless of the coin denomination being used.

This is excellent when compared to slot machines in any land-based establishment — especially airports. I’ve even seen some online slots that offer up to 99% RTP.

Taking this 95% to 99% range, internet slots offer 8-12% higher RTP than airport slot machines. If your main goal is winning, then you definitely want to stick to your smartphone or tablet in an airport.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you have to completely nix airport slot machines. Nothing replaces the experience of actually sitting in front of a large screen and spinning the reels.

Meanwhile, both smartphones and tablets have much smaller screens than a physical slot machine. But if you can get past the small screens and lesser experience, then online slots will give you a stronger chance to win.

Should You Still Play Airport Slot Machines?

I’m not trying to dissuade you from ever trying slot machines at an airport. In fact, the math shows that you won’t lose a tremendous amount of money when compared to the average land-basedgame.

Here’s an example of theoretical losses with an airport slot machine based on what I’ve discussed:

  • You’re playing a slot with 87% payback.
  • You’re betting $1 per spin.
  • You perform 600 spins per hour.
  • 600 x 1 x 0.13 = $78 in theoretical losses per hour

Now assume that you’re at an actual Vegas or Reno casino:

  • You’re playing a slot with 94% RTP.
  • You’re betting $1 per spin.
  • You perform 600 spins per hour.
  • 600 x 1 x 0.06 = $36 in theoretical losses per hour

The difference in hourly theoretical losses here is $42. This means that airport slots cause you to loseat about twice as high of a rate.

Obviously, you’d rather choose the game that only leads to $36 theoretical losses if all aspects are equal. However, the key thing to remember is that airport slots cost more due to their location.

The question to ask yourself is whether you’re willing to face doubled losses in order to play slots while waiting at the airport. Everybody’s answer will vary based on their bankroll, desire to win, and the need for entertainment.

Serious players who only care about maximizing their chances of winning may think that it’s preposterous to play at an airport. In contrast, those who want to be entertained while waiting on a flight may be perfectly fine with taking a bigger risk.

It’s also not like airport slot machines offer the most-horrific odds ever. Even if these games still pay the 85% RTP listed in Shackleford’s 2001 report, this is still better than some casino games, prop bets, and the lottery.

Land-based keno games can carry a 40% house edge, which dwarfs the estimated 13-15% house advantage seen with airport slot machines. Many US lottery tickets have anywhere from a 30-50% house edge.

If you’re still worried about airport slots, then you can set a strict stop-loss limit. Here’s an example:

  • You have a $1,000 bankroll.
  • You want to save most of this for casinos, which offer better odds.
  • You set a stop-loss limit of 5% ($50) for airport slots.

This small percentage allows you to still enjoy slot machines at airports without going overboard and blowing your casino bankroll.


Playing slots at an airport is an intimidating prospect when considering that you stand a lower chance of winning. But don’t let the lower odds completely turn you off of airport slots.

I estimate that these games now offer between 85-87% RTP based on old statistics and the way the slots industry has changed.

This RTP range is a far cry from the 94-97% that internet slots offer. However, it’s at least competitive with the Vegas Strip and its 88-93% payback.

You also have a chance to win big jackpots with airport slot machines. A California woman hit a $1.6 million jackpot while playing McCarran International’s Wheel of Fortune Pink Diamonds in 2017.

This win goes to show that you can get lucky with slots anywhere, including the McCarran machines.

Of course, I’m not advocating that you fly into Vegas or Reno and stick to their slots. You can find better opportunities at surrounding casinos or even with your mobile device.

Instead, the key takeaway here is that airport slots in moderation won’t bankrupt you. The important thing is to set a stop-loss that you’re comfortable with and stick to it.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.