A recent lift on travel restrictions to Cuba has made the island more accessible to travelers from the U.S. However, before you grab your suntan lotion and beach towel, there are important things to know before planning a trip to Cuba.
Approved Activities for Legal Travel to Cuba
Previously, Americans traveling to Cuba had to apply for a license through the Department of the Treasury. In January 2015, President Obama expanded legal travel to Cuba to Americans engaging in one of 12 approved categories. According to LegalCubaTravel.com, these activities include:
- Educational activities for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
- Professional research and meetings
- Public performances, athletic events, clinics, workshops and artistic exhibitions
- Religious activities
- Humanitarian projects
- Journalistic activities
- Family visitation to close relatives
- Activities by private foundations or research by educational institutes
- Support for the Cuban people
- Exportation, importation or transmission of information technologies or materials
- Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products and tools equipment and construction supplies for private use
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
The Treasury Department has provided a Frequently Asked Questions guide related to travel and trade in Cuba. U.S. visitors are expected to follow a full-time itinerary of activities connected to their chosen category of travel. However, CNN indicates the U.S. government is doing little to determine if visitors are engaging in recreational activities in Cuba.
What Is Not Allowed
Tourism and leisure travel in Cuba is still banned by the U.S. government. This means you can't book a relaxation stay at an all-inclusive beach resort or spend the majority of your time sipping cocktails while lounging in the sun.
Regardless of the remaining restrictions, the U.S. travel industry has been hard at work developing people-to-people opportunities and educational tours to entice travelers to explore this formerly forbidden country.
Transportation to Cuba
According to the Huffington Post, 2015 was a landmark year for travel companies investing in new unlicensed travel to Cuba. It is now easier to get to Cuba and book a stay there than it has been in the last 50 years.
JetBlue expanded their weekly charters to Havana to include flights from New York (JFK), in addition to flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
American Airlines has an established charter service to Cuba and added nonstop charter flights from LAX to Havana as of Dec 12, 2015. In addition to Los Angeles, they offer flights from Tampa or Miami to five destinations in Cuba including:
- Santa Clara
Flights to Cuba can't be accessed or booked on the websites of JetBlue or American Airlines. Reservations and paperwork are handled by charter companies that have partnered with the two carriers. You must e-mail or call one of these charter companies directly to book your flight. The charter company will request information from you to help process your tickets and travel documents.
- ABC Charters - Offers 16 weekly charter flights from Miami and Tampa to Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara and Holguin on both carriers
- Cuba Travel Services - Offers flights from New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Tampa to Havana, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Santa Clara and Camaguey on both carriers
- Marazul - Offers flights from Miami to Havana, Camaguey and Santa Clara on American Airlines
- Xael Charters - They arrange flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana on JetBlue (their website is in Spanish)
Charter flights are typically only available on certain days of the week. For example, ABC Charters has three flights a week going from Tampa to Havana on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets start at $439 per person and include Cuban mandatory health insurance ($50), Cuban exit tax ($30), and U.S. taxes ($63).
Booking Flights Online
You can fly on a commercial airline to Cuba using connecting flights from other countries such as Canada and Mexico. According to Triphackr, you can now book flights to Cuba online through Kayak and CheapAir. Most of these flights connect in Panama City via Copa Airlines or Mexico City via AeroMexico, as commercial flights direct from the U.S. are not yet offered to Cuba (as of January 2016). On CheapAir, these flights originate from cities such as New York, Tampa and Miami.
Carnival has unleashed a new travel brand known as Fathom, which focuses on impact travel. Impact travel explores person-to-person connections in an effort to promote positive and enduring social impact.
Seven-night cruises from Miami to Cuba aboard the 710 passenger ship, Adonia, are slated to start in May 2016. Authorized under the current people-to-people government guidelines, onboard activities immerse passengers into Cuban culture. Ground activities bring passengers face to face with Cuban artists, students and business owners, touring some of the country's most notable cities - Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba. Prices start at $1,800 per person.
HuffPost Travel credits the room hosting service, Airbnb with one of the biggest U.S. business developments in Cuba in the last 50 years. Teaming up with a regulated network of privately-owned bed and breakfasts known as casa particulares, Airbnb now has over 2,000 listings in Cuba.
Go to the site to view the listings. Sign-up for free if you want to contact a host for more information or to request a stay. Some hosts even offer an instant book button which immediately confirms your reservation.
Accommodations range from private rooms to the entire home, with most costs ranging from $25-$50 per night, making it one of the most economical ways to stay in Cuba. A hosted home stay provides support for Cuban people.
Travel Documents Needed
Conde Nast Traveler indicates the required documents for entry into Cuba include:
- A valid passport good for six months after your return date
- Proof of health insurance
- A visa
You must also have a signed affidavit declaring your reason for traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 approved categories.This is usually provided by your chosen transport company, as the carrier must retain a copy of it for at least five years.
A Cuban visa, also known as a Tourist Card, allows the holding visitor to stay in Cuba for 30 days and is valid for a single entry. A return flight and proof of booked accommodations is required. Many charter flight companies and tour operators offer downloadable affidavit and visa application forms. Visas can also be purchased at gateway city airports in Mexico and other countries with direct flights going to Cuba.
U.S. health and travel insurance policies are not accepted in Cuba. Many charter flights have Cuban health insurance built-in to the cost of round trip tickets. If you do not take one of these flights, Cuban health insurance can be purchased at airport kiosks when you land in Cuba.
One of the first things you need to do once you arrive in Cuba is exchange your U.S. dollars for Cuban currency. The Cuban peso (CUP) is used by locals but foreign visitors use the Cuban convertible peso, (CUC). One CUC is equal to one USD but a fee is charged to convert currency.
An official exchange house, known as a CADECA, can be found at the airport and most nice hotels. RoughGuides.com recommends converting into low CUC denominations for easy use of the public transportation system.
Triphackr suggests you bring a substantial amount of cash. Although debit and credit cards work in Cuba, many businesses don't accept them and frequent power outages often render them useless.
Transportation in Cuba
Viazul is the more established service. It is recommended to buy tickets in advance. Tickets can be bought through the three major travel agents, Cubanacan, Cubatur and Havanatur, and at some branches of Infotur. Tickets are also available at the bus station, but don't go on sale until an hour before departure time.
According to RoughGuides:
- The cost of a short trip such as the 80 km between Trinidad and Cienfuegos is about $6CUC.
- Longer trips, such as the 15-hour ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, cost about $51CUC.
The Conectando Cuba, a.k.a. Cubanacan Transfur, is similar to a shuttle service. It picks passengers up and drops them off at various hotels in the towns that it serves, which are much fewer than the Viazul service. The trade-off for this convenience is a much longer bus ride.
Tickets can be bought from Cubanacan or Infotur no later than noon on the day before travel. Tickets can't be bought the same day of travel and cost about the same as Viazul tickets.
Whether they contain state-owned meters or are privately-owned cars commissioned for taxi service, taxis are a big business in Cuba. They are the preferred method for inter-city travel.
- Tourist taxis tend to be modern Japanese or European cars and many drivers don't use the installed meters. Fares range from $0.55CUC/km to $1.00CUC/km, with higher rates around beach resorts.
- Taxis particulares (or private taxis) do not contain meters and often include the classic American cars Cuba is so well known for. It is important to haggle for the price to avoid overpaying for your trip. Be sure to establish the price before you start your journey.
- Communal taxis, commonly referred to as alemendrones, run along specific routes both within and between towns and cities. They have no identifiable markings other than they are full of passengers.
Bicitaxis are three wheeled bicycles with enough room for two passengers, or sometimes three in a pinch. Commonly used all over the island, you're likely to come across one in any town. Fares run about $1.00CUC/km and should always be negotiated before the ride.
Cocotaxis, also called mototaxis, are not as numerous as bicitaxis but are easily distinguishable as they look like a giant yellow bowling ball dragged along by a small scooter. Fares in Havana are standard at $0.50CUC/km.
Slower-paced travel through the island can be done by train. The main line runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, which also serves other major cities such as Santa Clara and Camaguey. Tickets for the two train services that travel the main line, the Especial and the Regular, can only be bought an hour or more in advance of departure at the train station.
Fares from Havana to Santiago are:
- The Especial - Quickest service with air conditioning; first class tickets cost $62CUC, second class tickets cost $30CUC
- The Regular - No air conditioning; all tickets cost $30CUC
Domestic flights offer the fastest option for traveling long distances between cities on opposite ends of the 745 mile-long island. However, due to the use of older aircraft and a poor safety record, this may not be a good option.
Tour operators such as Exodus have determined the flights are too high risk for their clients. The U.S. Embassy warns American travelers to avoid domestic or international flights with Cubana de Aviacion, due to serious concerns with safety and security.
Stick with ground transportation when traveling in Cuba and enjoy the exquisite tropical scenery.
If you are an extremely adventurous traveler, you can rent a car in Cuba to reach some of the more remote destinations. However, there are significant risks with driving in Cuba that include:
- Easily getting lost - Roads are poorly marked and signs are scarce, as are detailed maps
- Running out of gas - Petrol stations are few and far between
- Dangerous conditions - Potholes are common and mountain roads have treacherous curves
You must be at least 21 years old to rent a car and have held a driver's license for at least a year. Most companies require a deposit of $200-250CUC. Daily rates with privately owned companies such as CarRental Cuba start at $55CUC. Prices at state run companies such as Havanautos start at $45-55CUC per day.
Group Travel With Tour Operators
Operating under people-to-people or educational licenses, a wide range of travel companies specialize in all-inclusive tours to Cuba. Each one has something different to offer but none of them are cheap. Examples of what you can find include:
Road Scholar is a non-profit tour company specializing in educational travel. They offer 17 different Cuba tours including the highly rated Cuba Today: People and Society-Havana and the Countryside tour.
A nine-day, eight-night trip starts in Havana. You'll experience local music, arts, dance, baseball, private enterprise and meet locals engaged in these activities. Meet tobacco growers in the scenic landscapes of Vinales and Afro Cuban dancers, artisan farmers and colorful seniors in the Mantanzas region.
The all-inclusive, double occupancy package price of $3,895 per person includes:
- Round-trip air charter service from Miami to Cuba (a bonus that usually costs extra with other companies)
- Accommodations for eight nights
- 21 meals (eight breakfasts, five lunches and eight dinners)
- Expert-led lectures and field trips
- Three performances with the opportunity to meet with the performers
Enroll for a tour by registering on the website or by phone. A $250 per person deposit is required at the time of booking and the final payment is due 77 days prior to departure.
Bring your kids along for Classic Journeys' Cuba Family Vacation. The eight-day itinerary starts with a chartered flight from Miami to Havana and includes accommodations in well-known hotels with swimming pools, meetings with local artists, learning about the religion of Santeria, sightseeing in the country, visiting rural schools and farms and more cultural experiences in Havana.
The double occupancy package price of $5,095 per person includes:
- Full-time experienced guides to help with all aspects of your trip
- Support vehicles
- Admission to tastings, historical sites and events scheduled on the itinerary
- Gratuities for hotels, meals and baggage
- All ground transportation
- All meals except dinner on your own on day one
Price breaks are offered for kids accompanying two adults. Kids two and under get $1,750 off, ages 3 to 6 get $1,250 off, ages 7 to 10 get $750 off and ages 11 to 16 receive a $500 discount. Kids sharing a room with a single adult receive a $250 discount. Classic journeys will arrange your Cuban visa and a round-trip charter flight between Miami and Havana for approximately $624-$724 per person.
Globus offers three different people-to-people Cuba tours. The first two include nine-day itineraries. Their third and longest tour is an epic 17-day journey that covers the entire island from coast to coast.
Eastern Cuba's Hidden Gems is the most economical tour, starting at $2,699 per person. For this trip, your chartered flight from Miami takes you to Santiago de Cuba. Highlights include:
- Learning the origins of Cuban music at Casa Del Changui and meet workers at a local cocoa farm in Guantánamo
- Meet the staff and owner of a local paladar (restaurant) in Baracoa
- Visit the boyhood home of Fidel and Raul Castro and interact with local community members in Biran
- Get an interactive dance lesson in Guardalavaca
- Attend a workshop with fishermen in Gibara
- Learn about the history of rum in Cuba at a rum factory, interact with workers at Jardín de los Helechos, visit the historic city center, enjoy a discussion with a local historian and much more in Santiago de Cuba
All hotel commendations, ground transportation and meals are included in the package price. Expect to pay around $600 to $700 for the chartered flight from Miami to Cuba.
Additional Tips and Information
In a Huffington Post article, travel expert and Cuba tour specialist Peggy Goldman advises American visitors to keep a travel journal of their educational activities and travel related receipts for their trip to Cuba, per Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) requirements. These records should be kept for five years.
One of the benefits of traveling with a licensed tour company is having a copy of your scheduled itinerary, which can serve as your travel journal. With transportation, accommodations and most meals being all-inclusive, the only receipts you'll have to worry about keeping are for the souvenirs you buy.
What You Can Bring Back
According to the Treasury Department guidelines, you can bring $400 worth of goods home from your trip to Cuba. This amount can also include up to $100 of tobacco and alcohol products.
Safety in Cuba
The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) reports that American travelers are welcome and well-received in Cuba. A large police presence keeps security on the streets and violent crimes are rare. American travelers who experience crime are most commonly targeted by pick-pockets, purse snatchers and petty thieves.
Travelers should take basic precautions such as keeping valuables locked up in hotel safes, keeping documents under clothing and avoid carrying or showing large amounts cash, expensive jewelry or your passport when out and about. If you decide to drive on the hazardous Cuban roads, avoid driving at night.
What You Can Gain From a Trip to Cuba
Visiting Cuba can be a fascinating and rewarding experience. Years of trade embargos have left the country in a state of what Peggy Goldman refers to as "suspended animation" in Huffington Post. She indicates that traveling to Cuba is almost like visiting a place in a different time, rich in history, art and culture. When you travel to Cuba, you'll be able to truly engage with the citizens, from school kids and teachers to doctors, farmers, dancers and entrepreneurs, all eager to share the culture and life experience of this one-of-kind country.