Everything you need to know about Americans’ new opportunities to travel to Cuba. And if you don’t see it here – please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. As the United States reopens its embassy in Havana, here’s what you need to know about traveling to Cuba. Much has changed already since the publication of new regulations for travel to Cuba on Jan. 16, which loosened some restrictions on travel for Americans, though travelers still cannot just hop on a plane and go.
1. So we can go to Cuba now?
Yes. But that’s not what’s new. Americans have always been legally allowed to travel to Cuba as long as that travel was done for a number of allowable reasons, like humanitarian aid, research or visiting family. What’s new in 2015 is that you no longer have to jump through endless hoops to try to secure the “specific license” in order to obtain permission to travel. The new “loosened restrictions” means that you still have the same laws to follow, but as long as you know that your travel qualifies, then you just go ahead and travel. That’s what’s known as a “general license”. You are required to keep records of your travel transactions for five years.
2. So I can pack my speedo and go on vacation?
No. There are 12 categories of allowable travel, and tourism is not one of them. Beach vacations are not allowed. The most common category being promoted is educational activities known as “people-to-people”, which consist of a full-time program of scheduled tours and activities designed to provide participants an opportunity to interact and engage with the people of Cuba. You’ll stay with a group the entire time – no optional activities.
3. How do I get there?
Flights to Cuba from the U.S. are run by charter operations that have been doing this for many years. Most flights depart from Miami, but new options have already been started from cities like New York and Tampa. Regular commercial flights already exist via other countries, like Canada and Mexico, so that may be an option for your tour. It might even be cheaper and faster.
Major carriers like American, Delta and United all are giving indications that they will add more charter flight options and could be offering regular commercial flights soon (2016?).
4. What about cruise ships?
Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and cruise itineraries are easier to adjust than airline routes, so yes, cruises are soon to be a big deal for Americans to Cuba. Trips still need to qualify under one of the 12 licensed categories (think P2P), but the cruise lines are all over this new opportunity. Carnival, Pearl Seas and other cruise lines will all be sailing in 2016.
There are also several ferry companies soon to offer service, and private yacht companies that have already started sailing.
5. I hear hotel space is an issue?
That’s true. Not enough high-end hotels and the possibility of a LOT more visitors is going to be interesting to watch. The first thing we do when starting to plan a tour to Cuba is secure the hotel space. So plan early.
For the right group, casas particulares make for an interesting option – staying in Cuban homes as a guest of the family. This certainly nails the people-to-people component and gives you a much better chance at enjoying some awesome Cuban cuisine than you might get at a state-run restaurant! Casas particulares can be found in any of the popular tourist towns and give the locals a chance to make a little extra income.
6. Can I use credit cards?
Yes, it’s now allowed. No, it might be awhile before the banks get operational, plus most places where you might want to swipe will probably not have the equipment required, so plan on cash. You’ll have to exchange to local currency when you get there. The exchange rate is 1:1 with the US$, but it costs 13% in the transaction. It’s fixed, so exchange anywhere you come across – airport, exchange bureau, bank… just be sure to spend it all because there’s no changing it back.
7. What can I buy there and bring back?
Souvenirs. Up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 worth of cigars. Which is like 2 if you buy the good ones.
8. So where do I sign up?
Witte is going to offer several “open” tours in 2016 and beyond. Stay tuned for that. We are always able to put together a custom tour if you have a group of at least 10 people ready to go. And one of our travel consultants would love to sit with you to discuss all the options there are to travel with operators such as Globus or Apple Vacations.
What other questions do you have about travel to Cuba? Be sure to ask them in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!