“We walked right past U.S. immigration without a single question asked,” reported our nephew after his recent trip to Havana with his bride.
Exciting news! Americans can now fly directly from the United States to Cuba without first obtaining a license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. This has not been allowed for over 50 years. Jet Blue, American Airlines and Silver Airways have already started direct service, while Delta has announced it will begin flights in December, 2016, from JFK, Atlanta and Miami. Other carriers are expected to follow suit. (Delta flies only to Havana, but other airlines have flights to cities across the island.)
Getting there: Along with your air ticket, you must purchase a Cuban visa (around $50) and Cuban health insurance ($25). Both are required for entry and are good for a month. Even though the airlines provide passenger manifests to Cuban authorities, Jet Blue advises travelers to retain their boarding passes to prove they have medical insurance should they need assistance. Prices for the visa and insurance vary with each transportation provider.
Requirements: The ongoing United States embargo and its related regulations prohibit purely touristic activities—e.g. beach vacations. Accepted reasons to visit Cuba must fall into certain categories, such as family visits, government business, journalistic work, religious, humanitarian or educational activities, and so forth. In the past, you were required to apply to the U.S Department of Treasury for a specific type of license (the red tape was onerous!)—or book a tour with a travel company who would handle the paperwork for you. Now, you need only check a box on a form provided by your carrier (airline or cruise ship) and answer a few basic questions. This gives you a “general license.”
After that, a little leg work is in order. You must develop an itinerary that conforms to the stated purpose of your trip and maintain records to prove how you spent your time. In other words, the burden of proof has switched from travel companies to individuals. Cuba travel experts say that the current system is self-policing and based on trust. They know of no one who’s been asked by the U.S. government to show travel records.
Alternately, if you want absolutely everything done for you (itinerary, accommodations, transportation, and paperwork), you can still book a trip with travel companies (we like Friendly Planet) or a cruise line. This will make your trip more expensive, of course.
Lodging: Truly upscale hotels are limited. Well-known ones in Havana include the National Hotel (old and full of character) and Hotel Saratoga (near the historic center) and, in Trinidad, Iberostar Grand Hotel. For more economical, easy-to-arrange accommodations, check out Airbnb, Inc., which handles, according to recent reports, some 90% of all available rooms in Cuba. Airbnb has signed about 8,000 Cuban homes to its service; rooms in Havana cost, on average, $54 a night. (We’ve heard good reports from travelers who’ve arranged accommodations through Airbnb.)
Getting around: Old Havana, the historic center, is pedestrian friendly. To get to other parts of the city, you need only hail a taxi. If you’re interested in driving outside Havana, it’s probably safer to hire a driver for about $75- $95 per day, plus the cost of a car. This eliminates your risk of liability in case of an accident. But driving in Cuba has its own challenges—roads are not always well maintained or lighted, horse carts can pull onto motorways, and GPS is not allowed (though you can use your cell phone’s GPS app if your carrier has a roaming agreement with the Cuban network.)
Jet Blue: 800-555-5765, jetblue.com
Delta Airlines: 800-221- 1212, delta.com
Airbnb, Inc: airbnb.com
Friendly Planet: 800-538-2583, friendlyplanet.com