Now that President Obama has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, more Americans than ever are interested in visiting the island, which is just 90 miles from Miami, Florida.
We visited Cuba on a People-to-People cultural exchange trip in 2013 and found the culture—a mix of indigenous, European and African influences—fascinating. The better hotels provided comfortable rooms and plenty of amenities. The island’s atmospheric, privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and exciting nightlife kept us busy every evening. For more on this trip, seach here for our blog post titled On the Prowl: Cuba. Also visit the Features, Portfolios and Films pages on our website (imagyn.com) to find our illustrated Cuba magazine story, photo essay and short documentary film.
The bottom line: Not much has changed as of 2015. American tourists still cannot legally travel to Cuba by themselves. They must travel with non-profits (such as universities and museums), travel companies and individual travel professionals licensed by our government to offer People-to-People trips. Although the “cultural immersion” activities on these trips are planned in advance, guides usually allow time for visitors to explore on their own—and have fun.
Because of the permissions required, flights to Havana are handled by charter companies. (Jet Blue’s new weekly flights out of New York, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, for example, are booked by an affiliated charter company.)
Travelers may bring back $400 in Cuban goods for personal use, including not more than $100 in tobacco products and alcohol. (Tobacco and alcohol used to be forbidden.) Although there are efforts underway to enable Americans to use U.S. credit cards in Cuba, this is not possible yet. So take only cash.
Travel to Cuba remains expensive compared to other destinations, partially a result of U.S. red tape. Keep in mind that the U.S. Congress bears ultimate responsibility for reducing or, better yet, eliminating current travel restrictions and entirely lifting the current trade embargo.
Tip: Since Cuba weather is generally pretty good all year, look for the best deals outside the December to April high season.
Listed below are a few travel companies that offer, in our opinion, some interesting Cuba itineraries:
Friendly Planet is a very well managed company that has excellent itineraries in Cuba. This is the tour operator we used on our 2013 trip. 800-555-5165, friendlyplanet.com
InsightCuba has been offering a variety of Cuba trips since 2000. Of possible interest to those who’ve already been to Cuba is a new 5-day itinerary that focuses exclusively on the city of Santiago de Cuba, located on the island’s southeastern coast. The city is important as the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution and the center of Cuba’s sizzling Afro-Cuban culture. 800-450-2822, insightcuba.com
Fathom, a new Carnival Cruise Line brand, has announced plans to begin 7-day cruises to Cuba in May, 2016. The cruises will be aboard Fathom’s deluxe small ship, the MV Adonia (capacity: 710 passengers). The company will offer what it calls “impact travel” that involves guests in social programs such as cultural immersion and volunteer work. Instead of featuring casinos and Broadway-type shows aboard, the emphasis will be on learning about the destination’s culture. Details and pricing is still being worked out as of August, 2015. Stay tuned if this kind of travel is of interest! 855-932-8466, fathom.org
Celestial Cruises, a Greek cruise line (marketed under the name CubaCruise), also offers a Cuba cruise. In fact, the company has been offering round-trip, 7-day Cuba cruises for three years, departing from Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica. The company’s luxury ship, Celestial Cristal (capacity: 1,200 passengers), includes all meals aboard, a drinks package, four excursions ashore and onboard entertainment. The itinerary covers several major Cuban cities, including Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Passengers can arrange for their U.S. government-required People-to-People tour documentation through the cruise line. 855-364-4999, yourcubacruise.com
This company plans to offer 8-day small-ship cruises departing from Havana and Cienfuegos on two luxury motor sailboats, Panorama I and Panorama II (capacity 49 passengers each). Cruises will begin in December, 2015. These cruises are more expensive than many other travel options but offer the advantage of being on a small ship with the ambience of a private yacht. Itineraries include the two departure ports plus visits to Trinidad, Cayo Largo and other interesting places around the island. U.S. government-required People-to-People tour arrangements are handled by AdventureSmith Explorations. 800-728-2875, adventuresmithexplorations.com
Aside from the above travel companies you might do well, for comparison, to look for trips organized by universities, museums and tour operators like Apple Vacations (800-517-2000, applevacations.com) and Road Scholar (800-454-5786, roadscholar.org).
Best wishes for a great Cuba adventure!