It’s an exciting time for Americans as we start planning our trips to Cuba, now that the travel regulations have been eased. But there are still a lot of questions before we start packing our bags. But don’t worry, even though no commercial flights are airborne from the U.S. just yet – it is perhaps the best time to go….before everyone else does.
Let’s breakdown the common concerns so you can plan your own DIY trip to Cuba now, without licenses, without a tour operator – all by yourself.
Is it legal?
Americans have been technically allowed to travel to Cuba for some time, given that the right licenses are obtained. Travel to Cuba is most simply arranged through government endorsed People-to-People travel agencies who are certified to take groups into Cuba for social missions on authorized charter flights. This may still be the easiest way, but not the cheapest…and certainly not the most flexible, since you are required to stay on the tour group’s agenda.
Although we cannot simply hop on a domestic flight to Cuba just yet, President Obama’s recent announcement to recover relations with Cuba has certainly made it easier.
Previously, if you fell within the 12 categories listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), you would be allowed to travel with a “specific license” obtained through an authorized agent. This was a complex procedure (hence the need for group tours like People-to-People). Now, travelers who fall into these categories, no longer have to apply for a specific license. According to the White House Fact Sheet:
- General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
- Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.
This means that if you plan to travel to Cuba for educational/religious activities and support for the Cuban people, the trip can legally happen without any paperwork. This is great news! If you’re a reader of this site, chances are that you enjoy meaningful travel that includes time giving back to social businesses and charities, as well as loads of educational exploring. If you use the tips on The Global Commute for traveling to Cuba, than you can legally go now! But how?
According the White House, you are now able to individually book travel through an authorized travel provider, given that you fall in the 12 categories. This is because, right now, only chartered flights are running from the U.S. and Cuba. Therefore, a travel services provider is needed to assist with your flight arrangements. However, there is no legal issue with boarding a flight to Cuba from another country. Given that you can prove your travel involved educational/religious activities and support for the Cuban people, there should be no issues on your return to the U.S. after your trip.
In fact, the New York Times says that that Obama’s news is in effect, “removal of the ban.” The vague verbiage is really just a temporary statement until the kinks can be worked out and domestic flights can be launched.
What is the most economical way to fly to Cuba from outside the U.S?
There are lots of options for flying into Cuba. Perhaps the cheapest way is by connecting through Canada or Mexico (depending on where you live). Flights from Cancun are the cheapest from Mexico at around $250-$375 round-trip. This may not seem cheap for a one-hour flight, but trust me…it’s a great value, considering the high price of chartered flights out of Miami (Once commercial flights are launched soon, the price will be much lower as well).
There are also plenty of flights from other Caribbean Islands. A great resource for booking travel is the Cuba Travel Network site – cubajet.com. From here you can view all flights coming into Cuba from around the world. SkyScanner is also a great resource, but the U.S. version does not currently show flights (obviously, since no commercial flights exist yet). Switch to the Canadian site, skyscanner.ca to easily sort through flights.
How do I get past immigration?
Before you fly into Cuba from Canada, Mexico or another Caribbean island, you will need to get a tourist card. These are easily arranged at the airport. Just allow an hour or so to figure it out. They are not expensive.
Normally, Cuban immigration will stamp your tourist card and not your passport, so there really should not be any questions regarding your travel when re-entering the United States. Even if they do stamp your passport, there is no real reason to worry either. As long as you can prove your travel fell within the 12 authorized categories (which The Global Commute can help you with), than you are fine.
Where should I stay?
In order to have an authentic experience, I suggest staying in a guest house or “casa particular.” These private rooms in Cuban family homes are government approved, and a cheaper alternative to hotels. It’s also a great way to make friends with the locals. Even if you plan to spontaneously hop around the island, I suggest pre-booking your first few nights in advance. Immigration officers will ask you where you are staying when you arrive, and you will need an address on your customs form.
A great resource for finding and booking casas is www.cubacasas.net. Be aware though that traveling to Cuba requires diving into local life, as modern-day comforts may not exist. Expect no internet access and simple, but authentic accommodations. You could stay in a larger, touristy hotel for “western” amenities, but the price will be higher and you will lose the personal connection that you would have with a local guest house owner.
Transportation is often provided by casa particulares as well, so booking one in advance of your arrival is a great way to have a driver waiting for you at the airport. After a long journey – it’s a nice welcome.
How do I get around?
There are two forms of taxis: Turistaxis (western cars that are metered in US dollars) and Local taxis (mainly Russian-built Lada saloons). Although these official options exist, you can also flag down a ride from just about anyone. Normally strangers will agree to a favorable price. I wouldn’t suggest doing this as a female, solo traveler, but if you are with a companion and are going for a quick trip across town, don’t be shy!
Rental cars are also available. I think a great, fun option is renting an old American car for the day to road-trip out of town. A good reputable company is Gran Cars (firstname.lastname@example.org)
How do I make purchases?
Credit Cards cannot be used on the island, so bring lots of cash. US Dollars are widely accepted, but you can also exchange money at the airport.
What other things should I be aware of?
I suggest reading this article on Trip Advisor – it’s a nice summary of what to know before you go.
What types of activities should I do to make sure I comply with the 12 approved categories for travel?
How do I find out about these organizations, charities and social enterprises?
In the coming weeks, I will share my How to Journey beyond the Bucket List Guide to Cuba with you, so you will know what to do and how to get involved with charities, organizations and social enterprises while on the island. Come back next soon for the full details! But until then, don’t procrastinate. Book that ticket! The hardest part is deciding to go!
Feature Photo Credit: Thinkstock/istock/diego_cervo