By Elaine Glusac
Now that American travelers are able to do something that has been prohibited for over 50 years — take commercial flights from the United States to Cuba — we asked experts in the travel industry to add their thoughts to our ongoing coverage of Cuba and its steadily increasing accessibility.
“Officially, you’re still not allowed to have fun,” said Jason Clampet, the co-founder of the travel news site Skift.com, referring to the 12 acceptable categories of travel to Cuba outlined by the United States Department of the Treasury.
The ongoing embargo specifically prohibits anything purely touristic, like a beach vacation, in favor of family visits, government business, journalistic work, religious activities and educational activities, among others. Whereas in the past, travelers had to obtain a license specifically for their purpose of travel from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, now those with plans that fall under the 12 categories are covered by a general license granted by clicking a box on an online form when you make air, cruise or tour arrangements.
Many trips qualify as “people-to-people” trips under the educational exchange category, which independent travelers to the island can now pursue. Under people-to-people guidelines, travelers must pursue a full-time schedule of “educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba,” according to guidelines published by the Treasury Department.
Tour operators and online agencies like Cuba Travel Network specialize in assembling people-to-people itineraries. Putting one together yourself will involve more legwork and record-keeping. The United States government requires travelers operating independently under the people-to-people guidelines to keep records showing an itinerary dominated by approved activities. In practice, that means keeping receipts and possibly maintaining a diary.
Since launching in May, Carnival Corporation’s cruise line Fathom has been running trips every other week to Cuba, offering passengers both organized people-to-people tours in its ports and the option to explore on their own. In the event of the latter, Tara Russell, the president of Fathom, said: “Our suggestion is much like Fathom’s people-to-people program that tells you the type of activity, the duration and time of day; it’s important on your own to record the days, times, duration, type of activities and expenses.”
To her knowledge, no Fathom passenger has been asked by the United States government to show these records.
“As per the change in regulations in 2015, the burden of proof in terms of compliance switched from the travel company to the individual,” said Eddie Lubbers, the founder and chief executive of Cuba Travel Network. “We’re not on the ground checking the amount of time you spend on a particular event.”
Travelers also need a tourist visa and health insurance that covers Cuba, which effectively requires buying local insurance, both of which are now handled by United States transportation providers.
JetBlue sells the $50 visa at its gateway airports to passengers with valid passports, boarding passes and a major credit card. Charter flights also handle visas at the airport, but commercial operations appear to be more efficient, requesting that travelers arrive at the airport three hours before their Cuba departure, versus four hours with a charter. The $25 surcharge for the insurance, good for 30 days, is included in the cost of JetBlue’s ticket.
“Hang onto your boarding pass, to prove you’ve traveled with JetBlue, at a hospital,” advised Giselle Cortes, JetBlue’s director of international airports. “Though the government has the file, which we give them for each flight, it makes it easier.”
American Airlines and Silver Airways also bundle the health insurance charge into their airfares. Silver charges $75 for the visa.
American is working with the veteran charter and tour operator Cuba Travel Services on other logistics, including providing the visa ($85). Cuba Travel Services contacts each American passenger before departure to answer questions on travel restrictions and to offer its services in securing hotels and rental cars.
Fathom, the cruise line, includes the cost of health insurance in its fares, which start at $1,899 a person for weeklong itineraries. Visas are an additional $75.
Cuba has long had a tradition of “casas particulares,” or private homes with rooms to rent, and Airbnb has signed many of those, approximately 8,000, to its service. The meta-search engine AllTheRooms.com found that Airbnb offered 90 percent of all rooms in the country, ranging from hostels and homes to hotel rooms. Airbnb itself showed an average rate recently of $54 a night in Havana.
The Cuban government controls all of the hotels in the country, but this summer it brought in Starwood Hotels & Resorts to manage the new Four Points by Sheraton Havana, a renovation of an existing property in the upscale Miramar district (rooms from $196 in a recent search). The hotel company has also announced plans to renovate and run the historic Hotel Inglaterra as a luxury hotel by year end.
Payment by most American-issued credit cards is accepted in advance online only, not within Cuba.
Getting around Havana is easy enough with taxis, whether they are classic American cars or less glamorous models. Beyond the city, rental cars are the most efficient way to go, albeit cautiously.
“While road signage sometimes is completely nonexistent, and you can’t really rely on GPS because you can’t bring it in, and mobile phones won’t work without internet, you find yourself happily disconnected,” said Mr. Lubbers of Cuba Travel Network. “The roads are virtually empty, but you have to be cautious because you have all kinds of vehicles you don’t readily see in the States, like horse carts and carriages.”
The safest course may be to hire a driver. CarRental-Cuba offers a driver for about $75 a day, and Cuba Travel Network for $90 a day, in addition to the cost of the car. “Hiring a driver is a very logical way to go, not least as it removes the liability factor in case of an accident and in Cuba that’s no small thing,” said Mr. Baker. “If you get in an accident and someone is injured, you can wave goodbye to coming home anytime soon.”