How to go to Cuba Now
Victoria Burnett, The New York Times
Once off-limits to most Americans, Cuba became just another stop on JetBlue’s international network on Wednesday, when the airline began operating the first direct commercial service between the United States and the island since the early 1960s.
In the next few months, several airlines will join JetBlue, offering services to a handful of Cuban provincial cities and, eventually, to Havana. American travelers will no longer rely on expensive, poorly serviced charter flights to reach the Caribbean’s largest and, arguably, most intriguing island.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, predicted that commercial flights from airports that include Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia would quickly supplant expensive charter services.
“If I can check in, wait in the lounge, know that I am getting frequent flier miles, know that if there is delay they will find another plane,” he said, “why would I choose a charter?”
Even though looser restrictions make Cuba much more accessible to Americans, travel to the island can still be confusing. Here are some answers to questions that people often have as they plan their trips:
Can I fly to Cuba now?
Yes. Starting at the end of August, commercial airlines are beginning to offer flights to several destinations in Cuba, including Holguín, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
In all, the American and Cuban governments have said they will allow American commercial air carriers to offer 20 flights per day to Havana and 10 to each of the nine other Cuban cities with international airports.
The Department of Transport in June approved six airlines — American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines — to fly to nine destinations in Cuba. It approved eight — including United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta — to fly to Havana.
JetBlue was the first to start service on Wednesday, flying three times a week from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. The airline will add daily flights to Holguín and Camaguey in the fall. American Airlines will fly from Miami to the same Cuban cities, as well Cienfuegos and the beach resort of Varadero, starting in September; Silver Airways will fly many of the same routes and add flights to Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba and two popular Cuban “cayos,” or keys.
The Department of Transportation has yet to confirm other provincial routes or routes to Havana.
With return flights to Cuba priced at between $227 and $311 in September, the commercial flights are much less expensive than charters, which, until now, were the only option for those wanting to travel direct between the United States and Cuba. Still, some wonder whether there will be enough passengers to fill 300 additional weekly flights to Cuba. Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in Cuba-related law, predicted a “shake-out” in routes to provincial airports.
Does my trip have to have any purpose beyond tourism?
Americans still can go to Cuba only if the trip falls within one of 12 categories, including visits to close relatives, academic programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. They can also go to organize a professional event or competition, to film and produce television programs and movies, to record music and to create art there. And travelers can go independently or with a tour operator on educational people-to-people trips but are expected to have a full-time schedule of activities and retain documents that demonstrate how they spent their time. Ordinary tourism remains off-limits: Travelers may be asked by their tour operator to sign an affidavit that denotes the purpose of their trip, and they are required to keep travel receipts for five years after they return. JetBlue requires those booking a flight to Cuba online to tick a box that confirms that their travel falls into one of the categories of travel authorized by the United States.
What are people-to-people trips?
People-to-people trips are educational ones that anybody can take so long as they include a full-time schedule of activities that produce “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
Organized trips — which cost about $2,500 to $4,000 a week including accommodations and flights — usually entail back-to-back meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios or small businesses or community projects.
Americans may also organize their own people-to-people trips without depending on an organization — a much cheaper option that Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, believes leads to more “organic” interaction with Cubans.
Independent travelers take taxis on their own and book meals at family-run restaurants, he says. They might take Spanish classes in the morning and salsa classes in the afternoon, or even volunteer to teach Cubans English.
How do I get a visa?
Most visitors to Cuba, including Americans, need a tourist card to enter the country. If you are traveling with an organization or on a charter flight, they will normally process the tourist card as part of the package. JetBlue will provide travelers with a tourist visa, at a cost of $50, at the airport check-in — also common practice among airlines flying to Cuba from outside the United States.
Who will care what I do in Cuba?
Increasingly, it seems, nobody is keeping close tabs. Senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said the government continues to take restrictions on travel to Cuba seriously. If you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and, in fact, spend a week at the beach, you would be breaking the law.
That said, if you go to Cuba independently under the auspices of a people-to-people license, it is unclear who would keep an eye on you or how you would provide documents to prove how you spent your time.
Mr. Laverty does not expect that to be a problem. “Nobody’s really watching,” he said.
John Caulfield, who was the chief of the United States mission to Cuba from 2011 to 2014, believes Americans pursue culture in Cuba, rather than break the rules and go to the beach
Where would I stay?
Cuba has a shortage of decent hotels, a problem that has worsened over the past year.
But that is changing. Starwood in June became the first American hospitality chain to manage a hotel in Cuba since the revolution, rebranding a 180-room hotel in the lush suburb of Miramar as a Four Points by Sheraton hotel. Marriott, which is buying Starwood, has reportedly confirmed that it is in talks about taking over other Havana hotels.
Certainly, the hotel sector could use a face-lift. There are currently about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the tourism ministry, of which 65 percent carry four- and five-star ratings. Many of those, despite high price tags, are in a poor state of repair, the Starwood property included.
Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels, as they include the chance to interact with Cuban families and often provide good meals. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, known as casas particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns like Trinidad, Viñales and Cienfuegos. Searching for casas on the internet is not easy, but you can book them through travel agents like Cubania Travel or look on TripAdvisor, or through Airbnb, which started offering its service on the island last year.
Could I take a cruise instead?
You could. Carnival Cruises in May began offering the first cruises between Miami and Havana in 40 years. The seven-night cruise, operated by Carnival’s Fathom Brand, sails every other week and stops at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
Cruise companies may offer services between the United States and Cuba under Treasury Department rules, but, so far, only Carnival and a French company, Ponant, have announced cruises to Cuba from American ports.
Ferries — once a vital connection between Cuba and Miami — seem to be off the table for the moment. Ferry services are permitted under United States regulations but operators have yet to receive the necessary permits from the Cuban authorities.
Can I use credit cards?
American travelers to Cuba may open a bank account there and pay for expenses with an American credit card. In reality, few people who take the short trip abroad have cause to open a bank account. A.T.M.s are few and far between in Cuba, and many establishments are unable to process credit card payments. So cash will be king for some time to come.
Cuba charges a 10 percent “tax” on the United States dollar, so it is a good idea to take British pounds or euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar.
How do I call home?
Calls on the Etecsa network, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company, are expensive, and buying a temporary phone can involve long lines. Sprint and Verizon Wireless have roaming agreements in Cuba, and T-mobile and AT&T announced this year that they, too, will offer roaming. At more than $2 per minute for voice calls, you will not linger on the line.
Etecsa now has dozens of Wi-Fi spots around Havana and other cities, meaning you can, in theory, make a VoIP call, as long as half of Cuba isn’t trying to do the same thing.
What can United States citizens bring back?
Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars. John Kavulich, of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, notes that, according to State Department records, Secretary of State John Kerry, who inaugurated the embassy in Havana in August 2015, brought back an $80 humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of rum.
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