Cuba is officially booked! I can’t wait for sunny beaches, vintage cars, vibrant markets and a nice golden tan. You might be thinking, wait, isn’t it illegal to visit Cuba? Yes and no. Read on for all you need to know about booking your trip to this colorful Caribbean country !
UPDATE 6/28/17: Under the new Trump administration, Americans who want to visit Cuba under the U.S. government approved category “Educational Purposes” will only be able to do so as part of a licensed tour group and will need to apply with the U.S. Treasury Department. Also, “People to People” (aka design your own trip) category has been removed.
It is still technically “illegal” for Americans to travel to Cuba for “tourism” but it seems as though no one really enforces these travel restrictions anymore. If you are not an American citizen, you are free to travel to Cuba for any reason, including tourism.
Since Obama renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, commercial airline travel was brought back last year, including nonstop flights offered by Alaska Airlines. I will be flying direct to Havana from LAX on AA. I did a recent airline search and it seems as though it is the only airline offering direct nonstop flights out of California. Delta offers a few daily flights to Havana from Atlanta, Miami and New York. Additionally, there are many other airlines offering flights to Havana however they are not direct flights.
The immigration process is something I would recommend you get familiar with. When visiting as an American or entering Cuba on a U.S. carrier plane (regardless of citizenship), the U.S. Treasury Department requires that you fill out an OFAC affidavit form and declare your reason for travel by choosing from a list of 12 U.S. Government-approved categories. You can find this form with help from your airline or travel agency. Alaska Airlines website provides the form on their website and instructed me to fill out the form and bring it with me on the day we depart.
Most tourists declare “educational or people to people” as their reason for traveling. This would include educational guided tours conducted by locals. In my case, my group and I have chosen “journalistic activities” as our reason for travel. All in all, it seems as though declaring a motive for visiting the country is just a formality and rarely poses any issues for Americans.
In addition to needing a passport, you will also need to purchase a Cuban Tourist Card/Visa. This Visa is mandatory when traveling to Cuba and there are a few ways to go about getting one. The first way is to purchase it at the gate of your departing flight. Every airline has a different procedure for Cuban travel but I found that most sell Visas for about $50.
Check with your airline to make sure you are able to prior to departure date. We are flying Alaskan Airlines and they recommended I use the third party site Cuba Travel Services to purchase mine. I paid $95 (included shipping) and while it may be costlier, it gave me peace of mind as opposed to purchasing it the day of my flight. (It arrived quickly, too.) The Visa is good for 90 days.
Another mandatory when traveling to Cuba is having Cuba-specified travel insurance. Depending on the airline you are flying, they may include the insurance in the cost of your ticket (this was the case for me.) Alternatively, insurance can be obtained at the airport on your arrival in Cuba.
If you decide to book through Alaska Airlines, this link will be very helpful!
Cash is king in Cuba so you will want to leave your credit/debit cards at home- they won’t work in the country anyways. Cuba uses two currencies – the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). CUP is what locals use for buying groceries, goods and services not oriented towards foreigners. When visiting, you will spend the CUC which is currently 1:1 with the USD.
However, due to the 10-13% tax for exchanging USD into CUC, you will want to exchange your USD into euros before your trip. Upon arrival into Cuba, you will then want to exchange your euros into CUC. There is no tax on non-US currencies in Cuba.
For our week stay in Cuba, we used good old Airbnb! Compared to higher hotel prices, we found that most casa particulaires (houses that rent rooms or entire house) listed on Airbnb were steals at anywhere from $20 to $50 a night. When choosing a place to stay on Airbnb, look for places with lots of reviews, English-speaking hosts and breakfast included (to save time and money). All in all I paid $86 for the ENTIRE week in Cuba compared to easily forking over $400 for staying at a hotel.
Anyone else planning a Cuba trip this year?