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Cuba Travel Services: A How-To Guide For Americans

Posted on May 31, 2016 by Journeys International

In recent months, as US-Cuba relations have improved, the official guidelines on Cuba travel services have been continually evolving. Here’s a current list (as of May 2016) of the rules surrounding travel to this beautiful island.

Who can travel to Cuba from America?

Any American citizen is eligible to travel to Cuba, but the trip must fall into one of 12 pre-approved categories: family visits, official business of the U.S. government, journalism, professional research and/or meetings, educational activities (this includes the ‘People to People’ initiative, which is how us regular folk get to go), religious activities, public performances / exhibitions or athletic competitions, support for the Cuban people, humanitarian projects, activities of private foundations / research / educational institutions, exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials, and certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

More about People to People

“Ordinary” tourism is still prohibited, meaning you can't just book a flight to Cuba and spend a weekend at the beach. You can, however, travel under what is known as a People to People license.

People to People trips are the most popular type of trip to Cuba, and are most similar to what we as Americans think of as tourism. The People to People initiative was created as an educational cultural exchange between Cuba and America. To be eligible for this kind of trip, you will need a complete itinerary filled with interaction with Cuban artists, entrepreneurs and educators—this trip is meant to be educational in nature, not recreational.

One of the most recent and biggest changes in Cuba travel services is that People to People trips are now available to individual travelers, meaning a person can book their own travel and accommodations to Cuba, without going through an agency, as long as they satisfy the requirements for a People to People trip.

You will be required to account for all of your time in Cuba, and will need to sign an affidavit confirming the educational purpose of your trip and that you were on a People to People trip. If you are traveling on your own, you are required to keep all of your travel plans and schedules to prove that you were participating in educational and meaningful exchange for at least six hours each day. If you travel with Journeys, we are required to keep those records for you. For a comprehensive and very official-sounding account of these rules check out this PDF from the US Treasury.

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What kind of paperwork do I need?

You will be required to obtain a travel card (a tourist visa) before going to Cuba. If flying on a charter plane, they can assist you in buying the visa; if you are taking a group trip with Journeys, we take care of purchasing the tourist visa for you. If you are traveling commercially through an intermediary country, you should be able to purchase one at the airport for a minimal cost (approx $30 USD). You will also be required to purchase a Cuban-based travel health insurance plan. Again, if you’ve booked a group trip or charter flight, this should be included. If not, there will be agents in your Cuban destination airport who will sell one to you (approx $3 USD/day)

How do I get there?

Currently, there are no commercial flights available to Cuba. The US has announced it will soon allow 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana and 10 daily trips to nine other Cuban cities with international airports. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines have all submitted applications to the U.S. government to fly commercial flights to Cuba, and the Department of Transportation is expected to make a decision by summer 2016. 

To fly to Cuba, you will need to book a charter flight, or fly commercially through an intermediary country, such as Mexico. Also, there are a few American cruise lines (including Carnival) that have People to People licenses, and cruises began stopping there this year. Additionally, four Florida companies have received licenses to run ferries to Cuba, but none have announced official departure dates.

Where do I stay?

There are a number of larger hotels available in Cuba, but we highly recommend checking out the Casa Particulares, government-approved home-based bed and breakfasts scattered throughout the island. These small B&Bs are a great way to immerse yourself in Cuban culture while fulfilling part of your People to People requirement. A good group trip will include stays in some of these gems and sites like Airbnb have an excellent selection for those traveling solo.

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What else do I need to know?

American credit and debit cards are "officially" accepted in Cuba, but nearly all of the smaller establishments (Casa Paticulares and paladars, small restaurants operated out of cuban homes) and many of the larger establishments do not have the ability to process those types of payments. ATMs are also few and far between.

On a group trip, much of your trip will be pre-paid and you will know ahead of time when cash will be needed and how to obtain it. For those traveling solo, it is currently suggested that you exchange some currency to Euros before your departure; US currency is charged an additional 10% tax upon exchange in Cuba, but the Euro is not. But, don't expect that this will allow you to game the system. Odds are, you will likely lose some money when exchanging it for Cuban travel, no matter how you do it. 

Direct phone lines between Cuba and the US were restored in 2015, but calls on the Cuban government-owned network can be pricey. Verizon recently announced it has added Cuba to its international roaming list, and other carriers are sure to follow. Wi-fi is available across the island in many locations, but is still spotty and slow. You are better off letting your loved ones know that no news is good news —enjoy some digital deprivation while in Cuba!

US travelers are allowed to bring home up to $400 USD worth of souvenirs, including up to $100 USD of those coveted Cuban cigars.

This is an exciting time to visit Cuba.  People to People trips are still the norm, but they are now open to individuals as well as groups and direct commercial flights will be available soon. As relations improve, so will the availability and quality of cuba travel services.

 


Want to learn more?

Journeys International has experience leading successful trips to Cuba, allowing travelers to visit this remarkable country without dealing with many of the People to People requirements. To learn more, request a call and we'll be in touch soon to answer your questions. 

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Welcome to The Bird's Word, the blog of Journeys International. Here at Journeys, we don’t just visit a place. We immerse ourselves into the culture, the people and the places where we travel. It’s what we call “adventure deeper.” Won’t you join us?

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