Here’s the catch with those new U.S. flights to Cuba (and how to get
By Les Shu
This week, the United States and Cuba signed an aviation agreement that
could see up to 110 scheduled commercial flights between the two
countries. Most U.S. carriers have expressed some form of interest in
offering service, and some are rushing to the front of the line. Even
President Barack Obama, who’s pushed for easing of sanctions, announced
that he plans to visit the island nation in March.
Can you finally put Cuba at the top of your travel destinations? Well,
not so fast.
Despite the easing of sanctions since the U.S. restored diplomatic
relations in 2015, many travel restrictions for U.S. citizens still
apply – chiefly you still cannot yet visit Cuba as a general tourist.
While American, Delta, JetBlue, and United have released statements
expressing interest in flying to Cuba, they still need to negotiate
deals with the Cuba’s aviation administration, and the first flights may
not start until the fall.
But the opening of commercial air traffic is the latest indication of
thawing tension between the two countries. The trade embargo has limited
commercial flights since the 1960s, but today, some U.S. airlines are
allowed offer chartered direct flights. But to hop on one, you need to
meet the 12 legally permitted categories of travel, set forth by the
Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and
explained below. Those who don’t meet these qualifications often find
alternative methods of visiting Cuba, often connecting in another country.
Even visitors who are permitted to enter Cuba legally face pricey
airfare. But the aviation agreement could solve that as airlines compete
for customers’ business (although the travel embargo rules still apply,
and the number of flights will be capped).
Once U.S.-Cuba relations are fully restored, you can expect the tourism
industry to explode in this once forbidden destination. When – and if –
that happens is still up in the air. The outcome of the presidential
elections could affect the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Ready to go now? Here’s what to know about traveling to Cuba.
Why would you want to go?
Cuba has a rich culture and history, and is home to nine UNESCO World
Heritage Sites. Some people argue that now is a good time to visit
before it opens up to general tourism and U.S. commercialism. But, as
mentioned, getting there isn’t straightforward or cheap.
Before the U.S. and Cuban governments reached the aviation agreement
this week, some anxious airlines had already indicated they plan to
apply to fly the routes. American Airlines, which flew approximately
1,200 chartered flights to Cuba in 2015, said in a statement it “looks
forward to submitting a Cuba service proposal to the Department of
Transportation in the coming weeks,” and plans to make its Miami hub the
primary gateway. With the huge Cuban population in Miami, it’s easy to
see why American is eager to offer flights. Delta, JetBlue, Southwest,
and United also released similar statements.
The agreement calls for 110 flights to be allocated to U.S. carriers,
but only 20 will be to Havana, Cuba’s capital. The rest will be divvied
among nine other airports.
Currently, American, Delta, and JetBlue are among a handful of U.S.
carriers that offer chartered flights to Havana, and they must be booked
through a charter provider. You can book a flight independently through
CheapAir.com, which is currently the only online travel website to sell
charter flights to Cuba. The airlines themselves do not offer the option
of booking through their websites, and all travel must fall under one of
12 categories (see below).
Until general tourism is permitted, currently visitors must have a
legitimate reason for entering Cuba. Per the U.S. Treasury, they are:
– Visiting family
– Humanitarian projects or to provide support to the Cuban people
– Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and
certain intergovernmental organizations
– Journalistic activities
– Professional research
– Educational activities by persons at academic institutions
– People to people travel
– Religious activities
– Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions
– Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services and
remittance forwarding services
– Activities of private foundations, research or educational institutes
– Exportation of certain Internet-based services
Eased sanctions have made travel to Cuba possible for more U.S citizens,
but that doesn’t mean everyone is allowed to enter freely. Even if you
meet the criteria, you still need to apply for a visa. Fortunately, it
isn’t expensive, and charter agencies can handle the application on your
If you want to explore Cuba now, but you don’t have any actual reason
other than personal enjoyment, your best bet is to look at the
person-to-person travel option. This is essentially a supervised
cultural tour with a set itinerary, which means you won’t be allowed any
self-exploration. But you get to see the country’s landmarks and
interact with residents from all walks of life, and tour packages are
all inclusive minus airfare and other fees. National Geographic
Expeditions is one tour provider, but it’s pricey: Tours start at
$6,000, and 2016 tours are already waitlisted. Another option is Exodus
Travels, which offers tour options that start at around $1,300.
Another option is to fly through a gateway, such as Canada, Mexico, or
the Bahamas, which could sometimes be cheaper, albeit longer. Legally,
your travel still needs to fall under the aforementioned categories
before you’re issued a visa. However, because passports aren’t stamped
and you only need to sign an affidavit stating your travel meets the
requirements, some visitors have been able to enter Cuba through this route.
Since U.S. citizens aren’t required to seek permission beforehand, it’s
easier to slip under the radar. However, if someone is audited and found
to have entered illegally, it could result in a heavy fine or even
imprisonment. We recommend finding a legitimate reason (some of the 12
categories are vague enough that you can find a legal purpose) and avoid
Once you land, don’t expect your smartphone to work. Cuba’s cellular
network is restricted to 2G – no data, just voice and SMS. But you will
need a Cuban SIM card and an unlocked GSM-based “dumb” phone.
Verizon and Sprint customers have roaming service for its customers, but
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Since you won’t be able to pull up information on the fly, you will need
to carry paper documents, including maps.
Wi-Fi hotspots are limited, as is Internet access, in general (although
that’s changing). If you do find one, it would most likely be a pokey
dial-up connection. If you are staying in a hotel with reliable access
to the Internet, it’s best to get the information you need before
heading out. And if you’re lucky to find fast Internet, you could access
Netflix to kill some time, but why would you when you have a whole
country to explore?
Although American Express and MasterCard announced theirs cards can be
used in Cuba, it is not widespread. Few businesses in Cuba are able to
accept credit or debit cards, and the cards have to be issued by a bank
that can process those transactions (the list does not include any major
Cash is king, but because the Cuban peso isn’t traded globally, you
can’t exchange for it stateside. Plus, U.S. dollars face a 10-percent
penalty and 3-percent fee when exchanged. To avoid the penalty, you
could exchange your dollars to euros or another currency that’s accepted
(check the exchange rates to see where you can get the best deals).
Because of the penalty and fee, it’s unlikely Cuban businesses will
accept U.S. currency directly.
Hotels are common in Cuba, but they aren’t abundant. Even though U.S.
citizens are banned from vacationing there, Cuba has a booming tourism
industry and receives visitors from Europe, Canada, Latin America, and
even China. It’s reported that 3.5 million tourists visited Cuba in
2015, and it’s expected to grow. This places a strain on Cuba’s
If you aren’t booking through an agency, one colorful option is to
search for “casas particulares,” or private homestays, via Airbnb. Last
April, the company announced it was bringing the sharing economy to
Cuba, since Cubans are permitted to rent out to tourists per a 1997
ruling. While these accommodations are modest, you get to interact with
ordinary Cubans who would most likely share their stories and tips, so
you can get the most out of the trip – through their eyes. After all,
that’s the appeal of Airbnb.
Public transit in Cuba could be considered antiquated. There are horse
carriages and pedicabs that will get you around if you aren’t pressed
for time. Buses can be overcrowded, and there are ferries that travel
between ports. For the most part, you’ll most likely rely on walking or
catching a taxi. Fortunately for you, it will probably be the most
unique taxi you’ll ever ride in.
Source: Here’s the catch with those new U.S. flights to Cuba (and how to
get there anyway) – Yahoo News –