How to Go to Cuba Right Now
By VICTORIA BURNETTMARCH 15, 2016
Travel to Cuba just got easier and, probably, less expensive. The United
States government on Tuesday announced new rules that allow Americans to
travel independently to Cuba on what they call “people-to-people” trips,
one of the most popular ways to see the island. This means that
Americans who want to go and spend their time meeting ordinary Cubans no
longer have to book their trip through an organization. They can buy a
ticket — for now, on a charter flight but soon from a commercial airline
— book themselves somewhere to stay on Airbnb, and voilà.
Collin Laverty, the founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said that
allowing Americans to travel on their own would make Cuba accessible to
younger, less wealthy travelers who could not afford to spend, say,
$4,000 on an organized weeklong trip.
“It’s going to democratize and diversify travel,” Mr. Laverty said.
Speaking by phone from Havana, he added, “And it will give Cubans a more
diverse view of Americans.”
Here are frequently asked questions that people have as they plan their
Can any United States citizen visit Cuba now?
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. Even those traveling to Cuba independently on
people-to-people trips 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 travel organization 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.
What are people-to-people trips?
People-to-people trips are educational programs that are open to
anybody, but require a full-time schedule of activities that produce
“meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
Now that Americans can design their own people-to-people trips, it is
less clear what constitutes “full time” or “meaningful interaction.”
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. Mr. Laverty said he believed individual trips would lead to
more “organic” interaction with Cubans.
“People-to-people will be getting in a taxi and talking in broken
English to a guy and getting his thoughts — not those of an architect or
an expert,” he said. “It will be way more informal.”
Independent travelers might take Spanish classes in the morning and
salsa classes in the afternoon, he suggested, or even volunteer to teach
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. If you are traveling through a third country, you can normally
buy it at the check-in counter.
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.
If you do go to Cuba on your own under the auspices of a
people-to-people license, it is not clear how you would provide
documents to prove how you spent your time.
Mr. Laverty said he did not expect that to be a problem. “Nobody’s
really watching,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be any oversight at all.”
John Caulfield, who was the chief of the United States’ mission to Cuba
from 2011 to 2014 said he doubted that Americans would use the looser
rules to go to the beach.
“Cuba is very interesting culturally,” he said. “It’s not your typical
beach island. Art, dance, culture — that’s what Cuba has to sell.”
Will cruise ships sail to Cuba?
Owners of cruise ships and passenger ferries can operate between the
United States and Cuba without a license, so long as the people they are
carrying are licensed to travel there. The infrastructure to accommodate
a cruise ship is available since ships owned by non-American companies,
though usually smaller than American ones, have been sailing to Cuba in
recent years. The government had awarded licenses to a handful of ferry
and cruise companies in 2015 including Carnival Corporation, which said
last year that it would begin sailing to Havana in April.
Can I fly to Cuba now?
Right now, only on a charter flight. The United States and Cuba
announced in January that they had signed an agreement that would 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. They have said they will decide by the summer which airlines
could operate services from which cities. But they’ve already been
laying the groundwork, allowing domestic carriers entry into previously
blocked airspace, letting them enter into code-sharing and leasing
agreements with Cuban airlines, and permitting crews to travel there and
to help serve flights and vessels.
Of course, non-American commercial airlines fly to Cuba from many
destinations. But commercial flights would eliminate the need to take
expensive charter flights that currently operate from Miami, New York
and elsewhere to Cuba. (A return flight from New York to Havana in April
is offered by Cuba Travel Services at $899.)
A view outside of the Parque Central hotel in Havana. Credit Robert
Rausch for The New York Times
Americans who meet Treasury Department requirements can fly through a
third country, such as Mexico, Panama, Grand Cayman or Canada, an option
that can be less expensive and more convenient than taking charter flights.
Where would I stay?
Cuba has a shortage of decent hotels, a problem that has worsened over
the past year.
Even Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and investment,
joked during a meeting in Washington in February that the government was
worried about where all the American visitors were going to sleep.
There are 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.
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. Airbnb started offering its service on the island in April.
The company, which lets users list their homes and apartments for
short-term rentals, said intermediaries often deposit payments to hosts’
bank accounts or give them cash.
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. But Verizon Wireless announced in September that it would allow
its users to make voice calls, send text messages and use data services
through the company’s pay-as-you-go International Travel option. At
$2.99 a minute, 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
What can United States citizens bring back?
Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100
worth of cigars. John Kavulich, president 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, brought back an $80 humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of