Cuba Travel: Here's What You <i>Really</i> Need to Know

by  Julie Schwietert Collazo | Jul 15, 2015
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Julie Schwietert Collazo

In December 2014, as all of us have heard, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a mutual agreement to work towards restoring diplomatic and trade ties following a 55-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba. Nearly immediately after they hinted at sweeping changes in everything from the island’s Internet connectivity to, yes, Americans’ vacations, the travel industry scrambled into action, certain that one of the first dominoes to fall would be the travel restriction.

But amid all the excitement and headlines over new flights and itineraries, helping prospective travelers decode and navigate policies that weren’t yet clear -- and to differentiate between rumors about hoped-for changes and developments that were actually in the works -- hasn’t proven to be easy. In fact, visiting Cuba still isn’t exactly a breeze, even if some rules have loosened up.

So what is the state of travel to Cuba for Americans right now? And how can you access reliable, up-to-date information if you’re interested in traveling there? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be answering these questions in a series of articles about travel to Cuba. For now, here are the basics:

Are more U.S. citizens actually going to Cuba, or is it all media hype?
By all accounts, Americans’ travel to Cuba is up -- way up. Based on data about arrivals between this January 1 and May 9, The Associated Press reported a “stunning 36% rise in US visits to Cuba.” While most of those visits originated via flights arriving directly from the United States, nearly 13,000 of the 51,458 Americans who traveled to Cuba during this period made their trip using the so-called “third-country” option, flying from the US to Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica or the Cayman Islands and then onward to Cuba. (Americans have used this third-country option for a while, despite the fact that it violates federal law.)

We can chalk up this growing number to two main factors. The first is the desire to get to Cuba before it’s “ruined.” The second is a general confusion about who, exactly, is allowed to travel to the island and, more so, how exactly to do that. Which brings us to…

How exactly has it gotten easier for them to travel to Cuba legally?
The key word here is the relative “easier” -- decidedly distinct from “easily.” It’s not a free-for-all type situation.

Nearly eight months after the announcement of the U.S.-Cuba detente, neither the embargo nor the travel restriction has been lifted (both require an act of Congress), but significant steps have been taken in that direction. In order to travel Cuba legally, your trip must fall under one of 12 categories of “authorized” travel, as defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). To be clear, these 12 categories were already in place before the December 2014 announcement; what changed is that individual travelers no longer have to submit license applications that previously needed to be reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis. It's noteworthy that straight-up tourism is still not permitted, hence the "people-to-people" and "educational" programs that we've all been hearing about.

How do they get there?
Although at least five ferry operators -- plus Carnival’s new cruise brand Fathom -- have been approved by OFAC to provide service between Florida and Cuba, these companies are not yet actually operating boats. They’re still awaiting several pieces of policy and physical infrastructure, including a ferry terminal where U.S. Customs and Border Protection can process passengers.

For now, the only legal way to get to Cuba from the U.S. is by plane. In addition to charters that have been operating flights for years, major American airlines, including JetBlue, are adding Cuba flights to their schedules and are expanding service beyond Florida to other states. Another wrinkle: Don’t expect to find these flights on Expedia or other booking engines -- or even on the airlines’ own websites. You’ll need to call the airline directly for more information.

Where do they stay and how do they make reservations?
Travelers can stay at hotels or casas particulares, accommodations similar to bed and breakfasts. Many of the former have limited availability, while most Americans aren’t quite sure how to access the latter. AirBnB recently launched service in Cuba, making the booking process easier, but fair warning: with limited access to Internet, most Cubans who list their properties aren’t likely to respond quickly.

Can they use credit and debit cards on the island?
The short answer: Probably not.

The detailed answer: Previously, credit card issuers themselves have prevented travelers from using cards in Cuba. And while MasterCard tells Sherman’s that it “removed [its] network block on U.S.-issued cards being used in Cuba as of March 1, the company reminds us that the final decision rests with individual card issuers But, more to the point, reports from Cuba indicate that no merchants yet have credit and debit card processing machines to process transactions in the first place. So U.S. travelers are still, for now, stuck with cash.

Considering a trip Cuba? Check out the rest of our 5-part in-depth guide, which includes:
More on how to book a flight to Cuba
More on how to find a place to stay in Cuba
More on dealing with money in Cuba
How to get around, get on the internet, and other logistics for once you're in Cuba

Find The Best Cruises
Find a cruise

Find the best deals!

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices