The NY Times answers questions on how to go to Cuba now

Posted: 21-Sep-16 13:20

In light of the newly resumed direct flight service connecting Cuba and the U.S. as of 31st August, an article on New York Times explores the ways American travellers can now visit the island, with cheaper air fares than ever and relaxed rules now allowing for a fuller Cuban experience despite the trade embargo limitations still remaining in place. Victoria Burnett answers some questions on travel to Cuba for American visitors, dispelling some doubts and updating the information with the most recent changes.

The NY Times answers questions on how to go to Cuba now

With direct regular flights fully re-established between Cuba and the US, one article in the New York Times looks back at the possibilities for US travellers wanting to visit Cuba, how to make the most of the relaxed rules on travel to the formerly forbidden fruit of the Caribbean and what they can do in the Pearl of the Antilles.

Writer Victoria Burnett reflects on the resumption of scheduled flights to Cuba from the US, illustrating how it will forever change the landscape of Cuba travel for Americans as they no longer have to rely on expensive, poorly serviced charter service to the island. After JetBlue’s inaugural flight to Cuba on 31st August, expectation is that regular service will supplant charter flights. To back up this claim she quotes the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, John Kavulich on what the new regular service to Cuba means:

“If I can check in, wait in the lounge, know that I am getting frequent flier miles, know that if there is delay they will find another plane, why would I choose a charter?”

Ms Burnett then turns her attention to clearing doubts US travellers may still have when planning a trip to Cuba and sheds light on some of the most frequently answered questions.

On flying to Cuba from the US

Travel to Cuba has been made all the easier for American travellers as of last month, with commercial U.S. carriers launching direct routes that now connect several U.S. ports (namely Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia) to a variety of Cuban cities including Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. With the DOT having recently approved direct flights to Havana, it's only a matter of time before U.S. passengers are able to directly land in the Cuban capital.

JetBlue, the first of the six approved US carriers to fly to Cuba is flying three times a week from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, adding new daily flights to Camaguey and Holguin this autumn. On its part American Airlines launched its first flight to Cuba last Wednesday, connecting Miami with Cienfuegos and Holguin on the same day and following up with a Santa Clara flight two days later on 9th September. Varadero was the last direct Cuban destination AA headed to on 11th September. In addition, Silver Airways is flying many of the same routes with additional flights to Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba and two Cuban keys.

With return flights going for as little as $227 and $311 in September (JetBlue launched special $99 fares to Cuba to celebrate their launch) commercial routes to Cuba are considerably cheaper than charters, which, up until now had been the only option for direct travel between the two countries.

On purpose of visit

For now, the only way Americans can go to Cuba is by indicating that their purpose of travel falls within one of the 12 authorised categories by OFAC. These include visits to relatives, educational purposes, professional research, academic programmes, public performances and sports competition, among others. In addition, Americans can also head to Cuba to organise a professional event, to shoot TV programmes and films, record music or create art onsite.

Visitors can arrange travel to Cuba by themselves or through a tour operator but the latter usually have a full-time schedule of organised activities with documented records of how they spent their time in the island.

Whilst officially, tourism remains off-limits to Americans, there´s not much stopping Americans from engaging in typical tourist activities like sightseeing or swimming in a beach. As long as they manage to justify their trip under one of the allowed purposes, it´s safe to say no one will be checking what they do in Cuba, as long as they do so discreetly and in a way that helps the local private sector (i.e. by staying in a casa particular, dining at a private restaurant or paladar, etc).

Travellers may be asked by their tour operator to sign an affidavit confirming the purpose of their trip and must keep their travel receipts for five years after returning from Cuba. Those who arrange travel independently through one of the authorised airlines now flying direct to Cuba need to tick a box that confirms their trip falls into one of the authorised categories.

On people-to-people trips

Introduced by the Obama administration long before the thawing process between the two countries began and diplomatic ties were renewed, the people-to-people programmes took groups of travellers to Cuba and showed them the island through a scheduled of fully organised and guided activities that complied with the requirement of “meaningful interaction between the traveller and individuals in Cuba”.

These organised trips cost between $2,500 and $4,000 a week per person and typically include accommodation plus flights. They are guided for the most part and their itineraries tend to include meetings with locals, programmed lectures, visit to artists´ galleries and community projects.

Nowadays, US travellers can organise their own people-to-people visits without relying on an organisation. Founder of Cuba Educational Travel, Collin Laverty, claims this is a far cheaper options that gives way to “more organic interaction with Cubans”. All they entail is independent travellers hailing private taxis and enjoying meals at privately-run restaurants, while perhaps booking a Spanish class in the mornings and salsa dancing lessons in the evenings. They can even volunteer to teach English to Cubans.

On getting a visa

The vast majority of foreign visitors to Cuba need a tourist card to enter the country. These can be easily obtained from a Cuban consulate but some commercial U.S. carriers like JetBlue provide them at airport check-in at an additional cost (typically $50) as is common practice with airlines flying to Cuba, while charter flights and tour operators normally process the tourist card as part of the package.

On what you can do in Cuba

Strictly speaking you can only go to Cuba to engage with the culture and the locals whilst contributing in some way to the local private sector economy. That is not to mean, however, that you cannot escape to a beach for a day or two - as long as you comply with the other prerequisites, it seems nobody is watching and the U.S. government is not keeping close tabs. That said, senior officials insist that the Treasury and Commerce Departments takes restrictions on Cuba travel very seriously, which means that if you sign an affidavit pledging your visit to the island is for a particular purpose and spend a whole week at the beach that would be breaking the law. But nobody does that. Americans now want to see the real Cuba for the most part; the beach is like a tasty salad on the side.

“Cuba is very interesting culturally. It’s not your typical beach island. Art, dance, culture — that’s what Cuba has to sell.”

And if you want to taste that salad either independently or through an organised people-to-people programme, it’s unlikely anyone would keep an eye on how you spend your time and no one will request you to hand in documents that prove what you did and where you went.

The line of the legal and illegal is blurry when it comes to visiting Cuba and even then, most Americans prefer to stick to the culture rather than breaking the rules to favour the beach. As John Caulfied puts it:

On where to stay

Giving some thought to the issue of Cuba’s lack of quality hotels, at least by American standards, Ms Burnett offers some insight into the best accommodation options. She begins by asserting that the average-to-poor standards found across some of the island’s is beginning to gradually change with Starwood taking over three Havana hotels and bringing superior luxury to the Inglaterra Hotel, now part of the Luxury Collection, and renaming the former Quinta Avenida hotel as a Four Points by Sheraton. The Hotel Santa Isabel will be next and there will be more to come as Marriott (which is now buying Starwood) has allegedly disclosed that it is currently in talks about managing other hotels in the Cuban capital.

In the meantime, the writer turns to bed-and-breakfasts (locally known as “casas particulares”) as the best alternative to Cuba’s run-down hotels (which she says are in dire need of a facelift for the most part including the Starwood properties prior to being taking over). Moreover, she makes the case that they add all the more to the experience as they offer the traveller the opportunity to interact with Cuban families who often provide good, hearty meals.

Looking and booking for a casa particular is now easier than ever, with a handful of tour operators selling some rooms and Aibnb launching a full service in Cuba, listing over a thousand private homes for rent on its online portal.

On using credit cards

The question on whether using credit cards in Cuba is an option for American travellers remains troublesome as most cards issued by American banks are unlikely to work on the island, even when American Express claimed they’re working to make their debit and credit cards operational there. Having said that there’s also the fact that Stonegate became the first US bank to issue debit cards for use in Cuba, yet few tourists would go as far as opening a bank account in the island just to pay for their travel expenses with an American credit card.

On the other hand, despite some of Havana’s ATM machines accepting some U.S.-issued credit cards, these are few and far between to be relied upon, so you’re much better off with cash in hand obtained in advance.

With Cuba still charging a 10 per cent tax on conversions from the United States dollar to the local CUC currency, the author advises it best to exchange your money at home and bring British Pound Sterling or Euros instead, which have a far better exchange rate in Cuba, meaning you won’t be penalised and will get more for your money.

On calling home

It can be done but it will come at a cost. You can buy a temporary phone to use on Cuba through the network of Cuban state-run telecommunications company, Etecsa, but there will be long lines for it and calls, even on local phones, are not cheap either. U.S. telecom companies like Sprint and Verizon Wireless have roaming agreements in Cuba while AT&T and T-Mobile announced this year that they will also be offering roaming in Cuba soon. But at a cost of over $2 per minute for voice calls, most American customers will scarcely use their mobile phone.

When it comes to internet access, Cuba is still severely lacking in both speed and accessibility. While Etecsa has now set up dozens of Wi-Fi spots across Havana and other cities, these are heavily used by locals which means VoIP calls are only viable as long as half of the island isn’t trying to do the same thing.

On bringing back goods

Restrictions have been recently eased on what Americans can bring back from their trip to Cuba in terms of goods, gifts and souvenirs. An allowance of up to $400 in value applies for souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars. The New York Times echoes the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, brought back $80 worth of cigars, an $80 humidor and a bottle of rum upon returning from his historical visit to the island on August 2015.

Has much changed, after all?

Since President Obama first relaxed rules on travel to Cuba in January 2015 not much has changed at all, some slight ammendments have been made to some rules but overall most remain as they were and as the New York Times first announced them. In July, the popular U.S. publication had issued its ultimate guide on travelling to Cuba, and the only thing that has changed since then is the fact that regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba are now a reality and not a distant possibility. In every other area, the laws regarding travel to Cuba and ways to legally experience Cuba remain the same.


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