Tourism to Cuba is booming, up 25% year on year, and with the recent loosening of US travel regulations, arrivals to the island are likely to skyrocket. Whether the country is ready for the influx due to aging infrastructure, poor hotel stock and stifling government repression, is another question.
For Americans, the opening of Cuba to everyday travelers is an exciting opportunity but not without its complications. A lot of misinformation remains as well, so here is our guide to travel to Cuba and how to navigate the maze of regulations.
Airlines will introduce regularly scheduled flights to Havana and other island airports from many US cities later this year. For now, you need to take charter flights to the country – some are run by JetBlue and American Airlines but booked through third parties. CubaTrips.org is a good resource for schedules of charter flights while Cuba Travel Network has been creating individual tourist itineraries for over 14 years.
*Make sure your airline ticket includes the cost of a 30 days Cuba visa.
Solo travel to Cuba is now allowed. While Americans are no longer required to take part in expensive educational group tours, to visit you still need to have a specific itinerary. The Department of the Treasury requires that “the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
Your visit still needs to fit in one of 12 categories (including family visits, education, religious & humanitarian travel, journalism) and you must keep documents detailing your itinerary for five years. It is unclear, however, if this will be enforced, and if so, how.
Cuba’s hotel infrastructure is notoriously not up to international standards, most critically in Havana. Rooms can be small, facilities in poor condition and even booking can be difficult. However, American companies like Starwood and Marriott are dipping their toes in the market. Starwood is in talks to run two Havana hotels, Hotel Inglaterra and Hotel Quinta Avenida, starting later this year. Booking.com will also start offering reservations to Cuban hotels soon. Of course, you can always rent a room on Airbnb, which recently was granted the right to rent to non-Americans visiting the island.
What to Know
Cuba is not cheap. The official exchange rate is unfavorable and US dollar transactions are subject to a 10% fee plus often another 3% is charged. Euros and British Pounds will give you a better rate. Exchange money at CADECA bureaus or a bank such as BFI. Note there are two currencies – the CUC is the convertible currency you will most likely be using. Avoid street hustlers trying to help you with exchanges.
Credit cards will work in Cuba but businesses rarely accept them and do not expect to find ATM machines to dispense cash.
Cellphone and Internet service is spotty to non-existent so do not expect a level of coverage you receive in the U.S.
Discussing politics or otherwise criticizing the Castro regime in public is not recommended
You can bring back $400 worth of goods but only $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco (aka Cuban cigars)
All the changes have been made by the Obama administration through executive action and the economic embargo remains in place. A new President can overturn all these changes at any time until they are made permanent by act of Congress.
Information current as of March 2016, post will be updated with any changes