13 Things to Know About Cuba

Yes.  Commercial airlines are offering direct nonstop flights to several travel destinations in Cuba.

In all, the American and Cuban governments have said they will 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.

With return Cuba travel priced at between $150 and $350, the commercial flights are much less expensive than charters, which, until now, were the only option for those wanting to travel direct between the United States and Cuba. Still, some wonder whether there will be enough passengers to fill 300 additional weekly flights to Cuba. Many who specialize in Cuba travel, predict a “shake-out” in routes to provincial airports. It's not clear how long it will take for the dust to settle.

Does my trip have to have any purpose beyond tourism?

Americans can freely travel to Cuba, but only if the trip falls within one of 12 categories. Travelers can go independently or with a tour operator on educational people-to-people trips, but 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 tour operator 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. JetBlue requires those booking a flight to Cuba online to tick a box that confirms that their travel falls into one of the categories of travel authorized by the United States.

So yes, can travel to Cuba legally without a complex license and only minimal paperwork as long as your purpose of travel fits into one of these US government approved categories below. Please note that some of these activities require a separate authorization from the Cuban government - in particular journalism. 

  • Educational activities in Cuba for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
  • Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
  • Religious activities in Cuba
  • Humanitarian projects in Cuba
  • Journalistic activities in Cuba
  • Family visits to close relatives in Cuba
  • Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
  • Any type of support for the Cuban people
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
  • Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations 

Here is a sample copy of the form:

What are people-to-people trips?

People-to-people trips are educational ones that anybody can take so long as they include a full-time schedule of activities that produce “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

Organized trips to Cuba — 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.

How do I get a visa?

Most visitors that travel to Cuba do not need a VISA, including Americans. What you actually need is 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. US Airlines will provide travelers with a tourist card "visa", at a cost of $100, at the airport check-in — also common practice among airlines flying to Cuba from outside the United States. Look for the "Cuba Ready" kiosk as you check in for your flight. Some airlines call ahead to offer an online "visa" purchase for a few dollars less.

What to bring

  • Valid passport (with at least 6 months validity from date of entry)
  • Valid visa/travel card (can buy at the airport) or Valid Cuban passport
  • Cash – no US  credit or debit cards can be used in Cuba

Check-in

Online check-in for flights to Cuba is unavailable. You must check in at the airport to provide reason for travel – allow up to 3 hours to complete the process. If you're flying from Miami (MIA), look for the 'Cuba Ready' booth by Checkpoints 1 and 2 to check your documents and get your boarding pass stamp.

Baggage fees may apply for checked bags.

All fees at US airports can be paid with a US Credit Card.

Connections

When you get to the gate at your connecting airport, look for the 'Cuba Ready' booth to check your documents and get your boarding pass stamp for your travel to Cuba.

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.

That said, if you travel to Cuba independently under the auspices of a people-to-people license, it is unclear who would keep an eye on you or how you would provide documents to prove how you spent your time.

Where would I stay?

Cuba has a shortage of decent hotels, a problem that has worsened over the past year.

But that is changing. Starwood in June became the first American hospitality chain to manage a hotel in Cuba since the revolution, rebranding a 180-room hotel in the lush suburb of Miramar as a Four Points by Sheraton hotel. Marriott, which is buying Starwood, has reportedly confirmed that it is in talks about taking over other Havana hotels.

Certainly, the hotel sector could use a face-lift. There are currently 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, the Starwood property included.

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, or through Airbnb, which started offering its service on the island last year.


Could I take a cruise instead?

You could. Carnival Cruises in May began offering the first cruises between Miami and Havana in 40 years. The seven-night cruise, operated by Carnival’s Fathom Brand, sails every other week and stops at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Cruise companies may offer services between the United States and Cuba under Treasury Department rules, but, so far, only Carnival and a French company, Ponant, have announced cruises to Cuba from American ports.

Ferries — once a vital connection between Cuba and Miami — seem to be off the table for the moment. Ferry services are permitted under United States regulations but operators have yet to receive the necessary permits from the Cuban authorities.

Can I use credit cards when I travel to Cuba?

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. Sprint and Verizon Wireless have roaming agreements in Cuba, and T-mobile and AT&T announced this year that they, too, will offer roaming. At more than $2 per minute for voice calls, 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 same thing.

What can United States citizens bring back?

Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including an unlimited amount of cigars.  

  Importation of Cuban-origin merchandise as accompanied baggage for personal use. OFAC is removing the monetary value limitations on what authorized travelers may import from Cuba into the United States as accompanied baggage.  This includes the value limitation on alcohol and tobacco products.  Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be further authorized to import Cuban-origin merchandise acquired in third countries into the United States as accompanied baggage, again without value limitations.  OFAC is also removing the prohibition on foreign travelers importing Cuban-origin alcohol and tobacco products into the United States as accompanied baggage.  In all cases, the Cuban-origin goods must be imported for personal use, and normal limits on duty and tax exemptions will apply.