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Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

As you no doubt know by now, Cuba is changing fast as a travel destination (see this Fortune article about the first new American car there in 58 years). The recent introduction of commercial flights from the US to Cuba has given Americans more access than ever to Cuba—but of course, there’s a lot that’s still new. For example:

“American and JetBlue — the two big airlines now flying to Cuba — each approaches these paperwork requirements differently. Both include required travel insurance in the price of tickets. The processes diverge from there, however.”

That note comes from this helpful guide to flying to Cuba that USA Today’s Seth Miller just put out. If you’re visiting or thinking about visiting the island, make sure to check it out. And if you’ve been to Cuba, be sure to share your own tips in the comments below!



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2 Comments On "What to Expect When Booking a Flight to Cuba"
  1. Fran|

    We went to Cuba in 2003 because restrictions would be more severe in 2004. We returned in 2010. Observations from both trips follow.
    Our first trip was an educational and cultural trip approved by the US government, and departed from Miami. It was arranged by Vantage Deluxe World Travel. We were given specific instructions on what to bring, and what to say to Homeland Security agents in the Miami airport. We were told to be there four hours early, or we would be denied boarding. All our belongings were weighed. Our flight was not posted anywhere. Even though our flight was in the evening, the flight attendants were not allowed in Cuba overnight, and were required to make the return trip the same night. While in Cuba, our cell phones were not operational and we could not use American Express cards.
    We stayed at the Melia Cohiba hotel on the Malacon in Havana. It is a city of 2 million. One can imagine how beautiful Havana once was. Some buildings were being restored and painted, but many had crumbling facades. People officially owned their homes, but were not allowed to sell them. They could pass them on to their children or exchange them for someone else’s. The idea that everyone must be equal pervaded the society; selling one’s home for cash would create inequality. There was a serious shortage of housing. An urban planner said he didn’t think he would live to see his plans implemented.
    Vintage American cars were common. New cars cannot be imported from the US. There were some Japanese and European cars; they were usually used as taxis or owned by foreigners living in Cuba. Many old cars had new Toyota engines. We frequently took inexpensive “Cocoanut” cabs – so-called because of their shape. The meters in “real” taxis were in dollars; the Cocoanut cabs simply gave you a price.
    Local transportation was provided by buses called the “Camel”, because of a hump in the middle. the buses were crowded and the schedules were sporadic. There was always a large group of people waiting for buses (or any vehicle willing to take them) in the countryside.
    Downtown Havana housed many large public buildings, including the main post office . The Capitol building is modeled after the Capitol in Washington; it is slightly taller and longer. We visited the Hotel National for a Buena Vista Social Club concert and a light dinner. It has been well-preserved. We also visited Revolution Square, where Fidel Castro gave his long speeches. There was a large image of Che Guevara that lights up at night, and a memorial to Jose Marti, a national hero and considered the father of independent Cuba.
    The Columbus Cemetery was very interesting. No flowers are allowed except on one grave, because of concerns about mosquitoes. They are allowed on the grave of a young mother who died in childbirth. Her husband brought flowers to her grave every day for 40 years. Now people who expect their prayers to be answered bring the flowers.
    We visited an art market near our hotel. Other stops included the oldest pharmacy in Havana (still in operation)and a ration book store, with prices of basic commodities displayed, as well as purchase limits. The government guarantees everyone a job, and these jobs paid the equivalent of $20 per month. It cost about $4 per month to buy everything in the ration book. Milk was available in the ration book stores, but only for children up to 8 years. Pesos could also be used for public transportation. Water and gas for home use each cost 4 pesos per month.
    Officially, there was no unemployment and second jobs were forbidden. However, many Cubans had a second job or enterprise outside the official economy. The government cannot prevent this without risking the collapse of the economy. The real currency in Cuba was the dollar, and there were stores where food, clothing, etc. could be bought for dollars. Many people – especially young women – were fashionably dressed.
    Our guide told us that her husband worked for the Ghana Embassy as a driver. The Embassy paid the Cuban government his salary in dollars, but he received a much lower amount from the Cuban government in pesos. He had a cell phone so he could be contacted; our guide used it at times. This was not a common item at the time.
    Other Havana visits included the Callejon de Hammel, a narrow two block alleyway with murals and art by Salvador Gonzalez. My husband and I also went to the Art Museum , which housed a large collection of very colorful Cuban art with a lot of impact. We particularly liked the Revolution Museum, which gave a very detailed account of Cuban history and the Castro revolution. Some descriptions were in English. The museum is housed in the former presidential palace.
    One of our most interesting visits was to the Art Institute. There was a lot of art and music everywhere in Cuba. The Art Institute is a university level school. Tuition is free for Cubans as is all education. Foreign students are charged. There was a fair amount of freedom of expression, especially in art form. There was also a lot of anti-American art especially as it pertained to George W. Bush. There were signs of protest against rules that prohibit computers , internet or cell phones; these rules are frequently violated. Our guide told us that the Committee in Defense of the Revolution (CDR) representative makes monthly rounds to check on such items. People usually told him to come back because they were busy, and he rarely returned. He was officially the contact between the government and the people. He was also the eyes and ears of the government. As another example of the rules of equality, no one was allowed to own a rice cooker, since there were not enough for everyone. Refrigerators, clothes washers and many other items were plentiful, and therefore allowed. Shortages of various consumer items were common; soap, in particular, was frequently cited.
    Our drive in the countryside en route to Cienfuegos and Trinidad was also very interesting. There were no billboards showing advertising – only government sponsored messages. A common theme protest the arrest of the “Cuban Five” by the US government. There are billboards, posters in hotels, and small shrines in towns. In 1998, these five men went to Miami secretly to find out the plans that the Miami Cubans had against the Castro government. These documents were given to the FBI. Nonetheless, the five were captured, tried as terrorists in Miami in 2001and received long sentences – as much as two life sentences – in US prisons. A change of venue was denied by the judge, who acknowledged that 93% of the local population was biased, but claimed that a jury could be found out of the other 7%. According to the Cuban government and many international organizations, including Amnesty International, the five had no plans of violence and they should be freed or at least their sentences should be reduced. In 2005, a three-judge panel from the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected the criminal convictions, but the entire appeals court reversed that decision in 2006. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
    The countryside is lush and people seem to live better than in the rural areas of Caribbean islands, but farming is also affected by bureaucracy. If a farmer owns more than two cows, he is required to sell the milk and beef to the state. As a result, farmers own only two cows or keep other cows hidden. Most menus feature pork, chicken or fish – not beef.
    We visited Las Terrazas, a planned eco-tourism community, and a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Inhabitants live and work in the community. There has been a major effort to re-forest the area. We visited the 18th century castle guarding the Cienfuegas harbor, the waterfront, the town square, a church, a pottery studio, and an Afro-Cuban dance studio. In Trinidad, we stayed at the centrally-located Fienfuegos hotel, a Moroccan style hotel, and a former private residence. Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its well preserved 18th and 19th century architecture. The city was beautifully preserved, with many pastel colored buildings.
    We visited the Bay of Pigs shore and a military museum documenting the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion. We also visited a local clinic. Wherever we stopped, people came out of their homes and children came out of their schools to see us. Everyone wanted his picture taken.
    Most Cubans we spoke with were not afraid to express their opinions. They liked what Castro had done in education and health care, but would like more freedom and a higher standard of living. Everyone seemed to have a relative in Miami, and wanted to come to the United States so they could go to McDonalds!
    I’ve often wondered why the U.S. embargo was so effective, since there were other countries from which to purchase goods. What I didn’t realize was that the U.S. blocks any ship from its ports that has stopped in Cuba within six months.
    In summary, Cuba is not a paradise, but it is certainly not a hell-hole.
    Unfortunately, when we returned to Miami, six agents were assigned to go through all our belongings. This was on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, when their time could have been better spent.
    Our 2010 trip was on a humanitarian license, also legally via Miami. We each had to buy and bring at least 15 pounds of medical supplies, medicines, vitamins/supplements, etc. I admit to going to Costco and buying the heaviest things I could, in order to avoid paying for two pieces of checked luggage to Miami. Our flight was with Taca. In general, there was more paint, more (newer) cars, and more bars and restaurants. We visited a hospital, where we left our supplies. We also visited a school, where we left supplies. We stayed in a beautifully restored hotel in Havana, and in an all-inclusive resort near Trinidad in central Cuba. The area from Trinidad to the east is popular with Canadian and European tourists. Internet was available at the hotels, but food quality was still not up to the standards of most hotels that serve international travelers. We felt very safe at all times. This trip was with Friendly Planet Travel

    This trip had no hassles from US agents, unlike our previous one. We were allowed extra weight for our supplies, and we sailed through customs in Miami on our return.

    The 2010 trip was a mixed group, ages 35 to 75, with different interests. Vantage markets to people over 50 (although anyone can travel with them), and their tour groups are usually well-educated and well-traveled, with real interest in the country and culture being visited.

    In late 2014, we noticed that Road Scholar has a people-to-people trip to eastern Cuba. We signed up for January 2015. This trip was very intense, with long days. Road Scholar trips always have a significant educational component, and this was no exception We met with several artists, dancers, and musicians every day, and we ate at local restaurants There was ample time to converse with locals. We flew from Miami to Cienfuegos, where we stayed in a small hotel in a pedestrian street, with many local shops. The hotel was air-conditioned and charming. About half way through our trip, we drove to Santiago de Cuba, and spent some time in the small village of Guantanamo. Our hotel in Santiago de Cuba was a high-rise building that was built in the 1960’s, and catered to European tourists. Gone was the charm of the local hotel.

    Road Scholar rates their trips by degree of difficulty, and explains each type. This trip was “active”, and the days were long. I would not recommend this trip as a first Cuba trip, since most of the monuments and famous sites are in the western part of the country, but I have seen a number of trips that encompass the entire island.

  2. A. Offman|

    Or if you’re close to the border, just fly to Cuba via Canada. Much less red tape I’m told.

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