Traveling to Cuba….still not as clear cut as you might think

People keep asking about travel to Cuba, there’s a huge amount of interest in going before it becomes a complete tourist trap. But how exactly you go about getting there is still something few potential visitors really understand, and where there is a lot of grey area.

The first question travelers have is can I just book a trip to Cuba on my own? The answer is yes, but it’s probably not advisable. First of all you can’t yet book yourself a direct airline ticket from the US to Cuba. The two governments announced last month that they will be restoring direct commercial service, but there is no clear date when that service will begin. American Airlines has filed paperwork to begin service later this year, but it remains to be seen if that gets approved and up and running this year. The only direct flights right now are charter flights, which are operated by the major carriers, but which you need to book through a travel agent or tour group. Now you can however fly to Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or any other country with direct commercial flights to Cuba and book yourself a ticket from there to Cuba.

Second question is can I just go to Cuba and chill on the beach with some mojitos for a week? The answer is legally no, and that’s why booking your own trip may not be advisable. The Obama administration last year simply got rid of travel license requirements to Cuba for approved travel purposes and relaxed monetary restrictions on spending US Dollars and using US bank cards in Cuba, but they didn’t overturn the ban on tourist travel, only Congress can do that, and that’s not likely anytime soon. There are twelve approved reasons to travel to Cuba, some are pretty clear cut, like visiting family or attending a conference, others are more vague like “people to people” travel, which is what most tour groups claim they’re doing, essentially you aren’t just wondering around Cuba but are part of an organized meeting of the Cuban people. Travelers now have to sign a legal affidavit at the airport that the purpose of their trip to Cuba was one of the twelve approved reasons for travel…’s a self certification, and it’s essentially up to the Immigration and Customs officer upon your return to take you at your word. If they feel you traveled purely as a tourist and not part of a cultural exchange, you can still face large fines and jail time. It’s much easier to prove you went as part of a cultural exchange if your visit was organized and guided.

No matter how you go, you need a $25 Cuban Tourist visa from the Cuban government which you can’t yet buy at an American airport. You can buy them in Canadian, Mexican, etc. airports, but not here yet. Getting the visa in the US can be done by a travel organizer.

Organized travel to Cuba isn’t cheap, but I know one group that’s doing two nights at a luxury resort in Cancun and then four nights at a boutique hotel in old Havana, includes all ground transport, food, admissions and a personal guide the entire time in Cuba for $5k a person. Happy to tell you more if you ask 🙂


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