1. The Restrictions Are Not Over—Yet
President Obama loosened the rules substantially and you can now travel to Cuba as an individual; you no longer need to be in a group. But the U.S. government maintains some limitations on entry. You have to be traveling for one of twelve specified purposes; family visits, education, support for the Cuban people, and a few others. You don’t need to obtain permission in advance, but you have to certify one of the legitimate purposes when you arrange your trip. Check here for more details. This is strictly a U.S. requirement; the Cuban government’s position is, “Y’all come.”
Folks in the industry seem to think that nobody will ever try to verify that you did what you said you would. But if you’re antsy, I’m pretty sure some enterprising organizations will happily arrange for your participation in a qualifying activity.
2. You Need a Tourist Card
Before departing from the U.S., you need to get a 30-day tourist card (visa). As far as I can tell, the big U.S. visa service agencies are not yet geared up to arrange them. But on flights from Cancun, Nassau, and Canada, airlines often sell them, and, presumably, U.S. airlines that “win” Cuban routes will also set up to handle the tourist cards. Also, you can check with any operator running tours to Cuba. Currently, the isn’t very helpful Cuban Embassy’s website. You also need proof of travel insurance.
3. Scheduled Flights Will Start This Fall
Most big U.S. airlines have applied for rights to fly from various points in the U.S. to various points in Cuba. Although a few applied for Varadero and other beach centers, most want to start by flying from their important hubs to Havana. That makes some sense: Cuba’s beaches may be a bit of “more of the same” within the Caribbean and island region, but Havana is a unique big-city destination with a charm and culture all its own. Also, there’s a big “visiting friends and relatives” market for Havana. If you’re in a hurry, you can already catch a charter flight or fly scheduled airlines from Canada, Cancun, or Nassau. As an alternative to flying, you can expect to see ferry trips to Havana from Key West soon, and cruiseships are already adding Cuban ports to their island itineraries.
4. Money Isn’t a Problem
It’s now OK for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba. But keep in mind that you will encounter two different currencies: the ordinary peso (CUP) and the “convertible peso” (CUC). The value of the CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and one CUC is worth 25 CUP. You’ll want CUP for dealing with local merchants and vendors.
For now, most industry sources recommend that you carry cash. Apparently, at least for now, Cuba imposes a 10 percent surcharge on U.S. dollars. So some sources recommend that you carry Canadian dollars, euros, or pounds instead.
U.S. banks are now allowed to do business in Cuba, but plastic from U.S. banks appears to be iffy. Although major cards are accepted at some places in Cuba, not all U.S. banks are yet set up for business in Cuba. ATMs are apparently few and far between. And few places other than hotels accept cards at this time. Check with your card issuer(s) before you decide to rely on credit and debit cards for your Cuba trip.
5. Hotel Space Will Be Tough
Don’t assume that the U.S. embargo dried up Cuba’s tourism business. To the contrary, Havana, the other colonial cities, and the beach resorts have been doing brisk business with Canadian and European vacationers, and both local and European chains have built up some big properties. Folks in the industry, however, say that, in general, Cuban hotels are not up to the standards of other nearby countries—especially at the high end—and that even so, they won’t have enough rooms to accommodate a big surge in visitors from the U.S. Some experts recommend arranging in-home accommodations; Airbnb is already busy in Cuba and you can find lots of ideas on TripAdvisor. But the hotel situation could change quickly: Starwood just signed up to manage three top Havana hotels, and you can look for the other big chains to follow.
6. Communications Will Be Tough
Currently, landline phone rates to the U.S. are very high. Your best bet is to take a phone with VOIP capability and make calls over the Wi-Fi connection at your hotel. But don’t plan on dropping in on a nearby Hello Internet cafe: Rates there are very stiff.
7. Internal Travel by Taxi, Bus
For travel around Havana, taxis are generally available and inexpensive. The State Department warns about unlicensed taxis, local public buses, and co-co three-wheelers. And it appears to discourage citizens from driving rented cars in Cuba.
If you want to combine Havana or another colonial city with a beach, you can get around inside Cuba by bus or plane. The main intercity bus operator is Viazul (click the button for English version). A one-way ticket from Havana to Varadero is $10, one-way from Havana to Santiago de Cuba is $51. Slightly more expensive,Cubanacan buses pick up and drop off at hotels rather than bus stations. A flight from Havana to Santiago de Cuba on Cubana is $135; Cubana flies an eclectic mix of A320, 737, ATR 72, Illyushin 96, and Tupolev 204 planes.
8. Take It Home
Want to enjoy some Cuban rum or cigars when you return? You can bring back up to a maximum of $100 combined value in liquor and cigars.