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How Americans Can Travel to Cuba: 8 Frequently Asked Questions

This sponsored post is written in collaboration with Fathom Cruises. I’ll be joining their Cuba cruise in a couple weeks and can’t wait to share more!

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Bags are packed for the next adventure!

Lipault Luggage (it completely collapses down to just 4″ for easy storage)

Everlane backpack / Home Goods storage trunks (similar here and here)

Cailler chocolate (for family to share at Thanksgiving before my flight onward to Miami)

Nordstorm Booties (currently on sale, suede version here and here)

Rag & Bone cross body bag (old, similar here)


It’s currently the week of Thanksgiving and the year seems to have flown by. It’s been three weeks since the election results were announced and only six weeks until the start of a new year. How has 2016 come and gone so fast?

The rise of the Trumps to the White House seems to carry a large question mark. Will he be as polarizing a figure once sworn in as he was on the election circuit? What will his mark be on America’s relations with our neighbors? Earlier last week, the New York Times took a dive into the Trump question on Cuba, publishing a piece examining whether the consummate businessman will reenact the embargo or stay true to his capitalistic nature.

I’m actually headed to Cuba in just a couple days so I thought I would do some research and compile the answers to all my burning questions below for any future American travelers. The itinerary is mostly planned out but I also referenced the Lonely Planet Cuba book for sights and The Other Side of Paradise (novel) a captivating read – the author travels to Cuba on tourist visa undercover to discover the lives of local Cubans.

 

Before You Go

1 | Recommended Reading:

2| Bring Euros / Pounds / Pesos to exchange if possible – USD exchanges carry a hefty fee (more below)

3| Book a Havana city tour if you wish and organize flights (more on how I’ll be traveling below)

4 | Buy travel insurance in case US-Cuban political relations change and your trip needs to be canceled. I recommend World Nomads.

 

 

How to Travel to Cuba (as an American)

As of December 2016, here is what we know:


Q. Can Americans visit Cuba as tourists?

A. No. Even though President Obama lifted the embargo, Americans are legally allowed to visit Cuba under just 12 approved ‘categories’, including visits to close relatives, educational and professional activities, research, sports competitions or journalistic / religious / humanitarian projects. Outright tourism (for example: I want to visit Cuba to buy cigars and lay on the beach) is not one of the approved categories.

What many American would-be tourists can do instead is to join a cultural organization on either an educational People to People trip (I did this once in high school) or with a legalized tour operator such as Fathom.

Another possible approach for Americans is to fly into a neighboring country and from there, fly into Cuba. I personally know of friends who have done this.. but don’t recommend it as you never really want to take that risk when doing something illegal.

Keep in mind that travelers are required to keep receipts for up to 5 years post return.

 

Q. What constitutes an educational trip or a people to people tour? 

A. People to People trips are educational in nature, designed to foster close relations between American visitors and the locals of the countries they visit. This means an organized trip with a full time schedule of activities that produce meaningful interaction – for example, through meetings with local politicians, small businesses, community leaders and/or artists. I took a People to People trip to Europe as a teenager which was both lots of fun and highly educational.

Given the history between the US and Cuba, I think traveling under a people to people cultural journey is one of the most incredible opportunities and reasons to visit the island. That’s why I’m so excited to be partnering with Fathom, the latest travel brand under the Carnival Cruise umbrella that is dedicated to immersing travelers into the culture and local communities of your destination.

Fathom has worked with both US and Cuban experts to develop an affordable, historic trip to the real Cuba. Their 7-night small ships sail every other week and stop at 3 ports of call in Cuba: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Fathom is the first travel company in over 50 years to be granted round trip travel to the island by both US and Cuban officials so it’s hard to believe that I’m going to be joining such a groundbreaking and exciting connection!

Many companies offer cultural immersive trips with the best of intentions but in reality, have product teams that work from headquarters and create orchestrated activities. Fathom has focused significant effort on collaborating with locals to co-create a very uniquely local experience – creating experiences in partnership with and not for locals. I’m very excited to witness this as we received a preliminary itinerary for each of the cities with lots of local stops and activities!

 

Q. Are there direct flights from the NY to Cuba or from the US to Cuba? How do travelers get to Cuba?

A. In June 2016, the Department of Transportation approved six airlines (American, Frontier, Jet Blue, Silver, Southwest and Sun Country) to fly to nine destinations in Cuba. On August 31, the first commercial flights began with Jet Blue (currently 3 times per week from Ft. Lauderdale to Santa Clara) and a day later, Silver Airlines launched turboprop service while American followed suit in early September.

As of December 2016, flight supply is rapidly outpacing demand and American has announced plans to reduce daily coverage while Jet Blue is currently selling $99 fares each way from JFK. Check Skyscanner or Google Flights for the latest deals!

 

Q. Do I need a visa to visit Cuba as an American?

A. Yes. If you’re traveling to Cuba through an organization like Fathom, the cost of the visa is built into the tour package. Fathom also includes all meals, on-board activities and cultural excursions into the package price so it’s quite affordable. You can check the departure schedules and rates on their website here.

If flying direct on your own, airlines will provide a tourist card at check in for $50. You’ll have to submit your reason (under the 12 allowable reasons) at the time you buy your tourist card and can do so right at your airport of departure.

 

Q. Do I need insurance to visit Cuba as an American?

The Cuban government mandates that international visitors have their own health insurance before arriving. In the past, there were reports that if you didn’t show this, you wouldn’t be allowed in but on my experience visiting Cuba, they didn’t ask me and I did not have health insurance when I visited (not intentionally to test this, I just happened to not have it).

If this is a potential concern, I recommend getting travel insurance for trip protection. I bought insurance before my trip to Africa since we were worried about Ebola at the time and it was a way to get trip cancellation / trip interruption protection. While it was expensive, purchasing it gave us piece of mind and is something we consider whenever traveling to countries where political or health issues might come into play to potentially cancel a trip.

Nowadays, I travel much more frequently and bring electronics with me when I travel (camera gear, laptop, iPhone etc) so I do look for travel insurance that comes with property coverage to insure my gear. I recommend World Nomads as they have a very clearly defined set of options to serve every type of traveler.

 

You can get a quick quote for your next travels in the widget to the right –>

 

Q. Where should I stay in Cuba? Do you recommend a hotel, AirBnB or local casa particular?

A. Cuba currently has a shortage of tourism related infrastructure, especially hotels.

Hotels in Cuba

In June, Starwood became the first American hotel chain to launch in Cuba by renovating a 180-room hotel in Miramar as a Four Points Sheraton. If you’re a SPG loyalty member, this makes for a convenient choice. I have heard that many of the official hotels could use a face lift and carry a high price tag, so do some research and read reviews before booking.

Read more: Where to Stay in Havana

AirBnb Apartments / Rooms in Cuba

Local Cubans by and far do not have internet and so there are limited AirBnB options available. This one by the beach looks incredible and this one has beautiful charm. If you have never tried AirBnB, you can get $35 off your first stay here. Check the reviews before you book to manage expectations – water shortages and spotty wifi are the norm.

Casa Particular

Other friends recommended a truly local experience by staying at a Cuban bed and breakfast, or casa particular. These are also much cheaper – anywhere from $20-40 /night and make for a good budget option. However since WiFi in Cuba is limited, you would likely have to wait until arrival to book a casa particular and for a travel planner like me, I was hesitant to arrive in a foreign country with zero booked options, especially given the cautious political scene. I have heard that if one casa particular is booked, they will help you find another.

The Luxury 21st Century Option

If you choose to visit Cuba through Fathom’s cruise option, you’ll stay on board the 704 person Adonia, which was recently refurbished in March 2016 and has all the amenities of a 21st century passenger ship including restaurants, lounges, bars, pool and a gym while being much more intimate than a large, traditional cruise liner. Another benefit is thoughtful Cuban inspired meals and cocktails at dinner time!

I’m especially excited for the Cuban cocktail portion as I’ve heard Cuban mojitos are out of this world. Whatever accommodation you choose in Cuba, it’s the journey and interaction with locals that will be a real highlight!

Read more: Where to Eat in Havana

 

Q. Can I use American credit cards in Cuba? Should I bring US Dollars or other currency?

A. In order to use an American credit card in Cuba you will need to visit a local bank branch and open a bank account so.. technically you can but realistically you can’t. Cuba has very few ATMs so as to be nonexistent and local establishments will be hesitant/unable to take credit cards.

Due to strenuous past political relationships, Cuba currently levies a 10% tax on any exchanges on the US dollar so if you have British pounds, euros or Mexican pesos… anything other than USD… bring that to exchange for a better rate.

Cuba also has two local currencies which can sometimes be confusing. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is pegged to the American dollar and is the “tourist” currency. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the locals’ currency and worth less – when you exchange money you will receive CUCs.

 

Q. And finally, let’s talk souvenirs. What can Americans bring back from Cuba?

A. You’re probably not-so-subtly asking about Cuban cigars and the answer is yes! You can now legally bring back Cuban cigars, souvenirs and other paraphernalia but up to a certain dollar limit. Souvenirs are capped at $400 max, including $100 worth in cigars. Other local Cuban souvenirs you might want to bring back: rum, honey, Hemingway’s books, art and/or perfume (the national Cuban flower is Mariposa, aka butterfly jasmine or white ginger).


 

I hope this post was helpful and answered any pre-planning questions about Cuba that you may have! Tell me – is traveling to Cuba on your bucket list for 2017?

P.S. I’ll be live Tweeting and Instagraming the entire Cuba journey so if you’d like to follow along in real time, just give me a follow over there. Update: my Cuba instagram series is here.

I can’t wait! I think I’ve had a secret Cuba pinterest board of all the colorful shots of Havana for months now and I’m finally going to see it in person in just a couple days.

 

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How Americans Can Travel to Cuba

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45 Breathtaking Photos of Havana, Cuba

for a virtual tour through the City of Columns

 

25 Things I Learned About Life in Cuba

After 53 Years of Castro’s Rule

 

The Complete Travel Guide for Where to Stay & Eat in Havana

An Itinerary covering the best accommodation & food

 

 

 

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This sponsored post is written in collaboration with Fathom Cruises. I’ll be joining their Cuba cruise in a couple weeks and can’t wait to share more!

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