Our trip to Cuba was in July 2016 after President Obama had loosened up the travel restrictions. While it was a looser policy than in years past, there still were some hoops to jump through and obstacles to overcome. The following is a guide to better help you navigate planning a trip to beautiful Cuba:
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS: Traveling to Cuba is restricted to Americans who fall under one of 12 categories (To learn more about each of the categories, see Part 515.560 of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations at: http://www.ecfr.gov. For additional info, read the following from the US Embassy in Cuba: https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/). For most people, it would be pretty hard not to find a creative way to place yourself under at least one of these categories under President Obama’s loosened travel policy (however, it has recently tightened up under Trump’s presidency… see links at the bottom of this post for more info on how it has changed). For example, while my husband and I were there for our honeymoon, the point of our trip was truly to immerse ourselves in the Cuban culture. Sure, we relaxed and went out as we would on any vacation but with so much uncertainty as to the future of US-Cuban relations, we wanted to ensure we fully soaked in all of the key sites and learned as much as we could about the culture, the mindset of the people, how the loosened travel restrictions have affected them & what their hopes for the future are. The category we intended to travel under, if asked, was the “people-to-people” license. From the looks of it, I believe that they removed the “people-to-people” license. My backup option would have been “Educational Activities”. Keep in mind, you only need to select a category you are traveling under for your Visa and will only be questioned about it if a US Immigration Officer decides to. In our case, we traveled to & from Cuba via Mexico. So our arriving flight into the US was actually coming from Mexico. Even though we declared on our handwritten declaration that we had visited Cuba as one of the countries prior to arrival back in the US, it was overlooked and the Immigrations Officer simply asked us how Mexico was and waved us through. In our experience, we did not have to disclose the reason for our travel to Cuba. I have also had several friends who have gone, none of whom were asked why they went to Cuba. I did lots of research prior to our trip there and debated whether or not we should enter Cuba as one of the countries traveled to as many people I knew opted not to. However, and it is a BIG however, they did not receive a Cuban entry & exit stamp on their passports as my husband & I had. Many people say that you can ask the Cuban Customs Agent politely not to stamp your passport but then you would also need to ensure you did not get a Mexico (or other intermediary country) re-entry stamp as well. This did NOT work for us. I figured it best not to lie since it was right there in flaming hot pink inside my passport!
HOW TO BOOK YOUR AIR TO CUBA: If you are trying to book a flight from the US or through another country but on a US-based website, you will likely run into more travel restriction hurdles. In order to get around that, I booked our air through AeroMexico’s Mexico website (using Mexico as the country you are located in) rather than AeroMexico’s US site. You may have to confirm that you are traveling under one of the approved licenses when booking, but it should only be an “I Agree” prompt. I believe it will work the same way if you book it on the US site but I was trying to be overly cautious not to “redflag” us. I had other friends who booked on Copa Airlines through Panama using the US site and they had no issues. I also know someone else who purchased a day-of ticket at the Mexico City airport ticketing desk. I am a big planner so that route was too uncertain for me.
WHERE TO GET YOUR VISA: Once you book your air, you will still need to get your Visa, which you will do on the day you travel to Cuba. Since we traveled through Mexico City, we obtained ours inside the Mexico City airport near our boarding gate for our flight to Cuba. It is a Customer Service Kiosk that will likely have a small line. Here is a photo of the exact kiosk we obtained our Cuban Visa from in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport:
MONEY: US dollars, US debit cards and US credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. You will also not be able to exchange USD for Cuban Pesos (CUC) at any US bank. We were told that we would not be able to exchange USD for Cuban Pesos (CUC) in Cuba. However, the hotel we stayed at, Hotel Saratoga, did exchange USD as well as Euros, but did not exchange Mexican Pesos. We waited until we arrived in Havana to exchange Mexican Pesos for Cuban Pesos. There is a currency exchange window outside the airport right when walk out of the building after baggage claim & customs. It is next to the taxi stand and looks like this:
When we ran out of money that we originally exchanged the Havana Airport, we had to find a currency exchange in Old Town Havana that did exchange Mexican Pesos. It is not advisable to exchange USD as they charge a fee for doing so. In my experience and through some research, it is best to bring Euros to exchange for CUC. Note: there are 2 types of Cuban currency – CUC, which is for non-Cubans, & CUP, which is the currency used by Cubans only. You are only able to exchange for CUCs, which look like this:
HOW TO BOOK YOUR HOTEL / LODGING: Since we did not want to have bring a lot of cash, we wanted to try to pre-pay for as much as possible before our trip. I found a company based out of the Netherlands with an English-speaking office in New York called “Cuba Travel Network“. They also have a branch in Havana. Since they process the payments through the Netherlands, you are able to book your Cuban lodging and tours in advance. I believe they will also book airfare for you as well, but we had already done this on our own. We opted to stay at a hotel since we wanted the luxury of a concierge & wifi in case we ran into any issues during our stay (Read “Havana, Cuba: Where to Eat, Stay & Play” for my reviews). US cell phones do not work there and there are not internet cafes or hotspots that we saw. Having wifi at our hotel was a must for me. Keep in mind… this is not the high-speed wifi most Americans are used to; rather, it is more along the lines of dial-up speed and service can be sporadic. If you wanted a more authentic Cuban living experience, you should look into AirBnB or one of the “Casas Particulares”, privately-owned homes that are often rented out as a single room with others sharing the rest of the house. I have known several different people who stayed through AirBnB and had no issues.
HOW TO BOOK TOURS: If you are staying at a hotel, you can ask your Concierge to book tours for you. Alternatively, if you prefer to save the cash you bring as we did, you can book in advance through a site like Cuba Travel Network. I would recommend you book any full day tours, like a day trip to Viñales, in advance. If you are simply looking to do a vintage car Havana tour, you can walk up to any of the drivers parked in front of El Capitolio, the Capitol building, in Havana, near Hotel Saratoga, and negotiate a tour.
If you decide to book your Cuban adventure, be sure to check out my related blog posts: “Havana, Cuba: Where to Eat, Stay & Play” & “Cuba Packing Guide: What to Bring“… these are things I wish someone had told me before we went!
UPDATE: Since Trump took office, he has made an effort to tighten President Obama’s recently relaxed travel restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba. While we were fortunate enough to travel to Cuba while President Obama was still in office, I wanted to pass along the latest updates on Trump’s changes since I initially drafted this blog. I found the following articles helpful:
“Trump unveils new restrictions on travel, business with Cuba”
“Obama sparked a tidal wave of change in Cuba. Trump’s new policy misses the point.” https://www.yahoo.com/news/obama-sparked-tidal-wave-change-cuba-trumps-new-policy-misses-point-191214413.html?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma