The easing of travel restrictions for Americans heading to Cuba has not only opened up new air links between the U.S. and its near Caribbean neighbor but sea routes, as well. In 2015, the U.S. State Department gave several ferry companies permission to begin sailing between South Florida and Cuba, pending approval from Cuban authorities.
When service does launch, expect service to Havana from at least two Florida destinations: Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) and Key West. Miami, Port Manatee, Tampa and St. Petersburg are other departure points being considered by ferry companies. U.S. ferry service is being eyed for the historic, south coast port city of Santiago de Cuba as well as Havana.
“I can hardly imagine anything more exciting than uniting two countries that are so close, and yet have been cut off from each other for more than 55 years,” says Matt Davies, managing director of Direct Ferries, a global booking site for ferry service that will offer Cuba reservations at http://www.cubaferries.com. “We expect Cuba to sign the bilateral agreement very soon, and we will be ready with the widest selection of ferry routes to Cuba.”
Spanish Ferry Company Baleària Expected to Lead
The ferry operators, which include the leading Spanish company Baleària as well as smaller operators, are still waiting for Cuba's OK, which means that ferry service is unlikely to commence any sooner than late 2016, and probably later than that. Other companies that have secured U.S. approval to run ferries to Cuba include Havana Ferry Partners, Baja Ferries, United Caribbean Lines, America Cruise Ferries, and Airline Brokers Co. Baja Ferries, which currently serves Pacific ports in Mexico and California, plans to offer Miami-Havana service.
America Cruise Ferries, which operates ferries between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, wants to offer passenger and vehicle transportation between Miami and Havana.
Where you depart from will make a big difference in your travel time to Cuba: a traditional ferry from Port Everglades to Havana would take about 10 hours one way, according to Direct Ferries. However, Baleària plans to operate a high-speed ferry between Key West and Havana that would make the crossing of the Florida Strait in just three hours. Baleària already operates high-speed ferries between Port Everglades and Grand Bahama Island (billed as the Bahamas Express) and has proposed building a $35-million ferry terminal in Havana -- again, pending approval of the Cuban government.
Cost, Convenience Among the Advantages of Ferry Travel to Cuba
Taking a flight may be faster than a ferry, but there are a number of advantages to traveling to Cuba by sea, particularly lower fares (roundtrip fares could start at around $300) and no weight limits on baggage. And of course, you can't take your car onto a plane (although it's still unknown what restrictions the Cuban government will put on Americans driving their private vehicles on the island).
Ferry service from the U.S. to Cuba is not new: several ferries made daily runs between South Florida and Havana into the early 1960s, with Miami being a popular place for Cuban families to come and do their shopping. The approval of new ferry routes between the two countries is a step behind other transportation links: for example, the cruise ship Adonia, part of Carnival Cruise Lines' Fathom Travel fleet, docked in Havana in May 2016 on an excursion from Miami -- the first such landing in nearly 40 years.
Carnival and the French cruise line Ponant are the first to receive permission to cruise from the U.S. to Cuba.
Meanwhile, U.S. airlines are rapidly moving forward with plans to launch service between multiple destinations in the U.S. and Cuba, with the first flights expected to begin by the end of 2016. To date, 10 U.S. airlines have won approval to fly from 13 U.S. cities to 10 Cuban destinations, including Havana, Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. No matter how Americans travel to Cuba, however, they remain subject to certain unique travel restrictions, including the requirement that all travel itineraries focus on cultural exchanges between Cuban and American citizens.