Now's the Time to Visit Cuba: Here's What to Expect

  • 01 of 08

    Americans Are Clamoring to Take a Bite of Cuba's Long-Forbidden Fruit

    Havana street sign and cars
    ••• © Jaume Escofet/CC by 2.0

    The White House’s announcement that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosen travel restrictions has had a stunning effect on travel to Cuba. Hotels are suddenly overbooked, Havana and other cities are teeming with Americans—once rarely seen—and the Cuban tourism industry is retooling its strategy for what is being described as an avalanche of demand from U.S., Canadian, and European markets.

    Few destinations appeal to the American traveler the way Cuba does. The U.S. and Cuba are inexorably linked culturally, historically, and geographically. Yet U.S. policy has separated us for more than five decades. Many Americans long to take a bite of the forbidden fruit and see Cuba before it changes. So, what awaits the American traveler to Cuba?

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  • 02 of 08

    What to Expect on a Visit to Cuba Today

    Old Havana street
    ••• Old Havana street, Cuba. © Emmanuel Huybrechts/CC by 2.0

    There is no doubt that the U.S. embargo against Cuba has left its mark on a country, a society and its people. You see it in the aging infrastructure, lack of development, and absence of many common goods. But, much like the Spanish colonial architecture that weaves through Cuba’s cities and towns, the resilience of the people and the society has stood the test of time. Cuba is a special place. The vibe is infectious. The ingenuity of the people is remarkable. They make their society work. As a result, there is much to admire and discover.

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  • 03 of 08

    Who Can Travel to Cuba Now?

    Cuban cigars
    ••• Cuban cigars. © Alex Brown/CC by 2.0

    While the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the ensuing travel restrictions remain in place, it’s easier now than ever for U.S. travelers to make the trip. Twelve categories of travel are authorized under a U.S. Department of the Treasury general license. If you qualify, you can go, but you’ll have to sign a Certificate of Travel indicating that you understand the regulations and that your travel is authorized. 

    Generally, these categories — which include family travel, educational, religious and professional research — have limited scope and impact relatively few Americans. Keep in mind that individual tourist travel is still prohibited, meaning that U.S. citizens still can’t book a plane ticket and a hotel online for the purposes of going to the beach or doing their own thing in Cuba. 

    However, the real game changer for any American wanting to travel to Cuba is the category called people-to-people travel. Under this category, Americans can legally travel to Cuba provided they participate...MORE in guided tours with a company that provides a full schedule of educational exchange activities.

    The further good news is that by joining a people-to-people tour, travelers receive unique access to people and places the average tourist never sees. A visitor might interact with artists, musicians, professionals, and other fascinating people in real-life settings. Tour companies also take care of all the details, such as paperwork, flights, hotel reservations and just about everything else. Even if you are an ardent individual traveler, you’ll see Cuba in ways you never thought possible. 

    As for hitting the beach, you won’t find that as part of any people-to-people tour schedule (it can’t really be justified as a cultural experience, after all). However, tour participants do have free time in the mornings, late afternoons and evenings, and since Cuba is an island, host hotels for tours often are located on or near a beach.

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  • 04 of 08

    Plan Your Cuba Travel Now -- Be Part of History!

    Trinidad, Cuba
    ••• Trinidad, Cuba. © Chris Brown/CC by 2.0

    With renewed interest from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, hotel space is now at a premium. But the future for this destination is as rich as it is bright. Renewed U.S.-Cuba relations will one day mean more foreign investment, more hotels, and an improved economy for Cubans. It’s a historic moment, and travelers want to be part of it. Plan early.

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  • 05 of 08

    Yes, There Are Direct Flights to Cuba

    Cubana Airlines
    ••• Cubana Airlines, the national airline of Cuba. © sputnik/CC by 2.0

    Most Americans are surprised to hear that direct charter flights to Cuba from the U.S. have been available since the late 1970s, and have flown about 600,000 Americans. Charter companies offer nonstop service from Miami to Havana and other Cuban cities. Tampa Bay and New York (JFK) have been added to the list, and new charters are seeking to provide weekly service in New Orleans and Baltimore. 

    While President Obama opened the door for commercial flights to the island, negotiations continue. Commercial flights won’t be available until late 2016. Charter flights available through a people-to-people tour operator are still a good bet for Americans, although flying though Cancun, Mexico, or Toronto remain viable options.

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  • 06 of 08

    Your Credit and Debit Cards Won't Work in Cuba -- Yet

    credit and debit cards
    ••• © Sean MacEntee/CC by 2.0

    The removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is a breakthrough in paving the way for U.S. banking in Cuba. American banks have been authorized to set up shop on the island nation, but it will take time before U.S. credit or debit cards can be considered reliable for payment or cash withdrawal. U.S. travelers need to bring enough cash to cover their expenses while in Cuba.

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  • 07 of 08

    Wifi in Cuba? Maybe. Mobile Phones? Probably Not

    Hotel Nacional de Cuba
    ••• Hotel Nacional de Cuba. © vxla/CC by 2.0

    U.S. telecommunication companies have been given the green light to set up mobile and Internet services in Cuba, but, because of the island’s limited infrastructure (only 5 percent of the nation’s 11 million people are currently connected), bringing these services online will take time. In the meanwhile, Wi-Fi is available at most hotels, especially in Havana—but plan on being “disconnected” during your journey. Just like the good old days!

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  • 08 of 08

    Why Go to Cuba Now?

    Cuba Libre in Havana
    ••• Bartender mixing rum drinks in a Havana, Cuba bar. © Christopher Michel/CC by 2.0

    Why go now? Because you can. Americans are curious about a place off-limits for 54 years—a destination that was at the center of the cold war, and lies only 90 miles from Florida. While Cuba has an old-world charm that includes Spanish colonial architecture and pre-1959 American cars (many restored to their prior glory), Cuba is a nation undergoing economic change. Although this change is welcome in Cuba, travelers want to see the island for themselves, before it changes forever.

    Tom Popper is president of insightCuba, a leading provider of legal people-to-people travel to Cuba for Americans since 2000. He has been featured in hundreds of news media outlets and contributes to the Cuba Travel News blog.