There’s something appealing about visiting a place that has been virtually off-limits to Americans for more than half a century. That’s part of the reason Travel + Leisure named Cuba its Destination of the Year in 2015, and nearly half of Americans are now interested in traveling to the island, according to a recent survey by Allianz.
It has gotten much easier to visit Cuba since President Obama relaxed travel restrictions on Americans visiting the country as part of a push that began in December 2014 to normalize relations between the two countries, with a steady stream of small steps in that direction taking place over the last two years.
However, the election of Donald Trump has thrown that rapprochement into question, as the president-elect has promised to “cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order, if we do not get the deal that we want and the deal that people living in Cuba and here deserve, including protecting religious and political freedom.” Trump may change the rules on travel to the island nation, so the situation may change in the next few years (or even months).
Also, Congress has yet to remove the embargo against Cuba, so there are some legal requirements that travelers still have to meet. Until any major changes come along, here’s what you need to know for a trip to Cuba:
1. The rules are relaxed, but you’ll still face some restrictions. As of now, Americans still aren’t allowed to visit Cuba for a pure leisure vacation, so don’t plan to spend your entire time relaxing on the beaches. You’ll need a stated reason for the trip that falls into one of 12 approved categories, including visiting relatives, education and religious activities; the category with the most leeway is the “people-to-people trips.” This year, the government changed the rules to allow anyone to create their own “people to people” excursions. (Prior to that chat change, you had to take a trip with an approved tour operator.)
Whether you go it alone or travel with an organized group, you’ll need to have a full-time scheduled itinerary, and must hold onto your receipts for five years to prove that you followed the rules while you were there. “You can’t just go and lay around on the beach,” says Peggy Goldman, founder of Friendly Planet Travel. “That’s still illegal.”
2. Flights are cheap and easy. Previously you were able to get to Cuba only on a chartered plane or by connecting from another country, but now several commercial airlines offer service to the island. Starting this month, JetBlue will begin operating flights directly to Havana at highly competitive rates — $54 one-way from Florida, and $99 one-way from New York. “Being able to book a flight directly to Havana takes away one of the major hurdles of traveling to Cuba, because the charter process was a total mess,” says Chad Olin, president of Cuba Candela.
3. Hotel booking is complicated. None of the online travel agencies like Orbitz or Expedia currently list hotels in Cuba, so you’ll need to book via a company that specializes in Cuban travel. Plus, there aren’t enough hotel rooms to meet rising demand. The entire island only has about 60,000 rooms, many of which don’t meet basic American standards. “There is a limited number of hotels and an even more limited number of hotels that you’d want to stay in,” says Jean Warneke, co-owner and manager of JB Journeys.
Especially during the busy season, from December to March, you may have better luck renting at a bed and breakfast or a casa particular — a room or house from a local resident. Thousands of these are now listed on Airbnb.
4. Cash is king, but it will cost you. The ATM networks in Cuba are sparse and most merchants don’t take credit cards, even though new regulations now allow them to. “For the foreseeable future, U.S. travelers must plan on this being a cash-only experience,” says travel writer and Cuba expert Christopher Baker. “Bring significantly more cash than you believe you will spend to tide you through any unforeseen emergency.”
Your best bet is to bring American money and exchange it when you get to Cuba, even though you’ll have to pay a 13 percent fee for the service. There are two different currencies on the island, but in most cases you’ll stick with the Cuban convertible peso.
5. You’ll need insurance. The Cuban government requires that American travelers have an insurance policy on their trip, including a separate health insurance plan, which you’d want anyway since American insurance coverage doesn’t apply there. Before you start shopping around, see whether you’ve already got adequate coverage. Many travel packages to Cuba include insurance, for example, and JetBlue flights include the minimum required coverage as well.
6. Prepare to unplug. Internet connectivity is rare and unreliable in Cuba. Even if your hotel does offer Wi-Fi for a fee, connectivity may be spotty. Don’t plan on being able to get online at your hotel or elsewhere. You can buy an internet card, which will give you access to public Wi-Fi spots for about $2 per hour, but you’ll need to log in for each session, and the lines to get a card can be hours long.
Limited access also means you may need to do some additional legwork and planning ahead before you land, since you probably won’t be able to make new plans or research activities online while you’re there.
7. Pack carefully. The availability of basic supplies that you’d find at a convenience store in the U.S. is limited, so you should bring everything you might need from home. “There are no stores, so simple things [like] shampoo or aspirin are very difficult to find,” says Louis Nevaer, author of The Best of Havana 2016.
8. There’s no longer a limit on souvenirs. In October, the Obama administration eliminated the $400 limit on the value of goods that Americans can bring back from a trip to Cuba. As long as you’re keeping the items for personal use and not reselling them, you can stock up on as much rum and cigars as you can carry. However, keep an eye out for fakes imported from other countries and sold as authentic Cuban products.