Cuba is a hot destination. In the past several months, it's hosted Pope Francis, R&B entertainer Usher and talk-show host Conan O'Brien, who filmed an episode of his show there.
After the Obama administration eased a half-century of restrictions in January, online searches for travel to the Caribbean country from the U.S. shot up 184 percent in the first three months of the year, compared with the same period in 2014, according to a study of more than 800 million online searches and bookings worldwide by Sojern, a marketing firm in San Francisco.
Even before that, Americans were visiting the island nation in droves. The United States is the second-largest tourism source for the island nation after Canada. And 173,550 Americans went to Cuba in January through March, according to the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group..
But while some travel experts and upscale magazines are urging trips to Cuba before it changes, visitors envisioning salsa in the streets and glamorous vintage cars should also be prepared to manage without credit cards, Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and in some instances, even toilet paper. Here are some things you need to know before you go.
Under revised regulations that took effect Jan. 16, there are a dozen categories of travel that allow Americans to visit Cuba. The categories include family visits, professional research, religious activities, humanitarian efforts, performances, sports and journalism, but by far the most common category is educational or academic programs that include preplanned people-to-people contact. That's the category most tour operators use when arranging trips for groups or individuals without family ties to the island.
Among the many U.S. tour operators licensed by U.S. officials to offer people-to-people trips: Grand Circle Foundation (grandcirclefoundation.org), Insight Cuba (insightcuba.com), Smithsonian Journeys (smithsonianjourneys.org) and National Geographic Expeditions (nationalgeographicexpeditions.com).
By air: For now, charter carriers, as well as JetBlue, offer flights to Cuba. But meetings are being held this month between U.S. and Cuban officials to reopen regular commercial flights between the two nations. JetBlue began charter service from New York's JFK to Havana in July, but other airlines are eager to offer routes to the island. From Baltimore, Island Travel & Tours runs the BWI-to-Havana flight with partner Swift Air. The round-trip airfare between BWI and Havana is $649, and the price is expected to increase after this month. Island Travel & Tours is approved for two weekly flights from BWI to Havana but is only offering the Wednesday flights for now. Web travel retailer Cheapair.com sells tickets on Havana-bound charter flights from Miami, Tampa, Fla., and New York. Organized tours to Cuba often cost about $2,000 and up; airfare may not be included.
By ship: Getting a foothold in a potentially lucrative new market, Carnival Corp. announced this summer that it had approval from U.S. officials to begin travel to Cuba next year. Carnival's proposed cruises will include two colonial cities outside Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, in addition to the Cuban capital. The planned seven-day trips from Miami will take place on a small ship from the new Carnival brand, Fathom, beginning in May. U.S. rules will allow U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana and ferries to run from Florida to Havana.
The easy-to-use website cubaccommodation.com covers all of Cuba, city by city. Hotels, especially historic ones, may be listed as luxury or five-star, but the terminology doesn't always translate. In Old Havana, rooms in private homes — casas particulares — are about $20 to $40 U.S. a night. These are similar in concept to bed-and-breakfasts. Check out casaparticular.com or casas-cuba.org for directories. A new option is AirBnB.com, but its prices tend to be higher. In the two months since Airbnb started doing business in Cuba, listings have ballooned to about 2,000. The website makes it relatively easy to find lodging in a country that's largely been cut off from the online booking systems most travelers take for granted. However, most Cubans don't have easy email access. So it can take days to get booking confirmation.
Havana's best attractions include the waterfront promenade known as the Malecon, Old Havana, Hemingway's estate at Finca Vigia and the Museo de la Revolucion, where "Cretins' Corner" mocks Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. The stunning Cuban collection at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes ranges from colonial portraits to 20th-century political pop art. The Tropicana show is on many top 10 Havana lists. If spending nearly $100 to see skinny dancers in see-through bodysuits with sequin pasties and chandeliers on their heads sounds fun, by all means, go. Otherwise, try the music scene at Casa de la Musica in Central Havana. Except for those abutting resorts or private property, Cuba's beaches are public and free. In the eastern Matanzas province, there's Playa Giron (Giron Beach), which also has a museum that tells the story of the U.S.-sponsored 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Government-run cafeterias in public places like museums are dreadful. Stick to paladares — privately owned restaurants, often inside someone's home. You'll need reservations for the best. Prices are moderate but not cheap; food is good but not outstanding. You also might want to venture out and try the ham sandwiches, pizza and fresh fruit juices that independent street vendors peddle to visitors and locals. For a drinking tour, consider Ernest Hemingway's advice: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." The handwritten quote, allegedly scribbled by Hemingway himself, is framed at La Bodeguita del Medio over a bar mobbed with tourists. The Floridita is nicer: air conditioning, icy daiquiris and a bust of Hemingway, perfect for selfies.
Under the new provisions, Americans are allowed to bring back up to $400 in goods for personal use from Cuba, but no more than $100 combined total in alcohol and/or tobacco products. The fancy hotels sell some things in shops onsite, of course, but Havana just doesn't have many stores. Even Harris Brothers, a market on Monserrate at O'Reilly Street, isn't overflowing with consumer goods — though you can buy souvenir bags of coffee. Still, if you forget to bring your toothbrush, it may take a while to find one.
Paperwork and passports
Americans need a passport that doesn't expire until at least six months after their Cuba trip is completed. (Cuban officials generally don't stamp the passports of U.S. visitors.) The Cuban government requires U.S. tourists to apply for a visa (tourist card), a process that's typically handled by U.S. tour operators on behalf of their clients. In theory, as an individual you could seek a visa through the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, but that route is a rarity so far.
Until U.S. rules change, take cash — euros or Canadian dollars. Change them into Cuban convertible currency at Cadeca currency exchanges. American dollars can be changed too, but you are penalized about 10 percent. Although both MasterCard and American Express have said they will allow use on the island, credit cards of any sort aren't in widespread use yet, especially outside tourist areas. Cuba uses two currencies — the Cuban convertible peso, known as a CUC, and the Cuban peso, known as the CUP. U.S. visitors need the CUC, which is 1:1 with the U.S. dollar. However, transaction fees can mean visitors receive just 87 CUCs for every $100 exchanged. Exchange euros and you don't get that financial slap on the hand, but you are subject to changing financial markets.
Cuba requires all travelers to have medical insurance and typically bundles that coverage with the cost of a charter flight (which is then bundled into the overall cost of an organized tour). Travelers who reach the Havana airport without health insurance can buy coverage before passing through immigration. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites typhoid and hepatitis A as possible concerns in Cuba. And while public bathrooms aren't bad, travelers may want to keep a roll of toilet paper handy.
First, don't expect it to be one big party. Cuba is no Bahamas, not yet. With that in mind, here are five top tips every American should know before traveling to Fidel's Paradise.
Leave the iPad at home. Cuba has no Wi-Fi. If you are hoping to binge-watch "Mad Men" or "Game of Thrones" in Havana, you will be sorely disappointed.
Leave your bling at home. The government in power, now under Fidel Castro's brother, Raul, is known for depriving most natives of food, cars and other basic essentials often taken for granted in the U.S. You will look like a real jerk if you are walking around dressed in a Gucci top and shorts, Ray-Ban sunglasses and an Apple iWatch. There are already enough reasons for Cubans to hate Americans without tourists from here rubbing their noses in our extraneous wealth.
Don't jump off the plane screaming for the best cigars and rum. You'll find those items there, but Cuba has so much more to offer than just that. Be prepared to have your mind blown by the music, cuisine and art. And do try picadillo.
Don't litter. You may be used to dropping cigarette butts, Coke cans and other trash on our beaches. But have some respect when traveling to an oasis that has been locked away for decades. No need to tarnish the reputation of American tourists more than has already been done.
Pack light. Eat well before boarding the plane. Cuba may be only a short flight away, but expect the airlines to gouge you with add-on fees as much as possible when aboard. That's would just good old American capitalism at work, after all.