Since 1961, U.S. travel to Cuba has been heavily restricted. Now that the U.S. and Cuba have begun to re-establish diplomatic ties, it’s getting easier for Americans to pop over to Havana for a visit. But how exactly does this shift in international relations impact American travel to Cuba? Here are 6 things any traveler needs to know about what has and has not changed.
1. Get the Facts
Be sure to get a travel license. While there are still no tourist visas being issued for travel to Cuba, it has become easier to obtain a “general license,” which now covers 12 different categories of travel. These include educational activities, humanitarian projects, athletic competitions, and “support for the Cuban people.” Check out this fact sheet for more info on the categories.
2. Book a Flight
In the past, Americans had to use an authorized travel service provider to book a chartered flight from Florida. Now it is possible for the average Joe to purchase a plane ticket from many cities in the U.S. directly to Cuba. (Just make sure the travel license has been taken care of.)
3. Stay A La Casa
It can still be a bit tricky to book a hotel in Cuba, so it’s best to plan ahead and start the process early. For those interested in a more authentic Cuban experience, it is also possible to stay in licensed private homes, called casas particulares. This experience, which is something like a homestay/B&B, allows visitors to get to know some Cubans and it supports the local economy. Many casas offer additional services or meals (breakfast is usually included) at an extra cost.
4. Pay With Plastic
For the first time, U.S. credit and debit cards can be used in Cuba. This is great news—in theory. However, keep in mind that ATMs are not yet widespread (most are in Havana). ATMs also might only access checking accounts, are likely to have a limit on the number of bills per transaction, and simply may not have enough cash for a large withdrawal. For places that take credit cards, it seems that Visa and Mastercard may have the best luck, though this is all changing pretty quickly. Just to be on the safe side, it may still be a good idea to bring enough cash or travelers’ checks to get by.
5. Bring Cigars Home
Cigars are still Cuban icons. Visit a working tobacco plantation, such as the Alejandro Robaina Plantation near Pinar del Río, or just sample some of the local products (but be on the look-out for fakes or scams). And now, it is legal to bring some back for your friends! Thanks to a new policy on imports, U.S. travelers can bring home up to $100 of combined alcohol and tobacco products. (On second thought, perhaps your friends don’t need to know about this…maybe those Cuban cigars could go into a personal stash?)
6. Enjoy the Good Stuff
Fortunately, the things that make Cuba a classic destination will not be impacted by the new policies. The beautiful beaches and turquoise water have not changed with improved U.S.-Cuban relations. Ditto the rich musical heritage combining West African, Spanish, and even some Chinese influences. The architectural diversity (ranging from Moorish to art deco) which makes Old Havana a UNESCO World Heritage Site is still preserved. A Cuban bartender can still make a mean mojito, and travelers can even see the same old American cars which have been driving around Cuba since before 1961.