Like many Americans, I’d had Cuba on my travel bucket list for years, my curiosity piqued by friends’ photos and stories from their trips there through Canada or Mexico. But I was waiting for a legal option for traveling to this long-embargoed country. So when restrictions for Americans were relaxed earlier this year, I was thrilled to join tour operator Insight Cuba on its inaugural trip. Here are a few things to keep in mind about this enchanting—and surprising—island country.
1. This is not a regular vacation: Travelers who envision days full of sunbathing and sipping mojitos should be forewarned: the new regulations mean traveling with U.S. and Cuban government-authorized operators, and busy schedules of educational and cultural activities. The U.S.’s new regulations allow for “person-to-person” travel that facilitates interaction with locals and an understanding of Cuba’s culture. Itineraries can vary, but activities can include visits to local medical facilities, orphanages, recording studios, tobacco farms, and community arts projects. Organized activities are intended for the whole group (which can be as small as 10 or as large as 30), and free time can be limited to just a few hours a day.
2. Choosing the right operator: Only a handful of authorized vendors are currently providing travel to Cuba, and most offer almost all-inclusive pricing—ranging from $1,800 to $4,000—that covers accommodations, most meals, and airport transfers in Cuba. Prices almost always include three- to five-star hotels, but be aware that the levels of quality and service are lower than standards in the US. Itineraries are always being tweaked to make the government (and clients) happy. New York-based Insight Cuba currently has more than 130 departures scheduled through 2012, with excellent, English-speaking guides; some feature specific themes like jazz, art, or the Bay of Pigs. Distant Horizons is currently developing more than 45 trips with organizations including Harvard University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and UCLA. Dates are scheduled from now through 2012 (some licenses are still pending), and some trips require participants to join a particular organization.
3. All airfare is not necessarily included: All of these companies must use government-approved air-charter operators for their flights, but you must get yourself to the charter flight which typically leaves from Miami. Be sure to ask your operator if the cost of the charter is included in the price you are quoted; if not, it’s approximately $450 with taxes. And allow 3 hours to transfer and check-in for all your charter flights; you can’t check in online.
4. More money matters: You’ll need to bring some spending money for souvenirs, snacks, and other extras. Most U.S. credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so make sure you bring $50–75 cash per day. If you have euros or Canadian dollars, bring them along, since it’s cheaper to change them into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) than to change U.S. dollars (expect to lose about 10% on every transaction with U.S. dollars). But you probably won’t save anything by changing your dollars to euros in advance of the trip. Finally, don’t forget to tuck away $25 CUC for your departure tax, which is not payable in U.S. dollars.
5. A heads-up for timid travelers: Cuba’s lack of infrastructure may come as a surprise to some first-time travelers. Drink bottled water, even in higher-end hotels. Expect public restrooms to be sketchy (bring toilet paper, and don’t flush it; that’s what the small trash cans in stalls are for). Though Cuba is generally a very safe country for travelers, restaurant promoters and vendors can be aggressive, and pickpocketing can happen. Expect domestic flights to be unreliable and open hours to differ from what’s listed; service is almost universally less than attentive.
6. Proper packing: Pharmacies and convenience stores are few and far between, so make sure to bring in necessary toiletries, sunscreen, and medicines. Snacks like granola bars can also come in handy.
7. Keeping in touch: When available, Internet is achingly slow (and expensive). Avoid the approximately $3 per minute calls to the US in hotels and purchase a prepaid phone card to use on a public phone (or borrow a cell phone).
8. Â¿Hablas español? Most hotel staff and a few taxi drivers speak some English, but you’ll have a much richer experience in Cuba with a basic grasp of Spanish. Knowing some key phrases will help reduce your chances of being taken advantage of as a tourist, like asking Â¿Cuanto cuesta . . . ? or How much is . . . ? beforehand, especially in cabs that don’t have meters.
9. Cuban History 101: One of the most interesting aspects of travel to Cuba is getting a local perspective on the country’s tumultuous history, as well as the tenuous relations between its government and that of the United States. Reading up beforehand on these topics will only enhance your experience.
10. No cigar(s): U.S. travelers can bring back CDs, books, posters and artwork, but, alas, those coveted Cohibas and Montecristos, as well as rum, are not allowed.