How to travel to Cuba from USA
Many Americans rightfully wonder what has really changed about traveling to Cuba since the historic reestablishing of diplomatic relations and the easing of travel restrictions. As with many things about Cuba, nothing is that straightforward. Here are seven things Americans need to know to start planning their trip to Cuba.
1. How to travel to Cuba from US
Let’s start with the flights. There are several international airports throughout the island, and Havana, José Martí International Airport (HAV) is the busiest. Several american airlines fly to the island, such as Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines. Not to mention that JetBlue has direct flights from JFK and United has direct flights from Newark…
We will be happy to give you information about booking and buying your flight.
2. Should I go now?
Travel American continent: now is the time to discover Cuba. Cuba is experiencing a surge in visitors from the United States and elsewhere who want to see the ‘real’ Cuba before it becomes Americanized. With that said, visitors will have the opportunity to get to know a place mostly unknown and misunderstood by Americans as well as be witness to an island in the midst of exciting changes.
3. How to travel to Cuba legally
This is one of the most popular questions for American travelers. As of January, 2015, it has become much easier for Americans to travel to Cuba for reasons other than tourism. President Barack Obama expanded the categories of authorized travel to Cuba so that U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba if they engage in one or more of the ¨people to people¨ categories such as taking part in educational activities or participating in a sporting event.
Previously, any travel to Cuba required applying for a specific license but now U.S. citizens can essentially ‘self-license’ if the tour they have booked meets the legal requirements. This policy change allows many more Americans travel to Cuba.
The US Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Affairs (OFAC) does not allow trips with exclusively tourist activities for American citizens. Although there are still restrictions for US nationals, the Treasury Office of Foreign Affairs rules still allow visits to Cuba if the trip is framed within one of the following 12 general categories:
- Family visits.
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations.
- Journalistic activity.
- Professional research and professional meetings.
- Educational activities: People to People tours.
- Religious activities.
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions.
- Support for the Cuban people.
- Humanitarian projects.
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes.
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials.
- Certain authorized export transactions.
Most of this categories are hard to fulfill for most people. This means that the majority of Americans need to go with a People-to-People tour, like what Espíritu Travel offers. The all Cuba tours have unique cultural experiences that enrich the traveler’s visit and help to understand the way of life of Cuban people. At the end, it is a way to enrich your trip to Cuba.
4. People-to-people tours, what exactly does that mean?
Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for purposes of tourism. If you are looking for a traditional all-inclusive beach vacation to Cuba, that would not be permitted. Even booking through a non-U.S. travel company (i.e. Canadian), Americans are still subject to the travel restrictions.
Travelers should demonstrate that their visit helped the Cuban people or had an educational (i.e. people-to-people) component to it. Booking with a travel company that offers ‘people-to-people’ tours to Cuba would allow ‘self-licensing’.
Not to say that these tours do not have tourist activities but they have additional activities that maintain the trip as legal as it relates to the trade embargo.
5. What else do I need to travel to Cuba?
American travelers need to get a Cuba Tourist Card (Cuba visa) before traveling, which several airlines provide the tourist card. Other travel requirement is having a valid passport with 6 months validity.
If you have a valid Cuban passport or if your passport shows that you were born in Cuba, you will need to contact the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C. for more details about other documents you will need besides your passport. Please take into account that the process with the Cuban Embassy could take a few weeks.
Besides your visa and your valid passport, you will also need medical insurance to enter Cuba. Some airlines include this mandatory Cuban medical insurance ($25 per passenger) in the total cost of the ticket. ESICUBA provides Cuban medical insurance and it is valid for 30 days. If you are planning on staying in the country for more than 30 days, you will need to purchase additional insurance to cover the rest of your stay. You are also able to check with your own medical insurance provider to know if you would be covered in Cuba or you can purchase travel insurance which we always highly recommend.
6. How do I travel to Cuba: can I ensure my visit helps Cuban people?
Cuba is a state-controlled economy so nearly all businesses are government owned and that includes tourism. This includes hotels, transportation, restaurants, tourism activities and excursions, even your guide will probably work for the government.
Espíritu Travel works with Cuba’s growing number of small entrepreneurs. Unlike other Latin American destinations, in Cuba there are two different types of accommodation, hotels and casas particulares. These are private houses licensed by the government under strict conditions to rent en-suite rooms to foreigners.
For starters, we almost exclusively use casas particulares, private homes that are like a micro bed and breakfast, instead of booking government-run hotels. These ‘casas’ provide a more unique, authentic experience than you would otherwise get at a chain hotel, with the advantage that they provide a good environment to get to know the locals and have long conversations with them about very different things, from the tradition and culture of Cuban people to the political situation between Cuba and the United States of America -they will discuss their country’s politics with you if you are willing to do the same thing with them.
Our people-to-people tours almost exclusively use casa particulars especially selected with people and stories to discover in each of them. While these private homes do not offer lists of amenities they make up for it in oodles of charm. Our biggest challenge is to offer real experiences that hotels could never provide.
On the other hand, for the meals our first choice are paladares, privately run restaurants that despite Cuba’s many shortages are increasingly sophisticated and creative. These restaurants are usually placed in a family home and run by the members of the family. It is a unique way to taste the Cuban food at its best and discover all the flavors of the Caribbean country.
7. Once you get to Cuba
Just because it is easier for Americans to travel to Cuba does not mean that western conveniences and standards have miraculously appeared overnight. Cuba is not a slick Caribbean destination where everything is made easy for tourists. For some people, this is part of its appeal.
There is a dearth of affordable good hotels and the infrastructure is in a poor state which is why casas particulares is a much better option.
U.S. credit cards can sometimes be used but Cuba remains a cash economy, while U.S. credit cards are accepted.
It is still illegal for Cubans to have the Internet in their homes unless they need it for work. Apart from a few hotels and the government run Wi-Fi zones (which is often the main square in a town), there is very little connectivity on the island. This is changing rapidly and there are rumors that some casas in Trinidad will start to be have internet next year.
What does Responsible Traveling mean? The unique way of Espíritu Travel
There are many ways to travel to Cuba, however the best way is doing so responsibly. It is important to remember and understand that tourism supports the local community and thus one must be conscious of preserving the landscapes and nature as well as the culture of the island.
Espíritu Travel is committed with a way of traveling that makes a positive impact in the local communities and in the environment. That is what we call Responsible Traveling or Sustainable Tourism.
Our tours help and promote the small but growing entrepreneurial activity that is why we almost exclusively work with casa particulares, paladares and other privately owned businesses. We want you have the best possible vacation while at the same time making an amazingly positive difference in the local areas.
On the other hand, we think it is also important to care for and support the environment, since it is the atmosphere where life happens. Taking care of Cuba’s nature not only helps the local communities and the animals of the island, but it is an action that gets back to us in the matter of global warming, sustainability and produce and recycling of waste.
Supporting the environment
Our commitment to responsible travel is endorsed by being a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. In addition, we collaborate with Aniplant, the only animal NGO dedicated to the protection of domestic animals in Cuba. In a place like Cuba, where sustainable tourism is practically unheard of, it is no easy task but we believe that slowly this will change and we hope to be a part of that change. We have been proactive in raising awareness about traveling responsibly in Cuba.
We provide our travelers with information on how they can reduce their negative impact and make positive contributions to the communities they will visit in Cuba.
The issue of animals in captivity is a sensitive one our travelers and for our company. The situation for domestic animals in Cuba is often appalling which is why we have taken it on as our main cause. Horse taxis and scenic rides. We do not recommend these activities as nostalgic as they may seem, many of these horses are in poor condition. In addition, the majority of them work extremely long hours, often times in extreme heat and humidity with poor tack that leaves open wounds on their bodies.
Horses around the country have borne the brunt of the transportation crisis in the country especially outside of Havana. While there are animal welfare laws, they are not enforced and it is obvious the suffering they endure horses. There are plenty of bicycles taxis to get you around the cities and towns.
In places where horseback riding excursions are part of the itinerary, we have carefully selected the stable in which we work ensuring the highest standards are met for the welfare of the horses.
Our guides are not permitted to take clients to places where animals are used as entertainment or are kept in poor conditions, such the crocodile farm in Peninsula Zapata.
In Cuba, solid waste pollution is a problem all over the island and in particular in the cities and towns. Waste disposal systems are just not adequate on the island and with a rapid increase in tourism this year alone, the problem could get worse. We suggestion the following to our travelers.
Say no to plastic bags, instead canvas bags for carry items. We suggest bringing canvas carrier bags so that you can use them for when you purchase water or souvenirs rather than the one use plastic bags. Also, remove packaging from items before you leave home, Drinking bottle water is a must when in Cuba since the water supply is not reliably safe.
However, as you can imagine this exacerbates an already over taxed and inadequate waste disposable system. There is an alternative to bottled water which is both good for the environment and good for your budget and that is water filtration bottles that have purification systems so you are able to refill them with tap water and you have safe water to drink.
Cigarette butts should not be dropped on streets or behind bushes but put in a trash bin or in a pocket until a trash bin is available. We recommend smokers carry a receptacle to collect their butts. Plastic film cases are excellent for this and reduce the smell!
As an island nation, Cuba depends largely on rainfall for its water supply. But the past years has been one of record drought but this is only half the problem, the situation is exacerbated but a crumbling water delivery infrastructure and treatment facilities.
You will see in Old Havana, in particular that water tankers bring potable water to residents. Try be aware of your water usage and take steps to minimize it when possible. If you would like to read more about it, a recent article in the Havana Times, Extreme Drought in Cuba, Many are Unaware.
We also suggest, eco friendly toiletries especially coral safe sunscreen. A common ingredient found in chemical sunscreen is toxic to coral. We recommend mineral based sunscreen, with titanium oxide or zinc oxide which has been found not to harm reefs. Not only are these types of sunscreens better for the marine environment but they are better for your skin! Let’s help keep Cuba’s coral reefs healthy.
Tourism has a great impact all over the world, our commitment and that of our travelers is to make that impact a positive one.
Supporting the local communities
We are passionate about Cuba, and as it is natural we want to help to maximize the benefits that tourism can bring to Cubans. Our tours help and promote the small but growing entrepreneurial activity. That is why we almost exclusively work with casa particulares, paladares and other privately owned businesses.
The casa particulares we work with are especially selected with people and stories to discover in each of them. While these private homes do not offer lists of amenities they make up for it in oodles of charm. Our biggest challenge is to offer real experiences that hotels could never provide.
In addition, we only work with local guides, so that the wealth our tourism brings to the island stays with hard working Cubans and the travelers are able to experience the true soul of Cuba and discover all its secrets. This is a way of traveling that helps the local communities grow and the visitors understand the real Cuban way of life.
- Work almost exclusively with privately owned businesses, these include casas particulares, paladares and small shops in addition to working with independent licensed guides.
- Work in partnerships with privately owned businesses, rather than state owned.
- Provide employment and leadership opportunities for our guides and tour leaders.
- Are safe, fun, and enjoyable for our travelers and the opportunity to interact with local people.
- Limit the negative impacts to daily lifestyles of local people.
- Actively discourage the participation of our groups in activities which exploit animals – wild or domestic. This includes zoos, aquariums, breeding farms (i.e. crocodile farm) as well as horse taxis and carriage rides. We strongly recommend alternatives, such as pedal taxis.
- Do not promote visits to any dolphinariums, swim with dolphins, or the National Acuario in Havana.
- Educate travelers about responsible tourism.
- Help us to donate to the charity that we support.
- Provide travelers with water filtration bottles in order to reduce the quantity of bottled water that must be purchased.
We want you have the best possible vacation while at the same time making a positive difference in the local communities.
So, how can I travel to Cuba?
If you have read this article imagining yourself in Cuba, enjoying the warmth of the Caribbean Island and discovering its beautiful cities and the natural landscapes while getting to know the locals at the typical bars and restaurants, now it is time to plan your trip.
Get in touch with Espíritu Travel and we will help you have the experience of your life. We will make sure that you get to know the real Cuba, get to meet the locals and discover the true Cuban way of life.
Espíritu Travel supports a responsible and sustainable way of traveling that benefits both the local communities and the environment. Appreciate the differences, enjoy your experiences and, of course, travel!!