So you want to visit Cuba – here’s how.
In January 2017, Alaska Airlines will begin daily commercial service to Havana, Cuba. This year the United States and Cuban government signed a historic agreement that reopened the pathways to regularly scheduled commercial air service between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years.
“There’s nowhere I’ve ever been that’s like Cuba,” says Adam Brady, Alaska’s manager of international facilitation, who has traveled to Cuba several times this year in the course of establishing Alaska’s new service. “The thing I love about Cuba is that it’s this blast from the past. You can stay in hotels from the 1940s and see antique cars driving the roads; dine in these really cool, hidden gem restaurants. It’s a really unique culture.”
But before you can steep yourself in that unique culture, you’ll need to do a bit more advance preparation than for many of the other destinations Alaska serves.
Before you book your flight
1. Make sure you qualify to visit
The U.S. government does not currently allow Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism. U.S. citizens are permitted to visit Cuba if they fall under 12 approved categories, including family visits, educational activities and public performances or exhibitions.
Additionally, anyone entering Cuba on a U.S. carrier is bound by those same restrictions, whether or not they hold U.S. citizenship. That means customers flying to Havana on Alaska Airlines must be authorized under one of the 12 approved categories – whether or not they hold U.S. citizenship.
2. Reserve a hotel room
Hotels are extremely limited in Cuba, so make sure you have accommodations prior to booking a plane ticket. Many casa particulaires (houses that rent rooms) are available via AirBNB, most in the $20-50 range. A travel agency such as Cuba Travel Services can also assist with booking homestays or hotels. Bonus: Booking through a travel agency or AirBNB allows for advance credit card payment, minimizing the cash you’ll need to carry with you.
3. Figure out the necessary documentation
Entry document requirements are based on citizenship, and some may take up to 30 days to process. Many travel agencies can issue visas for you. The U.S. Dept. of State recommends contacting the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. to determine the appropriate type of visa required. Learn more.
4. Have Cuba-specific travel insurance
All passengers are required by the Cuban government to be covered by an ESICUBA health insurance plan prior to entry, to cover any personal medical expenses that might be required while in Cuba. US health insurance does not apply in Cuba. When you travel with Alaska Airlines, this insurance will be included when you purchase your ticket. You must keep your boarding pass with you throughout your visit as proof of coverage in case you need to visit a Cuban medical facility.
5. Purchase a plane ticket
Once you’ve secured lodging and entry documentation, you’re ready to book a flight. Alaska Airlines begins daily roundtrip flights between Los Angeles and Havana on Jan. 5, 2017, and is the only carrier to offer nonstop flights from the West Coast. Alaska also offers convenient connecting flights for customers traveling from Anchorage, Seattle and Portland. Search for flights at alaskaair.com.
Know before you go
Most financial transactions in Cuba are cash, and the few places with credit card systems won’t take American credit cards. Travelers’ checks are typically not available, so you’ll need to carry enough cash to last your entire trip. Keep cash on your person, not your checked luggage.
Cash can be exchanged at many hotels, a CADECA (change bureau) or a variety of Cuban banks. Tip: Don’t exchange all your cash at once. Instead, exchange money in smaller increments that you’re sure you’ll use until you have a better understanding of what you’ll spend on your trip.
“If travel accommodations are paid in advance, I suggest $75 to $200 per day depending on the activities,” says Michael Zuccato, General Manager at Cuba Travel Services. ”A lot of people buy art in Cuba and also bring back a limited amount of cigars and rum. “
Look for a hotel that offers in-room safes.
There are U.S.-based travel agencies that specialize in travel to Cuba. A travel agency can help with documentation, including issuing visas and the required health insurance, as well as help you meet the entry requirements. If you’re interested in traveling to Cuba as a cultural exchange or people-to-people to visit, an agency can build a custom itinerary that will help your trip qualify for the visa.
The small things you take for granted in the U.S. may not be available in Cuba. Make sure you pack everything you need for your entire trip, including sunscreen, hand sanitizer and basic over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen. Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray (Locally transmitted cases of Zika virus infection have been reported in Cuba. The CDC recommends EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535. Learn more at cdc.gov).
Day of travel
Traveling to Cuba is very different from traveling to many more Westernized airport locations. Plan to arrive at the airport 3-4 hours before your flight departs, and expect long check-in lines.
Do your research before you travel and know which taxi companies are licensed. There are some unauthorized companies that will attempt to get your business – avoid these companies.
There are many interesting and unique items bring home from Cuba, so make sure you understand your import limitations before you go shopping. Oct. 2016 update: In Oct. 2016, the limits on Cuban rum and cigars were lifted. Americans can now purchase and bring any amount of Cuban rum and cigars back to the United States, as long as they are for personal consumption only. Note that normal limits on duty and tax exemptions still apply.