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Photos by Drown
Matador’s Cuba Expert, Julie Schwietert, gives you all the planning tools you’ll need for getting to and from Cuba.

Cuba seems to be one of the world’s few forbidden destinations. The decades-long embargo all but prohibits travel to Cuba, and the limited opportunities for legally sanctioned travel decrease every year. But Cuba is by no means off-limits, and a trip is much easier than you might think, especially with careful planning.

1) Know before you go.

The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is responsible for sanctions related to the embargo, and the specifics of the law, including how it affects travel, are available online. Although it’s unlikely that you will be detained for questioning upon return to the US, you need to know the law, understand your rights, and be prepared to accept the possible consequences of your travel.

Spend some time visiting online travel forums to read about other Americans who have traveled to Cuba.

2) Choose your gateway country.

Photo by Brayan Collazo

The only direct flights from the US to Cuba are reserved for Americans who have travel licenses and Cubans returning to the island who had official permission from the Cuban and US governments to visit the US.

If you don’t fall into either of these categories, you will need to travel to Cuba through a third country.

The Bahamas, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, and Panama are some of the most popular gateway countries.

Prices and flight schedules vary considerably, as do local practices of immigration officers willing to forgo stamping your passport upon return from Cuba.

Mexico is among the easiest of the gateway countries, with flights departing daily from Cancun and Mexico City on Mexicana and Cubana airlines. How do you choose the gateway that’s best for you? Research. As you’re planning your trip, consider the following:

Flight availability and prices

Determine which airlines offer service from the gateway country to Cuba (Havana’s airport code is HAV), how often, and at what times. Follow pricing trends to determine whether certain days of the week are more affordable than others.

One tip: When checking flight schedules and prices online, be sure to enter the country of origin as the gateway country; otherwise, you’ll quickly learn that you won’t retrieve any information.

Frequency of flights

Flights to Cuba from any gateway country and on any airline are often delayed or canceled, so consider countries that offer more flights and flexibility. Make room in your budget for lodging and meals in the gateway country in case you are overnighted.

Photo by sami73

3) Prepare for the ticket process.

Americans are accustomed to booking most of their flights online, but you cannot use a U.S. credit or debit card to purchase a flight to Cuba, even if you are buying the ticket from a gateway country’s airline (such as Mexicana or Air Jamaica) by phone or over the Internet.

You may be able to convince a phone agent to hold a reservation for you, but the more likely scenario is that you will purchase your ticket after landing at the airport in the gateway country. Once you know what airlines offer flights, and what their schedules are, you can plan your arrival flight into the gateway country.

Once you land, you will go to the counter of the airline with cash to purchase your round-trip ticket to Cuba. Don’t forget to budget $15 for a tourist visa, which the airline will sell to you directly.

4) Prepare your paperwork… and your pesos.

U.S. passport and border crossing regulations became more stringent in January 2008. The more identification you carry with you (passport, birth certificate, driver’s license), the better, but do not offer all of your identification unless asked.

About those pesos… they can facilitate your return trip considerably, especially in Mexico. When you enter and leave the gateway country on the way to Cuba, your passport will be stamped.

When you return to the gateway country on your way back to the U.S., your passport is likely to be stamped again unless you make a polite request—accompanied by pesos folded inside the passport—otherwise.

Photo by malias

5) Prepare for Cuba’s entry and exit requirements.

Cuba does not stamp Americans’ passports upon entry or exit. Cuban immigration will stamp your tourist visa, which is not affixed to your passport, upon entry and exit. Cuban immigration officials will often ask where you are planning to stay during your trip.

You should have the name and address of a hotel or casa particular prepared to offer up to Cuban immigration officials, who can decide whether they want to confirm your reservations. If you don’t have a reservation, they can compel you to make one before leaving the airport, though this is uncommon.

Do not lose your tourist visa, as you’ll need it upon exiting Cuba, and don’t forget to set aside 25 CUC (the Cuban currency) for the required exit tax, which you’ll pay at the airport on your day of departure.

Photo by topyti

6) On the ground basics

There are two currencies in Cuba: moneda nacional (also referred to as the peso) and the Cuban convertible (also referred to as CUC). Tourists use the CUC, and money can be exchanged at Cadeca booths throughout the city or at hotels. American issued credit and debit cards cannot be used in Cuba, so be sure to carry plenty of cash.

Community Connection

For more resources to help you plan your trip, please see Matador’s Before You Go Guide and the guide to the 10 Best Nightlife Spots in Havana.

Health + Lifestyle


 

About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/ Walter Lippmann

    Thanks for your simple, direct and on-point reporting and suggestions. As one of the few people from the US who travels regularly to Cuba on the basis of a general licence for journalism and research, I have operated a Yahoo news group for the past eight years at which over eighty thousand items have been posted, from, about or related to Cuba which readers here might find useful.

    Travel to Cuba for all but a handful of those of us who live in, are citizens of, or otherwise “subject to US law”, such as green card holders, is extremely limited. We can go to China, Vietnam and North Korea, which have one-party political systems like Cuba, or to Saudi Arabia which has a no-party political system, but simple visiting of Cuba is not allowed for nearly all of us from the United States.

    That needs to change, and such change requires national legislative change, since the US rules and regulations restricting travel to Cuba are combined in a complex series of laws such as the Helms-Burton and Torricelli laws, and more.

    Thanks for your report.

    Walter Lippmann

  • http://www.cubafriends.ca Marcel Hatch

    Hello Julie,

    This is a great summary for Americans on how to visit Cuba. I can attest to its accuracy because my organization in Vancouver Canada helps travelers from the States visit the island regularly.

    Canada is also a good gateway and Canadian immigrations will not stamp your passport upon return from Cuba, if you ask, nor do they require a tip for the courtesy.

    There is a category of legal Cuba travel your readers may be interested in. It is for full time professionals conducting research on the island. Our website details the process at http://cubafriends.ca/legaltravel

    We offer many education and cultural programs to Cuba that qualify for this license at http://cubafriends.ca

    We look forward to the day when our friends in the US will be able to visit Cuba freely as we can in Canada.

    Marcel Hatch
    Education Coordinator
    Cuba Education Tours

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Hi, Walter-

    Thanks for your post. Could you include the link to your forum so The Travelers Notebook readers could visit your site?
    I think we met when my husband and I had an art gallery in Long Island City– do you recall NovoArte on the corner of Vernon and 48th Ave.?

    So glad to see you here, and I hope you’re visiting our sister sites, http://www.matadortravel.com and http://www.bravenewtraveler.com.

    Peace,
    Julie

  • victor

    Travel to Cuba is as easy as you say..What I would like to see is more cuban/americans going to Cuba illegally instead of the once every 3 year visit that we are allowed.. Many cuban/americans go on a regular basis with great care they are not found out.Its incredible that an american citizen has to lie upon entering back into the U.S. I never lie to any border..When I travel to Cuba,as often as 3-4 times a year I always volunteer the fact that I did travel to Cuba..Ive been held for as long as 2 hours and questioned about my reasons to visit..Where I stayed and how much I spent..I have close to 12 relatives living in Cuba..This has happened to me upon enterering the U.S. seven times now..I have never received a letter from OFAC in regards..Cuba has many problems as many other countries have..Like the past post has said..We can travel to China.You are not going to see priest or religious leaders beat and killed in the streets of Cuba. Youre not going to see starving people on their strreets..No children sleeping on those same streets..No person without a roof above their heads ( you should check out my city) or just walk around your downtown. Today even veterans of the Bay of Pigs in Miami,die homeless and hungry in the streets.Their own wont even help them. Miami doesnt speak for me and it should not speak for you..Miami hard liners at the expense of 11 million people continue to reap huge monetary benefits. When a rafter arrives,they send them to the U.S. govt. or churches to get help..Welcome to America,your on your own.

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Marcel-

    Thanks so much for the information you have shared. I certainly encourage Americans to travel under the auspices of the ever-shrinking pool of travel licenses, and appreciate the details about your organization and the links you’ve shared here.

    Peace,
    Julie

  • http://greenleafnc.livejournal.com GreenleafNC

    Thanks for the great site, which I’ll be sending my other US friends to.

    I visited Cuba a few weeks ago, and wanted to add some clarification to one of your notes which might be confusing to some readers. You wrote:

    “Americans are accustomed to booking most of their flights online, but you can not use a U.S. credit or debit card to purchase a flight to Cuba, even if you are buying the ticket from a gateway country’s airline (such as Mexicana or Air Jamaica) by phone or over the Internet. You may be able to convince a phone agent to hold a reservation for you, but the more likely scenario is that you will purchase your ticket after landing at the airport in the gateway country.”

    Here’s how it worked for me and another US citizen friend. We bought Cubana Airline tickets from Mexico to Cuba using US-based plastic. I made the purchase in person at a travel agency in Mexico, where I presented my debit card and passport for my ticket, and a photocopy of my friend’s credit card, photograph, and a note authorizing the travel agency to make the purchase.

    My understanding from the travel agent is that — alternatively — both of us could have purchased our tickets by faxing all of these papers from the US to the agency in Mexico. But because I was already in Mexico several weeks before our planned trip, it seemed better to do this in person – with nice scans of my friend’s documents, emailed to me in encrypted files, rather than fuzzy faxes.

    Another plastic method that we didn’t try: getting a “prepaid” MasterCard or Visa from a non-US bank, not just for buying a ticket, but also for making purchases and obtaining cash while in Cuba. (Our trip was short enough that we just brought sufficient pesos from Mexico to exchange into Cuban CUCs for our one-week stay.)

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Hi, Greenleaf-

    Thanks for your message.

    While I appreciate the clarification you offered, I’d STRONGLY discourage any US citizen or US passport holder from purchasing tickets using US credit cards, even if the airline office does accept them (which it doesn’t always) in the third country when you’re on the ground there. There are two main reasons why I say this.
    First: (especially if you’re buying the ticket from Cubana): The Cubana purchase will show up on your credit or debit card record, potentially prompting an investigation that could ultimately result in you receiving a threatening letter from OFAC and a potential fine of several thousand dollars. The embargo laws strictly prohibit spending any money that “aids and abets the enemy”– and money paid to Cubana is definitely considered to be in that category. The powers that be who are in charge of such reviews are much more likely to flag a Cubana purchase than a Mexicana purchase, but I’d still recommend cash to credit for either airline.

    Second… from my own experience, I was able to use a debit card for a ticket purchase on one of my trips; however, upon my arrival at the airport, I’d learned that while I technically had a reservation number, my ticket purchase had not actually been processed, and Mexicana had never notified me. Mexicana, in particular, is vigilant about not processing US credit or debit cards for Cuba flights, and you’re likely to either be forced to pony up the cash if you want to catch the flight you thought you were scheduled for OR to lose the flight. I arrived at the airport about three hours before my flight and was still running to catch it because I had to wait in line for over two hours before the issue could be resolved.

    While many people, including myself, are reluctant to carry such large sums of money, cash is always preferable when you’re planning a Cuba trip. The longer a paper trail you create for yourself, the more difficulty you’re likely to face.

    Thanks for passing along the story, and more thanks for sharing your own– proof positive that no matter how current or complete a guide one has, or how experienced the writer of that guide may be, on the ground experiences are ALWAYS subject to variation (not to mention the whims of a travel agent or border official)! :)

    I’d definitely be interested in hearing from others who have been traveling to Cuba recently. I’m beginning to hear some new difficulties folks are encountering in gateway countries as the US steps up monitoring– even in foreign airports.

  • ruth

    Hi. I purchased a ticket to cuba via air cubana on my american mastercard, I don´t know why it was processed but it was…my question is, does it automatically get sent to ofac because of the embargo? Are they required to send it?

  • dwight

    can we now travel to cuba from mexico, or is the ban still in effect because of the swine flu. thank you

  • luigi

    What about the passenger manifests.
    I understand tha Mexico and Canada have agreements with the US Department of Homeland Security to share the passenger manifest of all aircraft coming and going out of this countries.
    Isn’t that true?

  • Ric

    Can you get a boat from Mexico to Cuba?

  • Lucy Day

    Hi I also wondered if it is possible to get a boat from Cuba to Mexcio? If not, how much are average flights from Havana to Cancun in August please? Is it best to get flights before, or when in Cuba?

    And information would be greatly appreciated,
    Thanks

  • Kimoni

    Thank You

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