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How We Got To Cuba & What You Need To Know To Get There

(Trinidad, Cuba)

(Trinidad, Cuba)

Hello, again.  It has been a while, hasn’t it?  So much has happened since I last posted… we traveled extensively, the whole family got horribly sick on the way home, we had no childcare solution upon returning to work, and I’ve been down and out ever since with illnesses that just seemed to spawn new illnesses (yuck!).  As if that wasn’t enough to start the New Year, I also got thrown back into work trying to keep four different teams and then some on track.  Try going back to work after having almost a month off; it’s like going from 0 to 60 with no ramp up.  I’m not asking for sympathy but I am tellin’ ya it ain’t easy.

Anyway, even though I am still not at 100%, I felt compelled to write a post because every friggin’ day I see something about Cuba in my newsfeed.  If it’s not about Obama visiting, it’s about a new US airline that’s going to start routes to Havana, or a new hotel chain that’s planning to open up shop there.  Or, it’s just the flood of Cuba pictures that are all over Instagram on every major travel account.  Where the heck are all these photos coming from?!  There must be a surge of tourists to the island country now.

For those of you who are tempted to go but aren’t sure how to get there, I wanted to offer some tips and share how we got to Cuba – so sit back, this post is for you!

Who can travel to Cuba?

As far as I know, there are still 12 categories of people who are allowed to visit Cuba legally via a “general license”.  Here are the 12 categories:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firm

If you can match one of your travel purposes to one of the 12 reasons above, you’re set.  You have a general license.  And by “general license”, I mean you have a blanket license to go.  No need to apply for anything official.  No need to ask for permission.  You can just go.  The beauty of the categories above is that they are so broad that basically if you really wanted to go to Cuba, you could.  For instance, find out when their next public performance is, set up a trip around that, and you’ve hit on number 7.

Obama also recently announced that people can visit Cuba via individual educational tours as opposed to group tours.  I’m not clear exactly what that means (Can you hire your own tour guide now? Does this visit count as category 5 above?), but honestly, it doesn’t matter that much because as I said earlier, the travel purposes above are so generic that a determined traveler could find something to fit one of the purposes above.  The one thing that is apparent, though, is that tourism to Cuba is going to surge more than ever before especially given all the easing of the travel restrictions our current President is doing.  It’s only going to get easier to visit in the future.

Ok, great.  So now you’ve found your excuse reason to go to Cuba.  You just have to get there.

How did we get there and how can you, too?

When we went, there wasn’t any single convenient way to get to Havana from the West Coast.  So, we did it the old fashioned way: we flew into Mexico City and then bought a round trip ticket from Mexico City to Havana on Interjet.  From Mexico City, there are two airlines that service Havana: Interjet and Cubana.  Interjet had the better schedule for us so we picked Interjet.  It cost around $400+ per person RT.  We did this trick and was able to save almost $100USD on two tickets by paying in Mexican Pesos.

(Our first glimpse of Cuba looks like a lot like the first glimpse any other tropical island!)

(Our first glimpse of Cuba looks like a lot like the first glimpse any other tropical island!)

I was a little skeptical of Interjet at first. I hadn’t ever heard of it and I barely knew anything about Cuba so I wasn’t sure if it was a reliable airline or not.  Rest assured, Interjet was up there with some of the best airlines around.  Not only was the plane clean and new, the seats offered more legroom than our typical legacy carriers. We even received small bags of chips on the 2-hour flight.

If you’re not in a city with any airline service to Havana yet, it’s only a matter of time until that changes.  Right now, JetBlue services Havana once a week from JFK.  I’ve also heard that American plans to start service in Houston and from the West Coast soon. The airlines are all clamoring for this route.  You can also look into some of the charter flights that leave from Florida to Cuba, as well. Or, if all of that seems like too much work, you should do what we did and go through Mexico.  It was so quick and easy that I almost wish I did it earlier. 🙂

(Trinidad, Cuba)

(Trinidad, Cuba)

What are the entry requirements?

Now that you’re sure you can legally get to Cuba and have an idea of how you’ll get there, the next step is to purchase medical insurance and get a Tourist Card.  Cuba won’t let you enter until you have either.

Let’s talk about the Tourist Card first because that’s relatively easy.  The word on the street is that your airline will have the card available for purchase so you can just wait until the day of departure to pick this up. We bought ours for about 700 Mexican Pesos or approximately $40USD (for 2 adults and 1 baby) at the Interjet sales counter at the Mexico City airport.  Interjet won’t let you check in unless you have the Tourist Card.

As for the medical insurance, you can buy this ahead of time or buy it when you’re in Cuba.  Having seen the immigration lines in Havana and how dreadfully slowly they move, I would urge you to buy the medical insurance online and just bring proof of insurance with you (lest the Cuban authorities force you to wait in a different line to purchase the insurance).  I purchased ours online for about $18pp for a week in Cuba.  The passport officer asked me for the proof of insurance and I showed him a copy of the declaration form.  The officer didn’t ask Mr. T for his, however, so I’m not sure if it’s something he asks everyone for or maybe he just didn’t ask Mr. T because he assumed Mr. T had it since he was with me.  Either way, at $18pp for a week, you can’t really go wrong.  Just shop online beforehand, print out the documents, and you can check off this requirement.

Do they stamp your passport?

If you’re traveling there legally, it doesn’t matter if they stamp your passport… That said, this is an area where I’ve read different accounts.  Some people report that the passport officers won’t stamp American passports while others say that they will stamp it out of habit.  In our experience, the first officer stamped our passports automatically.  The second officer asked me if I wanted it stamped.  Again, if you’re traveling there under one of the 12 general licenses above and hence, visiting legally, it shouldn’t matter if they stamp it or not.

(Havana, Cuba)

(Havana, Cuba)

What else do you need to know about arrival?

There’s actually not a whole lot you need to know about arrival.  It was rather uneventful.  Be prepared, however, for a long line just to get through Immigration.  The officers see people one at a time so if you’re in a family, each family member has to go up to the Passport Officer on their own as opposed to as a group.  If you’re traveling with small children/babies or if you have a disability, however, you are in luck because you get your own separate line.  I was quite thrilled about this because we were literally the last people to get off the flight.  We thought Interjet was going to bring our carseat out for us at the gate since it was gate checked in Mexico City, but alas, it was sent all the way to the baggage claim for pick up.  Ugh.  By the time we figured that out, we were dead last so I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a separate line for us to use courtesy of Traveler #3 (sometimes traveling with babies has its advantages).  Cuba is actually quite baby friendly and this was only the beginning of our figuring that out… but I will save those thoughts for a future post!

(Havana, Cuba)

(Havana, Cuba)

One last point

Finally, if you’re made it this far, you must be pretty serious about going to Cuba.  If that’s the case, I’ll offer one more tidbit of advice: sign up for a private tour guide.   As much as I love to “travel the way the locals do” and do everything on my own, Cuba really isn’t the place for that kind of travel right now.  You’ll be hard pressed to find good, reliable travel books that have up to date information.  The infrastructure in Cuba isn’t great.  I suppose if you really wanted to do it, you could, considering if push came to shove you could always hitchhike (apparently, that’s a thing there and quite safe according to my guide… guess it makes sense considering how little of the population actually owns cars), but why make it hard on yourself?  You’ve made it all the way to Cuba – just organize a private guide, too.  We went with a private guide and for about $200/day, we had a driver and guide who took us all over the country, brought us to places we wanted to go, worked on our schedule, let us stay at a site for as long or as little as we wanted, took photos for us, and most importantly, offered insights on the real Cuba that I couldn’t have gotten from any tour book.  He answered all of my inane questions about what the black market is like, what the marriage customs are, why anyone would want to smuggle lobster, and what was it like to live through the Special Period – just to name a few.  It was also a relief to know that if we got into any trouble, we had a local contact who was there was help us out.  So the net of it is: if you’re going to go to Cuba, pay for a guide.  You’re welcome.

Have you been to Cuba?  How did you get there?

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Akshay Koranne - November 22, 2016 - 3:36 am

Wow! nice information sir/mam. Being a traveler, Cuba is always in my wishlist. Caribbean Island is a place that you don’t want to miss.I just want to ask weather these rules are applicable for Cuba only? or the other islands as well?

JustWanderlust - January 25, 2017 - 8:56 am

Hi Akshay – these are tips just for getting into Cuba.

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