Commercial air travel directly to Cuba from the US resumed in September of 2016. This is an historic change, of course. There are now around 20 flights daily between the US and Havana, with direct flights also available to other cities in the Cuban countryside.
With Trump's recent announcement of a pull-back from Obama's rapprochement with the island, flights are sure to change. Less US travelers going will mean that airlines will adjust. As of right now, however, American Airlines has 4 daily flights, departing both Miami and Charlotte. Jet Blue has 4 daily flights, leaving the US from Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and JFK. Delta Airlines has 3 flights daily to Havana from Atlanta, JFK and Miami. Exciting for the west coast, Alaska Airlines has the only daily flights to Havana west of the Mississippi, departing daily from LAX. And United Airlines flies daily from Newark as well as once a week from its hub in Houston, and Frontier, Southwest, and Spirit Airlines were also announced to be flying to Havana.
The rest of Cuba is currently accessible from the US as well. Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Ft. Lauderdale has flights to numerous cities outside of Havana. Those cities include Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillas, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, and Varadero.
Click on the chart to get an idea regarding flights to Havana. I will try and keep up on this, as flights are sure to change.
LICENSING, VISAS & LEGALITIES FOR CUBAN TRAVEL:
As with air travel, the legalities of travel to Cuba are fluid. That is in full evidence with the recent announcement by Trump of our pull-back. At this moment, we are reviewing how all these changes effect travel by Americans. Truthfully, it is unclear. What we think is happening is that travel will change back to being similar to what it was 4 or 5 years ago. That will mean that Americans can visit Cuba, but they must do so as a group, each following the same daily itinerary. And, that itinerary must follow one of the categories of travel under which Cuban visits are legal. Currently, some of these categories are support for the Cuban people, family visits, research, journalistic activities, and humanitarian projects. We believe these categories are also under review, and that list may end up being smaller than it currently is.
As for other requirements, all visitors to Cuba are still required to obtain a "Cuban Tourist Card." This is for Cuban customs, and acts like a visitor visa. Make sure to check with your airline regarding how to obtain the Tourist Card. Both Delta and Jet Blue are selling these at the airport, at the departure gate. Jet Blue is charging $50 payable only by credit card. The last information we obtained said that American Airlines was using a third party to issue visas, and this would be done in advance of your trip. The tourist card should stay with your passport while in Cuba, and will be taken by customs when you leave the country.
The phrase of the day here is "Be smart." Cuban customs officers see many tourists. Every day they go through suitcases of clothing, sunscreen, medications, and bags with laptops, cell phones, cameras, snorkels and dive fins. But this is still a police state, and things like illegal drugs and pornography are not tolerated. And although cell phones are just fine, GPS units are not and will be confiscated. And, leave your drone at home, because it too will stay with Cuban customs if you try and bring it in to the country.
At this time US travelers are still limited in paying for expenses in Cuba with credit cards issued by American banks. The exception to this rule seems to be at big hotels and resorts. Nevertheless, travelers must make sure to notify their bank before traveling so that the transaction will be allowed. Remember that most vendors in Cuba are simply not set up to accept credit cards. This is bound to change, although like most of what happens in Cuba, expect it to be a slow process. Do remember that most of your travel expenses will be paid in advance, such as airfare, hotels, and tour costs, so it will only be daily incidentals that you need worry about. Our recommendation, at this point, is to have cash for anything you plan to pay for or buy while in Cuba. Plan for your expenses, error on the high side, and then add in several hundred dollars. If you run short of cash traveling in Cuba, you will be hard-pressed to find a way to get more.
Americans should change their dollars to Euros or Canadian Dollars in advance of their trip. Order them from your bank rather than change them at an airport kiosk so that you get the best rate. Once in Cuba, US dollars are currently devalued by 10% , so along with a transaction fee are generally traded at 87% of their worth. You will pay a transaction fee for Euros and Canadian dollars, but there is no 10% penalty as there is with US currency. In a pinch, it is possible to pay in Cuba with foreign currency, but for the most part travelers will be required to use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC.... prononouced "Kook"). Change for these at the airport, Cadeca exchange office, or your hotel desk, and try to have a good supply of smaller bills and coins (1,3 & 5 cuc) to use for tips, taxis, and small incidentals. Many vendors do not have change in CUC (often times that is on purpose!). Change your CUC back to foreign currency at the airport when departing as you cannot trade them outside of Cuba.
Until very recently, US cell phones would not work in Cuba. Now, both VERIZON and SPRINT offer international roaming services within Cuba. If you use one of these carriers, check with them beforehand so that you understand all charges. It is also possible to rent phones in the US from specialized companies such as CELLULAR ABROAD or CELLO MOBILE. Travelers can also rent SIM cards if they have an unlocked phone, or a cell phone itself in Cuba, from CUBACEL.
Internet availability and pricing is changing very quickly in Cuba. Service itself can be very slow, so be patient. Most hotels will sell you a card to use for an hour of wi-fi. Only six months ago the rate was at least six CUC per hour. Now, most hotels charge two CUC. If they charge more, walk down the street and ask at another hotel, or look for Cubans gathering at parks or corners where everyone is using a laptop or phone. This is an internet zone, and there will always be someone selling wi-fi cards. They are doing this via the black market, so will usually charge three CUC.
Let's remind ourselves, before we get too far, that Cuba is still a communist country. Change is, however, in the air, and a renewed relationship with the United States in the works. And with Rauol Castro leading the country, many changes have already taken place. Cubans now can own their own home or business, see a little more opportunity at travel outside of the country, and although expensive have access to internet.
It is very easy to get frustrated traveling in Cuba if you expect things to work like they do in the US or Europe. Cubans joke that their national pastime is waiting in line. Things move more slowly in Cuba, plans are changed, and flights get canceled. It is a healthy to arrive in Cuba ready for things to not go exactly as planned, and chances are you will be happy with how smoothly things do go.
Americans arrive with pre-conceived notions about what they will see. Knowing that Cuba is a poor country ,most are surprised that there is virtually no homeless problem, and that unemployment rates are very low. Cubans have a high level of education, and a very respectable medical system (their infant mortality rate is slightly better than the US and life expectancy is 78 years).
All that being said, the Cuban people have an average wage of between $20 and $30 per month. Although some of their food is subsidized, wages are seldom sufficient for the average Cuban to purchase all their necessities, never mind small luxuries. Add to that the fact that consumerism in Cuba has long been frowned upon, and even when a Cuban has money in their pocket there is still very little on store shelves for them to purchase.
What you see on balance, is a society that has very little when it comes to "things." People struggle to get by. They trade on the black market, and are inventive with the things they do have. Economically, Cuba is a mess.
What the Cuban people do have is an incredible social structure that many might envy. Kids play in the street, young people gather in groups socializing, and groups of adults listen to or play their own music. Instead of life behind a computer or flat screen TV, life in Cuba is lived out of doors. For an aware traveler this gives a great glimpse in to a truly different way of life than most of us know.
An unfortunate consequence to the economics of Cuban life, is the taking advantage of tourists. Cuba is not the only place where this happens of course. But for travelers visiting Havana or other areas with large concentrations of tourists, it is tiring. It is important to understand, as a new traveler to Cuba, that if someone in Havana approaches you on the street, asking where you are from, how long you are spending in Cuba, etc. they have an agenda. This sounds pessimistic, but it is the truth. You will be approached for buying cigars, for taxis, for the services of a tour guide, and you will be asked if you are looking for a club or a girl.
Jiniteras (or Jiniteros) are men or women looking to trade attention or sex, for money or things. Some are simply prostitutes, but many play on the emotions of tourists by first showing them attention, then starting to explain how difficult their life is, how their baby needs milk, how their mother is in the hospital, etc.
I just read a blog post on traveling in Cuba, where a man spent a lot of time speaking with husslers and jiniteras in Havana. One girl finally said to him "it is easier to lie than to tell the truth. Tourists are stupid. And they are the ones that have all the money." With that being said, the best advice is to simply keep walking when approached. You can be polite and say "no thank you," but just keep walking. An even better option is to visit areas that are not so typically frequented by tourists. You will seldom feel this pressure, and will see the real way of life in Cuba. In Havana, for example, you will be approached constantly within the old part of town (Havana Vieja). But, if you are in Vedado or Havana Centrale, you will almost never be hustled. If you feel bad for the way people have to live in Cuba, pick someone out that looks like they need the help but is not approaching you, and give them a little money. Or bring things like basic hygiene items to give out to people, such as toothpaste, deodorant, etc. These are very hard to come by in Cuba.