Not so long ago, it seemed we Americans would have to wait an eternity to visit Cuba, the mysterious, off-limits island that taunted us just 90 miles away. In recent years, however, many Cuba travel restrictions have been lifted. If you're one of many Americans considering a trip to Cuba, check out our Q&A to find out what you need to know.
Editor's Note: Following the 2016 presidential election, the future of American travel to Cuba is uncertain. President Trump has threatened to rescind President Obama's recent changes. We will keep this story updated to reflect future developments.
What's the Big Deal About Cuba?
The fact that Americans haven't been allowed to travel to Cuba is actually part of its appeal. It's a country seemingly lost in time, with little commercialization compared to other parts of the Caribbean. Chrysler DeSotos and Ford Farlaines do, in fact, ride down cobblestone streets that lead to historic buildings-turned-hotels. The island's white sand beaches, sultry music, colorful artwork and friendly faces only add to the appeal.
How Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Americans no longer need a specific license to go to Cuba, but their travel intentions must fall under one of the following categories that are generally licensed by the U.S. government:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and/or meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, or athletic and other competitions
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
Americans still may not visit Cuba for "tourist activities" outside the above categories, so if you're looking to spend a week on the beach, you'll have to choose a different island. While you don't need to apply for a specific license for your trip, you must be able to offer proof that your journey fits into one of the above categories if it's requested by the government.
In March 2016, President Obama announced that educational "people to people" trips did not need to be taken with a licensed group; instead, individuals may take educational trips of their own design, without having to get permission from the government in advance. Travelers who take these trips must keep records of what they did in Cuba for five years.
How Can I Fly to Cuba?
Regular commercial flights are now available from various U.S. cities to Cuba -- and with demand slightly lower than expected, the fares are relatively affordable. Airlines offering these flights include American, Delta, JetBlue, United and more. You can book these flights on airline websites and on Kayak.com.
Where Can I Stay in Cuba?
Cuba's hotels are straining to keep up with the rising demand, so many visitors choose to stay in casa particulares, or private homes. The easiest way to find and book these is to check sites such as Airbnb.com, CubaBookingRoom.com and MyCasaParticular.com. Keep in mind that the level of luxury can vary widely from one casa to another, and that your host may not speak much English.
Which Tour Companies Go to Cuba?
Several tour companies travel to Cuba, including the following:
Globus features multiple programs in Cuba, including a 12-night Cuba Panorama that includes dance lessons, meetings with local fishermen, an orchestra performance and a visit to Hemingway's home.
Cuba Explorer features even more options to see the island. Tours focus on themes such as birding, arts and culture, adventure and more.
Insight Cuba offers several specialty packages, including Vintage Cuba, which focuses on the most fascinating elements of Cuba -- tourists take an antique steam locomotive back in time to explore the country's famous music, food, art and dance. Other popular packages include Undiscovered Cuba and Jazz in Havana.
Friendly Planet offers several tour options, including Colors of Cuba, which allows tourists to hang out at a neighborhood block party and visit the Che Guevara Mausoleum.
Other operators include smarTours, National Geographic, Intrepid Travel and International Expeditions.
Do Any Cruise Ships Sail to Cuba?
Europe-based Celestyal Cruises offers year-round cruises that Americans are welcome to join. There are dedicated "people to people" shore excursions and activities so your trip will be legal.
Carnival Corporation's newest brand, Fathom, began operating seven-night trips between Miami and Cuba in May 2016, but the line will cease operations in May 2017. The company has requested approval from the Cuban government to send other vessels to Cuba starting in June 2017.
Other major U.S. lines, including Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, have received approval to sail to Cuba beginning in 2017. To learn more, see Cuba Cruise Tips from our sister site, Cruise Critic.
In May 2015 the U.S. government approved the service of passenger ferries between Florida and Cuba, granting licenses to several companies, but no boats have begun running as of yet.
What's the Currency Situation in Cuba?
MasterCard and a Florida-based bank announced in November 2015 that their debit cards now work for purchases in Cuba, though ATM withdrawals are not yet possible. Most U.S. credit cards still won't function in Cuba; many restaurants and stores don't accept them, and ATMs won't work here either, so it's essential to travel with cash.
Cuba has two currencies, the peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC); tourists will receive the latter currency when they arrive and change money. Try to bring euros, pounds or Canadian dollars rather than U.S. dollars if you can; there's an additional 10 percent penalty for changing U.S. dollars. Money can be exchanged at airports, hotels and exchange offices.
Should I Go to Cuba Now or Wait?
Cuba is a newly hot travel destination for Americans, but it's long been a popular place for travelers from other parts of the world. Choosing when to travel really depends on your preference. It will become easier and perhaps cheaper to get there in the future, but it will also be more crowded and likely more commercialized. If you want to see it before Americans descend en masse, go now.
--written by Amanda Geronikos