Located only 103 miles from the coast of Florida, until the 1950's Cuba was a trendy vacation destination for movie stars like John Wayne and Ava Gardner and singers like Frank Sinatra. Following the Cuban Revolution, the embargo of the late 50's and Kennedy's travel ban of 1963 brought Cuban getaways to an abrupt halt. For over five decades, Americans were restricted from visiting the island nation of Cuba. But in 2016, after President Obama visited Cuba and eased travel restrictions, Americans again began making the short flight from Florida cities down to Havana and Santiago. However, the changes in 2016 did not entirely open up Cuba for US tourism, and certain restrictions still apply.
Our step-by-step guide to visiting Cuba as an American will provide you with the necessary procedures should you wish to visit Cuba yourself.
1. Determine which approved category you fall into.
Are you interested in going to Cuba to participate in religious activities? Are you an educator? An athlete? As travel bloggers, we were able to enter Cuba as journalists. For a full list of approved visitors to Cuba, visit the U.S. Embassy page.
2. Buy airline tickets.
Make sure your passport is current. Then buy your airline tickets. We booked our tickets through Southwest and flew from Tampa to Havana. The flight took only about an hour.
Several airlines offer flights to Cuba, but do your research and make sure you total up all expenses, including baggage fees and Visa fees, to make sure you are getting a good deal. As always, if your travel dates are flexible, you are more likely to find a great price.
FYI: Cuba requires that all visitors have health insurance, but it is included in the price of your ticket.
Tip: Southwest makes the Visa process easy, which is part of the reason we booked with them. See step 3 for details.
3. Pay for your Visa online.
After booking our flight, we received an email from Southwest advising us to pay for our Visas through Cuba Travel Services. The Visa is $50 per person through Southwest / Cuba Travel Services, and once everything went through, we received a confirmation email, along with instructions to pick up our Visas from the gate the day of departure.
4. Book your accommodations through AirBNB.
Long story short, as Americans, we are not permitted to reserve and pay for a hotel, as hotels are owned by the Cuban government, which is not permitted to accept US currency. So, after browsing a number of options on AirBNB, we narrowed it down to our two favorites. One was in Old Havana, had great ratings, and probably would have been a nice place to stay. But we opted for Leo Hostel in Vedado, close to Central Havana. We will be writing a full review of our stay in a later article, but for now, we will just say that you absolutely cannot go wrong with Leo's place. Leo and his girlfriend Yanelys are absolutely wonderful hosts (seriously, we totally fell in love with this couple!), and their place is spacious and comfortable, close to a nice selection of restaurants.
If you have not yet signed up for AirBNB, use this referral link and you will receive a credit toward your first stay! To go straight to Leo Hostel, click here.
5. Determine your budget and convert your USD to Euros.
Before going to Cuba, we heard conflicting information about whether or not we could convert our US dollars to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) when we arrived, so to be safe, we took Euros. We had no trouble converting the Euros to CUCs.
Keep in mind that your US credit/debit cards will not work there (even if it's a card from a company based outside the US), even if you could find places that accept cards at all. So if you take only what you THINK you'll need, you may find yourself in a jam, running short on cash, with no access to plastic.
Tip: Do your research before you convert your US dollars to Euros. We waited till the last minute and had to convert money at the Tampa airport. The exchange rate was terrible, but we were out of time and out of options.
6. If you are a fellow travel blogger, going as a journalist, gather up your journal, pen, and photography equipment.
We also printed out three of our blog articles in case they asked for them when we picked up our Visas, but they never did. Still, it's better to be safe than sorry.
7. Pick up your Visa and customs forms at the airport and fill them out.
Tip: Give yourself enough time to go through both the Visa pick-up line and the regular check-in line.
8. Have fun!
Ride in a classic American convertible, walk along the Malecón, wander the streets of Old Havana, smoke a Cuban cigar, drink a mojito, check out a museum or two, and enjoy Cuba!
We hope this guide is helpful as you plan your tropical escape to Cuba!
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