Cuba is a country shrouded in mystery for most Americans. Since travel restrictions have been lifted and relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved, it has given new travelers from the U.S. the opportunity to experience the timeworn and colorful island nation. But when people say traveling to Cuba is like taking a step back in time, it’s no joke. No Wi-Fi. No credit cards. No Starbucks. But don’t be alarmed!
Instead, take this unique opportunity to disconnect, get to know the fascinating local culture while discovering the timeless sights, sounds and tastes of Cuba. As you consider travel to Cuba, note that there is a real advantage to reserving a cruise or tour package. Often, cruise lines provide immersive excursions, required documents for travel, and plenty of information and guidance. Read on for some fast facts and suggestions for booking your trip to Cuba.
Is it legal to travel to Cuba?
Yes, but only under 12 accepted categories, as dictated by the U.S. State Department (See this pdf of regularly updated FAQs). A specific license is not required, but a visa and medical insurance is required. Due to the embargo, U.S. health insurance and Medicare cannot be used in Cuba. State-approved health insurance and visa cost can be purchased with your ticket or boarding pass. Please check with your tour operator or cruise line to make sure you are in compliance.
U.S. travelers are likely to fall under the category of educational activities. It is still broadly defined and only requires you learn about Cuban culture and maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities. This can be done on your own but is easier to document as part of an organized tour or group shore excursion. The U.S. government has up to five years to ask for proof of such activities, so as long as you’re taking pictures or are part of a group (say with a tour operator or cruise line), that should suffice.
What else do I need to know?
Credit card services are limited in Cuba and ATMs are often out of service or out of money. For this trip, bring cash. If possible, bring cash in the form of Euros or Canadian dollars. U.S. currency incurs an additional 10% penalty for exchange. There are two types of currency in Cuba, which can be confusing: Cuban pesos and Cuban convertible pesos.
While there, you will be using the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) for most of your purchases. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is used only by Cuban citizens. You will be able to (and should) exchange your remaining pesos on your way out at an airport or at a state-run Casa de Cambio or CADECA.
Internet access is still limited across the island. Though there are a few public Wi-Fi hot spots, connections may be sluggish. Even with a Cuban SIM card, you won’t have data on your cell phone. Cell phone carriers offer international roaming but charges may apply (please check with your carrier). Pro-tip: Your ship may be the best place to get Wi-Fi! Check with your cruise line as service may not be guaranteed at all times.
You can now buy cigars & rum. U.S. travelers are allowed to return with certain Cuban-origin items, including cigars and rum, for personal use only and pursuant to OFAC regulations (See this pdf of regularly updated FAQs). These items remain subject to the normal limits on duty and tax exemptions for merchandise imported as accompanied baggage and for personal use.
There is a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. It is located in Havana and can be reached by phone: (+53) 7839-4100. The embassy also provides some great resources for U.S. travelers on their website (remember to read this BEFORE you go, since internet access may be limited).
Print important documents and resources you may want to refer to. Be sure to keep all your receipts, including any for a hotel or flight. Hold on to your visa and keep it in a safe place, along with your passport and boarding pass or cruise documents.
Currently, only a few cruise lines and operators have been approved for travel to Cuba.
Choose from cruises with one-of-kind shore excursions, quick getaways, luxury cruises and even land tour options. Most include an overnight stay in Havana.
Norwegian Cruise Line
The cruise line currently offers 4 to 7-day voyages aboard Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Sun that includes Free Unlimited Beverages, complimentary restaurants, and free award-winning entertainment and nightlife. Cruises also receive a choice of 2 free additional onboard extras, when you book an oceanview or higher stateroom. With an overnight stay in Havana, take advantage of the time to arrange a schedule of activities on your own: stroll along the evocative Malecón, get lost among the Baroque facades and colonial cobblestone streets of Old Havana, or see the world-class art collection at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Fares include required medical insurance. Travel visa is obtained through Norwegian for a separate cost of $75 per person. Check their Cuba FAQs for more information (pdf).
Experience the culture and heritage of Cuba on 4 to 8-day itineraries offered aboard the Empress of the Seas or Majesty of the Seas. Cuban culture, music and cuisine lives onshore and onboard your ship, with Havana-inspired nights at the new Boleros. Cruise fare includes required insurance. Travel visa is facilitated by Royal Caribbean at a separate cost of $75 per person. Shore Excursion options are available for purchase and include a walking tour of old Havana where you will view the beautiful architecture, a visit to nearby Cojimar, one of Hemingway’s favorite retreats, and a panoramic ride in a vintage, bubble-gum-colored American automobile along the quintessential Malecón waterfront. Check their Cuba FAQs for more information.
Azamara Club Cruises
With smaller ships, longer stays and more overnights in Havana, as well as Azamara’s inclusive amenities on their club-like ships, it is easy to be immersed in the culture, history, and vibrant life of Cuba on these cruises. The 4 to 10-day voyages onboard the Azamara Journey or the Azamara Quest include stops in Havana, Cienfuegos or Santiago (with more ports to come); as well as Free Gratuities, Select standard spirits, international beers and wines, Concierge services for personal guidance and reservations and more amenities onboard. Their shore excursions feature the best of Havana, including a full-day tour through Old Havana, a panoramic ride through the city in a vintage American car and Hemingway’s Havana. Fares include required medical insurance. Travel visa is facilitated through Azamara Club Cruises for a separate cost of $75 per person. Check their Cuba FAQs for more information.
Oceania Cruises offer an extraordinary value in luxury and immersive shore excursions. Their 7 to 14-day voyages onboard the Oceania Sirena or Insignia include Havana and other Cuban ports of call; as well as Free Internet, Free Dining at all specialty restaurants, Unlimited soft drinks, bottled water, cappuccino, espresso, teas and juices, and more amenities onboard. Furthermore, their superb collection of shore excursions offer insight into the culture, history and cuisine of Havana. Choose from an evening stroll through colonial Havana and Havana’s old square, a visit to Mediterráneo Havana, the capital’s first farm-to-table restaurant, followed by a visit to Vista Hermosa farm led by an expert in Cuban cuisine, or a tour to the Museo del Ron (Museum of Rum), a visit to one of the finest cigar stores in Cuba and a local art gallery. Fares include required medical insurance. Travel visa is obtained through Oceania for a separate cost of $75 per person. Check the “Cuba” section of their FAQ page for more information.
Globus provides comprehensive people-to-people programs and escorted land tours with included highlights such as interactive dance lessons in Guardalavaca, an overnight stay in a Casa Particular in Trinidad and a one-on-one performance and discussion with jazz musicians in Old Havana. Their 8 to 13-day itineraries include intra-tour airfare, hotel stays, meals and more as you are immersed in captivating educational activities throughout Havana and the island of Cuba. Travel visa can be obtained through your airline of choice for a separate cost. Read the Globus “Know Before You Go” guide [pdf] for more information.