There’s a new destination on the board as of Wednesday at Charlotte Douglas International Airport: Havana, Cuba.
Starting this morning, American Airlines will run one nonstop flight each day from Charlotte to the Caribbean island, which has been off-limits to most U.S. travelers since the U.S.-Cuba embargo began 56 years ago. (There’s a return flight from Havana to Charlotte each day as well.) The timing comes during a momentous week for the Cuban nation: The country’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died Saturday.
Until now, Charlotte travelers who wanted to go to Cuba had to travel to Miami and board charter flights, or travel to Canada or Mexico to make connections to Cuba. (American Airlines, which after Wednesday will have 13 daily flights to Cuba, is one of 10 U.S. airlines approved to fly to Cuba. Industry experts say airlines aren’t expecting the flights to be anywhere near full at the beginning; they’re holding them for future expansion in the Cuba market and for marketing purposes.)
Wednesday morning, American Airlines officials have a Cuban party planned at the airport, with chocolate cigars, live Cuban music and catering from local Cuban restaurant Piece of Havana.
The group boarding the 128-seat Airbus 319 for a 2 hour 28-minute flight was supposed to include several city and county officials on a two-night “cultural excursion,” with visits to a rum museum, tobacco factory, artist studio and more. But Cuba’s plan to mourn Castro for nine days after his death forced that to be canceled: Many of the scheduled stops would be closed, said Loreto DeRubeis with Marazul Charters, which was handling arrangements.
City Council members Vi Lyles, Julie Eiselt, Al Austin and Patsy Kinsey, and county commissioner Dumont Clark had planned to pay their own way, while the city was paying $1,904 for Charlotte Aviation Director Brent Cagle to go, and the county was paying for commissioner Trevor Fuller and county manager Dena Diorio. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, a public organization supported by hotel/motel/restaurant/bar taxes was sending CEO Tom Murray. Travel agents and local journalists were also scheduled to go, and some still planned to. (It’s unclear whether those not going would get refunds or if the trip would be rescheduled.)
Inaugural pomp and circumstance aside, make no mistake – Cuba is still a no-no for travelers looking for pure tourist relaxation.
But if you’ve got a thirst for adventure, a tolerance for inconvenience and aren’t afraid of a trip largely off the internet grid, here’s what you need to know:
Q. Can I (legally) go?
A. Let’s be clear: While President Obama relaxed some restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba, pure tourism isn’t a legal reason to travel to Cuba. But the U.S. Treasury Department has outlined 12 permitted categories, including educational activities, humanitarian work, journalistic activity, family visits and support for the Cuban people.
You’re largely on the honor system about whether you meet the approved criteria, “but if you’re not supposed to go, don’t,” says John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It’s important for people to know what category they’re falling into.”
Many travelers will elect the “educational trip” category, which means they must spend each day doing educational activities to learn about the Cuban culture. These could include arts performances, cooking classes, tours or museum trips.
Q. How do I book a ticket?
A. Buy your ticket on the American Airlines website (prices were around $440 for January tickets). Before you pay, a box will pop up with a list of 12 categories of permitted travel. American’s ticket prices include $25 mandatory Cuban health insurance, issued by ESICUBA, good for 30 days in Cuba.
Q. Why do I need Cuban health insurance?
A. U.S. health insurance isn’t accepted in Cuba, so the Cuban government requires all U.S. visitors to purchase Cuban health insurance.
Q. Do I need a visa?
A. Yes, the Cuban government requires you to have a Cuban tourist visa to travel to Cuba. (Cuban-born U.S. citizens face tougher restrictions; they must contact the Cuban Embassy to either renew their Cuban passports or apply for a special visa for people born in Cuba.) If you book your ticket on American more than 30 days in advance, someone from Cuba Travel Services (a company under contract with American Airlines) will contact you to arrange for the $85 visa. If you book a last-minute ticket, you will pay $100 for the visa at the Cuba Travel Service kiosk in the airport. At the airport, you will have to declare which of the 12 allowable categories you fall into, then an airline official will mark your ticket “Cuba ready,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Katie Cody.
Q. Can I use my credit or debit cards?
A. Only two U.S. credit cards are accepted in Cuba: Tampa-based Stonegate Bank and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. (Even if you have one of those cards, many businesses don’t have credit card machines.) And there are no ATM machines in Cuba, so you’ll have to carry cash to pay for all expenses for the duration of your trip.
There’s a 10 percent penalty when exchanging U.S. dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos (the tourist currency, called the “CUC”), so some U.S. travelers convert U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars before leaving the U.S., then convert their Canadian money to the Cuban CUC once in Cuba.
Q. Should I take an organized tour or go on my own?
A. Traveling in Cuba without an organized group is doable, with taxi drivers available in most places frequented by tourists and lodging accessible on the internet if you’re willing to do some research. A decent command of Spanish is recommended, as many Cubans don’t speak English. Also, because the country is adjusting to an increasing number of tourists, finding last-minute tours can be tricky, says Eddie Lubbers, founder of Cuba Travel Network. “Cuba really caters to the adventurous traveler,” Lubbers said. “I would do the planning well in advance if you want to actually get a lot out of your trip.”
Q. Can I book lodging online?
A. Yes, in some cases. You can book rooms in “casas particulares” or homes owned by private individuals through Airbnb, and some hotels owned by companies outside of Cuba will allow you to book online. A few caveats: Remember that living conditions in Airbnbs or hotels may be subpar, compared to what you’re used to. (Don’t assume hot water or air conditioning will be available 24-7.) And even if you book a hotel room online and reserve with a credit card, you may be asked to pay your hotel bill in cash at the time of check-in. Don’t assume that the credit card will be automatically charged. The U.S.-owned Starwood hotel chain recently opened a Sheraton Four Points in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana (it’s the first hotel owned by a U.S. company in Cuba in more than 60 years), and will allow you to book and pre-pay online.
Q. Will my cell phone work? What about internet connection?
A. Cellular connections are constantly improving but are far from U.S. standards. So far AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have service in Cuba. Check with your carrier for phone rates; it’s often expensive. Hotels and some other public spaces have pay-by-the-hour Wi-Fi, which can cost $5 or more per hour. And don’t expect to have Wi-Fi in your hotel room in most cases.
Q. How many cigars can I bring back? What about rum?
A. Bring back as much as you want. Under new rules enacted in October by President Obama, travelers can bring back unlimited quantities of rum and cigars as long as they are for personal consumption.
Q. Will I feel safe? What about all the cash I’ll be carrying?
A. If your hotel or casa particular (such as Airbnb) offers a safe, use it, says Lubbers, of Cuba Travel Network. But “Cuba is probably the safest country in the Americas – to the tune of Canada,” he says. “There are no guns out in the open and in general there is a lot of uniformed police, especially in the tourist areas. Petty crime is very little.” One of the bigger safety worries? Auto accidents, as roads and cars are so poorly maintained that driving can be hazardous.