Sunday, January 8, 2017

Planning a trip to Cuba

Well, it was an adventure!  Last year the kids were a little underwhelmed by the Panama Canal cruise that I loved.  This year when I asked if they preferred Christmas with presents or a trip, they said it depended.  No more cruises - they wanted adventure.  We first considered Vancouver and skiing at Whistler (on our bucket list) but discarded it as too expensive over the holiday.  I also thought a lot about Mexico City, as we know a local who has offered to show us his hometown.  In the end though Peyton was scheduled to cheer on the University of Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando – Go Canes!  So it ultimately seemed a good option to combine a trip to see the game, with a trip to rapidly changing Cuba.

I am working full time now (but conveniently with 4 weeks off at Christmas) so I was really low on actual travel planning time prior to the break.  Once we made our decision though, about 3 weeks out, I did try fairly hard to find anyone that had taken an independent trip (no tours) departing from and returning to the U.S. – with absolutely no luck.   All the info I found online about independent trips was from Canadians and Europeans, or the occasional U.S. citizen who traveled to Cuba through Mexico or elsewhere, as you used to be required to do.  Several people I knew had gone with official tour groups, but not only is that not really our style, but they were also too expensive for us to consider.

So basically we decided to kind of wing it and hope for the best!  I worried mostly about what the U.S. would require of us.  It is really still illegal to just plan a trip to Cuba as a tourist from the U.S.  There are specific reasons you can legally obtain a visa, one of which is Education, and under that heading the sub-heading of “People to People.”  Obama came out in March of 2016 and said it was permissible for individuals to plan independent trips as long as they had a full time agenda aimed at creating interaction directly with Cuban citizens.  This didn’t seem terribly difficult to us, as our low cost mode of travel gives us lots and lots of exposure to locals wherever we travel.  This proved especially true in Cuba, where people are especially friendly, and Casa Particulars (where you rent rooms in the homes of Cubans) and Paladars (private restaurants in homes) made getting to know Cubans really easy.  Still I spent a lot of time and energy prior to our trip worrying about whether what we were about to do would be deemed acceptable by U.S. immigration, about how to document our itinerary, and what we would actually need as proof of it when we tried to come home. 

So this blog post will be most helpful to U.S. Citizens who would like to plan a trip to Cuba but have all the questions I did before we went.  Our family succeeded in having a very memorable and in many ways wonderful time, but we learned a lot of things NOT to do, and I have lots of advice to share.

First off, we flew round trip from Miami to Varadero, for under $300 with American Airlines.  Southwest also now has flights, but they were more expensive when we looked.  We wanted to go into Havana, because Varadero is notoriously touristy and purportedly all about sunbathing on the spectacular beach, but last minute those flights were a lot more.  I’m confident that if you planned ahead now, you could get really cheap flights in and out of Havana from several U.S. cities.  Do keep in mind that visas cost $100 per person, that you effectively have to add on to the cost of your ticket.  The good news though is that the ticket includes your required health insurance, and Cuba no longer charges a $25 departure tax.

Ok now for the tips I have to share.  I had managed to email quite a lot of Casa Particulars that I saw referenced online.  All responses were the same, booked up solid.  It was New Years and high season.  I also looked at AirB&B, and there were lots of amazing looking places, but again all booked up.  In hindsight this should have worried me more than it did.  I did finally succeed in booking an expensive self-catering tourist apartment for the first two nights of our stay, basically in desperation.  We were landing at 10pm and needed to have somewhere to go.  I guess I was just generally thinking that once we got there and met some people they could help us find onward accommodations, and that turned out to be kind of partially true.   I was also eventually successful in booking an AirBnB place in Havana for the 7th and 8th nights of our trips – the only times I could find anything available to book.  So basically I had booked 4 of our 9 nights.  My biggest piece of advice is to book ALL lodging ahead, especially if you are traveling in high season, which is winter, over Christmas/New Years and the month of January.

Here is the next most important tip - U.S. debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba, so you have to carry enough cash in for your entire trip.  For a family of four that is quite a lot.  The really great thing about AirB&B is that it is the only thing you can book ahead and pay for using a U.S. issued credit card.  Therefore if you book through them you do not have to carry cash to pay for lodging.  That is HUGE.  Also many really lovely Casa Particulars book through AirBnB – including one that was our favorite accommodation of the trip, so this is highly recommended.   Finally, Cuba hits U.S. dollars with a big fee when converting to their tourist currency (CUC) so we took Euros for the amount we planned to spend and converted them immediately upon arrival.  Then we took dollars as emergency back-up supply, in case of loss or theft or, in our case, unanticipated expenses.  That worked well.

Finally here are a few smaller random tips.  We are used to having access to TripAdvisor to select restaurants, and the lack of access to the net resulted in more subpar meals than necessary.  I recommend printing out some Tripadvisor top picks in the cities you plan to visit and taking them with you.  We found the guidebook suggestions to be generally overpriced and simultaneously not good.  Failing that, we found that recommendations from our hosts were generally good, as were places with Tripadvisor stickers in the window.  Entree prices could range from $7 to $25 with many of our best meals in the lower range.  There is also a general lack of the street food we were used to in many countries.

Next, we were warned to take toilet paper and we took like six rolls – definitely not necessary.  Instead take tissue packets to carry in your pocket to use when you are out.  Access to wifi is limited to an occasional intersection in the main parts of town.  To use it you need to purchase cards with a rub off code that cost from 2- 3 CUC for 1 hour of use.  We found though that the cards often weren’t for sale in the places where wifi was available.  So we recommend buying a few when you see them offered so you are prepared when you want to use them.  Also you can supposedly log out after partially using them and then use the remaining time the next time, but we found that often didn’t work.

Perhaps the most important topic in the misc category is that bottled water is weirdly sometimes rather hard to locate to buy.  Since you can’t drink the tap water and it can be crazy hot and humid, having water always on hand is pretty important.  I recommend buying it when you see it, even if that means lugging it around.

Cuba advertises itself as an authentic adventure.  It certainly isn’t false advertising.  Next up our own improvised 9 day family adventure in Cuba.

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