Ask about the Itinerary
Meta Reid, a children's librarian, traveled to Cuba with tour operator International Expeditions. She recommends that Americans who are interested in traveling to Cuba on a people-to-people tour ask the operators or organizations with which they are considering traveling for a detailed itinerary before booking. “You'll want to have at least one or two things that will really interest you,” says Reid, whose trip included a number of cultural and artistically-focused activities, such as seeing rehearsals of a ballet company and jazz group, having lunch at an organic farm, and meeting a librarian in Havana.
Travel outside Havana
While Havana could be a destination in and of itself (and is for many people-to-people tours), Donna Mikeska recommends booking a trip with an operator who offers itinerary options beyond the Cuban capital. “It is important to travel to various towns to get a real feel for the country. There are so many other areas that deserve a visit, so selecting a tour group that travels about the island would be best,” she says. One of the trip highlights for her was SCUBA diving in the Bay of Pigs.
Adjust your Expectations
Mikeska's husband, Gerry, who long dreamed of traveling to Cuba and signed up with International Expeditions within 24 hours of receiving an email notification that the operator was offering a Cuba trip, urges prospective visitors to adjust their expectations. Given the economic impact of the embargo, he says, “some hotels were in need of paint [and] lost electricity,” though he notes, “others were very upscale.” The variety and quality of food are typically poor, so he advises travelers who seek creature comforts to consider another destination.
Choose an agency that will handle logistics for you
Donna Mikeska, who also traveled on an International Expeditions tour, says that choosing an organization or operator who handles your paperwork for you is preferable to handling logistics on your own. “The process seems difficult and we did not have to deal with any of this; it was done for us by IE,” she says. When considering an operator, ask what logistics they handle and what preparations you're responsible for.
Pack your patience
Mikeska also recommends packing patience and practicing flexibility. From clearing Customs at the airport to reacting to unforeseen schedule changes, Mikeska says attitude is everything. Challenges and frustrations are a feature of traveling in Cuba, and a good dose of patience and humor goes a long way.
Don't be an ugly American
Curiosity and the desire to experience an “unspoiled” Cuba are what compel many Americans who travel to Cuba to visit the island. Be curious and ask questions, the Mikeskas urge, but act with the same courtesy you'd exhibit anywhere else. Their top tips? Don't take photos without asking permission and bring small gifts, especially art or school items or small toiletries, to share with hosts and locals you'll meet during your trip.
Share your stories
Travelers who have participated in people-to-people trips say they feel informed and inspired by their experiences, and enjoy sharing stories of their travels with others. Some even become involved in advocacy to call for an end to the embargo. “I hope with a little more effort from Cuba and the US that the embargo can be lifted, travel unrestricted, and a brighter future for Cuba can develop,” says Gerry Mikeska.
Engage in people-to-people encounters
Gerry Mikeska also recommends taking as much advantage as possible of the “people-to-people” contact with locals. Most operators pair with local guides, and for Mikeska, “the knowledge gained from being able to ask questions and converse with [local guide] Edelso was 50% of the trip for me.” Donna Mikeska and Meta Reid agree that one-on-one conversations provided some of the most meaningful memories from their Cuba trips.
Though Americans have more options now, it's important to know what your choices are to make your trip memorable.