HAVANA – The number of Americans booking flights and accommodations to Havana and other Cuban cities is already surpassing projections for 2017, according to tour operator insightCuba and others.
“[The market] is starting to find its new normal," insightCuba’s president Tom Popper told Fox News.
“While a small percentage of travelers are curious about what the Trump administration might do regarding travel, they want to go before things change,” he said. “It’s one of the safest countries in the hemisphere as it relates to crime, unrest and terrorism.”
Today, getting to the communist island after a 50-year hiatus is surprisingly easy. There are still a few challenges to overcome when planning your trip, but if you follow these tips, expect relatively smooth sailing.
GIVE IT SOME TIME
Hotels in Havana and Varadero, but especially in smaller cities around the island, are relatively scarce and can be expensive. A four-star hotel will cost you about $200 to $300 a night — and chances are you may be disappointed as accommodations will not be similar to what you would expect in a similarly priced hotel in the U.S. An excellent alternative is renting out a room in a private home, which will give you the added benefit of meeting locals learning about Cuban culture. Through Airbnb.com, for example, you can find rooms for about $30. Remember to read the reviews carefully and reach out to several places for options.
BOOKING A FLIGHT
When it comes to booking air travel, note that some U.S. search engines still can’t show you results for Cuba for legal reasons. At the time of purchase, you’ll be asked your purpose of travel. You can’t go as a tourist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t fit one of the 12 categories authorized by the U.S government. Most people opt for educational activities/people-to people travel — after all, you are going to educate yourself about Cuba, the Cold War and Fidel Castro's regime.
How about a visa? Yes, you do need one, but now that there are commercial flights from the U.S., the airlines take care of that for you. Or rather, they make the consular services come to you at the gate.
At the airport, give yourself plenty of time to check-in (online options won’t be available) and lines may be long. Time saving tip? Have someone save your spot while you go ahead and pay $50 (plus a $25 processing fee) for your visa.
You’ll also need a Cuban health insurance plan for the duration of your trip but most U.S. airlines will include that in the price of your ticket. Double check with your carrier before proceeding. Also, keep your boarding pass with you during the duration of the stay because that is your only proof of insurance.
The cash you take with you is the money you’ll have available through your entire journey … so bring plenty to avoid running out. Havana is still pretty expensive for a developing country. If you have Euros or any Latin American currency left from another trip, take it: You may get a better rate. And remember, U.S. credit and debit cards do not yet work in the country.
Be prepared to literally disconnect from the world —Internet and phone access in Cuba are that limited. Before traveling, check to see if your cell phone carrier has service on the island since many already do-- but it could be spotty. If that’s the case, remember to activate your roaming and disable your data service in order to avoid huge expenses. If you need Internet access while in Cuba, it may soon be possible.
ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT
Cubans call Havana's José Martí International Airport airport a “bus terminal” and it certainly feel like one because it’s often overcrowded and chaotic. Security lines may be long-- and getting through immigration will take some time for U.S. travelers-- but as long as you have your visa and follow customs guidelines, you should be fine, no questions asked.
The next step is to exchange your dollars for CUC, the local currency (just pronounce the letters CUC in English and they will understand). You can do this at a booth next to the departures area. Get ready for another line and high fees-- but that will likely be the case at any Casa de Cambio (currency exchange kiosk) or hotel.
Keep in mind that there’s a separate currency for Cuban citizens, and it'called the CUP. The CUC is pegged to the dollar and it's worth 25 times as much as the CUP. Most Cubans are paid in CUP, but nearly all consumer goods are priced in CUC within the country.
Carefully inspect your money before departing any exchange house so you don't get scammed by receiving the wrong type of cash. Also, become familiar with the differences between bills– CUC bills are much more colorful.
One last thing before stepping out of the airport: buy (or at least try to obtain) a Wi-Fi card at the ETECSA store. ETECSA is the state-owned telecommunications company.
OFF YOU GO
Just outside the airport, you'll find plenty of yellow taxis that typically charge 25 CUC to get you to a central location in town.
But during your stay, watch out for the taxi drivers’ mafia. Get a sense from a friendly local or an experience tourist on how much you should really be paying for a ride from A to B to avoid getting scammed. Not all cabs have meters so it can be tricky to calculate. And don’t negotiate with the middlemen-- handle the transaction with the driver directly.
Once you've settled into your hotel or home accommodations, go out and explore, meet the locals, take in the historic architecture and sunbathe on the beautiful beaches.
Marta Dhanis is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She can be reached @MartaDhanis.