Some Americans have seemingly been waiting an eternity to visit Cuba, the mysterious, off-limits island just 90 miles away. In recent years, some Cuba travel restrictions were briefly lifted—but many have since been reinstated. So can Americans travel to Cuba? The answer: Yes, but it’s complicated.
In April 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would be tightening restrictions on Cuba travel, and in June, clarified that cruises and people-to-people trips would be banned, effective June 5, 2019. However, “the government said it will allow anyone who has already paid for the trip to go ahead with it,” the Associated Press reported. “Commercial airline flights appear to be unaffected by the new measures and travel for university groups, academic research, journalism and professional meetings will continue to be allowed.”
What’s the Big Deal About Cuba?
Cuba is a country seemingly lost in time, with little commercialization compared to other parts of the Caribbean. Chrysler DeSotos and Ford Fairlanes do, in fact, ride down cobblestone streets that lead to historic buildings-turned-hotels. The island’s white sand beaches, sultry music, colorful artwork, and friendly faces only add to the appeal.
The year 2018 saw lower tourism numbers than hoped for by travel companies, airlines, and hotels. Nearly 81 percent of U.S.-Cuba tour operators who responded to a survey performed by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a nonprofit research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of responsible tourism, reported a decrease in U.S. travelers visiting Cuba during the first half of 2018, compared to the same period in 2017.
This is mainly due to safety concerns. In February 2018, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning in light of non-physical attacks on U.S. Embassy members in Havana, as well as damage from hurricanes. Currently, the State Department is recommending that travelers should exercise caution if traveling to Cuba. You can read more on the Department of State’s website.
Although early 2019 saw a spike in bookings and interest in Cuba, the Trump administration’s latest restrictions mean that the number of Americans visiting the country will likely drop.
How Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Americans’ travel intentions must fall under one of the following categories that are licensed by the U.S. government:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and/or meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
Check the Treasury Department website for any updates on the allowed categories. Americans may not visit Cuba for “tourist activities” outside the above categories, so if you’re looking to spend a week on the beach, you’ll have to choose a different Caribbean island. While you don’t need to apply for a specific license for your trip, you must be able to offer proof that your journey fits into one of the above categories if it’s requested by the government.
In March 2016, President Obama announced that educational “people-to-people” trips did not need to be taken with a licensed group; instead, individuals would be able to take educational trips of their own design, without having to get permission from the government in advance. But in June 2017, President Trump announced a ban on individual people-to-people trips. In order to travel as an individual to Cuba in 2019, you must travel and meet the requirements under the “support for the Cuban people” category instead of “people-to-people.”
In June 2019, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that group people-to-people travel has also been prohibited, with one exception: “OFAC’s regulatory changes include a ‘grandfathering’ provision, which provides that certain group people-to-people educational travel that previously was authorized will continue to be authorized where the traveler had already completed at least one travel-related transaction (such as purchasing a flight or reserving accommodation) prior to June 5, 2019.”
U.S. travelers are forbidden from spending money on activities that benefit the business arm of the Cuban military, which runs many hotels, restaurants, and attractions. You can view the list here.
President Trump has promised stricter enforcement of Cuba travel regulations, so American visitors should be careful to document their activities and be prepared for questioning upon returning to the U.S. Cuba travel records should be kept for at least five years after your trip and should include information on “meaningful interactions” with locals and more.
How Can I Fly to Cuba?
Regular commercial flights operate from various U.S. cities to Cuba. Airlines offering these flights include American, Delta, JetBlue, United, and Southwest. You can book these flights on airline websites and on Kayak.com. Travelers should keep an eye on the Treasury Department website for information and updates on the availability of commercial flights to Cuba.
Where Can I Stay in Cuba?
Many visitors choose to stay in casas particulares or private homes. The easiest way to find and book these is to check sites such as Airbnb.com, CubaBookingRoom.com, and MyCasaParticular.com. Keep in mind that the level of luxury can vary widely from one casa to another and that your host may not speak much English. For bigger groups of families or friends, it’s possible to rent out an entire colonial mansion.
However, there are plenty of new hotel openings happening in Havana and in beach areas like Trinidad. For example, Iberostar has 20 properties in Cuba and in 2019, there are more options than ever for those seeking higher-end properties and boutique accommodations. With this increased supply, nightly rates have flattened a little, according to Collin Laverty, President of Cuba Educational Travel.
If you are considering a hotel, don’t forget to check the list of Cuban government-run properties to avoid; according to CREST, “the prohibition applies to ‘direct’ transactions. Therefore, payments through intermediaries such as tour operators are possible.”
Which Tour Companies Go to Cuba?
Group travel to Cuba under a general “people to people” license will no longer be permitted after June 5, 2019. “No new people-to-people group tours will be allowed, which is how the majority of Americans (who don’t have Cuban family) have been traveling to Cuba,” says Kendra Guild, Director of Product & Operations for smarTours, which ran numerous people-to-people group tours of Cuba during the time they were allowed. “Individuals will still be allowed to travel to Cuba, but they will have to be under a different category of travel, which can be more difficult to obtain. Other travel categories under the general license are more specific and limited in regards to who qualifies and what type of programming can be conducted.”
smarTours has one tour offering, Cuba Up Close, that involves homestays with local Cubans and is categorized under the “support for the Cuban people” clause instead of the people-to-people clause, and is therefore still open to American citizens despite the new restrictions.
Intrepid Travel offers Hola Cuba, a nine-day tour specifically designed for U.S. citizens that also falls under the “support for the Cuban people” category.
Do Any Cruise Ships Sail to Cuba?
Carnival Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Viking Ocean Cruises, Ponant, Regent Seven Seas, Tauck, and more have all operated recent voyages to Cuba, but these trips were banned as of June 5, 2019. For more information, see SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.
In May 2015 the U.S. government approved the service of passenger ferries between Florida and Cuba, granting licenses to several companies, but no vessels have begun running as of yet. Stay up to date here and on the Treasury Department website.
What’s the Currency Situation in Cuba?
MasterCard and a Florida-based bank announced in November 2015 that their debit cards now work for purchases in Cuba, though ATM withdrawals are not yet possible. Most U.S. credit cards still won’t function in Cuba; many restaurants and stores don’t accept them, and ATMs won’t work here either, so it’s essential to travel with cash.
Cuba has two currencies, the peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC); tourists will receive the latter currency when they arrive and change money. Try to bring euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars rather than U.S. dollars if you can; there’s an additional 10 percent penalty for changing U.S. dollars. Money can be exchanged at airports, hotels, and exchange offices.
And if you’re wondering about tipping while traveling to Cuba, consider tipping five or 10 to 20 CUCs (or dollars) for good service.
What Is the Current Internet/Wi-Fi Situation?
Most major cell phone carriers now offer roaming in Cuba and many three- and four-star hotels have Wi-Fi. You’ll even find Wi-Fi in some public parks and areas. Download these two apps that have offline access in Cuba: AlaMesa, which is similar to Yelp (iOS | Android) and Maps.me (iOS | Android).
More from SmarterTravel:
- What to Pack for the Caribbean: 35 Essentials
- Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
- Cuba Travel Tips: What You Should Know Before You Go
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Amanda Geronikos Norcross, Ashley Rossi, and Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.
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