Not so long ago, it seemed Americans would have to wait an eternity to visit Cuba, the mysterious, off-limits island that taunted us just 90 miles away. In recent years, however, many Cuba travel restrictions have been lifted—and some have been reinstated. So can Americans travel to Cuba? Read this comprehensive Q&A to find out.
Editor’s note: In April 2019, the Trump administration announced that it would be tightening restrictions on Cuba travel, but details so far are vague. It’s unclear whether cruises or group tours to the island will be affected. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) offered the following statement: “Cruising to Cuba falls under the ‘lawful travel exemption’ under Title III of the Helms Burton Act. Our member cruise lines have been and are now engaged in lawful travel to Cuba as expressly authorized by the United States federal government.” This story will be updated once more details are available.
What’s the Big Deal About Cuba?
The fact that Americans haven’t been allowed to travel to Cuba is actually part of its appeal. It’s 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
The good news is that bookings and interest in Cuba so far for 2019 have spiked, and Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism aims to exceed five million international visitors for the year.
CREST asked U.S. tour operators and service providers that offer trips to Cuba to share projections for their people-to-people, study abroad, and cruise bookings for 2019.
- 54.54 percent said they expect their people-to-people travel bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019.
- 22.7 percent of respondents involved in people-to-people travel expect a decrease, and the remainder expects numbers to say the same.
- 60 percent said that they expect their study abroad bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019.
- 20 percent of respondents involved in study abroad travel expect a decrease, and the remainder expects numbers to stay the same.
- 71.43 percent said that they expect their cruise bookings to increase in 2019.
- Only one respondent expects a decrease in 2019.
How Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Americans no longer need a specific license to go to Cuba, but their travel intentions must fall under one of the following categories that are generally 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, or athletic and other competitions
- 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
Americans still 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 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 his intention to ban 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.” For specific information on this contingency, see more information here.
President Trump also announced that U.S. travelers would be 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.
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. Journals and records should be kept for at least five years after your trip, as recommended by lawyers, and should include information on “meaningful interactions” with locals and more.
How Can I Fly to Cuba?
Regular commercial flights are now available from various U.S. cities to Cuba—and with demand slightly lower than expected, the fares are relatively affordable. Airlines offering these flights include American, Delta, JetBlue, United, and Southwest. You can book these flights on airline websites and on Kayak.com.
Airlines take care of two roadblocks with travel to Cuba:
- Tourist Card (i.e. Visa): You can file your necessary visa at the airport with your airline or ahead of time online with some carriers.
- Compliance with embargo regulations: Airlines will help you determine your correct category and how to document this.
Where Can I Stay in Cuba?
Many visitors choose to stay in casas particulares or private homes. The owners are all small-scale Cuban entrepreneurs, which Americans are encouraged to support on their visit to Cuba. The easiest way to find and book these is to check sites such as Airbnb.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?
Traveling with a tour group remains the easiest and most seamless way to travel to Cuba in 2019. Several tour companies travel to Cuba, including the following:
Intrepid Travel offers a nine-day people-to-people itinerary that includes time in Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad.
Cuba Explorer features even more options to see the island. Tours focus on themes such as birding, jazz, adventure, and more.
Insight Cuba offers several specialty packages including Classic Cuba, Undiscovered Cuba, and Jazz in Havana.
Friendly Planet offers several tour options, including Captivating Cuba, which allows tourists to meet a local fashion designer and learn about Afro-Cuban religion.
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 all currently have offerings to Cuba. Virgin Voyages, an adults-only cruise ship, will make its maiden voyage from Miami to Cuba in 2020.
To learn more, see Which Cruise Should You Take to Cuba? from 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.
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).
Should I Go to Cuba Now or Wait?
Cuba is a newly hot travel destination for Americans, but it’s long been a popular place for travelers from other parts of the world. Choosing when to travel really depends on your preference. While it’s impossible that some of your tourism dollars won’t go to the Cuban government, most will be going to the local economy and people. It will become easier and perhaps cheaper to get there in the future, but it could also be more crowded and more commercialized.
For the most up-to-date information check the Treasury Department’s Cuba FAQ.
More from SmarterTravel:
- What to Pack for the Caribbean: 35 Essentials
- People-to-People Cuba Tours: Why They’re Better Than Going at It Alone
- Cuba Travel Tips: What You Should Know Before You Go
—written by Amanda Geronikos, updated by Ashley Rossi
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.