Don’t believe the hype, or the rhetoric. Cuba is still open and ready for American travelers
When the Trump administration announced it would tighten the economic embargo on Cuba, travelers who dreamed of individual exploration on the island feared that their opportunity to visit had mamboed away for good.
It turns out those fears were unfounded. With additional research and a bit of effort, US residents who prefer not to travel with a tour group or on a cruise can still easily visit the island.
“In June 2017, [President Trump] went to Miami and made a somewhat inflammatory speech,” said Robert Muse, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer and expert on US-Cuba policies and travel regulations. “It created the impression that some serious changes were coming. In truth, the legal aspect of travel to Cuba is virtually unchanged.”
In 2014, the Obama administration dropped a requirement that individuals needed to apply for a license to travel to Cuba. Travel to Cuba still needed to fall under one of 12 authorized categories. Those categories range from family visits to educational activities (you can find a full list at travel.state.gov). Obama’s change of policy opened the door to a flood of US tourists visiting Cuba under the vaguely worded “people-to-people” category. Several airlines promptly launched direct flights and major cruise lines began sailing to the island.
But when Trump tightened the embargo in 2017, he closed the people-to-people loophole for individual travelers. Guided tours and cruise ships continue to legally operate under the people-to-people category. It’s a popular option for people looking for a taste of the island in a group setting, but not for those interested in striking out on their own.
Many thought the Trump policy change effectively ended opportunities for adventurous solo explorers. But according to Martha Honey, cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel, Americans can still travel individually under a category called “support for the Cuban people.” To meet the requirement, travelers must “have a full-time schedule of activities that will enhance and support the Cuban people.”
“The essential message is that travel to Cuba is still safe and legal,” Honey said. “But there are certain regulations that need to be followed.”
Those regulations include maintaining a full-time schedule, ideally running six to eight hours a day, which encompasses ways to support the Cuban people. Travelers could fulfill the requirement by employing guides and experts to lead them on walking tours, taking dance lessons, going to private markets, listening to lectures, seeing a private musical group, dining at a private restaurant, or hiring private drivers.
“The State Department has not officially put out a ‘You need to be active this many hours per day.’ The only language they’ve really used is that the schedule should be conducive to a Cuban full-time schedule,” said Greg Buzulencia, cofounder of the tour planning company ViaHero.
You also must retain records of your activities, including receipts and itineraries, for five years after the trip. In short, a Cuba trip cannot be a beach vacation.
US residents also must avoid transactions with all Cuban government and military-owned business. This includes dozens of large and small hotels across the country, plus shops. A better way to support the Cuban people is to reserve a room in a casa particular, or rent an entire apartment. You can find listings on home share sites such as Airbnb. It’s also a way to make sure that you’re not staying in unauthorized lodging.
“Airbnb launched in April 2015 in Cuba, and it’s the company’s fastest growing market anywhere in the world.” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, a Havana-based tour company. “They launched with 1,000 listings in 2015, and they’ve grown to 30,000 listings.”
There are a few other details that independent travelers need to address. After you’ve declared your category for travel, you’ll need to obtain a Cuban Tourist Card. You can purchase the card (often referred to as a visa) at the airport from most airlines that fly to Cuba. The price will range from $50 to $85 depending on the airline you’re flying. Once you arrive in Cuba, you’ll need to get valid health insurance. This can be purchased at the airport in Havana for a few dollars a day. Buzulencia recommends you bring cash to exchange at the airport. US credit cards and debit cards don’t work in Cuba, so it’s important to have enough cash to make it through your trip.
“You can travel there quite easily for $1,000, or even $500 a week if you’re on a budget,” he said. “I went there a few years ago with my wife and we spent $600 between us for the entire trip.”
Experts say Cuba is safe, despite a 2016 incident that left US diplomats in Cuba with inner ear damage and resulted in the withdrawal of staff from the United States Embassy in Havana. According to Honey of the Center for Responsible Travel, the US State Department changed its Cuba travel advisory from a Level 3 (“Reconsider travel”) to a Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution).
“That’s the same designation given to many European countries,” she said. Currently France, Germany, and Finland also have a Level 2 advisory in place.
If the idea of planning an individual trip under the support for the Cuban people category seems daunting, there are travel companies and advisors that can put together itineraries and connect you with locals.
“Restrictions on travel under the support for the Cuban people license haven’t changed, which is how the majority of our clients travel,” said Erin Green of Pique Travel Design. “We find that private customized trips offer a much more personal and meaningful experience.”
The travel company ViaHero works with locals in Cuba and to assemble personalized guidebooks based on individual interests. The company will put together itineraries for travelers for between $30 to $40 per each day planned.
“The fee is simply for the service of planning your trip and getting that guidebook built for you,” Buzulencia said. “A lot of people want to explore on their own and have independence during their trip, but they don’t want to do all the planning.”
Whether you want to visit on a cruise or a tour, or plan an individual trip, those with Cuba travel experience say to ignore the rhetoric surrounding Cuba conversations. If you’re interested in going, their advice is to simply go.
“In my eyes there’s never been a better time to travel to Cuba,” Laverty said. “Culture is obviously one of the strong points, and there’s so much happening right now in terms of dance, music, and art. There’s an incredible amount of innovation and excitement happening now.”