Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Travel in Cuba - the bare essentials, part 1.

So while planning a trip to Cuba recently, I scoured the web for up-to-date information on simple practicalities such as money and booking individual elements of the trip as well as tips on best practices and came up with sweet FA.

After gleaning what I could from various websites - many of them incorrect or out of date - I ended up learning things the hard way. And thought I'd share my learnings with any future travellers to Cuba.

Keep in mind that a lot of this is being written from the perspective of a British national - based on your nationality, specifically if you are American, things could be significantly different. :-)

The style of this series of articles is purposely direct and to the point, aiming to be easy to read as a quick reference and a starting point for further research.

Part 1: Getting there

If you are travelling from Europe, you have a number of options - direct flights to Havana from London (Virgin Atlantic), Madrid (Iberia), Paris (Air France), Amsterdam (Martin Air) or Moscow (Aeroflot) make life easy. Cuba's national carrier, Cubana, also offer direct flights from most of these destinations, as well as Montreal and Rome. A particular gimmick - Cubana and Aeroflot offer a codeshare from Moscow, but booking the flight from Cubana is (supposedly) half the price of the Aeroflot ticket - even though you end up on the same physical aircraft.

Air Canada and Mexicana have direct flights from Toronto and Cancún, respectively, and several other Central and South American airlines have direct flights to Havana from their respective hubs.

If you are a non-US citizen, but travelling from the United States to Cuba, your choices are pretty limited - as was mine. I ended up flying from Orlando to Cancún on Delta, and then Cancún to Havana on Mexicana. Your choices would be similar - the airports in the region you have to choose from are Cancún, Nassau, Montego Bay in Jamaica, and Toronto. Nassau and Montego Bay don't fly daily flights and staying over in either of these places is expensive and just a waste of time compared to what you will experience in Cuba. I found Cancún to a pretty reliable and (relatively) cost-effective route, with plenty of flights from most US cities, and 3 flights a day (between Mexicana and Cubana) to Havana.

Also, American Airways and US Airways offer 3 or 4 direct flights a week to Havana, from Miami and New York. These cannot be booked online though, and will require at least a phone call to the airline and proof that you are not a US citizen, or have the appropriate paperwork and permissions from the US government.

I'm not going to talk about US citizens travelling to Cuba as there seems to be a lot of literature on this already, and I am hardly the expert on the subject.

Also, do check what tour operators have to offer using chartered flights; often, all-inclusive packages can prove significantly cheaper than just the flight, even if you don't use the accommodation provided - particularly true of operators in Canada.

Also, don't forget visas. Unless you're Russian (Russians, purportedly, don't need visas to enter Cuba), you will need a Tourist Card obtainable from any Cuban embassy, consulate or travel agent (if you are from the US and don't have access to a Cuban embassy or consulate!). In the UK this costs £15 and is available over the counter. Cuban immigration, aware of how US officials frown upon Cuban immigration stamps in a passport, won't stamp your passport - which means future travel to the US won't be jeopardised.

So that's part one done. Stay tuned for Part 2: Planning your Money!

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