The longstanding ban on Cuba travel has been amended to allow all Americans to take part in tours to Cuba that encourage “people to people” contact. Previously, only religious, educational, and cultural groups could legally travel to Cuba, and then only with specific permission from the U.S. State Department.
The bad news is that Americans still can't simply book a flight and a hotel and head to Cuba. You'll need to travel with a Cuba travel organization that has an official license from the U.S. State Department, like Insight Cuba, which recently became the first company authorized to run Cuba tours under the new policy.
And, while your tour may include stops at museums, historic sites, or even the Bay of Pigs or a local Communist Party block meeting, purely recreational activities -- like visiting the beach or scuba diving -- are prohibited from tour itineraries, which are limited to experiences that brings American and Cuban people together.
Schedules are typically packed with activities in order to comply with the State Department’s mandate and federal law, so it remains to be seen whether in practice travelers are able to slip away in their limited free time to take a dip in the Caribbean or sample the local mojitos.
Insight Cuba is offering several options for Cuba travel, including a three-night weekend in Havana and seven-night trips that see more of the country. Tour prices include all lodging, activities, in-country transportation and meals, but not the cost of the necessary charter flight from Miami to Havana.
Other Ways to Travel to Cuba
Until and if the remaining aspects of the Cuba travel restrictions are lifted by the U.S. government, tours like those offered by Insight Cuba will be the only legal way for most Americans to visit the Caribbean island nation.
Of course, these restrictions don't apply to travelers from elsewhere in the world, and Cuba is among the most popular Caribbean destinations for travelers from Canada and Europe. A number of international hotel companies, such as Riu, Iberostar, and Sol Melia, have built large resorts in Cuban destinations like Varadero that meet the expectations of savvy global travelers. More than 2 million tourists now visit Cuba annually.
Many Americans do travel illegally to Cuba. The Cuban government welcomes Americans to visit with a passport, and Cuban customs and immigration officials know not to stamp the passports of Americans entering the country. The most common way that Americans circumvent the Cuba travel ban is to fly to a third country that has regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, such as Canada, Mexico (Cancun is nearby and a popular Cuba gateway), or the Bahamas (Nassau). You can get a Cuban tourist card at airports in these countries, good for up to 30 days visiting Cuba.
Several companies located in Canada and elsewhere operate specifically to help Americans who want to travel independently to Cuba to book hotels and make other travel arrangements. Examples include USA Cuba Travel and CubaLinda.
Keep in mind, however:
- If you are caught traveling illegally to Cuba you could face hefty fines and an uncomfortable experience clearing U.S. customs.
- Credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks will not work in Cuba. That requires U.S. visitors to carry cash or travelers’ checks with them, which can be risky. The U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere, however.
- If you get in trouble in Cuba there’s no U.S. embassy there to help you.
- Cuba is ruled by an authoritarian, sometimes paranoid government. Many of the rights you are used to as a U.S. citizen don’t exist in Cuba.