Posted October 21, 2015
By JOHN RIOUX
Since President Obama announced on Dec. 17, 2014, that the United States would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, many Americans have started to wonder what has changed as a result of this looming friendship. The American people’s central question to these restored relations has revolved around how one can travel there legally.
The number of people looking to travel to the once forbidden Caribbean island has seen a significant increase. Trivago, a travel search engine focusing on hotels, released a report showing a 180 percent increase in searches to Cuba from the United States.
“The first thing I thought of when I saw the agreement was, ‘am I going to be able to go there’? We’re so close and it would be cool to see before any huge changes,” said University of Miami student Matt Scavo.
Unfortunately, getting to the island is still no seamless task. The U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Controls has yet to allow travel to the island for the sake of tourism. General licenses can be authorized for any of 12 activities: family visits, official visit of a government organization, journalistic activity, professional research or meeting, educational activity, religious activity, public performance, support for Cuban people, humanitarian project, activities of a private or educational institute, transmission of information, and authorized export transactions.
Simply what all this means is one cannot go to Cuba just to soak up some sun on its vast number of beaches. Relations have not changed enough to allow for free and open travel between the two countries. This certainly does not end that hope, as any direct travel from the United States to Cuba seemed inconceivable only 10 months ago.
Looking to capitalize on this recent development, airlines, hotels, cruise lines and other travel businesses have been trying to establish opportunities in Cuba. Until now, those traveling from the United States initially had to fly to another country, and then catch a connecting flight. This has quickly changed as Miami and New York immediately added flights to the island. Over the past few months, new flights have also been established from Baltimore, New Orleans, Orlando and Tampa.
Those willing to go through the necessary steps to get to the island will pay a hefty price. From my search on CheapAir.com, I found one could expect to pay $700 to $800 round-trip if leaving from Miami or $900 to $1,000 from New York to travel to the island only 90 miles away from Key West.
Cheaper travel methods will soon be available, however. Four ferry service companies have been granted licenses to offer trips by boat, which will be far less expensive than air. United Caribbean Lines, one of the companies granted a license, has been advertising a savings of 25 percent to 50 percent as compared to flying. Ships will depart in the afternoon from ports in Florida and Cuba, reaching their respective destinations the next morning.
Another added advantage of choosing a ferry service is passengers will be allowed up to 200 pounds of free luggage. Although that may not seem necessary to one traveling for a short trip, this allows those with family in Cuba to transport a large quantity of goods if needed.
Once in Cuba there are still many obstacles one has to overcome. Being that the restoration of diplomatic relations occurred less than a year ago, Cuba is not ready for a large rush of visitors. Due to previous trade agreements and much needed construction, infrastructure around the island is in decaying shape.
Because of this finding a worthwhile hotel is difficult. Many American travelers will not tolerate the conditions of some lower-rate hotels, as they are government-owned properties that are not well kept.
Airbnb.com, the home-stay website that has become increasingly popular in recent years, is an alternative to searching for a hotel. Having added Cuba to its list of destinations, one can find an accommodating room for as little as $25.
Once settled in for your stay, one must understand a few differences about life on the island. Internet access is not widely available on the island, as select hotels are the only places you will have access.
Americans are also allowed to spend freely in Cuba now, but only to a certain extent. $400 of general goods and $100 of alcohol and tobacco products can be purchased at a maximum, although I do not know how they keep track of your money spent.
Credit and debit cards will be allowed to pay for any expenses, yet many establishments do not have the necessary technology to accept cards. One should generally carry some cash with them, albeit a limited amount.
While one may run into a few difficult moments when traveling to Cuba, it is suggested to visit the island in its early state as many of the elements that make the island unique could soon disappear.