Okay. It’s official. I am going to Cuba.
Getting to Cuba is not as difficult as one may think. Well, of course not for everyone else in the free and not-so-free world. But for an American, this might be perceived as risqué as going to Afghanistan or Iran. Well, I’m here to tell you that it can be done well within the US travel restriction guidelines. At least this my hope for getting on the plane and taking off.
The restriction guidelines are not on the State Department’s website. They are on the Treasury Department’s website, cause you see folks, this about restricting financial resources to the Cuban government, not its people. The guidelines were last updated in November 2017.
My trip to Cuba was for a photography workshop in Santiago de Cuba. I really want to see and capture the ‘real’ Cuban people, the cities rarely talked about, before the country becomes full of all-inclusives. I signed up for a photo workshop covering cities in the Oriente, which is the southeastern section of Cuba including Santiago, Baracoa, etc. It just happened that my photography instructor was going to be driving from Havana a couple days before the workshop and said that I could extend my trip by flying into Havana and riding down and back with him. Awesome! Now, I get to see quite a bit of Cuba from one tip to the other all in one trip.
So, back to the travel restrictions…
US Travel Restrictions
My trip qualifies under the ‘support for the Cuban people’ general license. The ‘support of the Cuban people’ is available to independent travelers (not tourists) BUT you must have a full-time schedule itinerary of what you are doing to ‘support the Cuban people’. So how many hours is full-time? Nothing on the Treasury Department’s website. Nothing on the State Department’s website. Nothing in the US Code. Now Department of Labor says less than 35 hours cannot be consider full-time employment. But this ain’t a job. The Affordable Care Act says 30 hours is full-time, then I guess everyone deserves break. The travel agencies, like Via Hero, seem to go with 6-hour weekday schedules too. So let’s go with 6-hours, per weekday, as a full-time schedule. That’s right, your travel days, evenings and weekends are free!
More US Travel Restrictions
I made sure that I had downloaded the “Cuban Restricted List“; the list of places that Americans are prohibited from patronizing (i.e. spending money) since they are Cuban-government owned. This pretty much eliminated hotels, resorts, all-inclusives, rum factories, and even one of the biggest malls. However, it does not mean that you cannot go look. Just don’t buy anything. Casa particulars are perfectly acceptable though. A casa particular is a home owned by a private Cuban citizen, where you rent a room (or the house). Many rooms are private with a lock and private bathroom. The rest of the main house is common area…kind of like staying at a cousin’s house. There are tons of them on AirBnB. Restaurants, or paladares, owned by private citizens are allowed too.
Quite frankly, the flights to Cuba are dirt cheap compared to flying from…say…the unrestricted Dominican Republic to Miami. American Airlines charges roughly $700 to get from Puerto Plata to Miami, round trip. My round trip flight from Miami to Havana, round trip was $312.
Do you actually think you are just going to waltz into Cuba without a visa/tourist card of some sort? This was probably the hardest bit of information to figure out. There are companies that provide a service to get the visa/tourist card for you. You can also go to the Cuban consulate and get one, but which one. There is the pink one for when you leave the US and then there is the green one for when you arrive from another country. Of course there is another catch. The pink tourist card is like $50 and the green one is about $30. Well, I live in the Dominican Republic and I believe there might be a Cuban consulate in Santo Domingo. However, I have no interest in driving 6 hours round trip for a tourist card. Luckily, it seems the airlines already have this figured out. There is a ‘Cuba Ready’ kiosk at the Miami (and Charlotte ) airport where you can get your travel card/visa the same day of travel. Of course, since it is a pink one, its going to cost $100 ($50 visa + $50 processing fee). I can save about $15 if I buy online with with the same company, Cuba Travel Services, and have it mailed. Via Hero does a good job of explaining how the whole visa/tourist card works.
Stay tuned to see if I actually make it on the plane.