Flying to Cuba
Fernand Fernandez likes to bring people together, and in his role as Vice President, Global Marketing at American Airlines he gets to do that every day. But the Cuban American airline executive with over 19 years in the industry is particularly excited about American’s new service to Cuba.
“I’m a big believer in dialog,” he told LATINO Magazine. “What better way to bring together Cuba and the United States than regularly scheduled airline service? It will allow more Americans to visit Cuba, and more Cubans to visit the U.S.”
President Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, and earlier this year visited the island with his family and a host of business leaders and government officials. Fernandez was part of that delegation, and one of the items on his wish list was checked off when in June the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded routes to eight U.S. commercial carriers.
American has been operating charter flights to Cuba for over 25 years, and knew the market well. On September 7, its first regular flight flew from Miami to Cienfuegos. JetBlue had been the first out of the gate, with a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara in August. Delta, Southwest and United soon followed. Others to come include regional airlines Silver and Spirit, as well as Alaska Arilines.
But Fernandez is proud that American has the most flights to Cuba. After Cienfuegos came routes from Miami to Holguin, Camaguey and Santa Clara. On September 11 was the first flight from Miami to the beach resort of Varadero. In November, American inaugurated the Miami-Havana route, as well as a flight fom Charlotte to Havana. By next year, American hopes to have 10 daily flights to Cuba.
And the feedback has been great: “The reception we’ve received has been very positive. We’re very excited about the new service and opening the Cuban market to more visitors,” said Fernandez.
One corollary is that flights have become substantially cheaper. Not long ago, it was fairly typical to drop as much as $800 on a roundtrip air charter flight. But with travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba significantly reduced, an expanding option of daily nonstop flights and heated competition among U.S. airlines have resulted in roundtrip airfares under $200.
Also, new departure cities are gradually coming on line to serve U.S. markets with substantial Cuban American populations. For example, JetBlue is scheduled to start nonstop flights from New York’s JFK to Havana on November 28, just a day ahead of United, which will inaugurate service to Cuba on November 29 from Newark. United has also announced Havana service from its Houston gateway. Alaska Airlines is the only carrier that will fly to Havana directly from the West Coast with daily nonstop flights from Los Angeles LAX starting January 5.
More flights from airports in the Sunshine State will be available when Southwest opens its Tampa-Havana route in December. With historic and cultural links to Cuba, Tampa has the third largest Cuban population in the country. Southwest will be the only carrier offering direct flights from Tampa to destinations in Cuba. Southwest has also announced twice-daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana, Varadero and Santa Clara, starting at $59 one way, the cheapest published fare to date to Cuba.
“Tampa is the 46th city in our system. With Havana, we will have 100,” commented Christine Ortega, International Senior Advisor for Southwest. “Tampa airport and business leaders are thrilled about their first international connection to Cuba, and we are thrilled that we made that possible.”
Delta will start daily service to Havana in December from JFK, Atlanta and Miami. The airline had offered nonstop flights from New Orleans to Havana until December 1, 1961. “We are looking forward to our long-awaited and historic return to Cuba on December 1,” said Nicolas Ferri, Vice President, Latin America and the Caribbean. “For us this is a great opportunity to reunite families, support a new generation of travelers seeking to engage and explore this unique destination and provide passengers the excellent customer service and operational performance they expect from Delta.”
More than 3.5 million people worldwide visited Cuba last year, according to Cuban state news media, and the number is expected to increase sharply. As regularly scheduled air travel from the U.S. to Cuba resumes for the first time in more than 50 years, the rush to the island has strained the resources of private and state businesses coping with the influx of daily arrivals.
Online services like Airbnb and CasaParticular.org already connect travelers with independent rental-by-owner options at a fraction of the cost of a state-run tourist hotel or resort. Plus, travelers can pre-pay online with an American credit card since Cuba’s economy is mostly cash driven. Credit card service remains spotty on the island, though Stonegate Bank and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico have started local operations. Direct booking options in U.S. dollars for a variety of hotels, vacation rentals and cultural attractions in Cuba recently multiplied with the entry of TripAdvisor into market. But for incidentals, travelers are advised to bring dollars.
Travelers should check with their carriers regarding smartphone usage, but T-Mobile is now offering calling, texting and data roaming in Cuba. Thanks to an agreement inked earlier this year, T-Mobile customers can now talk for $2.00 a minute, send text and multimedia messages for $0.50 per message and receive them for free, and use data for $2.00 per MB while roaming in Cuba.
While the ease of purchasing flights and lodging is making travel to Cuba more accessible, there are still complex travel requirements and permissions, which can be stumbling blocks for the uninitiated. The U.S. government does not currently allow its citizens or travelers flying on U.S. airlines to visit Cuba strictly for tourism. While American tourism to Cuba is technically prohibited, the U.S. in March relaxed travel restrictions. Travelers must fall into one of 12 approved categories, including family visits, educational activities, and humanitarian projects(see below).
The most popular is the “people to people” category in educational activities. This is loosely defined by destination specialist Cuban Travel Services as activities “which yield meaningful interaction between visitors and the Cuban people.” But it also includes outings like visiting a museum or a musical performance. No special permission is necessary, and travelers “self-justify” their inclusion in a specific category. But Cuba Travel Services, which processes visas for American Airines passengers, requires travelers to present a written itinerary, showing planned trips to such activites. Travelers should also keep records of these activities such as receipts or ticket stubs. But according to recent travelers, U.S. customs officials have not challenged inclusion in any category.
To help customers navigate the intricacies of Cuba travel, some airlines are working with companies like Cuba Travel Services to ensure that tourist visas and other requirements are met. U.S-born travelers can purchase the required 30-day visa at their departure airport for $50. Most airlines have special Cuba information desks at departure gates, but travelers are well advised to inform themselves about any requirements such as providing a written itinerary before leaving for the airport.
JetBlue has especially trained representatives in the U.S. and Cuba to provide a “personalized experience,” said Giselle Cortes, who joined Jetblue in 2003 and is the Director of International Blue Cities, responsible for operations at JetBlue’s 30 destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We have trained our agents at these destinations to be able to answer whatever the customers’ needs are. The 1-800- JetBlue line can provide answers to costumers as well….it’s going very well,” she added.
Like for Fernand, it’s more than just a job for Giselle, who is also Cuban American. “My grandmother was born in Cuba,” she says. “This goes beyond just work; this is a personal journey. It’s pretty neat to go back to the place to see what I had heard so much about while growing up.”
To mark the launch of its fights from JFK, Jetblue helped sponsor ¡Cuba!, an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, which opened November 21. ¡Cuba! showcases the island’s rich biodiversity and culture, and will no doubt encourage New Yorkers to fly JetBlue to Havana.
At United, the task of negotiating with DOT and the Cuban government fell upon the team head by Steve Morrisey, Vice President, Regulatory Policy. United strategically requested the route from its Newark hub to Havana, since nearby Union City, NJ is the second largest Cuban American community after Miami. And its Saturday nonstop from Houston to Havana will be the only flight from Texas.
Washington, DC-based Morrisey visited Havana with President Obama’s delegation and was struck by the potential of the new routes. “The word that comes to mind is opportunity,” he said. “How often do we get the opportunity to serve a brand new point on the map?”
In addition to Cuba Travel Services, travel agents with decades of expertise in Cuba, such as Marazul, Cubamax and VaCuba, can expedite passenger requirements and advance bookings for a nominal fee. Other companies like Discover Cuba (DiscoverCuba.co) are emerging as alternatives to guidebook itineraries and offer cultural connections with locals shaping the island’s future.
More direct routes to Cuba and competitive airfares will make Cuba a popular travel destination this holiday season. As the airlines and travel-related services adapt to the demands and nuances of doing business with our island neighbor, Cuba will likely grow as preferred destination well into 2017.
Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is regulated by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Despite the thaw in relations, travel for tourism alone is still prohibited. All customers looking to travel to Cuba on a U.S. commercial airline must meet special requirements pertaining to their reason for travel, health insurance, passport and visa, and proof of return or onward travel. Before planning your trip, be sure to familiarize yourself with the requirements so you are fully prepared and know what to expect.
When you book or check in for your flight, you will be asked to certify the reason for your visit. You will be guided to specialized resources available to every airline customer purchasing travel from the U.S. to Cuba. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities, including “people to people” travel; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
As discussed above, the most popular category is “people to people,” which can be self-justified by travelers without a special permit. This includes activities like visiting cultural events or historical sites. Travelers are advised to confirm any requirements with your airline when you book travel, or consult a travel agency like Cuba Travel Services (CubaTravelServices.com).
If you are U.S. born, your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months beyond your entry into Cuba. You´ll need a visa (Tourist Card) to enter Cuba in accordance with the 12 categories of authorized travel, above. Though it can be obtained from the Cuban Consulate in Washington, DC, your best bet is to purchase it via your air carrier either at the time of flight is booked or at the departure airport. The travel card costs US$50 and is valid for 30 days, beginning the day you arrive. It can be extended once in Cuba for $25 for another 30 days but no longer.
The Cuban government requires U.S.-citizens born in Cuba who departed Cuba on or after January 1, 1971 to enter and depart using a Cuban passport, which must be solicited from the Cuban embassy or via a travel agency specializing in travel to the island. It costs approximately US$500 and is valid for 6 years from the date of issuance.Cuban-Americans who departed Cuba before January 1, 1971 may travel to Cuba on their U.S. pa ssport but must apply for an HE-11 visa, also obtained from the Cuban Embassy at a cost of about US$220 and valid for entry only once within 90 days of the date it is issued.
Other requirements include a return ticket, or ticket of continuation of travel out of Cuba. The Cuban government also requires that you purchase Cuban health insurance. The policy is included in the price of your air ticket and costs US$25. And make sure you keep 25CUC (in Cuban currency) per person for a departure tax payable in cash after check in for all passengers leaving Cuba.
The U.S. Department of State provides more information about traveling to Cuba at
What You Need to Know