We can’t blame you if you're making summer plans to visit Cuba — this year or next. This largest island in the Caribbean offers visitors the chance to roam the historic streets of one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere. The colonial architecture, art, music and friendly people are all reasons to make Cuba your next vacation destination.
Even if you are a seasoned cruiser, a cruise to Cuba is unlike anything you have done in the past. So, whether you are already booked or thinking of taking the plunge, we want to make sure you are completely prepared for the trip.
My wife and I visited Havana on Norwegian Sky in May and wrote about our walking tour of Old Havana. To help make your cruise planning easy, we have put together these 10 things you need to know before cruising to Cuba.
Yes, Americans can cruise to Cuba
It's official that U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba. While there was concern last month that this would change under the current U.S. administration, it is still clear sailing to Cuba. All the major cruise lines sailing to the island have indicated that they will continue offering cruises departing from the United States. So, now is the perfect time to go ahead and plan that trip, before regulations possibly change.
Your travel must meet certain requirements
While you can now visit Cuba, your trip is still partly restricted. If you have plans of lounging on the beach while sipping daiquiris, you should probably think about cruising elsewhere. All travel to Cuba is guided by the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control travel regulations. In particular, there are 12 specific categories of travel that are permitted. Sadly, “tourism” is not covered. However, travelers cruising to the island are covered as long as they engage in authorized “people-to-people” cultural exchange activities while ashore. Given the change in relations with Cuba in 2016, it is now much easier to meet this requirement as it is no longer mandatory for Americans to go through authorized outlets for such activities. Essentially, you can create your own cultural exchange itinerary or book an excursion through either the cruise line or one of the several local tour providers.
There will be extra paperwork
Traveling to Cuba does require some additional travel documentation. First, your cruise line will require you to complete an affidavit. This declaration indicates that you will be traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 authorized travel categories. Then, it is up to you to track and verify that your activities comply with the people-to-people regulations. It is recommended that you take a detailed journal of your time spent ashore and keep this “diary” for up to five years. Second, you will need to get a travel visa. You can purchase one through the cruise line with ease for an additional fee. All travelers to Cuba need a travel visa to enter the country. Most cruise lines won’t allow you on board if you don’t have this documentation completed prior to your cruise.
There are plenty of cruise options
There is currently a growing list of cruise lines and ships adding Cuba to their itineraries. All three major cruise lines, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, are now offering cruises leaving from south Florida that spend at least one day in Havana. Holland America has also announced that it will be cruising to Cuba soon as well, along with Viking Ocean Cruises, which will be adding Cuba to some of their Caribbean sailings later this year. Luxury cruise lines, including Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, also cruise there. There are also full week cruises to the island on smaller cruise lines like Celestyal Cruises. We expect even more ships will be cruising to Cuba in 2018.
Book your onshore experiences with a local
As we mentioned above, your time on the island must comply with specific travel regulations. The cruise companies all offer tours that will meet the OFAC guidelines mentioned above, but there are plenty of local tour guides that will offer the same experiences often for cheaper prices. In addition, you can get a more intimate and personal experience with one of these providers. We had one of the most memorable and insightful days in Old Havana during our tour with Havana Journeys. We booked months in advance and suggest you do the same as these tours sell out quickly.
You'll find only limited Internet
Unfortunately, Cuba is a bit behind the times when it comes to the Internet. Technically, there are ways for you to access Wi-Fi, using government access cards and Wi-Fi spots in parks throughout the city, but you should just enjoy your time on the island and wait until you get back to the ship to share your adventures on social media. Given the extra work and money required, we say skip the Internet ashore and connect with the people of Cuba instead.
Your credit card & ATM cards likely won’t work
You are going to need cash when cruising to Cuba. Credit cards and bank ATM cards are not accepted anywhere on the island. To make purchases, you'll need to acquire Cuban convertible pesos. The exchange rate is roughly one CUC to one USD. There is a 3 percent transaction charge on all exchanges, and if you exchange U.S. dollars, you are charged an additional 10 percent fee (or penalty). Those who bring a foreign currency such as euros will save you on the exchange, but the savings are minimal and not worth the extra effort.
You should practice your conversational Spanish
Besides the tour guides, very few Cubans speak English, so refreshing your conversational Spanish will definitely be helpful. You can download translation apps, but make sure they do not require a live internet connection. Almost all signs at major attractions and historic landmarks are also in Spanish, so bring along a smartphone app that translates street signs. We did much better deciphering signs than we did trying to communicate with local shop owners and taxi drivers. Next time, we'll be more prepared! (Nosotros prometemos — we promise!)
Get ready to go beyond your comfort zone
The Cuban people are friendly and inquisitive, so you should be, too, when visiting the island. Don’t be afraid to venture off a bit during the day to explore beyond the touristy areas. Most of Cuba is safe, and you will see a rather noticeable police presence at many of the major attractions. We spoke with plenty of people who did some of the nighttime excursions to the popular clubs and lounges, and they all had positive experiences. So don’t be afraid to expand your horizons and travel slightly outside your comfort zone while in Cuba.
Leave room for the souvenirs
10 One of the best parts of Cuba is what you can take home with you! The rum and cigars sold on the island are now allowed back into the States. Your purchases will be covered under the normal duty and customs allotments for travel to the Caribbean, and there is currently no restriction on the number of Cuban cigars you can bring back. Local hand-crafted goods and street art are also popular choices for Cuban souvenirs.
Have you already cruised to Cuba? What are your tips for planning a cruise to Cuba?