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Tricky Cuba Travel Questions – Answered

Find out everything you need to know to travel to Cuba.

U.S. News & World Report

Tricky Cuba Travel Questions – Answered

Colorful tropical buildings in old Havana

With restored commercial airline service between the U.S. and Cuba, Americans can more easily visit the country.(Getty Images)

With restored U.S.-Cuba relations opening up U.S. commercial flights, many travelers are itching to plan a trip. And last week's agreement to open up to 110 commercial daily flights to destinations across Cuba is another step in the right direction for those hoping to see the country firsthand. Still, the agreement doesn't allow for unrestricted travel to the Caribbean island nation, so don't grab your passport just yet. Here's what you need to know before planning your trip to Cuba.

How can I get to Cuba right now?

While travel to the country has been heavily restricted for American citizens for decades, most other countries have had open travel avenues for years. More than 1 million Canadians visit Cuba each year alone. In fact, up until now, booking a Canada-based tour has been a popular path for U.S. travelers looking to see the country.

But the new agreement outlines 12 categories of travel that are approved. Those that pertain to travelers include family visits, journalistic activity, professional research and meetings, education activities, religious activities and humanitarian projects.

Education and religious activities and humanitarian projects are where most of the travel opportunities are for U.S. travelers today. Companies like Ya'lla Tours, Travel Impressions, Vacations by Rail, Tauck and Apple Vacations are offering education-based tours to Cuba, using existing charter flights to facilitate air travel.

Additionally, cruise lines are offering educational trips that teach travelers about Cuban culture. The Athens-based Celestyal Cruises, for instance, has stake in the Canadian-based Cuba Cruise company and is in its third year of offering its people-to-people cruise and land itineraries. And Fathom, a "voluntourism" cruise line offshoot of Carnival Cruise Lines, will also start offering trips to Cuba beginning this spring.

Another major draw for American travelers: U.S. credit card companies can now set up agreements with Cuban merchants, so credit and debit cards will be allowed as soon as Cuba's infrastructure allows it. Expect to use old-fashioned credit card machines for now, as experts say the latest technology is still about 12 to 18 months away from getting rolled out. MasterCard has already announced that it will no longer block Cuba transactions on U.S.-issued cards after March. And American Express and Visa are still setting timelines for use, so make sure to call your bank before you go to ensure your card will be supported in Cuba.

When will I be able to fly to Cuba as a leisure traveler?

It's the million-dollar question, and the answer isn't so clear-cut. JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines have all announced that they plan to bid for Cuba flights. And other suitors will get to make their case in the next few weeks. The U.S. Department of Transportation has set March 2, 2016 as the deadline for airlines to apply for routes. There will be 20 routes to Havana allowed per day, with 90 other routes per day split equally among nine other island locales.

Decisions on which routes each airline will offer are expected to be determined by summer 2016. From there, airlines must get approval from Cuban authorities to negotiate with Cuban airports for gate space, much in the same way that airlines compete for gates at U.S. airports. A recent change in the current trade embargo rules allows airlines to enter into agreements with airports for space and to create code-share agreements with existing Cuban charter airlines. This is where the timeline could get murky. How long it will take the Cuban government to act is uncertain, but Obama administration officials expect that commercial flights will available by the early fall.

Another major hurdle in the way: U.S. politics. Apart from approval from Cuban authorities, the U.S. also needs to get those agreements in place. And while some Congressional leaders may agree to ease Cuba restrictions, others may not agree to fully overturn rules prohibiting leisure travel to Cuba this year. That said, President Obama may end restrictions via executive order when Congress recesses at the end of the year.

One thing we know for certain: Change is coming. From Reddit message boards to Facebook groups, the online buzz among seasoned travelers is clear. Commercial changes are coming to Cuba, as U.S. companies will look to set up shop in Havana and other cities around the island as soon as possible. Still, that commercialization will take years, if not decades, so the best advice we can give to the traveler who wants to Cuba before it transforms into a top leisure destination is to make your plans as soon as you can. 

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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