This is improving all the time, even under the restrictions. We flew Jet Blue from SFO to Fort Lauderdale, then into Cuba. At the time, Alaska Airlines offered direct flights from LAX, but the timing did not work for us. The number of flights getting into Cuba is still relatively low, making early booking a good idea.
Booking the flight was easy, but then the weather got in the way. About an hour before we were to leave for our red eye flight, we got notice that our flight to Ft. Lauderdale was delayed and we would miss our connection. While the flight into Cuba from Florida is short, they are not plentiful. We were told it would be days until they could get us to Havana. I stopped breathing. We’d miss the tour and by the time we got there, Spring Break would be over.
It was a tense call, but Jet Blue found a way to get us on a flight into Santa Clara, Cuba, a few hours away from Havana. Once there, we were able to easily negotiate for a taxi to drive us to Havana.
Without the ability to use American credit cards in Cuba, we had been worried about running out of money. This is part of the reason that the tour and Airbnb appealed to us: we were able to prepay those before our trip using standard credit cards. With lodging and many meals covered, the $1K was enough to get us through.
The one unexpected cash cost was checking our bags home on Jet Blue. Jet Blue should allow people to prepay for their luggage because it was chaotic at the check in desk with people struggling to dig up cash or running to join the slow line to covert money because only CUC was accepted. The word while waiting to check luggage was that they would take American dollars, but with a fee. That would have been okay, but it wasn’t true.
Traveling with a large amount of money worried us before we left, but we felt entirely safe in Cuba. Both places we stayed had safes, and while we did put our cash in there when we went out, it didn’t feel like that level of safety was needed. We were careful with our money, but we never worried about pick pockets while walking around.
Based on online reviews, we booked through Cuba Explorer. One of the major appeals is that they had a weekend tour (Friday night – Monday morning) that worked perfectly into our schedule.
Cuba Explorer was very helpful, making sure we had questions answered, our documents lined up, help with any other excursions, explained tipping, and they would have made the airport process easy, too. They told us what to say to immigration when we arrived, and they would have had someone there awaiting us with a sign…if only we had landed in Havana as planned. It turns out, when we arrived in Santa Clara, the customs and immigration people didn’t ask us any questions.
For our exit, a ride to the airport is included, but since we were staying on, as were the other two people in our tour, we didn’t need a ride on Monday morning.
All lunches and dinners were included on the tour, and breakfast was provided by our hotel. We ate at El Ajiaco, Nazdarovie, El Aljibe, and Cafe del Oriente.
Our tour guide was excellent. She spoke fluent English, was kind, and knowledgeable, and filled us in on Cuban life. We felt well cared for the entire time.
The tour wasn’t cheap compared to doing Cuba on your own, but it was easy and it made us feel secure as we got our bearings. It was nice to have things taken care of, especially including where to eat and how to get there.
We picked an Airbnb based on its solid rating, location (literally blocks from our hotel, allowing us to walk to the Airbnb after we checked out from the hotel), and that the reviews noted the hosts spoke some english and were very helpful. All of that was true and we felt so welcomed by our hosts.
The home was gorgeous, inside and out, with modern furnishings. Our hosts were so gracious, even teaching our kids how to make mojitos! We arranged for them to provide breakfast, and they helped connect us to someone to drive us to and from the beach.
We were able to take a taxi into Old Havana and walk around some more exploring and visiting Almacenes de Desposito San Jose, a large arts and crafts market. The kids still talk about the giant pineapple drinks we bought inside the market for a few dollars.
We spent most of our last two full days at the beach, both days at Playas de Este at the Santa Maria del Mar. I had wanted to spend one day at the more populated Santa Maria, and a second day at Playa Bacuranao or a more quiet beach, but our hosts encouraged us to stick with Santa Maria because it has amenities. There are chairs to rent, food and drink either ordered from your lounge chair or you can walk to the food stands near the street. We did both and the food was surprisingly excellent. Also, the hotels nearby will let you use the bathroom, generally for 1 CUC, which was helpful.
Playa Bacuranao appealed to me for privacy, but we wouldn’t have had the food, drink, and bathroom options. Not to mention, it was fun to be around Cuban families enjoying their own beach day.
Wifi is limited. Extremely limited. You can buy passes to get on wifi, but finding service isn’t easy. We had wifi in our hotel with a pass for an hour for each room. To get a connection, we had to sit in the lobby because the signal was so weak in our rooms. Honestly, once we were off, it was a nice break, but it would have been nice to have wifi to help navigate Havana when we were off on our own. Other than that, Instagram could wait.
One tip is to write down your destination in case of a language issue. Late one night, I could not remember how to pronounce H in Spanish, which made getting a ride to H Street difficult until I pulled out my scrap paper. Not my finest moment.
Restaurants – range from 1 CUC or 10% per person
One of the guys on our tour went out to clubs each night and when he said that he walked back from one club to the hotel – which was quite a distance – the tour guide told him that he went through one of the worst parts of Havana. Being from Chicago, the guy asked what that meant, as we all listened in, expecting something really scary with guns or gangs. She said, no, that at worst, there would have been a fist fight. No guns, we asked? Nope. The worst case scenario felt a lot like West Side Story.