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7 things that might surprise you about Cuba

© Jeremy Woodhouse, pixelchrome.com

I’ve traveled to many places around the world and have had incredible cultural experiences, but one place that always ranks in my top five is Cuba. I’ve made several trips to Cuba since I first started going in 2011, and I find it remarkable in so many ways in spite of, and because of, the U.S. embargo, which has essentially frozen its ability to do business with most parts of the world. So Cuba has adapted, beautifully, in ways that you’d never expect. Here’s what I’ve observed:


6 Things to Know About the New Cuba Travel Rules


A new era in travel to Cuba has begun, with revised rules for U.S. citizens in effect as of January 16, 2015. President Obama’s December 2014 announcement regarding easing decades-old restrictions on travel generated huge interest and curiosity—but also some confusion.

In reality, it’s actually been legal for US citizens to visit Cuba since 2011, when new regulations were put into place allowing licensed travel under the proper conditions. Since that announcement, the unprecedented wave of calls and bookings is reflecting a poignant indication of the great interest among Americans in travel to the once-forbidden island.

We’ve reviewed and parsed the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (the “CACR”), so we can provide you, the traveler, a quick summary of the rules. (Updated Sept. 3, 2015.)

1. You’re still not allowed to spend a week lounging on the beach.

But educational travel is fine! In order to go there, you will still need to certify, by signed affidavit, that you’re traveling for one of 12 categories of authorized travel. You’ll need a full time agenda for each day you’re in Cuba focused on that reason, and you won’t find getting a tan at the beach on the list. “People-to-People” cultural exchange tours fit the new rules, and they will continue as usual. A tour company that’s experienced in Cuba travel can help you navigate all the details and make it easy.

2. You can now bring home cigars and rum legally.

Finally, you’ll be able to bring home $100 worth of cigars and/or rum. You’ll also be able to bring home another $300 in other purchases, for a total of $400 in souvenirs. Original art, music and educational materials such as books aren’t subject to the $400 limit, so if you find that amazing original painting (and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do just that), you can buy it and bring it home legally.

3. Eventually, you’ll be able to pay with a credit card.

Now that’s a big deal. Travelers visiting Cuba have been forced to carry cash and exchange dollars for CUC’s, the Cuban currency. Once U.S. banks have set up the infrastructure in Cuba, you’ll be able to use your credit card to pay for incidentals at the hotel or even that amazing painting you want to hang in your living room. This will take some time to implement the new rules, since as of this moment, one small south Florida bank has officially begun working directly with Cuba. But it’ll be a huge convenience once truly implemented.

4. Flying to Cuba is going to get easier.

It will take a little time for the U.S. Department of Transportation to create the procedures and guidelines to make scheduled service from the U.S. possible. For the moment, no U.S. airlines are flying directly to Cuba with regularly scheduled service, although several are looking at the possibilities. JetBlue, through its association with Cuba Travel Service, a charter operator, is already operating flights from New York and Ft. Lauderdale. And United Airlines has announced that it will soon begin service from Newark and Houston direct to Havana. You can still fly to Cuba via Canada, Jamaica or Cancun, but those routes mean more travel time as well as cost. For now, charters, mostly from Miami, remain the least expensive and most convenient way to arrange the trip.

5. Cruises to Cuba are now legal.

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, the idea of cruising from Miami to Cuba was a dream unfulfilled. Today, there are already several People-to-People cruises available. However, you’re not going to avoid the full-time educational aspect still required of U.S. travelers to Cuba. Whether they originate in Miami, Havana or Jamaica, these cruises all feature a schedule of activities designed to comply with OFAC rules, including on days at sea. One major advantage of these cruises is that they typically circle the island, taking travelers from Havana all the way to Santiago, and points in between, making it possible to see a lot of the island in a as little as a week. One major disadvantage is that these cruises cost a lot, due to the extensive programming and legal requirements involved in operating the educational program. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll be spending your nights aboard your ship, so dinners, while prepared Cuban style, won’t be in any of those awesome, privately-owned “paladars” that are run by a new breed of Cuban entrepreneur and flourishing thanks mainly to U.S. tourists.

6. Travel with a group is the best way to avoid a lot of hassle and keep the cost down.

According to the new rules, you will need a full time program of activities that comply with your signed affidavit of purpose. The best and least expensive way to adhere to these rules is to book into a group tour that has taken all the rules—and your best Cuban experience—into consideration. These groups book into the most appropriate accommodations for American travelers, and they include the experiences that are hard for travelers to arrange on their own. Considering the bureaucracy still associated with Cuba travel (new rules notwithstanding), having a full-time tour manager, in addition to the guide, goes a very long way toward smoothing out all the unexpected wrinkles and ensuring you have way more fun than you’ll ever believe.

While thousands of U.S. travelers have had amazing cultural journeys to Cuba, it’s still not yet ready for prime-time mass tourism. Until there is sufficient infrastructure, and a lot less bureaucracy, it is proving difficult to handle the growing numbers of general tourists that want to visit. For now, until more hotels are built, more guides are trained, and more restaurants are opened, established group tours operated by experienced tour operators with deep local contacts and plenty of guaranteed hotel rooms will remain the best bet for travelers who want to avoid problems and enjoy the authentic Cuba right now—before it changes forever.

How Does the New Cuba Policy Affect Travel and Tourism?

New opportunities for Cuba travel

We are very excited and enthusiastic about the changes in Cuba policy announced today by President Obama. According to our understanding, there will be some changes forthcoming regarding diplomatic relations, commerce, flow of information and, of course, tourism. The new rules have not yet been announced, but several things are clear. 

  • Without an end to the embargo, we will not be able to hop on a flight and spend a weekend at the beach in Cuba.
  • With new rules that are sure to come in the next weeks, there will be many more opportunities and less restrictions regarding how Americans are able to travel to Cuba.

Regarding the second point, we are truly excited to be able to expand our group tours to Cuba. At present, we’re selling three programs with set departures. In addition, we operate many groups during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests. Among them are photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups and many others.

We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.

What will likely change, and what will not

Our travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA. However, since it will soon be possible to use credit cards in Cuba, we anticipate that traveling to the island will be much easier for our passengers. At the moment, travelers need to take cash with them, to cover any purchases they want to make. In today’s world, it’s not so common to have to carry cash, and that makes many people uncomfortable. Perhaps, although this is not yet clear, it will finally be possible to bring back some of those Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s traveler can only enjoy on the island.

According to the OFAC notice published this afternoon, Dec. 17, some changes will be made to the regulations. “OFAC expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming weeks. None of the announced changes takes effect until the new regulations are issued.”

So, for the moment:

  • We still need to carry cash when we visit Cuba
  • We still need to participate in a licensed program, according to present rules
  • We still have to leave the cigars and rum in Cuba

But if the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

See the REAL Cuba while you can

One last thought. For anyone who is anxious to see the “real” Cuba, do it now. In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.

Friendly Planet Travel Cuba Tours and Travel Packages

Want to get away this holiday season? Now’s the time to book a vacation!

Imagine spending the holidays lounging on a gondola in Venice, spotting endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica, or salsa dancing with locals in Cuba, all at an affordable price. Well now’s your chance. Our team at Friendly Planet Travel is offering special deals on 38 travel packages to destinations across the globe, all with travel dates over the coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Travelers can save up to an EXTRA $300 on select tours, but you have to book soon — these special offers end on Sept. 25, 2014. To help you picture that perfect getaway, I wanted to highlight just a few of the vacations that you could be booking for this holiday season.

Discover Havana: Through our people-to-people license, the Friendly Planet Travel team has helped more than 5,000 Americans visit Cuba legally. Cuba is a nation only 93 miles from the continental U.S., yet remains largely untouched by American influences. In fact, visitors often describe Cuba as a trip back in time. Our Discover Havana people-to-people program introduces travelers to the culture and daily life of the Cuban people. Travelers spend three eye-opening days in Havana, where activities include a visit with Cuban schoolchildren, a performance by a local dance group, and a meal at a paladar — a private restaurant run by a local family. In addition, they venture into the countryside to explore the coffee plantations of Las Terrazas and Hemingway’s Cuban retreat in Finca Vigia. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that truly unites two cultures through the magic of travel.


Ever wanted to see Cuba legally? Now’s your chance!

Our team at Friendly Planet Travel has helped more than 5,000 Americans travel to Cuba legally through our licensed people-to-people programs, and according to a survey we conducted of travelers upon their return, an astonishing 81 percent would go back again if given the chance. People-to-people licenses were first issued to qualified tour operators by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2011, with the intent of developing a greater understanding between the separated nations, and since then, have proven to be a tremendous success.

These tours are not simple vacations. Instead, they’re life-changing events that allow Americans and Cubans to better understand each other through educational exchanges around such topics as art, music, literature, education, and much more.

Our present license — due to expire in September — has just been renewed for two more years! We’re extremely excited that we can continue offering these rewarding experiences to anyone with a desire to find out more about Cuba and its people. As a result, our team has been hard at work preparing the details of our upcoming departures, and we’ve just posted new dates through May 2015 for our three signature programs:


The true colors of Cuba: Part 2

Barry Ostrow recently recounted his first trip to Cuba on a Friendly Planet Travel tour. Barry glimpsed the 1950s cars lining the streets of Old Havana, met world-class dance students at Pro Danza, and listened to energetic salsa beats at a Cuban dance club — and that was only in the first four days! Here’s the final account of Barry’s Cuban experience.

Day 5: On the way back to Havana from Trinidad, we stopped at the former French city of Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is a wealthy city thanks to the presence of Cuba’s oil refineries. Instead of the narrow, twisty cobblestoned streets of Havana and Trinidad, Cienfuegos’ main street is long, wide, and lined on both sides with large stores surprisingly stuffed with consumer goods. One of the highlights of the trip was the unexpected appearance of a band of revelers dressed in colorful Mardi Gras apparel, many on stilts, playing instruments, dancing, and pulling bystanders into their midst.

A few blocks away, we visited the art studio Grafica Cienfuegos. The studio’s business model blended old and new Cuban economics. While salaries were still set and paid by the government, the gallery had to sustain itself — buying paper, ink, and equipment — through the sale of its art.

That night, we returned to Havana and our hotel, the famous Nacional, which overlooked the Malecon and featured collages of all the famous people who had stayed there, including Myer Lansky and Frank Sinatra. The Malecon is a ribbon of sidewalk that runs for miles along the Atlantic waterfront. Since we were there on Valentine’s Day, the entire stretch was packed with young lovers.


The true colors of Cuba: Part 1

Travel opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world. This sentiment couldn’t be truer than among our people-to-people program travelers who visit Cuba through our specially licensed program and experience a world that has been shut off to Americans for decades.

That exact experience happened to Barry Ostrow when he traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet Travel’s Colors of Cuba tour. We caught up with Barry to get a personal account of his people-to-people excursion to Cuba. Here’s the first half of his story, be sure to check back soon for part two.

Day 1: On my first trip to Cuba, I legally arrived with 21 other travelers in Havana to begin my U.S.-sanctioned Friendly Planet people-to-people tour. The tour introduced us to the social, historical, and educational aspects of Cuba, and it certainly opened my eyes to life on the beautiful, yet troubled island. The narrative of the trip was frank with no holds barred. We saw all of the good things the island had to offer, as well as the bad.


Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.

An American traveler in Cuba: Q-and-A with blogger Megan McIntyre

We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through our people-to-people programs, offering Americans one of the few chances they’ll ever have to soak in the vibrant people, culture, and arts of this island nation. We found that these excursions not only open our traveler’s minds to the wonders of a diverse nation, but they return with transformed views of Cuba as a whole.

We recently interviewed Cuban traveler and blogger Megan McIntyre to uncover her take on her recent people-to-people cultural excursion. From visiting a primary school in Old Havana to exploring the urban farms of Terralismo to meeting Julio Munoz, known as the Cuban horse whisperer, Megan gained a deep understanding of a complex country that has been paralyzed by economic hardship, yet is still passionate about life and optimistic about the future.

Here’s what Megan had to say:

Friendly Planet: Why did you decide to travel to Cuba?

Megan McIntyre: My husband and I love to travel. We find no experience more rewarding than exploring different places, cultures, foods, and adventures. When choosing our most recent trip, we weighed the pros and cons of numerous destinations. Did we want a more active or relaxed trip? How far did we want to travel? Should we return to an old favorite destination or explore somewhere new? With these qualifiers in mind, we opted for an active, new experience that would minimize travel time. From that, there seemed to be only one logical option — Cuba.

2. What did you think about Cuba before your visit?


Advice for Americans traveling to Cuba

Our recent survey of folks who’ve traveled to Cuba on Friendly Planet people-to-people programs showed how these trips are changing the hearts and minds of Americans nationwide. U.S. citizens get a unique opportunity to meet Cuban people one-on-one in these programs, learning how the Cubans live, work, and play.

The big lesson from our survey? As traveler Cynthia Richmond told us, “This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.”

Respondents were also eager to offer advice to other Americans traveling to Cuba. If you’ve been considering visiting this island nation, read on to hear what they had to say.

Just go, and go now!

“If you have the opportunity, go. It’s an experience of a lifetime.” – Jose Deleon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in May 2012.

“Don’t put it off, go now! You won’t regret it. What a wonderful opportunity and I can’t wait to go again!” – Suzanne Wells, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in March 2013. (more…)

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