Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island, historically has welcomed most of its tourists from Canada and Europe, the rest from South America. For many Americans however, while Cuba lies just 90 miles from Key West, Florida, the island has been so close but yet still out of reach. That’s because in 1960, the U.S. imposed an embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine, and severed all diplomatic relations in 1961. The embargo was extended in 1962 to include all imports of products containing Cuban goods, even if the final products were made or assembled outside of Cuba. This has prevented most Americans from considering Cuba as a travel destination but in the future, planning a trip to Cuba will surely be as easy as booking a trip anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Current regulations still do not permit U.S. citizens to spend money or receive gifts in Cuba, essentially making travel by ordinary tourists illegal technically. However, former president Barack Obama’s announcement in September 2015 of the easing of travel, commerce and investment restrictions to Cuba has brought the idea of a trip to Cuba closer to reality than ever before for Americans. Though the embargo remains in place, these changes allow more Americans to travel to Cuba – from people having the ability to see their relatives more often to cruise ships being able to travel directly from the U.S. to Cuba without having to make a stop in another country first.
As we count down the days until we can jet off to Cuba for a quick getaway, what has drawn tourists from other countries to this island? Many cite its stunning beaches, rich heritage and culture, excellent diving and ecological wonders as reasons why they seek cheap flights to Cuba. Many more are doing so with every passing year.
The city of Havana is the capital, and is an exotic city that has been the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico for hundreds of years. Its historic center – Old Havana – was listed by UNESCO in 1982 for its Baroque and neoclassical buildings. Its museums, theatres, galleries and concert halls stand side by side with the bars and night clubs that serve world-famous mojitos. The second city, Santiago de Cuba, is much more “Caribbean” than Havana, and is a place of stirring history, beautiful squares and rich musical tradition, known for its carnival in particular.
Cuba’s beaches are also quite spectacular. Varadero beach is the pride of Cuba – wide and sandy and stretching out into Atlantic waters. On the Caribbean side are the Isle of Youth and Cayo Largo de Sur, both with soft-white beaches and wonderful dive sites. These are just some of the reasons why people from all over the world have been visiting Cuba for years, and why many more Americans will soon be traveling there too. If you are fortunate enough to visit, here are some tips to help you plan and enjoy the smoothest possible trip.
The weather in Cuba is usually always warm throughout the year, with the summer through November being the wettest season. Visitors arriving between May and October will encounter a lot of rain and high humidity. Late October and early November can have hurricanes and other coastal storms. The drier season starts at the end of November and lasts until April. In winter months, from December to March, the weather is more comfortable, with sunny days, little rain and cooler evenings.
Depending on what you’re looking to experience, you can book a cheap flight to Cuba anytime of the year (except for hurricane season) and surely be satisfied with what the culture has to offer. Baseball fans cater towards the post season months of April and May, while political followers gather around the socialist holidays, like Labor Day (May 1), and Day of the National Rebellion (July 26).
As soon as hurricane season ends, tourists pour into Cuba’s most popular destinations – specifically the beaches. Booking your flight to Cuba during the months between December and April is a good way to go, as the temperatures are never too hot, and humidity is fortunately at its lowest point of the year. December through January is the sweet spot and is the most popular time of year to visit, although the weather does get cooler at night. July and August are also extremely popular, meaning cheap flights to Cuba are difficult to find. It also means accommodations are more expensive. Places like Havana are popular most of the year, so it all depends where exactly in Cuba you want to go. Once you’ve sorted your flight tickets, you can find out if there are any festivals or events going on. Christmas, New Year and July 26th are very popular festivals so book your flights to Cuba early to save some money.
October and November are the least popular times to book flights to Cuba, and you will find the cheapest flights to Cuba then, but the possibility of a hurricane is greater during this time. As well as discounted flights to Cuba, you’ll find great deals on accommodations too. Just be sure you don’t mind harsher weather conditions than the rest of the year. Booking a flight to Cuba during hurricane season could put a damper on your vacation.
You can find cheap flights to Cuba if you book in advance and travel around December or January time, as well as in October and November. If there is a festival going on you should expect higher prices on flights to Cuba and will want to book well in advance for the best chance of securing cheaper flight tickets. Exactly when to book varies with where you want to travel to in Cuba, as Havana has ideal weather for most of the year. If you can be flexible with your dates and your destination, you’ll be able to find the cheapest flights to Cuba with a little searching. School holidays will make it harder to find cheap flights to Cuba, so book everything early for the best savings.
Cuba’s close proximity to the United States makes it a convenient vacation destination due to the short travel times. A trip from Miami can be as short as an hour, while it takes between two and three hours to fly from Washington, D.C. Even if you’re flying all the way from Los Angeles, your flight may be as short as five or six hours.
Flights to Cuba from the United States were once hard to come by due to severe travel restrictions, so European and regional airlines tend to dominate the traffic. These include Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Copa Airlines and Martinair. However, the U.S. relaxed many of those restrictions in 2016, so direct flights from U.S. airlines have become more common. These include flights from carriers such as American Airlines and United Airlines.
Due to the long-term tensions between Cuba and the U.S., it’s a good idea to bring cash along as your debit and credit cards may not work. Experienced travelers recommend ordering euros or other foreign currency from your bank. You can exchange American dollars for the local currency, but they are subject to an additional charge.
Make sure you pack all of your medications, cosmetics and toiletries as these can be difficult to get in Cuba. You can find generic replacements for most if you forget something, but the quality can vary. Don’t forget the sunscreen and insect repellent, too, as the sunny, humid climate encourages both sunburns and mosquito bites.
For clothing, comfort is the name of the game. Cuba tends to be a very casual country, so don’t be afraid to wear shorts and tee shirts. Sandals are a good idea, but pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes as well. A travel umbrella is a good way to give yourself some shade and protect against the heavy rains that sometimes roll in even during the dry season.
Here are a few tips for getting to where you need to go from a couple of major airports in Cuba.
There are no public buses from Jose Marti International Airport (HAV), and the nearest option is to take a taxi a few miles to a bus station to purchase your tickets, and then another taxi to a station to get the actual bus from. It’s easier and more convenient to get a taxi straight to downtown Havana. Depending on your hotel, you’ll most likely have a shuttle service in with your package. If so, after your flights to Cuba you’ll be greeted by an associate of the hotel at the airport.
The easiest way to travel to the town of Varadero is by getting a taxi straight from Juan Galberto Gomez Airport (VRA). You’ll have to ask your driver for the price before you get in, as some have different rates and some will try and overcharge you. The cheapest option is to get a bus. You can get a day’s pass for a small cost and you can use it as many times within the day. The buses run regularly from the airport to the town and most are open top double-deckers. The buses pass most major hotels as well as points of interest.
If you are looking to travel around the country, you can always take a domestic flight on one of Cuba’s national airlines, such as Cubana. This would be a quick way to get from one end of the island to the other. Other modes of transportation are easily maneuvered as well. Viazul, a national bus company utilized by most tourists, runs air conditioned buses, and allows you to pay in U.S. dollars once you board. They remain relatively spacious, and are safe bets for seeing the sights. You may also see privately owned taxi-trucks, known as Camiones Particulares, which are more popular modes of eastern Cuban travel. Because meters are not always present, establish communication with the driver before you enter to make sure both your fare and destination are concrete. Trains, while inexpensive and comfortable, are less popular, and the service has supposedly deteriorated in recent years, making car rentals and buses the safest and most reliable choices for transport.
By and large, renting a car is the best (and sometimes the cheapest) method of road travel in Cuba, as the country has an extensive road network. Pay special attention though, because driving rules are not always consistent, and traffic signs can be noticeably absent. The amount of hitch-hiking that occurs daily in Cuba may surprise you, but it’s actually quite regulated. Referred to as hacer botella, hitch hikers are guaranteed rides from government vehicles that have the space, and you may even see hitch-hiking organizers at major intersections and highway exits.
Cuba’s vibrant, diverse culture and geography offer an endless amount of things to do. Most trips start in Havana, which is where most international flights touch down. Spend the day wandering through the streets and visiting the Old Plaza, which is home to numerous restaurants and shops. Stop and watch the numerous street musicians, or duck into a club to take in a live concert. Salsa dancing is incredibly popular, and some clubs, such as the 1830, offer frequent beginner lessons to make sure everyone can hit the dance floor. Take a stroll along El Malecon, a seaside road packed with clubs and restaurants. Havana is also known for its vintage car culture, and some companies even offer tours in these stylish rides. After a busy day taking in the culture, spend some time relaxing in the sun at one of the numerous nearby beaches, or take in the view from the historic El Morro fort, a ruined building dating back to the 1600’s.
On the other end of the island lies Santiago, which is somewhat quieter than Havana but still full of music, dancing and art. The nearby La Gran Piedra mountains offer numerous hiking opportunities and a somewhat cooler climate, which can be refreshing after numerous hot, sunny days. Coffee plantations dot the mountain range, and many offer tours and tastings. Foodies may also want to take a bus to the town of Baracoa, which is known as Cuba’s premier gourmet destination. It is particularly famous for its chocolate concoctions, as chocolate is produced in the area. Baracoa also offers beaches and hiking opportunities for people interested in a multi-day trip.
Most international travelers arrive in Havana, which is located at the west end of the island. As a result, Cuba has a thriving domestic air travel industry, mostly handled by Cubana de Aviacion. If you’re planning a trip to Santiago or other eastern sites, taking a domestic flight may be more enjoyable than the 16-hour bus ride.
Cuba’s central Caribbean location also makes it easy to visit other popular vacation destinations. Numerous airlines provide frequent flights and Cheapflights can help find some great deals. Here are some of the most popular routes from Cuba:
A number of tour operators will have pre-arranged transfers to the airport arranged by the tour operator and included in the vacation package. Barring that, taxis are reliable and available (both car and bici-taxis). However, be sure to negotiate the price before you get in, or ask if the driver will use the meter. Public buses are also available, but they are very crowded and a challenge to even the most seasoned travelers.
Once you choose a destination and departure city, be sure to check out our Cuba airport guides for detailed travel information and helpful tips.
(prices quotes are from London)