Cuba has been on many travelers' wish lists for years now - it’s certainly been on mine. With recent changes announced by President Obama, the embargo and travel restrictions are starting to change, and it’s likely that Cuba will begin to modernize fairly quickly over the next few years (Just in the last three weeks, Airbnb has expanded to include rentals in Cuba and one airline is offering a weekly direct flight from JFK for licensed travelers). It's expected that US hotel chains, especially luxury hotels, will open in Cuba as soon as they are able. If you always wanted to see the old Cuba, this is the perfect time - before the corporations arrive. Many in the travel industry believe things will begin to change significantly even by the end of 2015. It’s really an incredible opportunity. If you are interested and able to go, go now.
So can you just book a vacation to Cuba? Not yet. Travel regulations have not changed significantly - most American tourists cannot legally travel to Cuba on their own at this time. US policy has permitted US citizens to visit Cuba for some years now but only as part of a “People to People Cultural Exchange Tour”, operated by a handful of licensed tour companies. So if you want to go to Cuba now, before it changes, you would need to join a cultural tour. (There is an exception: if you fit into one of 12 special categories, as defined by the US government, you can obtain a license to visit Cuba on your own. Categories include those going for activities such as journalism, visiting close family, religious activities, support for the Cuban people, and humanitarian purposes. Even in these cases, however, I would recommend working with a travel professional to help navigate the unique challenges involved.)
Cultural tours are operated by a small number of tour operators, including Tauck, Abercrombie & Kent, Alexander & Roberts, and Ya’Alla Tours. Most tours are around 13 days, with a few shorter options available, and start and end in Miami (the tour operator handles transportation in and out of Cuba). The itineraries are pretty full - there are no days at leisure or time to lay on the beach. Cuba tours are educational and experiential, not relaxing vacations. The best tour operators travel to Cuba frequently and can provide experiences that would be difficult or impossible to arrange on your own, like meeting with artists, professors, students, performers, and local historians.
Tours to Cuba are not inexpensive. A 13 day tour runs apx. $6500 - 8000 per person, and 7-8 day tours are $4800 - 5000 per person (based on double occupancy), and typically include transportation from Miami to Cuba, within Cuba, and back to Miami. All hotels and most meals are included. The group sizes are typically kept small, under 24 people per tour. Costs are high partially because the tours are guided at all times, but also because with the recent increase in tourism, the demand for hotel rooms and other services has gone up with while the supply has remained the same.
I should mention that there are a couple companies out there claiming that they can arrange custom travel arrangements for individuals (rather than being part of a group tour). This still feels risky to me (not in terms of safety, but in terms of having a reliable, quality travel experience) and I don't recommend it at this time.
As a travel consultant, I have preferred relationships with the many of the best companies that offer organized tours to Cuba. I would be happy to work with you to help put together an amazing trip. If you’re ready to visit Cuba, shoot me an email and let’s get started!
How to Visit Cuba (US News and World Report)
Cuba Trip Report (Huffington Post)
Americans Can Go to Cuba (Huffington Post)
Is Cuba Ready for Tourists? (The Guardian)
Airbnb Expands to Cuba (Wired)
Weekly Direct Flight JFK to Havana (NY Post)
Note: The amazing photos above are not mine - they were posted on Flickr by people and generously shared via a Creative Commons license for others to use with attribution.