Sunday, December 4, 2016

Some considerations when traveling to Cuba from the US

Havana is located 105 miles south of Key West but could be in the hinterlands of Inner Mongolia, given the historical lack of access. I recently traveled to the island and share some of the things to look out for in this post.


I was scheduled to fly out on Novmber 29th but this decision came under further consideration when Fidel Castro's death was announced on the 25th of the self-same month. This news gave me pause because of uncertainty about reactions on the ground as well as concern about traveling to an unknown place in uncertain times. But I persevered because of i) my perception as to the historical nature of the flight and ii) the risk that the incoming administration could roll back the program under which this travel was currently allowed. I relayed the specifics of the trip in a previous post.

As I am wont to do, I called AT&T from the airport seeking a voice and data package for the country to which I was traveling. If you are an AT&T customer traveling to Cuba, you are flat out of luck: AT&T has no communications package for Cuba. Their advice to me was to turn my phone off for the duration of the trip and to take advantage of wifi if/when I gained access to it. If you persist and use your phone, voice, data, and text services are very expensive.

Entry in to Cuba is slightly different than I had experienced in other countries. First, the documentation that you are requierd to complete before approaching the authorities includes a medical questionnaire. Second, there is a security screening just after clearing immigration. Third, there is a medical screening once you have successfully navigated the security screen.

Checked luggage is reclaimed beyond the medical screen and Customs Enforcement has both Declare and Nothing-to Declare channels.

Individuals traveling to Cuba are required to convert hard currency to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in order to purchase goods and services on the island. The exchange rates are set by the government and are very unfavorable for the US dollar. During the time that I was there, US$100 yielded CUC87. One of the lessons that I learned from a seasoned Cuban traveler was that a US traveler should obtain Euros from their home banks and convert those to CUCs while in Cuba rather than doing a direct $ to CUC transaction. There are two currency conversion stations on the outside of the terminal building, one at each end. In addition, there are Cambios sprinkled throughout Havana.

You need CUCs in order to take a taxi into town. The average fare from the airport to downtown is CUC30.

Travelers to Cuba either stay in a hotel or in a private residence (casas particulares). In either case, it is the travelers responsibility to ensure that the lodging expenses are settled in CUC. These lodging expenses cannot be settled with an American credit card. In some cases a reservation will show that the stay is guaranteed by the American card but beware, a third party has to do the necessary transaction completion or you have to be prepared to pay in CUCs on your arrival.

Some specific financial issues to take note of: (i) US banks are barred from doing business with Cuban entities therefore US-issued credit and ATM cards are non-functional on the island; (ii) always carry more cash than you think you will need because you will not have the backstop of a credit card; (iii) you cannot wire money into Cuba from the US; and (iv) you cannot have someone send you money to Cuba by Western Union.

In traveling to the airport for your return flight, be sure that you know which terminal your airline departs from and provide that information to your driver. JetBlue, American and Delta fly in and out of Terminal 3. The distance between Terminals 2 and 3 is 3 kilometers. There is no inter-Terminal transportation so if you go to the wrong terminal, you will will incur a CUC10 - 15 taxi charge to get back on the right track.

Happy trails

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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