Travel to Cuba just got easier and, probably, less expensive. The United States government on Tuesday announced new rules that allow Americans to travel independently to Cuba on what are called “people-to-people” trips. This means that Americans who want to go to the island and spend their time meeting ordinary Cubans no longer have to book their trip through an organization. They can buy a ticket — for now, on a charter flight but soon from a commercial airline — book themselves somewhere to stay on Airbnb, and voilà.
Collin Laverty, the founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said that allowing Americans to travel on their own would make Cuba accessible to younger, less wealthy travelers who could not afford to spend, say, $4,000 on an organized weeklong trip.
“It’s going to democratize and diversify travel,” Mr. Laverty said. Speaking by phone from Havana, he added, “And it will give Cubans a more diverse view of Americans.”
Here is what you need to know before you go.
Can any United States citizen visit Cuba now?
Americans still can go to Cuba only so long as the trip falls within one of 12 purposes, including visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. They can also go to organize a professional event or competition. Travelers can also go to film and produce television programs and movies, record music and create art there, as long as they have experience in the relevant field. Ordinary tourism remains off-limits, and travelers have to mark a box on an affidavit that they sign before travel to denote the purpose of their trip, and they are required to keep travel receipts for five years after they return. Even those traveling to Cuban independently on people-to-people trips are expected to have a full-time schedule of activities and retain documents that demonstrate how they spent their time in Cuba.
What are people-to-people trips?
People-to-people trips are educational programs that are open to anybody, but require a full-time schedule of educational activities that produce “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” Now that Americans can design their own people-to-people trips, it is less clear what constitutes “full time” or “meaningful interaction.”
Organized trips — which cost about $2,500 to $4,000 a week including accommodations and flights — usually entail back-to-back meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios or small businesses or community projects. Mr. Laverty said he believed individual trips would lead to more “organic” interaction with Cubans.
“People-to-people will be getting in a taxi and talking in broken English to a guy and getting his thoughts — not those of an architect or an expert,” he said. “It will be way more informal.”
Will cruise ships sail to Cuba?
Owners of cruise ships and passenger ferries can operate between the United States and Cuba without a license, so long as the people they are carrying are licensed to travel there. The infrastructure to accommodate a cruise ship is available since ships owned by non-American companies, though usually smaller than American ones, have been sailing to Cuba in recent years. The government had awarded licenses to a handful of ferry and cruise companies in 2015 including Carnival Corporation, which said last year that it would begin sailing to Havana in April.
Who will care what I do in Cuba?
Senior officials at the departments of Treasury and Commerce said the government continues to take restrictions on travel to Cuba seriously. If you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and, in fact, spend a week at the beach, you would be breaking the law.
Can I fly to Cuba now?
Only on a charter flight for now. The United States and Cuba announced in January that they had signed an agreement that would allow American commercial air carriers to offer 20 flights per day to Havana and 10 to each of the nine other Cuban cities with international airports. They have said that will decide by the summer which airlines could operate services from which cities. But they’ve already been laying the groundwork, allowing domestic carriers entry into previously blocked airspace, letting them enter into code-sharing and leasing agreements with Cuban airlines, and permitting crews to travel there and engage in other transactions to help serve flights and vessels.
Of course, non-American commercial airlines fly to Cuba from many destinations. But commercial flights would eliminate the need to take expensive charter flights that currently operate from Miami, New York and elsewhere to Cuba. Americans who meet Treasury Department requirements can fly through a third country, such as Mexico, Panama, Grand Cayman or Canada, an option that can be less expensive and more convenient than taking charter flights.
Where would I stay?
Cuba has a shortage of high-end hotels, and that will become more acute if the number of American visitors rises significantly. There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the tourism ministry, of which 65 percent carry four- and five-star ratings. Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels, as they include the chance to interact with Cuban families and often provide good meals. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, known as casas particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns like Trinidad, Viñales and Cienfuegos. Searching for casas on the Internet is not easy, but you can book them through travel agents like Cubania Travel or look on TripAdvisor. Airbnb started offering its service on the island in April. The company, which lets users list their homes and apartments for short-term rentals, said payments to the Cuban hosts are deposited into their bank accounts by intermediaries or any other manner they select, including door-to-door payments.
Can I use credit cards?
American travelers to Cuba may open a bank account there and pay for expenses with an American credit card. In reality, few people who take the short trip abroad have cause to open a bank account. But A.T.M.s are few and far between in Cuba, and many establishments are unable to process credit card payments. So, cash will be king for some time to come. It may be a good idea to take British pounds or euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar.
How do I call home?
Calls on the Etecsa network, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company, are expensive, and getting a phone can involve long lines. But Verizon Wireless announced in September that it would allow its users to make voice calls, send text messages and use data services through the company’s pay-as-you-go International Travel option. At $2.99 a minute, you will not linger on the line.
What can United States citizens bring back?
Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars. John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, notes that, according to State Department records, Secretary of State John Kerry, who inaugurated the embassy in Havana in August, brought back an $80 humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of rum.