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How to Get to Cuba (and Back): Flight and Award Options

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My recent weekend in Cuba was absolutely amazing! If you haven’t done so already, check out my recent posts on Who Can Go to Cuba? and Tips For Traveling to Cuba, and know that I’ll soon be publishing more travel info about where to stay, what to do/see/eat once you’ve arrived, and hotel and lounge reviews—so please stay tuned for more posts.

As incredible as the trip was, getting there wasn’t simple, so read on for my personal experience with booking flights to Cuba and some suggested flight options for getting there yourself.

The Havana Airport boarding process
The Havana Airport boarding process

Attempting To Book Non-stop Charter Flights

After reading last week’s exciting news from the White House regarding more relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, I made a snap decision to go. After all, I’m based in Miami, a mere 228 miles from Cuba—and I never shy away from an adventure. I teamed up with my close friend, TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino, and we began to assess our flight options.

Even with the newly eased travel rules, at present you can’t simply search online and buy your flights. It’ll most likely take several months for this to become an option, so until then you’ll have to purchase flights through charter services.

Wishing I was on this AA charter heading straight for Miami!
Wishing I was on this AA charter from Havana to Miami instead of having a layover in Grand Cayman.

At first, I thought we’d  be able to easily book a charter flight that American Airlines operates between Miami (MIA) or Tampa (TPA) and Havana (HAV). I sent an email to a rep at American Airlines (where I have AAdvantage Executive Platinum status) to ask for help with booking a direct flight from MIA-HAV, either as a full purchase via aa.com or by redeeming AAdvantage miles. They responded that they were reviewing changes to the U.S.-Cuba travel policy, but hadn’t yet changed their own booking policies.

Meanwhile, Lori sought help from Marazul, a Miami-based travel agency that’s authorized to book travel between the U.S. and Cuba. (Note that they have a special hotline for service in English: 800.993.9667.) Marazul is also still processing Obama’s announcement and how to handle it, and advised us to call back the next day. Lori later contacted Vacuba, another Miami-based travel agency, which told her the flights were full going to Cuba until the end of the week.

After speaking with ABC Charters, I found that many of the flights from Miami fill up extremely quickly, so if you plan on traveling non-stop, it’s best to book well in advance and be flexible. For example, when I inquired about outgoing flights from MIA-HAV as far out as March, I learned that the March 6 flight was full, but there was room available on either March 4 or 7. Return options were more limited, but we did find space on one March 11 flight.

Round-trips seem to be priced in the $400-500 range (e.g., one ticket for March 4-11, 2015 was $449). ABC’s cancellation policy states that if you cancel 30 days in advance you’ll get a full refund, while 8-29 days before the trip you’ll receive 50% of the ticket, and 7 days or less before the trip, you’ll receive no refund at all.

At the moment, most agencies seem as confused as the rest of us as we all await official news about these newly-relaxed (but as yet loosely defined) travel rules. Between full flights and this atmosphere of confusion, we soon realized that it would be best if we routed through somewhere like Cayman or the Bahamas.

All set for Cuba!
I flew Cayman Airways from MIA>GCM>HAV.

Successfully Booking A Flight Through the Cayman Islands

For the first leg of our journey, we were able to book two of the last available seats on a one-way American Airlines flight from MIA to Grand Cayman (GCM) for about $414 per person. For a connecting flight from GCM to HAV I tried to book  round-trip flights from GCM to/from HAV on Cayman Airways (and yes, I’m now a proud Sir Turtle Loyalty Club Member), but my credit card kept getting declined. I can’t say for sure why my card was declined—it could have been a fluke, or because it’s a U.S.-issued card and I was buying a flight to Cuba—and I may never know.

Luckily, Lori lives in Madrid and has a Spanish-issued credit card, which she used to successfully purchase our round-trip GCM-HAV tickets for about $350 per person. I was then able to use my credit card to book a one-way flight on Cayman Airways from GCM-MIA, which, at $500 per person, was pretty darn expensive. In fact, the whole trip—which rang in at $1,264 per person in flights alone for a destination just 228 miles from Miami—wasn’t cheap, but it was definitely worthwhile. (For more on that, stay tuned for my upcoming post on What to Do in Cuba.)

My seat, in fact, the same one on all three flights!
My Cayman Airways first-class seat

A Brief Review of My Flights

Each of my four flights was only about an hour, and quite uneventful. For all three of our Cayman Airways flights, we were able to book in first class, which was surprisingly nice. The seats were comfortable and large, offering a footrest, decent back support, and a fairly steep recline that you could move forward or back. Each of the Grand Cayman 737-300 planes had the same layout, 2 x 2 in First Class and 3 x 3 in Economy. I found the flight attendants and airport crew for Cayman to be extremely friendly and quite relaxedmust be the effects of island living!

Chilling the brightly colored Havana lounge
Chilling in the brightly colored Havana lounge

We were able to enjoy the Turtle Lounge in the Grand Cayman Airport as well as the VIP Lounge in the Havana airport, both of which I’ll write about in an upcoming review.

My turkey salad was just fine
Turkey salad

On our last flight from GCM-MIA on Cayman Airways, we were offered the choice of a turkey sandwich or a turkey salad, and we both picked the salad, which was unexceptional.

On our way back, when we checked in at HAV, the airline was unable to give us our second boarding passes for GCM-MIA, possibly because we made this reservation separately. Once we returned to GCM, we had to go through customs and leave the secure area, then check in all over again.

You could fly GCM-HAV like I did—even though the connection process can be tedious
You could fly GCM-HAV like we did.

All of our flights were perfectly comfortable, but really it was silly to have to make this change when Miami is less than an hour’s flight from Havana. Next time, I’ll really push to get on a non-stop charter flight when HAV finally gets regularly scheduled commercial service from the U.S. It’ll make for a perfect use of 4,500 British Airways Avios one-way for a short-haul redemption on American Airlines.

You can fly Nassau to Havana
You can also reach Havana from Nassau, Bahamas.

In the meantime, Cayman Airways has May availability from GCM-HAV for $390 round-trip, as does Bahamas Air from NAS-HAV for $392 round-trip. Although these Caribbean flights involve a tedious connection process, the actual flying time is short.

Charter flights and Caribbean connections aren’t your only options for flying to Cuba. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Other Flight Options

It’s likely to be a long time before you can just hop online and book a flight to Cuba like you can to most other destinations. However, I’ve done a little research to find out what other options you’ll have in getting to Havana, and whether it’s possible to use miles to get there.

Since September 2011, JetBlue has been flying weekly Cuba charters from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to HAV. Meanwhile, American Airlines has been running their charters to Cuba for more than 15 years, with about 20 weekly flights from MIA to HAV, Holguin (HOG), Santa Clara (SNU) and Cienfuegos (CFG), and from Tampa (TPA) to HAV and HOG.

When I reached out to American in hopes of finding a non-stop, regular-service flight that’s bookable online, they told me the following:

We are reviewing the changes to the Cuba travel policy and will continue to be guided by the laws and policies of the U.S. government and the governments of the countries we serve, as they evolve. American is the leading carrier to the Caribbean and Latin America and we have served Cuba for more than 15 years with charter flights from Miami and Tampa.

I also reached out to United, who explained that they’ll soon be adding HAV-bound routes from Houston (IAH), Miami (MIA) and Newark (EWR). At present, however, these flights are pending government approval, and aren’t yet bookable.

So right now you have a wide variety of other options for direct flights to Havana (HAV):

  • AeroMexico from Cancun (CUN) and Mexico City (MEX)
  • Air Canada from Toronto-Pearson (YYZ)
  • Air France from Paris–Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
  • KLM from Amsterdam (AMS)
  • Air Europa from Madrid (MAD)
  • Avianca from Bogota (BOG)
  • LAN from various hubs in Central and South America
  • Copa/Avianca from hubs in Central America
You can use Flying Blue Miles to fly from Paris to Havana on Air France
You can use FlyingBlue Miles to fly from Paris (CDG) to HAV on Air France.

But What About Miles?

Currently, it’s pretty hard to earn or redeem miles for flying to Cuba. Two notable exceptions are with Avianca LifeMiles and Flying Blue. Avianca lets you price awards to HAV through one of the carrier’s hubs, or for travel on Copa through Panama City (ECP). Air France presently shows award space from CDG-HAV for 60,000 FlyingBlue Miles and $58 one-way in economy.

However, most major airlines currently aren’t showing flights to Havana online. I called Delta to investigate further, only to learn that you can’t book the KLM flights to HAV with SkyMiles. Sadly, I also couldn’t book anything online with Avios.

I reached out to award-booking service PointsPros to see if they could provide any clarity. They told me they’ve already had several requests to book awards to Cuba, but as of now it isn’t possible to use miles in any U.S.-based program to get to HAV. They also caution that if your account is registered in the U.S., you won’t be able to use foreign programs, either.

Air Canada location not found
Havana flights won’t even show up because my Aeroplan account is based in the U.S.

I confirmed this by attempting to book with Air Canada. My U.S.-based Aeroplan account was detected, and the Air Canada website wouldn’t even display flights from Toronto (YYZ) to HAV in its search results.

You also can’t earn or redeem AA miles on LAN while flying to Cuba, as you can see below.

No AA miles earned on LAN to Cuba!
No AA miles earned on LAN to Cuba!

I also called the American Executive Platinum help desk to ask about codeshare partners, and the agent said they don’t codeshare on any flights to Cuba. They do have a daily charter flight from Miami, but you have to book through a missionary/charity group and can’t use miles for the journey.

To sum up, if you want to go to Cuba, you’re most likely going to have to pay for your flights out of pocket unless you’re flying from Europe. Even though traditional airline redemptions aren’t really an option, you could pay for your flights with miles from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture Rewards card, or other similar fixed-value points.

I’ll be carefully keeping an eye on this situation, as once U.S. airlines open new non-stop routes that are bookable online, I think they’ll be very popular. Stay tuned for more updates on future Cuba-routing!
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