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Who Can Go To Cuba?

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We’ll be kicking off reporting on my incredible weekend in Havana with this response to the most common question I’ve so far received via comments on the website and social media: “Who can go to Cuba?” Stay tuned for more posts on Tips for Traveling to Cuba, How to Fly to Cuba, Where to Stay, What to Do, and Hotel and Airport Lounge Reviews—all coming this week!

Vamos a Cuba! Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Vamos a Cuba! Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

After last week’s announcement from the White House that U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions were being further relaxed—eliminating the need for already-permitted categories of travelers to obtain special licenses before entering the country—I was determined to see Cuba for myself.

Filling out my Cuba visa information onboard. Vamos!
Filling out my Cuba visa information onboard. Vamos!

According to Obama’s announcement, U.S. travelers who qualify for this newly non-licensed access fall under the same “people-to-people” categories that were previously admitted only with prior permission, including Cuban-Americans traveling to see family, American government officials on sanctioned trips, tourists visiting for educational, cultural, religious reasons, and journalists. This latter category isn’t well-defined under the travel-restriction rules, but I’ve long been under the impression that as a travel blogger, I qualify—and have even looked into applying for a journalist permit to Cuba. However, I’m a law-abiding citizen, and following the controversy over Jay-Z and Beyonce’s April 2013 trip to Cuba (which has since been declared legal), I became hesitant to further pursue plans for my own trip.

We reached out to Allied Passport & Visa for some help on interpreting these new rules. They first stated the new law below:

In all 12 existing categories of authorized travel, travel previously authorized by specific license will be authorized by general license, subject to appropriate conditions. This means that individuals who meet the conditions laid out in the regulations will not need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba. These categories are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
As long as Americans certify they are traveling through one of 12 approved categories — which include educational, religious and humanitarian trips — they can simply head to the island. Traveling to Cuba solely as a tourist remains prohibited.

Allied then suggested we (and other TPG readers) interpret the law as follows:

Although tourist travel is still not permitted, one needs to ask themselves, do I qualify for one of these 12 categories? For example, what is “journalistic activity”—traveling to Havana for the weekend and taking photos? If you upload your photos online or blog about your experience, this could possibly be interpreted as photojournalism. The fact that the U.S. government has made these categories so loose may signify their leniency with allowing entry to anyone, while still satisfying general-public travel embargo terms through political jargon. If TPG readers do partake in Cuba Travel in these early and unclear stages, we’d recommend having some evidence (online or otherwise) post-trip that they do in fact qualify for the category on which they enter, no matter how loose the definition.

After reading this, I felt much more confident about defining myself and Lori as journalists, so off we went!

How I Actually Got to Cuba

I was fortunate to start my journey in Miami, which is only 228 miles from Havana, Cuba. I and my travel companion, TPG International Correspondent and close friend Lori Zaino, looked into flying direct to Havana, but as of our departure date last Thursday, major airlines and travel agencies authorized to arrange trips to Cuba hadn’t yet figured out how they were going to handle the new easement in travel restrictions—so we quickly formulated a Plan B.

Havana bound, via Grand Cayman!
Havana bound, via Grand Cayman!

Plan B included booking a one-way flight on American Airlines from Miami (MIA) to Grand Cayman (GCM), and then booking round-trip flights from GCM to/from HAV on Cayman Airways (I’m now a proud Sir Turtle Loyalty Club Member, but more on that later), followed by a one-way flight on Cayman Airways from GCM to MIA. When Havana finally gets regularly-scheduled commercial service from the U.S., it’ll make for a perfect 4,500 Avios one-way destination on American Airlines. Meanwhile, Cancun and Grand Cayman make easy connecting ports. In forthcoming posts, I’ll be sharing lots of details on flights and booking options soon available to U.S. citizens, as well as tips on traveling once you’re in Cuba—so please stay tuned.

All set for Cuba!
All set for Cuba!

I would also like to note that upon re-entering the United States, neither Lori nor I were asked a single question about which countries we’d previously visited. If we had been asked, though, we would have truthfully responded that we had just been to Cuba. Luckily, we didn’t have to say anything, and our passports were stamped without any issues.

Non-stop Charters

Even with the new relaxed 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 have to purchase flights through non-stop charter services.

We wanted to gather more info on the possibility of booking non-stop flights, however, so we tried contacting a few travel agencies. After speaking with ABC Charters today, we found that many of the flights from Miami are full, so if you plan on traveling non-stop, it’s best to book well in advance and be flexible. For example, a March 6, 2015 flight from MIA-HAV was full, but two other flights were available—  12:30 p.m. on March 4 and 8 a.m. on March 7. Return options were more limited, but we did find space on March 11, 2015, leaving HAV at 10 a.m. Round-trips seem to be in the $400-500 US range (e.g., March 4-11, 2015 round-trip for $449 US). ABC’s cancellation policy states that if you cancel 30 days in advance you’ll get full refund; eight-29 days before the trip you’ll receive 50% of the ticket; and seven days or less before the trip, you’ll receive no refund at all.

Permits and Documentation
When I asked about required permits and documentation, the representative asked about the purpose of the trip. When I said I was a freelance blogger, she said I would need to apply for the specific journalist license, a process which could take about six weeks. She said I could book the flights immediately without the license, but would later need to show the permit at the airport. This information conflicted with Allied told me, but I think advice might vary by agency. Basically, I think most agencies are just as confused as the rest of us are as we await official news about how to proceed amidst these newly-relaxed but as yet loosely defined rules.I could find one documented account of U.S. citizens getting fined for going to Cuba. In 2009, Red Bull went to Cuba to film a documentary without the proper permissions and was apparently fined approximately $90,000 for doing so. However, I found no information or accounts of individual travelers or tourists being fined for visiting

These new rules certainly inspire hope for those interested in traveling to Cuba, but before planning your own trip, read the new rules very carefully—and if you have any doubts, be sure to consult an immigration attorney.

Have any of you traveled to Cuba? In the comments below, I would love to hear about your personal experiences of traveling to Cuba, either within the former system of of permits or with these new rules. Has anyone heard of anyone being fined before?

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