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Although Cuba is only 235 miles from Miami, it can be extremely frustrating to plan a trip there without the help of a travel agent. I’m so used to booking my own flights and organizing my travel that it was strange to turn to an agent for help, but it was definitely a worthwhile move. Despite the new booking options you have as Cuba opens up for US travelers, it will still save you a lot of time and hassle to use an agent — and here’s why. (Except where noted, all photos by Julio Gaggia.)
1. Travel agents will accept your US-issued credit cards. Despite MasterCard and American Express’s statements on soon being open for use in Cuba, you still can’t seem to pay Cuban vendors with US credit cards. If you want to ensure that you’ll earn some points and miles for your trip, it’s better to book with a valid travel agent who will actually accept your credit card as payment.
As you can see from the above screenshot, I got double points by using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card to pay Esensia Experiences, my travel agent of choice, as most travel agencies do count as a travel expense.
2. You can cut down on cash. If you don’t use a travel agent, you’ll be carrying around a lot of cash to pay for your hotel or rental upon arrival, as well as for food, activities, etc. Many hotels/casa particulares don’t have safes, so you run the risk of your cash being stolen from your room or even as you’re walking around. And when hotels do have safes, they’re often old and finicky; for instance, during my first trip to Cuba, my valuables actually got stuck in my hotel room safe, and I had to call maintenance to break it open.
Also keep in mind that exchanging your still-banned US dollars into the tourist-only currency called Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) incurs a 10% penalty tax — despite the fact that currency exchange site xe.com lists this rate as 1:1. (Note that other types of currency, such as Canadian dollars (CAD) and Euros, don’t incur this same penalty tax — just USD.)
3. Booking drivers/ tours on your own can be difficult. Between the lack of internet and the fact that many drivers and guides don’t speak English half as well as they speak Spanish, you’re in for an easier, more enjoyable trip if you book through top travel agents like the ones I’ve used (see the list at the end of this post). Rather than trying to puzzle everything out for yourself, just get a travel agent, sit back and relax.
4. Some of the best casa particulares are only available via travel agents. Though Airbnb now offers rentals in Cuba, owners of some of the most attractive, reputable casa particulares (homestay rentals) have exclusive relationships with travel agents. I loved all the different casa particulares my travel agents booked for me, such as the Finca Kenia in Trinidad, Casa Zuleyda and the Casa Vitrales in Havana, and will soon post reviews of them.
5. You can book charter flights via travel agents for no additional cost. You can book directly through Cuba Travel Services without having an agent, but an agent charges the same price and adds extra protection and assistance with flights. They may even able to get you on an otherwise sold-out flight — connections are everything!
I strongly suggest booking a charter flight, because you can save time searching online and won’t have to do any connections/layovers. I loved being able to fly Sun Country from Havana (HAV) to/from New York Kennedy (JFK) and cruise through Global Entry instead of connecting like I did during my first trip. JetBlue will soon begin direct flights to Havana (HAV) from JFK every Friday starting July 3, 2015, but passengers will still have to book with authorized travel agency Cuba Travel Services as I did.
Using a travel agent will ensure your trip runs smoothly and easily. You can relax during your trip knowing everything is in the hands of qualified travel agents, instead of frantically trying to find an internet connection to book tours and guides.
These are my suggested travel agents:
For flights: Cuba Travel Services
For booking hotels: A Nash Travel
For private Havana city tours, contact Osvaldo Nicolas at:
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