US Further Relaxes Cuba Travel—Havana Here I Come?
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This morning in Miami, I woke up to potentially exciting news from the White House about easing travel restrictions to Cuba—and started looking into American Airlines flights to Havana. Following last month’s announcement of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, President Obama has now announced that starting this Friday, travel agents and airlines will be allowed to book tickets for some U.S. tourists to Cuba without a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This simply means that the U.S. government isn’t going to enforce its prior restrictions on already-approved categories of travelers to Cuba, but I’m hoping I fit the bill (see more on this below).
Adding some sweet guava filling to the Cuban pastry of this good news, Americans traveling to the island will now be allowed to use credit cards—so I’m moving my Chase Sapphire Preferred forward in my wallet and gearing up to—hopefully—visit Havana this weekend!
The U.S. travelers that 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.
Once I heard today’s announcement, though, I began rethinking a trip to Havana. I immediately thought of the charter flights that American Airlines (where I’m an AAdvantage Executive Platinum) operates between Miami (MIA) or Tampa (TPA) and Havana (HAV), and sent an email to an American Airlines rep 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’ve responded that they’re currently reviewing today’s announcement of changes to the U.S.-Cuba travel policy, but haven’t yet changed their own booking policies.
Meanwhile, my traveling companion, TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino, sought help from Marazul, a Miami-based travel agency that’s authorized to book travel from the U.S.-Cuba. (Note that they have a special hotline for service in English—(800) 993-9667.) Marazul also said they’re still processing Obama’s announcement and how to handle it, and advised that we call back tomorrow. Lori later contacted Vacuba, another Miami-based travel agency who told her the flights were full going to Cuba until Saturday.
Wanting to make a weekend of our trip to Cuba, though, we decided that this would be too late for us, and instead took matters into our own hands. Tomorrow we’ll be using miles to fly on American Airlines to an as-yet-undecided Caribbean outlet, booking a flight to Havana (HAV) from there, and with luck, will hopefully be granted smooth entry to Havana. I’ve heard the Cuban capital is a spectacular cultural destination and a real time-warp, and I really hope there’ll be room for us at its famous, 81-year-old landmark, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Clearly, it’ll be a little while before the U.S. travel industry catches up to these new changes, and in the meantime, those of interested in exploring Cuba will have a lot of questions—so who better to go and find answers than yours truly? As I prepare to visit this Caribbean island for the first time, any reader suggestions for what to do, see and eat in Cuba would be welcome—and please remember to follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to see my adventures unfold!