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TO THE POINT: American Airlines launched service from Miami to Cienfuegos on September 7, making it one of the first flights to Cuba from the US in more than 50 years. The pros: a short and sweet ride aboard an Airbus A319 and all the excitement of being on an inaugural trip. The cons: no meal service and barely enough time to enjoy the perks of being in business class.
Viva Cuba! JetBlue, Silver Airways and American Airlines all launched inaugural flights to several Cuban cities this week from the US, opening new doors for Americans hoping to visit this captivating island nation. When American Airlines first announced it would be starting service to Cuba back in June, I couldn’t wait to book my flight.
At the time, British Airways was offering award flights from just 4,500 Avios each way. About a week after tickets officially went on sale, AA offered $260 round-trip flights from New York (JFK) to Cienfuegos (CFG) via Miami (MIA). I happened to be booking my ticket while Brexit was unfolding in the UK, so I put my flight on hold (planning to pay for it in British pounds) and actually booked it the following morning for just $225 round-trip thanks to the decreased exchange rate. It turns out AA also allows open jaw tickets on trips to Cuba, so I was able to book my return trip with a departure from Varadero (VRA) instead of having to go back through Cienfuegos (CFG). Doing this also allowed me to enjoy a second inaugural flight, this time from Varadero to Miami.
While service to Havana officially starts November 29 on United Airlines (and eventually on other airlines at later dates) Cienfuegos (CFG) and Varadero (VRA) are the closest airports to Havana, each located about a 2.5-hour drive from the capital city. The timing of these two inaugural flights made for the perfect Cuban getaway where I could spend time exploring both gateway cities as well as Havana. I was also able to fly in business class thanks to some 500-mile upgrades — since Cuba is fewer than 500 miles from Miami, upgrades were free for all elite members.
Check-In and Connecting from New York to Miami
American Airlines blocks you from checking in for all flights to Cuba — even connections — so I had to wait until I was physically at the airport to finally get my boarding pass. My trip originated in New York and I proceeded directly to the platinum check-in line.
It took a few extra minutes to verify all my documents, but the process was relatively streamlined and took less than 10 minutes. At the gate, my upgrade cleared, so I was able to board along with the other business-class passengers.
Inaugural Flight Festivities at MIA
We landed in Miami about 90 minutes before my Cienfuegos flight’s departure time. I proceeded straight to gate D37, where there were dozens of news crews with cameras waiting, as well as a buffet spread and a band playing music, all in honor of the inaugural flight from Miami to Cuba.
Both of American Airlines’ inaugural flights from Miami (one to Cienfuegos, the other to Holguín) departed from gates D37 and D39, respectively.
Directly in front of the gate, there was a “Cuba Ready” station, where agents were checking everyone’s passports, visas and other travel documents.
I presented my tourist card; the agent then looked at my passport and stamped my boarding pass with the “Cuba Ready” stamp. In case you haven’t obtained your tourist card in advance, AA actually sells them there for $85 each. American Airlines also includes the health insurance required for travel to Cuba in the cost of your trip, so that was one less thing I needed to worry about before my flight.
After our passports were validated, I went across the hall to the recently renovated Admirals Club, which offered bagels and other breakfast items, as well as some drinks to keep me busy before my flight.
I chose not to linger there too long though, since American Airlines had prepared a beautiful spread at the gate, complete with traditional Cuban food.
The buffet was provided just for passengers of the Cienfuegos and Holguín inaugural flights. Several AA representatives offered us drinks as well. Before the ribbon cutting took place, several people made speeches to commemorate the inaugural flight from Miami.
I ended up being the first person to board the plane since I was flying in business class. News crews with cameras lined the jetway as I walked on, which was pretty exciting. AA gave each passenger a commemorative certificate.
We also each received a pin with the Cuban and American flags, as well as a chocolate cigar. Once onboard, the excitement was palpable.
Cabin and Seat
Business class featured two rows with eight seats in a 2-2 configuration, while Main Cabin Extra and economy were each in a 3-3 layout on this Airbus A319 aircraft, with 24 and 96 seats, respectively. The first row in business class had limited legroom due to the bulkhead, but still offered 38 inches of pitch and reclining seats that were 21 inches wide. Main Cabin Extra seats were 17.7 inches wide with 34 inches of pitch, while economy seats were just as wide, offering 30 inches of pitch. There were IFE screens and power ports at every seat, no matter which section of the plane you’re sitting in.
After pushing back from the gate, dozens of ground staff waved goodbye and there was a special water cannon salute in honor of our flight.
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants distributed paperwork, including Cuban customs forms. Those documents — and my tourist card — were all I needed to enter Cuba.
Each seat had its own IFE screen, as well as an AC outlet and a USB port. There were dozens of movies and TV shows available, and the live map was as entertaining as always. The plane was also equipped with Gogo Wi-Fi, but since the whole trip only lasted 49 minutes, we had little time to recline let alone watch a show.
The view outside my window as we flew over Cuba was incredible and kept me entertained as well.
Food and Beverage
The short hop did not provide adequate time for a complete meal service, but AA still served us drinks before takeoff and brought around a snack basket and additional drinks during the flight.
After landing in Cienfuegos, our plane pulled directly up to the terminal (there were no gates), where we were given another water cannon salute and saw members of the Cuban media waiting to greet us.
Cuban officials greeted each passenger with roses and maps of Cuba before were led inside to go through customs and immigration.
The airport in Cienfuegos was tiny, with the plane pulled all the way up to its sole building. I passed through exit security and quickly made my way out of the airport — note that you can exchange money directly inside the terminal building.
Planning my trip to Cuba was definitely not easy, so here are a few tips that might help with your own trip. I’d recommend searching for flights directly through your preferred airline’s website since Google Flights does not yet work for Cuba. For accommodations, make sure you pre-pay hotels or Airbnb stays ahead of time so you don’t need to carry as much currency around with you once you get here. While you can exchange money at the airport in Cienfuegos, there is a 10% fee for conversions from US dollars to CUC. Once in Cuba, ATMs and credit cards don’t usually work for US cardholders either, so make sure to bring all the cash you will need for the trip with you in a foreign currency, like euros or British pounds, to convert to CUCs when you land.
Also note that Verizon phones do work in Cuba (both data and phone service worked for me) but be sure to use it sparingly, since it’s pretty expensive. Even though Cuba is not your traditional travel destination, the additional work is completely worth it because this is an incredibly rewarding place to visit. Buen viaje!
Have you been to Cuba or are you planning to visit soon? Tell us about it, below.
Featured image of the American Airlines plane on the tarmac in Cienfuegos courtesy of the author.
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