Since the early 1960’s, Cuba has essentially been off-limits to Americans after an embargo placed by the U.S. government severely limited access to travel to the island nation.
Of course, the lure of Cuba has never waned. From mojitos to classic cars to warm beaches and water, the draw of traveling a place steeped in culture — and off-limits to most Americans — has been a constant draw.
Now, as easing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba lead to fewer restrictions, many people are taking their chance to finally travel to the island. And with recent granting of permission to several cruise lines to sail from America to Cuba, traveling there is easier than ever. All you have to do is book a cruise porting in Havana, just like you would any other Caribbean trip.
However, before you rush to set sail, you should know that visiting ports in Cuba is unlike any other port of call in the Caribbean…
Rules About Visiting Cuba on a Cruise
While tensions have eased between the U.S. and Cuba, and some travel restrictions have loosened, it is still technically against the rules for Americans to freely visit Cuba.
Instead, American travelers from Cuba must fall into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel to the country. Those 12 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
- certain authorized export transactions
So how can a boatload of cruise passengers legally visit Cuba? The cruise lines fall under what they call people-to-people travel. As Norwegian Cruise Lines puts it, this cultural exchange includes a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
Guests are responsible for setting up these cultural exchanges themselves as well as filling out a certification form and submitting it prior to sailing. This form is a statement certifying that you are participating in a cultural exchange during your trip to to Cuba. It must be kept in your records for five years following the trip.
If you’re wondering how you can set up a person-to-person exchange yourself, don’t worry. Your cruise line will offer plenty of excursions that meet the requirements for these exchanges. Just know that you can also set up your own tours outside of those offered by the cruise line.
Either way, you aren’t allowed to simply go hang out on the beach all day and meet the requirements for legal travel to Cuba.
You Must Have a Visa (and a Passport) to Enter Cuba
For countries in the Caribbean, there is no need for a visa (special permission to enter the country) when visiting. You simply enter just like you were getting off the ship in the United States.
Cuba, however, requires all visitors to get a visa for entry. It’s easiest to arrange this through your cruise line, but you should know that it costs $75 (and it not normally included in your cruise fare). The visa is good for 30 days, although you will only be using it for one day on your cruise.
Of course, needing a visa also means you need a passport. While most cruises from the U.S. don’t require a passport (you need only a birth certificate and a license), you must have one to travel to Cuba. There’s no way around it. Passports also have to be valid for six months after your visit.
Keep the extra expense of the visa and getting a passport (if you don’t already have one) in mind when planning your trip.
You’ll Likely Need to Change Currency
One of the biggest conveniences of visiting Caribbean ports is that all of the ports of call readily accept U.S. dollars. Instead of having to exchange currency in every port that you visit, you can simply spend dollars like you would at home.
That’s not the case in Cuba.
When visiting the country, you’ll need to exchange your money to spend locally. Cuba has two different currencies, with tourists using Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). You can exchange your dollars in port, at tourist hotels or government exchanges. The exchange rates is about $0.90 CUC = $1 US dollar
Keep this in mind and be sure that you carry some cash with you to convert.
Medical Insurance Is Required & Included
Odds are that whatever health insurance you have at home is not valid in Cuba. However, the Cuban government requires tourists to have valid insurance when they visit the country.
Luckily for cruisers, the cruise lines will lump this mandatory coverage in with your cruise fare. In other words, simply by booking your cruise you have your required coverage, without having to find a policy that meets the Cuban government requirements.
It IS Legal to Buy Cuban Rum and Cigars
Thanks to a recent change in the rules, passengers are allowed to bring back items like rum and Cuban cigars for their own personal consumption. That means up to 100 cigars according to recent news reports.
One thing to note, however, is that it is illegal to buy cigars from street vendors when in Cuba. Approved retail stores are the only places where you are allowed to purchase. You will also have to pay any taxes when returning home, as you normally would if purchased anywhere else.
Expect Smaller Ships and Limited Dates… For Now
Don’t expect to sail aboard the biggest, newest ships. Right now, as service is slowing being rolled out among more cruise lines, there are only a few lines that sail to Cuba, and they typically do so with older, smaller ships.
As well, sailing dates are limited at this point. Norwegian, for example, has only five sailings to Cuba in 2017, while Royal Caribbean shows four.
But remember, this is the first time that Cuba has been open to cruise travel from the United States. As the industry grows on the island, expect gradually larger ships and more itineraries to include Havana.
Have you sailed to Cuba? Are you planning a trip? Tell us about your experience in the comments at the bottom of this page…