So, Can Americans travel to Cuba now?
One of the most recent buzz phrases from Key West to New England is “Can Americans travel to Cuba?”
The short answer is a resolute YES and, many of us have already taken the plunge, often times at exaggerated tour rates just to be one of the first through the cold war era iron wall created by the U.S administration over 50 years ago.
So, as we ponder the question “can Americans travel to Cuba?” how are most of us getting there?
Well, there seems to be two distinct groups of travelers at the moment. There are those with deep pockets who are joining the numerous tour groups visiting the island under the auspices of people-to-people exchanges which, in most cases, are simply tours created over 15 years ago but were not very popular with their target audiences of Canadians, Europeans and other nationalities. However, one should not be fooled into thinking that these “tours for Americans” are anything new, nor are they any different to tours being promoted at the same time to other nationalities. Probably one key area of difference is that these tours, when promoted by those licensed U.S TSP (Travel Service Providers) who have been conceded the OFAC “license”, miraculously cost twice or three times the cost of exactly the same tour sold to the aforementioned markets. So, when we ask the question “can Americans travel to Cuba?” we must also consider – at what price?
Like any novelty item, first comers are often those who pay the price of a brand or the simple right to be “first”. In a consumer society the bragging rights of being the first to have, behold or brag about something is part of the equation. Therefore, while the first visitors who are sampling these “tours” may feel honored and part of this special fictitious fraternity other savvy Americans are taking the high road, so to speak, and going it alone and, in the process, saving thousands of dollars while achieving the same (or better) final outcome.
So we´ll repeat the question but, after rephrasing it – Can Americans travel to Cuba and NOT use one of the artificially inflated “tours” sold in the US?
The answer is another resolute YES but, some key areas need to be analyzed if we are not to fall foul of the law. Below are key points to look out for when planning and making your “go it alone” trip to Cuba.
First let’s take a look at the General License section of OFAC Rules
What most Americans don´t yet grasp when asking themselves “Can Americans travel to Cuba” is that the new “general license” is a paperless, application-less procedure where, if you can perceivably meet one or some of the criteria mentioned under the general license section then, you need do nothing more than buy a ticket and start your “research” all by your lonesome. Or a group of buddies could travel together all targeting different areas of research. Hell, you could even be a freelance journalist who wrote one (yes one) post trip article about Cuba and, you fulfilled your deemed requirements as defined by OFAC.
So, Can Americans travel to Cuba by themselves? The answer is YES so long as you intend to research something. Now, let’s cut to the chase here. How many of us travel ANYWHERE these days without trying to emerge ourselves in the national culture or gain valuable knowledge about the country we visit? Basically, when you visit Cuba then you´ll do the same. Now, if your vacations typically include a plane ride, then a bus ride to your hotel, then a short walk to the beach/Pool, sleep/food and a repeat trip back home, of course complying with the “general license” criteria is going to be impossible. However, if you´re the type who travels to get to know a country, carry a backpack, camera, take notes and mingle with the locals, then Cuba an your application-less license is going to be a synch. Enough said.
Probably the most confusing area for Americans looking to “go it alone” is the purchase of travel services both to get to Cuba (flights) and, service required while in Cuba (hotels/tours/car rental, etc)
“Can Americans travel to Cuba from a third country?”
First off, Americans with a specific license or the aforementioned (paperless) general license are formally PROHIBITED from purchasing travel services of any type from Travel Companies located in Cuba. These rules are specified under the Trading with the enemy act and, also stipulated in OFAC rules. The forewarning to this hard and fast rule is that the U.S government deems ANY TRAVEL SERVICE PROVIDER with a physical presence in Cuba as a “national of Cuba”. This defining factor is what can turn your completely kosher general license trip into a legal nightmare if you are not careful. In fact, the purchase of travel services from an operator located in Cuba could turn your general license trip into a sanctionable offence which carries in itself hefty fines. Therefore, you could actually be legally traveling to Cuba but have broken the law by obtaining travel services from a “national of Cuba”.
The above minefield is probably the most complicated aspect of organizing your trip because, Canadian, European and other agencies with representation in Cuba (offices/phone/staff) are all too happy to oblige in providing their services to newly arriving Americans. Some, who know you are breaking the law, will even go so far as to say “we will invoice this service through Panama/Canada/Antilles” etc. but, the fact remains that these agencies are considered nationals of Cuba under US law and must be avoided. If you are confused by the myriad of offers out there, ask a few simple questions:
1. Does the website show a phone number or office address in Cuba?
2. Does the operator claim that one of its professional merits is “being in Cuba”?
3. Have you received the tell-tale communiqué “don´t worry we will bill this service in X country”
If the above issue confuses you then take a look at these figures. Over 100K Canadians traveled to Cuba in 2011. 95% of these Canadians bought their travel services from agencies with NO PRESENCE IN CUBA. The same goes for Cuba´s second largest market with 75K visitors, the United Kingdom, over 90% of these purchased their vacation from a UK companies with NO PRESENCE IN CUBA. In fact, those tiny Cuba based specialist agencies serving insignificant sectors such as: health tourism, cycling, hiking, sailing or diving trips make up less than 3% of visitors to the Island as per Cuban Tourism Ministry figures.
Therefore, buying travel services from an agency or provider NOT LOCATED IN CUBA is what the greater volume of travelers to the island already does. Therefore, finding these services as an American is a piece of cake by simply applying the above 3 question rule to any transaction. So, Can Americans travel to Cuba using ANY agency based in Cuba. NO
One of the recommended online operators “par excellence” NOT located in Cuba and thus 100% legal have to be Cuba Travel US which has organized travel for many Americans over the past few years. Another would be www.Jetcost.co.uk who offer excellent online flight offers to the island and are not located in Cuba.
As an American, when is a good to travel to Cuba if I decide to go it alone?
There are several answers to the above question so we´ll categorize:
Budget – If you are on a budget you´ll be amazed how much difference there is in prices between low and high season. Savvy Cubans have figured out that they can charge top dollar for high season months and, consequentially, raise rates by anything from 30 to 100%! Yes, the same stay at a hotel can be double the cost by simply choosing the wrong dates. If your on a budget and asking yourself Can Americans travel to Cuba? the months to avoid if you´re on a budget are: January, April, Second week of July, August, December.
Weather – Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1st and ends on November 30th each year. 97% of all tropical cyclones in the Atlantic fall within this period of time. The month most likely to have a hurricane is September. The above dates are a little ambitious and although official are rarely the cases. You can expect heavy rains throughout these months though so, if you´re not into fighting the weather then stay away during these months. While the weather is generally mild in winter there are months of snappy cold spells, especially outside of major cities or on higher ground. Can Americans travel to Cuba in hurricane season? We would strongly NOT recommend this.
Crowds – The upcoming Pope trip to Cuba is one good example of how off-season turns into a logistical nightmare. However, this high profile event is not unique in Cuba in so far as Havana and some other major cities hold governmental events (conferences/summits) which play havoc with prices and/or general availability. Can Americans travel to Cuba during high profile event such as this? We would recommend you weigh the pros and cons of the inconvenience.
We hope to have answered some of your questions regarding “Can Americans travel to Cuba?” and we welcome your participation and responses below.