Here’s How To Actually Plan A Trip To Cuba

All of the info you need to make it happen.

Ever since the U.S. lifted the restrictions on travel to Cuba last December, the tropical country has been in the tourism spotlight. And now that President Obama’s there this week, the spotlight is even bigger.

Ever since the U.S. lifted the restrictions on travel to Cuba last December, the tropical country has been in the tourism spotlight. And now that President Obama's there this week, the spotlight is even bigger.

But what does a Cuba trip actually entail? Even though it's easier than ever before for Americans to get there, it's still a complicated trip, both intellectually and logistically. I checked in with Cuba travel experts Brendan Sainsbury, author of Lonely Planet's Cuba Travel Guide and all of its Cuba content, and Edward Piegza, who's been traveling to Cuba for the past four years as CEO of the tour group Classic Journeys, to get all the latest info on how to get there — and what you can expect when you arrive.

And if you do decide to go, be sure to read this useful piece on how Americans should best visit difficult places. And then let this list of things to see and do in Cuba be your guide.

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1. As an American, you can go to Cuba only if your visit falls under one of 12 government-approved categories.

1. As an American, you can go to Cuba only if your visit falls under one of 12 government-approved categories.

So no, you still can't go to Cuba just to lounge on the beach, as vacation and leisure travel are still not allowed. But it's certainly a lot easier to go than it was before, when Americans had to get pre-approval from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to visit the country.

All you have to do is be sure that your visit falls under one of the 12 government-approved categories, such as family visits, journalism, professional research, and support for the Cuban people, to name a few. Also, as of this month, Americans can now plan their own « people-to-people » trips, which basically means that you can now make your own schedule to spend time with Cuban people (whereas you had to do it through a group before). If you go on one of these trips, you are expected to have a full-time schedule of your activities.

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2. And you have to keep your travel receipts for five years after you return to the States.

2. And you have to keep your travel receipts for five years after you return to the States.

This is so the government can make sure that you aren't just saying you're there to visit the Cuban people, when in reality, you're boozin' on the beach. « It's hard to say exactly how the government checks on this, » says Sainsbury. « But the Department of Treasury and Commerce might catch up with you if you just make something up and off you go. »

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3. You have to book your flight on an authorized charter through an authorized travel service provider or tour company — or you can fly through a third country.

3. You have to book your flight on an authorized charter through an authorized travel service provider or tour company — or you can fly through a third country.

In January, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement that stated that U.S. airlines will be able to offer 110 daily commercial flights to Cuba (20 flights per day to Havana, as well as 10 flights to each of the nine other cities in Cuba that have international airports). But that time hasn't come yet — all of the airlines are still bidding on the flights to see who will get to fly there. « Later this spring, the Department of Transportation will award the routes, and commercial flights will start in the fall, » says Piegza.

For now, you have to book your flight through services like Cuba Travel Services, ABC Charters, and Marazul, or through a tour company like Intrepid Travel or Classic Journeys. Americans also need a tourist card to enter, but the charter flight or organization usually takes care of that.

Another option entirely: You can fly through a third country, like Mexico or Canada, as long as you meet one of the 12 requirements. This may occasionally be cheaper than or comparable to taking a direct charter flight — so be sure to do your research to compare prices before you book.

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