With Cuba now opening up to US tourism, the country is being added as a port stop on many major lines’ itineraries. We spoke to Don Bucolo, Editor of EatSleepCruise.com and got his top tips for cruising to the Caribbean’s largest island.
It looks like 2017 is the year to take a cruise to Cuba. Starting this season, three of the largest operators – Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line – will each have a ship making port stops at the largest Caribbean island. On top of that, additional lines that will be adding stops to Cuba include Oceania Cruises, Azamara Cruises, and MSC Cruises.
Whether you’re from Europe, North America or Australia, now is the best time to take a Caribbean cruise that calls at Cuba. Having just returned from a four-day cruise on NCL Sky that included two full days ashore in Havana, I’ve compiled this list of the top travel tips for taking a cruise to Cuba.
Pick the Right Ship and Itinerary for Your Family
With more options for sailing to Cuba, you will want to examine the different ships and possible itineraries. Non-American travelers will have the most options as those cruisers will not be bound to ships and schedules that comply with the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) guidelines for authorized travel to Cuba.
Each cruise line has its own unique style of cruising and caters to certain types of clientele. Learning a little bit about each cruise line and ship will help you pick the perfect cruise to Cuba for you and your family.
Have All the Proper Paperwork before Leaving
Depending on your country of origin, you will probably need additional paperwork to cruise to Cuba. Whether you are taking a cruise that departs from the US or another location, you will most likely need a tourist visa along with a valid passport. You can normally obtain these visas directly with the cruise line for a nominal fee. If you are taking a cruise that leaves from Cuba, you will be required to have the visa to board a flight to the island. For these travellers, it is best to obtain a visa from a third party.
Plan Your Time Ashore in Advance
With the influx of cruise ships sailing to Cuba, there is a growing demand for tours and sightseeing experiences in popular ports of call. While your cruise line will offer some excursions, we suggest finding a local guide or company for a more personalised experience. We booked an amazing, fully customizable day tour with a local independent operator.
This included a walking tour of Old Havana and a guided tour of some newer neighbourhoods in a 1956 classic Ford. Along with intimate experience and expert insight, the tour was substantially cheaper than the cruise line offerings. Book early, as these tours sell out quickly.
Leave Some Time to Explore on Your Own
Even though Americans need to structure their time to comply with the OFAC’s ‘people-to-people’ travel restrictions, this doesn’t mean everything needs to be organised. We also made time for some of our own explorations to venture through more of the city, interact with the Cuban people, and learn more about modern day Cuba. Of course, citizens from other countries have always been free to wander about as tourists. Either way, finding even a few hours to go off the beaten path will give you a greater appreciation for the rich heritage and culture of the island.
Bring Plenty of Cash for Your Trip
The banking system in Cuba is not as modern as you may be used to. Most places do not accept credit or debit cards. Most transactions will take place in cash. You will need to convert international bills into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Most popular currencies that are converted are Euros (EUR), British Pounds (GBP), and US Dollars (USD). There is likely to be a conversion fee on top of the exchange rate when changing currency locally, so it’s a good idea to assess your spending needs in advance and plan accordingly.
Go with the Onboard Internet
Internet availability is spotty at best in Cuba. While there are some locations that offer connectivity, the speeds are rather slow. Acquiring the necessary sign-on cards can be both time-consuming and expensive. During our visit, we purchased onboard internet through our cruise ship that was reasonably priced and reliable – plus it worked before and after our stop in Havana. Yes, you will need to wait until you are back onboard to post that selfie to social media, but why waste time ashore trying to get a signal when you can spend it enjoying all Cuba has to offer?
Leave the Driving to the Professionals
Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whether with a tour guide or on your own, you can explore the plazas and historic highlights of this area easily by foot. For venturing outside of this neighbourhood, you will need a taxi. Whether you choose one of the flashy 1950s classic American cars or something a bit more moderate, make sure to go with a professionally licensed taxi. Cars will be clearly designated as a taxi with official government markers on the vehicles. Do not even think about renting a car and exploring on your own, as many roads are not clearly marked or well maintained.
A Fully Stocked Day Bag is Your Best Friend
For a full day of touring the city highlights, you will want to bring a day bag with some essentials. Along with your passport and other documents, we suggest packing sun lotion, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and tissues/toilet paper (as many bathrooms are not equipped with such). A camera is also a must! While the island is relatively safe, especially during the day and in popular tourist areas, it remains important that you observe the basic rules for staying safe and secure in port. Make sure that your bag has zip closures and keep it close to you at all times to deter any opportunistic thiefs.
Make Sure You Can Ask for Help
Not that we expect you to get in trouble while on the island, but you should know some basic Spanish phrases before stepping foot ashore. Alternatively, you might want to consider downloading a translator app for your phone. Note, you will want an app that does not require an internet connection. You might also want to download a city map to your phone (like one from Maps.Me), as printed maps are sparse and will be written in Spanish. Few people on the island speak English other than tour guides, so if you do not know the lingo, things might get lost in translation.
Purchase Your Souvenirs from Reputable Sources
When visiting Cuba, you’ll probably want to bring home some souvenirs for friends and family. Most likely, these will include some Cuban cigars. While you might be tempted to purchase these items in the markets, be warned that often times the products sold are not authentic.
While you can look for all of the tell-tale signs that the box of cigars is legit, your best bet is to purchase from one of the several state-run cigar and rum shops on the island. Or, tour one of the cigar factories to see the art of cigar rolling in action and then purchase your very own keepsakes after the tour.
Your cruise to Cuba will certainly make for a memorable holiday – and by using these travel tips, you’ll be able to make the very most of your time ashore.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more about cruises to the Caribbean, why not check out our Guide to the Caribbean Cruising? Or if you want the lowdown on what to see and do in Cuba’s capital, be sure to read out Havana City Guide.