Cuba on your own: Planning indie travel could be easier than you think

Should it really cost $500 a day to tour Cuba, or $600-$700 for a 30-minute round-trip flight between Miami an Havana?

U.S Tour companies and airlines stand to profit handsomely from the Obama Administration's easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. Organized "People-to-People" tours - still the only legal way most Americans can visit Cuba as tourists - are more plentiful, but also more expensive than ever, as are an increasing number of charter flights between the U.S. and Havana. 

Best advice: See if you can skip the overpriced organized tours, and instead justify independent travel by fitting into one of 12 categories for which the U.S. government now requires only a general license. All you need to do is be prepared to show that the purpose of your trip trip has to do with humanitarian projects, support for the Cuban people, education or religious activities; arts and cultural exchanges; athletic competition; professional research or meetings; journalistic purposes; or family visits.

For travelers who meet these requirements, the "license'' is automatic. There's need not submit any type of written request. "No further permission from OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) is required to engage in transactions by a person who meets all criteria in a general license," The U.S. Department of the Treasury explains in a detailed Q and A on its website.  

In other words, just go, and make your own arrangements much the way thousands of Canadians and Europeans do. Despite what some tour operators would have you believe, there's no mystery to booking independent travel to Cuba. Other than the requirement that all travelers obtain a visa, the Cubans themselves place no restrictions on what Americans can do once there. 

Air: Tricky to book on your own, but still doable. Despite announcements like the one JetBlue made on the start of weekly service between New York and Havana, the U.S. government still restricts airlines to offering only charter flights. Don't expect to use a meta-search site such as to find flights to Havana from the U.S. JetBlue and other carriers offer their flights through U.S. government-licensed service providers. Jet Blue uses Cuba Travel Services Inc., The airline didn't say how much its New York flight will cost, but chances are it will be more than booking a commercial flight out of either Mexico or Canada.  InsightCuba, for instance, a tour operator that offers 9-day tours to Cuba at a cost of about $500 per person, per day, charges an extra $645-$745 for the round-trip flight between Miami and Havana.

Alternatively, Air Canada and Cubana Air offer daily commercial flights into Havana (Cubana from Cancun and Mexico City) that can be booked and paid for online or through travel agents. American travelers can also book iInternational and domestic air travel through Cuba Junky, a long-time and reliable online travel agency for Cuba travel.

Hotels: TripAdvisor offers hundreds of reviews for Cuban hotels and bed and breakfasts (called casas particulares). It's not possible to book through any TripAdvisor partners, but it's easy enough to find the hotel websites, and book directly. Rooms at the upscale Hotel Parque Central, Hotel Nacionale and many others, can be booked on their own websites. 

A casa particular

Cuba Junky also provides hotel booking services, and publishes a $4.99 app for finding and booking casas directly with the owners. Some casa owner even have Facebook profiles. Airbnb lists more than 800 casas on its website. It charges a booking fee which may be worth of the convenience of booking online and paying for the reservation with a credit card. 

General advice: Familiarize yourself with Cuba’s dual currency system. You’ll be exchanging dollars for convertible pesos (CUCs), a “hard currency” worth $1 each, minus a 10 percent exchange tax, a tit-for-tat for the U.S. embargo against Cuba. You can avoid the 10-percent tax by bringing either euros or Canadian dollars.

One of the hardest concepts for outsiders to grasp is that most Cubans are paid a government salary of about $20 per month, earned in the local currency, called pesos Cubanos or CUPs (worth about 4 cents each). Education, housing and health care are free. CUPs buy the basics: cooking oil, cheap meals, coffee cut with pea flour. But much of what the average Cuban wants and needs — drinkable coffee, washing machines, materials to fix up their homes — is only available to those who can pay in hard currency. (Tourism and money sent by relatives in the U.S. are the main sources).

Cuba is likely to eliminate its dual currency system by the end of this year, and there are already signs of convergence.  Many previously CUC-only stores now accept either, and a new system of CUP pricing and accounting is being rolled out.

To get a sense of everyday Cuban life:

• Tip in convertibles, but for a truly local experience, change $5 into pesos Cubanos, and enter government-subsidized Cuba. Buy a 4-cent ice-cream cone. Or patronize one of the fledgling entrepreneurs selling ice cream and pastries for pennies or pizza from their kitchen windows. Havana's famous La Coppelia ice cream parlor, a sprawling outdoor complex where Cubans line up by the hundreds, accepts only CUPs, except in a tiny area walled off for tourists. Use your CUPs and join the local fun.

Locals at La Coppelia
• Use your free time to get out on your own. While U.S. licensed travel prohibits free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with full-time work, this doesn't mean you can't get out on your own and explore. This goes for members of tour groups as well, although be prepared for tour leaders to discourage it. Walk through a neighborhood like Havana Centro, where kids play ball in the crumbling streets. Stop for a 50-cent beer at the makeshift bar set up in John Lennon Park, then walk across the street and have a $10 dinner (hard currency) on the terrace of a restored mansion, home to the French friendship association. One of my best experiences was hiring a bicycle taxi one warm evening in Cienfuegos for dinner at a privately run restaurant in the family home of a local nurse and her chef husband. Four of us ate for $30, mojitos included.

• Learn about Cuba’s changing economy and differing views about life under Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul. Follow blogs by Cuban activists on Translating Cuba. Among the writers is Yoani Sanchez, author of Havana Real, whose blog is translated into English by Mary Jo Porter of Seattle.

Tours: If visiting Cuba on a group tour is your only possibility, consider cutting costs by traveling with a nonprofit group, museum, university or professional group. Road Scholar programs are open to anyone, and although expensive, include round-trip Miami-Havana airfare which many tours don't. 

Ask for details on how your tour operator plans to provide you with authentic interactions with Cuban people, a challenge when it comes to group travel. Many of the tours include the same stops, such as a visit to Callej√≥n de Hammel — an Afro-Cuban community project known for its street art and lively rumba performances, but overrun with tourists and people selling CDs and asking for money.


  1. Carnival Corporation has already started work on getting its cruise ships there. . .smart cookies they are to get a jump on that!

  2. I totally agree with Carol. In March I spent a week I Cuba. I booked a return flight Chicago/Nassau on United; and then a second round trip Nassau/Havana on Bahamasair (total cost US$ 740). Meant that I had to overnight in Nassau both ways, but to me that was a bonus. You need a Cuban visa, sold by Bahamasair at check-in for US$ 15. For hotels I booked at the 4-star Melia, through their website. I had a great time. Just remember that US credit cards do not work in Cuba (including at the hotel), so take lots of cash.

  3. The Cubans themselves place no restrictions on what Americans can do once there.

  4. Awesome trip you had there. I'm sure you had a good time. Most of the locals are very friendly so it is considered as one of the nicest place. Anyway, thanks for sharing your trip.

  5. Cuba is likely to eliminate its dual currency system by the end of this year, and there are already signs of convergence.umbrellas

  6. Great tips! and nice travel itinerary planning. Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to travel in Cuba soon.