Given the historic news yesterday that the United States will ease long hostile relationship with Cuba, one might think that it’s a great time to jump on a plane and head down to Havana to check out the place. Not so fast – at least for US citizens.
Getting there is quite possible for the savvy traveler (more on that below), but following the strict, legal path of entry to Cuba is still a complicated affair. In order to overcome the trade embargo (which remains in place despite normalizing relations), airlines continue to offer chartered flight services to Cuba. American Airlines, for example, offers 20 chartered flights a week. The short hop from Miami remains expensive, given the lack of options and artificially protective nature of a ‘charter-only’ market.
The thawing of the US-Cuba relation is likely to unleash a slew of new charter options. Under the new terms of normalization, US citizens will have an easier time justifying their visit, where a wide range of ‘acceptable purposes’ existing, including the newly permitted desire to meet and engage with Cuban citizens.
According to the New York Times, 90,000 Americans visited Cuba between 2012 and 2013, with a large majority of these travelers being Cuban-Americans, humanitarians and journalists.
During his first term in office, President Obama approved flights to Cuba from airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Carriers offering chartered flights include American Airlines, American Eagle, Sun Country, World Atlantic, Vision Airlines, Falcon Air Express, Xael Charters, JetBlue (begun in 2011) and Swift Air.
Although Wednesday’s announcement also includes ‘step to increase commercial flights’ to Cuba, there is no specific timeline about granting permission to airlines. Analysts say it will probably be weeks before it’s completely clear what this “normalizing relationship’ will mean for travel to Cuba. None of the changes will take effect until the Treasury Department issues new regulations.
US airlines get their right to fly international routes after their government reaches bilateral agreements with foreign governments. A similar agreement would need to be reached with Cuba first, according to the Associated Press.
Savvy Traveler Options
For a number of years, US citizens have been able to visit Cuba by traveling first to a second, intermediate country and then flying to Cuba. Popular options include flying via Toronto, Montreal, the Bahamas, Cancun, Mexico City, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Copa Airlines, Interjet, Aero Mexico and Cubana Airlines all offer regular flights.
It is a an open secret that, upon entry into Cuba, US citizens can request that immigration officials refrain from stamping their Passport. Part of the reason the US has maintained an “Interests Section” office in Havana is to assist US citizens who may run into problems, including losing their Passports.
Until the era of ‘open skies’ truly arrives in the straights between South Florida and Cuba, the alternative of using a third country will undoubtedly become a sought after option.