(3:30 p.m. EDT) -- Since travel restrictions to Cuba loosened in 2016, Havana and other Cuban ports of call have opened up to cruise ships carrying Americans like never before. But tighter regulations under the Trump Administration continue to blur the fine print when it comes to how Americans can visit this once-forbidden island nation.
We just returned from a five-night Carnival Paradise cruise to Havana and Key West from Tampa. Because the details of how U.S. citizens can visit Cuba are a moving target, we are here to tell you what you need to know about cruising to Cuba right now and why it's still a great idea to go.
Traveling to Cuba is safe and legal.
First thing's first -- cruises to Cuba are not only widely available to U.S. citizens, but cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean have plans to increase sailings to the Caribbean island in 2019. Reported issues at Havana's U.S. embassy during 2017, which prompted the U.S. Department of State to issue an advisory to reconsider travel, has caused some confusion among Americans about whether it's still safe to travel there. Rest assured: We didn't witness any concerns surrounding tourists. Guns and drugs are highly illegal in Cuba, which contributes to low crime rates. We and our fellow cruisers felt completely safe enough to roam the streets at night without worry.
Americans are required to take a group tour.
The current caveat to legal travel to Cuba is fulfilling a People-to-People (P2P) requirement, which includes meaningful cultural interaction with locals. While it was once possible to self-certify the requirement, as of November 9, 2017, all U.S. citizens visiting Cuba who booked a cruise on or before June 16, 2017, must partake in a guided group tour.
The easiest way to fulfill this mandate is to book a P2P-approved tour sold by your cruise line. Since there is limited availability of these tours outside of the ship, most will be offered through cruise line shore excursions, and enough are available for each passenger onboard to partake (although maybe not the exact one you want, so be sure to book preferred tours early). An affidavit filled out at the beginning of your cruise is proof that you fulfilled the requirement; records must be kept for five years in case of an audit. If you choose to do your own thing -- the cruise line won't stop you -- but if it gets back to the government, you might be subject to a hefty fine.
Visas aren't included in your cruise fare.
A Cuban visa is provided to you without filling out any paperwork and automatically billed to your account, but it's not included in the amount you paid for your cruise; you will be charged an additional $75 per person. Filling out the Cuban visa is a relatively simple task, but make sure you do it correctly the first time -- paying attention to instructions, especially when it comes to writing the date and identically completing both sides. If you make a mistake, you will have to pay another $75 for a new visa.
The shows don't count as cultural interaction with locals.
While late-night shows at The Tropicana or Buena Vista Social Club are a good time and part of Cuban tradition, they don't count toward the P2P requirement. Only full-day tours designated as P2P-approved will count toward the U.S. mandate. However, there is still plenty of time to do both -- most group tours begin in the morning and end in the late afternoon, and the shows don't start up until 8 or 9 p.m.
Money is monumental.
There are two types of Cuban pesos, but only one that is useful to tourists -- the convertible Cuban peso or CUCs (pronounced kooks). The easiest way to tell this currency apart from the local peso (CUP) is that the CUC features monuments, while the CUP features faces of people. The local guide onboard recommended exchanging about $150 to $200 per person, and bringing relatively new bills in denominations of $50 -- no coins.
Another reason cash is important when traveling through Cuba is that due to the embargo, American debit and credit cards still don't work in banks or ATMs. The only way to acquire local money is through an exchange once you arrive. The easiest way to do this is at the currency exchange counter when coming through the cruise terminal.
If you don't use all your pesos and want to change your money back to dollars, do it before boarding (you can't exchange once you return to the U.S.) -- and do it before the counters close at 8 p.m. While the exchange rate is meant to be one-to-one, American's pay a 13 percent fee -- 10 percent to exchange to pesos and 3 percent to convert back. Our Cuban guide onboard jokingly called it a "jerk tax" -- a small price Americans have to pay above other nationalities because of our previous relations.
Tips are a livelihood.
One thing the Cuban government is still working out are living wages for government employees and professions like doctors. Tourism has become a boon for Cubans, as tips can supplement up to 25 percent of their annual income (so don't be surprised if a former physicist is leading your tour). As such, budget about 5 CUCs for your bus driver, about 10 for your tour guide, and try to keep small bills or peso coins for bathrooms attendants -- public bathrooms require a usage fee, usually about one peso -- and street performers. The definition of a street performer is a broad one in Cuba; the women you see in traditional costume smoking cigars…they're registered with the Cuban government and expect a small tip if you take their photo. The same applies to a live band or even someone with a cute dog.
You can bring home all the cigars … but slightly less rum.
The allotted amount of Cuban cigars coming back into the States is 100 per person. As for rum, the limit is 1 liter per person. Coffee and other souvenirs are unlimited up to $800 worth. We were told by our cruise ship's staff that interviews with U.S. Customs officers upon returning to the U.S. are often more involved because of our stop in Cuba -- but our Customs officer hardly looked our way, and a photo and fingerprints were never taken. Still, it never hurts to be prepared. There is a list of places Americans are technically not allowed to spend money, but they're outside of most tourist areas in Havana. To be sure, this list can be found on the State Department website, and typically, your cruise line's website as well.
BYO water and toilet paper.
Like with many other cruise destinations, including Mexico, it's a better idea to bring your own water from the ship and to avoid ice cubes or fresh produce washed in local water. As you will likely be on a tour for most of the day, bottled water is usually provided for you, and any restaurants you stop in as part of your tour will offer safe drinking water (or better yet, local beer). The same applies for bathrooms -- many public bathrooms in Cuba do no provide toilet tissue, but you shouldn't have a problem in facilities at finer restaurants and hotels. To be safe, bring a small amount of your own toilet paper from the ship to have on hand in an emergency.
You are allowed to ask questions.
Though tourism is run through the government, our local guide was very open about eliciting and answering our questions -- no topic was off limits. This verbal exchange is best done within the confines of your tour bus; however, we found Cubans to be much more open about their day-to-day lives than we expected, volunteering criticism but also hope that things would improve and the world would be much more open and available to them in coming years. Overall, we found everyone on and off our official tour to be friendly and welcoming to Americans. While use of some Spanish is smiled upon, most locals know English and made every effort to be accommodating.
Be an ambassador.
Everywhere we went, locals stressed the importance that we were not only visitors but ambassadors from the U.S. Though this sounds like a tall order for a single day in a port of call, it actually doesn't require much. All that Cuban residents -- and your cruise line for that matter -- want you to do is visit, have a great time, and tell your friends and family. The best way to dispel preconceptions is to experience it for yourself. Sitting in a sunny plaza with grandiose styles of architecture surrounding you, listening to the cha-cha and sipping a mojito -- any doubts you might have had about visiting Cuba will immediately melt away.
--By Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor