Over the past few years, the opportunities for regular Americans to travel to Cuba have greatly expanded. And, one of the easiest ways to visit is by sailing a cruise that stops at the Havana cruise port. Booking a cruise can certainly simplify your travel planning, but read on a for few tips to make sure that your family gets the most out of this experience.
We recently sailed on a family cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas. The absolute highlights of the trip were our visits to the Havana cruise port! For years, I wanted to visit Cuba, but I was never eligible to go. So once it became possible for Americans to sail on cruises that stopped in Cuba, that shot to the top of my wish list. And this year, we were finally able to pull it off.
Visiting The Havana Cruise Port
Let me preface this by saying, we had a fabulous time. Everyone in our travel party ultimately enjoyed the cruise (even the family members who were forced to arrive without any luggage due to flight mishaps). And we would all do it again.
Here are 15 things that families planning a cruise to Havana should know – some good, some fair, and some watch outs.
1. Consider Booking Back-To-Back Cruises With Stops At The Havana Cruise Port.
At the time that we looked at booking a cruise to Cuba, the only ones we saw had relatively short itineraries of 4 or 5 days. But we usually plan our summer vacation around a 7 day cruise, so we really wanted something longer. What we ended up doing was putting together a back-to-back itinerary. We booked a 4 night and a 5 night cruise on the same ship. We kept the same staterooms, so we still had the benefit of only unpacking once. Both legs of the cruise sailed roundtrip out of Tampa. So, for the combined 9 day itinerary, we had two different stops in Havana, plus stop in the ports of Key West and Cozumel. Also, one of the Havana stops was an overnight stop which added additional variety to the itinerary.
The original prices when we booked were very affordable compared to other Caribbean itineraries. And, we saved money booking ocean view rooms. Plus, on two occasions after we booked, our cruise specialist was able to help us take advantage of subsequent price reductions. So, overall, it was a great deal!
2. The Actual Visa Requirements and Travel Restrictions Can Be Confusing.
Americans need two important documents when sailing to Cuba. First, there’s the actual visa needed to enter the country. You can purchase those on board from the cruise line. It was $75 per person and charged to our shipboard accounts.
In addition to a visa, Americans (or those subject to U.S jurisdiction), must also comply with government regulations that restrict travel to Cuba. You cannot travel as a general tourist. (So, no bopping off to the beach.) Rather, you must fall within one of 12 recognized categories. If you are traveling by cruise ship, you will complete a certification at embarkation that identifies which bucket your trip falls into.
Also, we opted to purchase travel insurance, so we also had to complete a different version of a certification before we ever left home. Our travel insurance carrier required that we fax in copies a few months before we sailed. Interestingly, the version provided by the travel insurance company had much more descriptive detail as to the categories of authorized travel.
The Key Categories
Cruise ship passengers will most likely fall under one of two categories. Either the “people to people” category or the “support the Cuban people” category. The “people to people” category essentially requires that you participate in a tour sponsored by an authorized entity. Some of the confusion about this category likely stems from the fact that the requirements changed relatively recently, in 2017. So some of the information floating around online is no longer valid. In particular, any references you see to an ability to “self certify” under the “people to people” category is out of date.
If you book an excursion with the cruise line, you will be in full compliance with the “people to people” category.
But, you can still be in compliance even if you make excursion arrangements outside of your cruise line. The most likely applicable category would be the “support of the Cuban people” category. (This is a relevant excerpt from the certificate provided by our travel insurance company.)
Support for the Cuban people (31 C.F.R. § 515.574). […] I certify that my schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule. I also certify that the activities are of recognized human rights organization; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; or individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.
You can find more information about what “support for the Cuban people” means here at §515.574. But be aware that pure leisure activities — such as a day at the beach — do not qualify.