charter flights to cuba

What Does it Cost for Americans Visiting Cuba During the Embargo?

jose marti  anti-imperialist plaza

Statue of Jose Marti pointing an accusing finger toward the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba.

Are you wishing to be an American visiting Cuba during the embargo? If you are thinking about a true vacation in Cuba, apart from engaging in, say, an adventure, and do not want to overpay for your trip to Cuba, then you might want to wait until the United States lifts the embargo on travel. The cost for Americans visiting Cuba during the Embargo is very high. The reason many vacationers from Europe and Canada visit Cuba is because it’s inexpensive for them. It’s more inexpensive for those foreigners because they are not Americans, and Americans, according to our travel agency, tend to get overcharged by the Cuban government for travel.

However, there are travel agencies like Intrepid that charge around $2,000 for a week in Cuba. Of course, you are probably shuffled into a large tour group, stuffed into a tour bus, and you might not get air conditioning at every hotel, but it doesn’t seem like a bad way to go. A better way, most likely, is to book your travel with an agency outside of the United States, book directly with the hotels, hire your own driver and guide. Or, like I mentioned earlier, just wait for the Embargo to lift. Cuba is not really ready for American tourists.

Not anybody right now can travel to Cuba, but I imagine unless you pose a threat and are breathing, you can go. The most common way to visit Cuba during the Embargo is on a People-to-People exchange. For this, you need a visitor VISA and a letter of authorization, which you can obtain from a travel agency. Our Los Angeles travel agency charged $600 for these documents. Combined with delivery charges, travel agency fees and transfer fees, that fee amounted to $1,520 for the two of us.

About the People-to-People Exchange in Cuba

I’d like to report that we met many local Cubans but we did not. Except for the occasional clerk, we did not really meet anybody. Our travel itinerary promised such interactions as “Havana, Official Presentation of Modern Havana, interact with the locals as you see the Bacardi Building, the Capitolio and other Historic Landmarks,” except we stopped at one vacant parking lot (a place for political gatherings), drove by all of the historic landmarks and met no one. Or, our trip to Brisas Trinidad del Mar, “Exchange ideas with local fisherman who make a living from Cuba’s waters” or “dialogue with a local marine expert about Cuba’s reef preservation.” Every tourist attraction was labeled “interact with local people,” yet we interacted with not a soul except perhaps a bartender who presented us with a cocktail or a hotel desk clerk who tried to fix our messed up reservations.

Hotel Accommodations in Cuba

The cost to stay in an upper-end hotel, which isn’t on par with a U.S. 4-star or 5-star hotel, is about $200 to $300 for a single room. Don’t expect to call the front desk for service. Meals at private restaurants, which are better than pre-paid at government restaurants, are about $10 to $20 per person. Often wine is not included but cocktails are. A daiquiri will cost $3.00 to $5.00. Rum and coke is about $1.50. Although my husband was charged 6 CUCs at a beach bar for a daiquiri at all-inclusive Brisas Trinidad del Mar before he realized they did not notice his orange wristband.

I recommend the Hotel Nacional, but be sure to request a high floor away from the courtyard if you don’t want to be kept awake past 10 PM. The Executive Level on the 6th floor offers a quiet breakfast that is much nicer than the basement.

Internet in Cuba

I was warned not to try it but I bought several internet cards anyway. You can buy them at hotels. The cards cost $2.00 for an hour of internet in most places, a little bit more in smaller towns. You have to find a WiFi spot and stand in exactly the right place, and hope to god nobody else is trying to get online. Telecommunications by Etecsa. You can also buy 5 hours for $10.00, which is what I recommend, because by the time you actually get online, are able to download your emails and begin to respond, you will get kicked off and, when you sign back on, you will undoubtedly quickly run out of internet minutes.

Air Fare to Cuba

When we initially booked our trip, the airfare for a charter flight on Havana Air from Miami was $450 per person. Since then it has gone up to $600 per person for a 60-minute flight. Havana Air also charges additional fees by weight. It will weigh your checked luggage and all of your carry-on luggage, and charge you $2.00 for each pound exceeding 44 pounds per person. There are also exit fees to pay. They charged us an additional $156 to leave Miami, yet nothing when departing Cuba.

There is a new American charter flight that leaves directly from Los Angeles and flies to Havana on Saturdays (among other cities). You can book your flight through Cuba Travel Services. Flights leave LAX around noon and arrive Havana at 8:30 PM. We instead flew on United out of Sacramento at 5:30 AM, which was a huge mistake, into Denver, waited 6 hours for a transfer flight, and arrived at our hotel in Miami near midnight only to have leave again at 3:30 AM for the airport. Our airfare to Miami was not included in the travel agency package. For Americans visiting Cuba during the Embargo, it seems easier to fly direct through CTS.

Land Package All-Inclusive to Cuba

Our “land package” cost $11,600 for 12 days for the two of us. This is separate from the charter flight, the travel documents / people-to-people visa, and it includes hotel accommodations, all meals, tours, and a private driver and separate bilingual guide. I believe the land package was arranged through Havanatur, which is owned by the government. It might cost less to pay for your own hotels, meals and hire your own car / guide. You can directly hire a tour guide and a driver for about $100 a day, according to online sites, although our guide said the government pays him about 20 CUCs a month.

The cost is not the main factor, though, for visiting Cuba during the Embargo. You can see the change happening in the country; witness its contradictions in person and experience a different type of Cuba, albeit it’s a bit rough. Cuba will change more dramatically after the Embargo is lifted. When we visited the National Museum of Fine Arts, we came across an installation in the lobby. I wish I had shot a photo. It was a Cuban man pulling a cart overloaded with baggage. Our guide asked us what it meant. The Cuban had a long nose, like Pinocchio. Our guide said the Cuban represented the government, and the baggage is the Cuban residents who want to travel but cannot. To me it said the people of Cuba did not get what they bargained for.

Our guide is in love with HBO’s Sex and The City. His dream is to visit New York City. Cuba won’t let him go.

Below are the last of my photographs of our trip to Cuba:

Benny More

Statue of Famous Cuban musician Benny More stands in Cienfuegos, Cuba.


Saul and Sergio

Coming into Cienfuegos, Cuba, with private driver Saul and guide Sergio in the front seat.


coco-taxi cuba

A kid goofs off in a Coco-taxi for tourists in Havana, Cuba.


woman on steps in havana cuba

Elderly woman with crutches sits with her dog on broken cement steps in Havana, Cuba


Photos: Elizabeth Weintraub Canon SX50

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