Cuba as a US Citizen and the pros/cons of Tour vs Cruise
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
With restricted travel policies between US and Cuba it leaves US citizens few legal ways to see and experience this amazing country. With Trump tightening the policies even more, we are left with only the options of cruise or tour under the "people to people" visa category for any form of tourism. There are other ways to receive visa but these options are work related, school related, visiting family etc. with required proof for your travel claims. Obviously these policies limit the options for tourism and those of us that aren't traveling for work/school or don't have family in Cuba are left wanting to see an "off limits" destination that is so close (only a 3 hour flight from NYC) but also incredibly "far" because of the restricting US policy.
I recently traveled to Cuba on a short tour just earlier this month and am going to go over basic travel tips, my personal experiences and what the pros and cons of the tour vs cruise options are.
I found Cuba to be very different than I expected due to inaccurate media portrayals. I found Havana to be modern with a thriving art culture and nightlife scene, the people were incredibly friendly towards American travelers , happy and proud of their country.
Firstly, traveling to Cuba you will lose some basic conveniences such as internet/data as well as the ability to use a credit or debit card and most likely you will not have phone service as well, which was the case for most US travelers. For me I was lucky enough to have roaming service from time to time although it was quite expensive to keep in touch with family if I opted to utilize it.
Starting with basic tips: bring enough cash to last since you will not have credit or debit available as options. You should exchange a portion of your money at the airport to start and can always exchange more later. Cuba has 2 currencies (I know it's odd and confusing) there are CUP (Cuban Pesos for Cuban citizens) and CUC (Cuban convertible pesos used mainly for tourists), you will receive CUC when you exchange. Now, the rate of the convertible peso is made to be 1 USD = 1 CUC which right away takes away the currency exchange benefit you get in most other Latin and Caribbean countries, then there is a 13% currency exchange fee which means you will lose 13% as well, so when I exchanged my $200 USD at the airport I only got $174 CUC in return. In addition I found the food and such to be more expensive than expected with entrees in the $15 range while in Havana restaurants. When eating at a restaurant with drink, tip and appetizer or desert it would add up quickly. My tour was short (5 days) so in the end I didn't feel as though overall I had spent too much but when considering the high costs for going on US cleared people-to-people tours to begin with it's good to be aware that costs while in country will be a bit more and will quickly add on top of the total cost of your trip. In addition you should pack and bring toilet paper, over the counter medications like pepto, benadryl and Tylenol as well as snacks like granola bars since it is not easy to find these items locally.
TOUR VS CRUISE- PROS AND CONS
Having gone on a tour myself and working in the travel industry where I have clients who do both options, I think there really are pros and cons for each which I am going to outline here. Your budget, amount of time you have available to travel and your preferences when traveling will dictate which might be best for you.
Firstly with the tour you have the cons of some to most meals/beverages not being included (depending on the tour). Typically breakfast is included and possibly another "experience" meal or 2 which means you need to budget the rest of your expenses and be sure to have extra cash available to you. Although there are some tours which will include all meals these wield higher price points. You also have the loss of the convinces like phone service/ internet and inability to withdraw cash or use credit cards. Tours typically tend to also be longer (8-12 days) which may not work for everyone's schedule (although there are 2 tours I will mention below with shorter lengths available including the one I took). Lastly you have the higher price point, with people-to-people compliance, a 24/7 guide and hotel costs included in the tour they tend to have steep price tags for Cuba. The obvious pro of going with a tour is that you have a more in-depth experience as well as a group experience which can be appreciated by solo travelers (although this may be a con for people who don't appreciate group travel or who prefer less structure to their travel).
As for cruises, they offer a shorter experience around 5 days in length (for those who may want a longer experience this is a con but for those who have limited time off of work this may be a pro). You also have a less in depth experience, you are sleeping on the ship and spending only 2 days in Havana so you are having less time spent in Cuba itself. As for the pros, you have more free time to do as you please. Although you will need at least 1 excursion per day to comply with people to people regulations you do not have a set schedule and can choose what activities you want to do and then have your remaining time free to explore. As for price point you can take a cruise which includes all your meals, beverages and in the case of NCL cruise line- alcohol as well. You have phones and internet accessibility available to you and ATMs on board if you need to withdraw cash. The cost is also significantly lower, in addition you get a 2nd port stop which give people the opportunity to see more destinations is a short time frame. Typically you will spend 2 days/1 night in the Havana port and then a shorter single day in a 2nd port such as Bahamas, Key West, Cozumel or Grand Cayman.
A low cost and short tour of 5 days (such as the El Camino tour I took) which includes your guide, activities, hotels, breakfasts, 1 dinner and 1 lunch with the price of visa being added in comes in around $2,380 if I add in the average I spent while on the island we go up to about $2,750 (not including flights) for longer or more inclusive tour option, prices can range up to $5,000 + per person.
A cruise of the same length of 5 days (such as the NCL sky ship from Miami) including a balcony ocean room (the higher level room) with meals, beverages and alcohol included as well as the added in the cost of visa and gratuities as well as shore excursions for a tour of Havana in a vintage car and a day trip to Vinales brought the total to $1,450 per person (not including flights). Now if you were to do an interior room instead of balcony on the cruise it would bring the price even lower to $1,100 per person which is $1,650 less per person than a tour of the same length.
A little about each option:
Tours tend to range 8-12 days and have group sizes that average 10-20 people although can be slightly smaller or larger depending on the popularity of your travel dates. Tours are structured with days full of activity to comply with the people-to-people tour standards, they tend to be active and busy. A few tour options I would recommend would be LATOUR, Insight Cuba, El Camino and Intrepid. Some include more meals or activities than others but in turn have higher price points. They have varied lengths but if looking for a shorter option El Camino and Insight would be the companies with options <8 days.
Cruises tend to be about 5 days in length spending 2 days/1 night in Havana and another day at a separate island. They tend to have a lower price point, more free time and more inclusions and basic conveniences available but also a less in depth experience. Prices and itineraries are based off NCL cruises, Carnival has similar pricing as well but there are dozens of cruise lines now going to Cuba from Florida ports so there are plenty of options to choose from although not all cruises will include alcohol/soft drinks and different cruise lines will have varied pricing and options for the secondary port stop.
If you opt for a cruise how do you make the most of your short experience in Cuba?
My suggestion would be to firstly make sure the port stop in Havana is overnight! So you have your 2 full days. The first day I would suggest exploring the city doing a tour in a vintage car is a fun way to get around and lasts about 2 hours. Afterwards you can explore and grab lunch at a local stop to try some Cuba cuisine and at night check out the thriving Havana nightlife! The next day get out of the city, try the day trip to Vinales and visit a tobacco farm to see rural Cuba. How you utilize your 2 days in Cuba on a cruise is up to you but if you do it right you can see a lot in a short time! Tip- don't worry about beach time in Cuba see the culture and save your relaxing on the beach for the 2nd island port stop.
How do you decide which is right for you?
This depends on all the mentioned factors-
How much money do you have available to spend on your travels?
How much time do you have off of work?
Do you want to focus on Cuba or get in another island on your trip?
Are you ok with the loss of conveniences such as internet, cell service and lack of ATM withdraw available?
How much do you want included on you trip?
Do you want group travel with a guide or more free time?
Are you looking for an in depth experience or is just a taste right for you?
Travel as with most things comes down to personal preference and after answering the above questions you should easily be able to determine what will work best for you.
I personally loved the tour I was on but see the appeal and benefits of each option. Have you been to Cuba before? How did you go and what did you love about it? Comment below!
*Photos taken by Simone Anne on my El Camino tour