How many times have I heard someone say, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes” I’d love to know. The PR firm that created that message should be given a gold medal, as it stirred much of the US into motion and created a frenzy of urgency. One of my strengths, I have come to recognize, is seeing a hole and then finding a way to fill it. Two years ago I began my research, interviewed suppliers until I found one that would be a good fit for Freedom Travel. That is… allowing my travelers the freedom to roam independently without being under the scrutiny of a tight itinerary. At last, on October 2015 I took my first small group to Havana. Everyone delighted to see Cuba “before it changes.” I returned again in January and then again in October 2016, exactly a year later. Would there indeed be any significant changes in this short period of time? Here is what I found.
The most dramatic change what’s the increase in hotel under construction; three new Sheridan properties in old Havana alone. Hotel Inglaterra, Santa Clara and the Hotel Quinta Avenida Habana that will now be named: The Four Points Havana. We were fortunate to stay at the Inglaterra in October 2015 and, while the common spaces were grand and colonial, the guest rooms were in desperate need of renovation. Thankfully Sheraton has come to the rescue.
The other major change was currency. A year ago we changed dollars to euro before leaving the US, then upon arrival in Havana, we would exchange the euro for the local currency. Today however you can take US dollars and change them into Cuban local currency (CUC). Additionally merchants and vendors are quite willing to take US dollars and euro. I suspect that this is being put aside and saved for their next visit to the US.
Probably the biggest change in a year has been the direct flights from US to Cuba with US carriers. Up until now you either took a charter flight, or you could take a flight into Cuba through another country. That is most often Cancun. Over the next few months 10 airlines will be flying direct from US to Cuba: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Frontier, Silver, Spirit, SunCountry, Southwest and United.
There are more American tourists, more classic car rentals and more privately owned restaurants and B&B’s, called Casa Particular
Getting to Havana now at the end of 2016, is just as easy as flying to Chicago, perhaps easier. Getting through immigration and customs is simple.
One thing that has not changed is baggage. Not the size or the weight necessarily, but waiting for your checked luggage upon arrival in Havana. Three times in a row we waited an hour and a half for the luggage. So my advice is pack for carry-on bags only and then when you arrive you aren’t stuck in a waiting room for nearly 2 hours while your driver anxiously wait outside.