Any experiences with self-directed person-to-person travel to Cuba?
December 5, 2016 8:41 AM   Subscribe

We would like to go to Havana on the person-to-person license, which one does not have to apply for anymore. Apparently you just have to have a self-made itinerary that you can show to the US when coming home. We want to go cheaply, flying independently on one of the new flights from NYC to Havana, and staying at an Air BnB while we are in Havana.

We don't want to do a tour because they are far, far more expensive than we can spend.

I'd like to hear from anyone who has gone to Cuba independently FROM THE US (not illegally from another country), and gone via the person-to-person license (which they did not actually have to apply for, because these days, you don't), made their own itinerary, and had a good time. I would like to know how they figured out in advance of going to Havana what their person-to-person itinerary would be like: how did they get the names of the people they would be visiting, OR did you wait until you got there and listed the names of the people you spoke to after speaking to them?; and, by the way, do you speak Spanish?

I would particularly like to hear from any US citizens to went to Cuba on regularly scheduled flights from the US to Cuba. Were you questioned by the US upon your return about your license? Were you asked for your physical written itinerary?

I really don't want to hear responses from people who (1) went via another country; (2) used a tour group or travel group; or (3) had an actual license that they or a group applied for (pre-dating the new rules, when you do not need an actual license). I have that information covered.

Thank you!
posted by DMelanogaster to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (4 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My father, brother, and I are going to Cuba for Christmas. We're flying out of Orlando and into Havana, where we'll stay for about a week.

I think you may be more anxious about the trip than you need to be (although, of course, there's a chance I'm being too laid back). The people-to-people qualifying visa (which we are using) is extremely vague -- if you want to read the full text, it's available here.

The most relevant content is here:

"Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba."

We're hoping to "enhance contact with the Cuban people" by meeting folks at restaurants, visiting museums, talking to taxi drivers, etc. Spirit of the law? Probably not. But letter of the law? Absolutely.

I'm going to plan an agenda before we go -- largely because the internet won't work while we're there -- and then use that to keep track of what we've done and who we've talked to. We need to keep those for five years. However, according to these folks from Lonely Planet, nobody ever asks. Specifically:

"There have been no reports of anyone having to prove this on return. NO ONE has been fined for illegal travel to Cuba for last 10 years."

I have the Spanish of a third-year high schooler (so enough to get around but a long shot from fluency). I'll download Google Translate's Spanish dictionary to my phone so I have it. Other than that, I'm pretty chill.
posted by harperpitt at 9:48 AM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your trip sounds great. We don't speak much Spanish. Would like to discover how to make our way into hearing music, going to art, etc. where there would be some people who can speak Englsih to help us with our people-to-people encounters. Hard to do with language limitation , I guess.
posted by DMelanogaster at 9:34 PM on December 5, 2016

I really don't want to hear responses from people who ... (2) used a tour group or travel group;

I'll admit your dismissal put me off initially, because I went with a small tour group but in spite of that I feel that I can answer some of your questions because being with group didn't make a damn bit of difference to US Immigration and Customs. It did make a huge difference in the need to speak Spanish.

If the scope of your trip is small (i.e. a couple days in-and-out-of-Havana) you could maybe get away with a friendly and trusted casa owner (that stays in the house) that could hook you up with some locals, and don't bother reading the rest of my reply. I guess as with anything, the more effort you put in the more you'll get out.

So for my trip from Nov 8-20 2016 I flew from Miami to Cienfuegos (and back again) on regularly-scheduled American Airlines. I was on a person-to-person license and itinerary that was set up by the tour operator. So I can't help you with the getting-the-license part, although that is supposed to be trivial, as you have noted (don't forget about the visa). Setting up your itinerary in advance will be a challenge, unless you have local contacts. If you exhaust other methods of finding "guides" I might be able to help you out with emails of some of the folks we met. Also *

Speaking Spanish is highly recommended; although many people speak English, a lot don't (or don't want to); I think you might have a harder time getting around without it. I doubt you would be fully happy if you go with no initial contacts and you don't speak the language. You'll get around, but there's a good chance you'll also get taken. Be aware that Cuban Spanish differs a little from Latin American Spanish; they might understand you but you might initially have a hard time understanding them (our leader said that they drop a lot of consonants among other things; e.g. I was always understood when I said Buenos Dias but got a lot of just 'buena' (with barely a hint of the 'a'). People really opened up when I used the little Spanish I know.

My return through Immigration was the easiest-breeziest I've ever had, compared to multiple trips to Europe, Mexico, and other Latin American locales. My flight was the only one going through the process at the time, so they had to know we were all from Cuba. Prior to the trip we asked the leader about keeping a diary for proof of our contacts and activities and he said that that wouldn't be necessary. I filled up a small notebook primarily out of habit, to jog my memories in years to come, and just-in-case. The tour operator did caution us to have our letter of authorization (that he had written up with the details of the P-to-P license) ready if they asked for it; he expected them not to and they never did. They just asked about whether I'd bought electronics, alcohol, or tobacco. Turns out no one in our group was asked for any documentation, but YMMV.

Other tidbits - Our leader had run previous trips through the Havana airport and avoided it this time due to the craziness there. Cienfuegos was a breeze, and you definitely want to get out of Havana if you have time. If your plan is to get there and then set everything up (via a smartphone) you might want to rethink that. You may end up spending way too much time just trying to get internet access. A better bet would be to cultivate some contacts ahead of time and rely on a locally-purchased phone, but even that plan might be overkill and run aground in bureaucracy. Filter your water. Take pepto as a prophylactic. Plan on spending an inordinate amount of time changing money (at least you'll be pleased if it goes quickly); rolling blackouts stopped us half the time we tried, and multi-hour waits are not uncommon. Your best bet might be your casa owners.

Rereading, I've packed in more than you wanted, and maybe painted too grim a picture. Cuba and its people are a little unpredictable; you will simultaneously have a great time and be completely frustrated. You will be welcomed with both great enthusiasm and confused stares. You may be ready to go home and not want to leave.

* May I suggest you contact Conner Gorry at Cuba Libro? She runs a English-language bookstore in Havana, is fighting the good fight, and may be able to help you out with your visit (tell her the "Chris the Moleskine guy" sent you). She also runs Here Is Havana which is well worth the read. You can buy her gratitude with books you have sitting around your house and the bookstore would be a great stop on your itinerary with fertile ground for contacts. More info at request via Memail.
posted by achrise at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

(sorry about the "no groups" thing -- it was, as I posted at the beginning, because of $$$ concerns. Otherwise we would go with a group)
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:02 PM on December 6, 2016

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