Although Cuba is now firmly established on the Caribbean tourist circuit, there are not as many direct flights from the UK as one might expect, though there are plenty of airlines flying direct from elsewhere in Europe. Travelling from Canada couldn’t be easier, with daily direct flights, but visiting Cuba from the US remains complicated due to the US trade embargo which includes restrictive laws on travel to the island. There are no direct flights from Australia.
Airfares to Cuba fluctuate according to season. Fares offered by big-name high-street travel agents are sometimes higher than those from smaller operators specializing in Latin America, which are also more familiar with details specific to Cuba, such as airport departure tax and tourist cards.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
Since national carrier Cubana stopped flying direct from the UK in 2012, Virgin Atlantic is the only airline operating direct scheduled flights to Cuba, with two services a week from Gatwick. Return fares start from around £650 (including taxes) in low season but you’ll be lucky to pay less than £800 in high season.
Various airlines fly to Havana from London via European cities, including Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. Air France is the most versatile option, with daily flights from London Heathrow to Havana via Paris starting at around £700 in low season and £950 in high season. Iberia and KLM also fly from Heathrow, via Madrid and Amsterdam respectively, with similar seasonal prices. Other airlines flying direct from European cities include Cubana, KLM, Air Berlin and Air Europa. Though Cubana tends to offer the least expensive flights on the market, they have a justified reputation for overbooking, overzealous enforcement of the baggage weight limit and a relatively poor safety record.
No airline flies nonstop from Ireland to Cuba, and you’ll usually fly first to London, Paris or Madrid. Air France flies from Dublin via Paris from as little as €560 in low season and from around €760 in high season. Otherwise the best option is to buy a flight from London, Paris or Madrid and arrange flights from Ireland yourself.
Flights from the US
Despite the continuing embargo that Washington maintains on trade with Cuba, it is possible for US citizens to fly direct from the US to the island, but before booking a flight, whether direct or via a third country, you must first obtain a “licence to travel”. Though licensed US travellers can now use direct charter flights from airports in Florida, New York and several other US cities, these flights are complicated, often take many weeks to arrange (as they require additional paperwork) and are usually more expensive than travelling via a third country. If you do choose to book a direct flight and have obtained a licence to travel, get in touch with Marazul (wmarazulcharters.com) or ABC Charters (wabc-charters.com). However, it makes more sense to book a flight via Canada or Mexico; just about every major US airline flies to both. However to travel on to Cuba legally from either country as a US citizen, you still need a licence.
Flights from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean
Few countries have more flights to Cuba than Canada. Air Canada operates a daily service from Toronto to Havana and Varadero, with flights from other Canadian destinations going via Toronto. Cubana flies from Toronto and Montreal to Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Holguín, while the Panamanian carrier COPA Airlines also operates a daily service from Toronto to the Cuban capital. A number of other airlines fly chartered and scheduled flights from all over Canada. Costs can be as low as Can$370 in low season, though average fares are around the Can$600 mark, while in high season fares can go above Can$1000 but average at Can$700.
From Mexico, Cubana have regular direct flights from Mexico City to Havana for between US$300 and US$450 return in high season, staying consistently at around US$300 in low season; and from Cancún to Havana for between US$280 return in low season, and US$350 in high season. COPA and Aeroméxico also operate routes to Cuba, though they’re not always direct and in 2012 Aeroméxico cancelled its flights from Cancún to the Cuban capital.
In the Caribbean, Cayman Airways fly from the Cayman Islands to Havana five times a week for around US$350 return throughout the year, or from Jamaica to Havana for closer to US$500.
Flights from Australia and New Zealand
Cuba is hardly a bargain destination from Australasia as there are no direct flights. The most easily available route from Australia is via Toronto with Air Canada, which costs around Aus$2000. A trip from New Zealand will involve a stop-over in either Canada, South America or Europe, with costs topping NZ$2500.
Obtaining permission to travel to Cuba
Obtaining permission to travel to Cuba
US citizens travelling to Cuba, no matter how they get there, must qualify for a “licence to travel”. The stipulations for obtaining a licence have changed several times in the last fifteen years in the ongoing tug-of-war between the US government’s conservative and liberal factions over the provisions and enforcement of the embargo, so it’s always worth checking what the latest rules and definitions are at wtreasury.gov or whavana.usint.gov. In 2011, for example, Washington expanded the possibilities for being granted a licence, allowing more people to travel for educational, cultural and religious purposes.
Currently there are two categories of licence: General and Specific. Confusingly, for a General Licence no application is necessary. If your trip fits into one of the categories which the US Government allows – usually travelling on behalf of an institution for educational, journalistic, diplomatic or religious purposes – then you can travel without having to make an application to the Treasury Department. Individuals travelling independently tend to have to apply for a Specific Licence, which is much more complicated.
The various specialist US tour operators organizing legal tours to the island should be able to assist you in getting your licence and are the most useful sources of information and help.
Travelling without a licence
For US citizens, travelling to Cuba without a licence is illegal, whether you fly direct or via another country. However, some do bypass the legal obstacles by travelling via Canada, Mexico or other countries and buying tourist cards in those destinations to meet Cuban entry requirements, just like citizens of any other country. On request, Cuban authorities will stamp these cards instead of a passport on entering and leaving the island. Most US citizens who travel to Cuba illegally do not bring a stamped tourist card back to the US with them, as this in itself can serve as proof of a visit to Cuba. The penalty for travelling without a licence is a hefty fine and possible prison sentence.