Getting to Cuba from the US has never been easier and though only a few airlines operate direct flights from the UK, there are plenty flying direct from elsewhere in Europe. Canada has had more flights to Cuba than any other country for years, but there are no direct flights at all from Australia.
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The point of entry for the vast majority of international scheduled flights is Havana’s José Martí airport, though some flights, and in particular from Canada and the US, go direct to a number of the much smaller regional airports, most commonly Varadero, Santa Clara, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. These same airports are served by charter flights from Europe, Canada, the US and elsewhere, as are the tiny resort-based airports at Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo del Sur and, to a lesser extent, the airport in Cienfuegos.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
The airlines operating direct scheduled flights from the UK to Cuba are Virgin Atlantic to Havana (from London Gatwick, two times a week), TUI to Varadero (from London Gatwick) and Thomas Cook Airlines to Cayo Coco, Varadero and Holguin (from London Gatwick and Manchester).
It’s often cheaper to fly to Cuba from the UK via other European cities, typically Madrid, Paris and Amsterdam. Air Europa is consistently one of the least expensive options, whilst Air France is the most versatile option, with daily flights from London Heathrow to Havana via Paris. Iberia and KLM also fly from Heathrow, via Madrid and Amsterdam respectively. Other airlines flying from Europe include Air Berlin from several cities in Germany to Varadero and Havana; Blue Panorama from Rome and Milan to six different Cuban airports; Aeroflot from Moscow to Havana; and the national Cuban carrier, Cubana, from Madrid and Paris to Havana and Santiago and from Moscow and Rome to Havana only. Though Cubana tends to offer relatively inexpensive flights, 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, Madrid or Toronto. Air France flies from Dublin via Paris. Otherwise the best option is to buy a flight from from one of the European cities mentioned above and arrange separate connecting flights from Ireland to that city.
Flights from the US
Despite the embargo that Washington still maintains on trade with Cuba and the continued obligation for US citizens visiting the island to adhere to the terms of a “licence to travel”, it is now possible for US citizens to take direct scheduled flights from the US to Cuba. From autumn 2016, for the first time in over fifty years, major American airlines began flying commercial, non-charter flights from all over the US to cities around Cuba. At the time of writing, schedules were still being worked out, following applications for multiple slots from all the major US carriers. Please check with airlines and US travel advisories for up-to-date information.
Flights from Canada
Before scheduled flights from the US were established, no country had more flights to Cuba than Canada and the two countries remain very well connected. Air Canada flies to Varadero, Santa Clara, Holguín, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo del Sur and daily to Havana from Toronto, with plenty of direct flights from Montréal and some from other Canadian destinations. Cubana, generally cheaper but less reliable and comfortable than Air Canada, flies regularly from Toronto and Montréal to Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín. Westjet and the Panamanian carrier COPA Airlines also operate regular direct services from Toronto to Cuban airports. Air Transat, Skyservice and Sunwing Airlines fly direct chartered flights from all over Canada to a number of Cuban airports.
Flights from Australia and New Zealand
There are no direct flights from Australasia to Cuba. The most easily available route from Australia is via Toronto with Air Canada. A trip from New Zealand will involve a stopover in either Canada, South America or Europe.
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 treasury.gov or www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/cuba/entry-requirements. 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.