Getting to Cuba
You can book your Cuba trip as a package through a number of specialist companies which advertise in the travel pages; or most of the big tour operators also offer Cuba packages. The disadvantage is that you will be bundled off to a tourist resort, lodged in package hotels even in the less touristy destinations and the price will often be higher than tailor-made or do-it-yourself trips. Travel to and around Cuba is relatively easy, so don't be afraid of being more independent. Hiring your own car is a really good option see Getting around in Cuba for more on car hire. Making your own hotel bookings is also a good bet see Hotels and Private Accommodation.
A tailor-made trip is the next option and several Cuba specialist travel companies will be happy to oblige; however they tend to have their own agendas and favoured hotels where they get especially juicy commissions.
So we generally recommend that you book your flight yourself and only use a travel firm to book hotels based on our recommendations rather than theirs, and also possibly to book car hire.
Another option is only to book some of your hotels in advance and get the rest as you go along, giving you more flexibility and often far lower prices. Our guide separates out flights, hotels, car hire and other aspects, so you can see the best options at each stage.
Only a few years ago the only way to fly to Cuba was a long charter route via Canada or on a creaky Soviet Aeroflot plane. Now there are non-stop or direct flights from many European, Canadian, Mexican, Central American and South American cities as well as from much of the Caribbean. There are also charters. However the post-September 11th tourism downturn forced several airlines to cut their routes, taking British Airways off the Havana run which they had only just inaugurated, so choice is now more limited than it was in 2001.
From Britain, Cubana, the Cuban state-airline, have in the past run a jointly-operated DC10 from Gatwick to Havana two or three times a week. This service was suspended in 2001 but has now been reinstated once a week. There are also one or two charters direct to Varadero. Apart from that, Air Jamaica operate a once a week service direct from London to Havana the return flight goes via Kingston, but this service has become increasingly popular with UK travellers to Cua.
The other main option is to link in to European flights to Havana which adds around 3-4 hours to your travel time. The main carrier is Iberia who fly a 747 daily from Madrid. Air France fly 747s to and from Charles de Gaulle most days. Air Europa also fly most days from Spain, though connections can be awkward and sometimes involve an overnight stay. Cubana airlines also fly from several European cities. The charter company LTU flies once or twice a week from Dussledorf and Munich and KLM's charter arm, Martinair, fly once a week from Amsterdam to Varadero.
There are several daily flights from Mexico City and Cancun to Havana on Mexicana and Aerocaribbe as well as Cubana airlines; several flights a week mainly charters from Canada to various parts of Cuba; several South American airlines fly to Havana and Cubana also operate routes to Latin America. Finally, Aeroflot operates a flight from Moscow once or twice a week. See Travel to and from the US for information on travel via the US.
Bear in mind that in the current uncertain travel environment schedules are subject to change at short notice and seasonally.
How to book your flight
People travelling on all-inclusive packages will often be put on charter flights, though some packages are on scheduled services. Travellers booking tailor-made packages though agents will usually be put on a scheduled flight.
However, if you can travel more independently it is almost always cheaper to book your own flight.
In general it is best to go from Europe with Iberia or Air France. Their schedules tend to be more convenient and their services better and more reliable than the charters or Cubana airlines though neither are particularly great on service. Also, the cost saving of booking on Cubana airlines or charters is rarely great. But because of cutbacks on services, Iberia and Air France can get very full, especially during peak season from June-September and December-January, so book ahead if you can. Prices have also risen due to the reductions in capacity.
It is always worth calling the airlines direct as they often have deals. Ticket agencies, both large and small, also offer Havana and Varadero flights and are worth checking, though beware of extras such as booking fees which some have introduced.
However, booking on the net is usually nowadays the best option. The American-owned sites such as Expedia.com and Orbitz.com won't book Cuba-bound flights, but we have generally found Opodo.com owned by several major airlines, and BA.com the British Airways site to have reasonable deals.
Opodo generally offers Iberia and Air France, while the BA site puts you on their codeshare partners Iberia or Air Jamaica, who fly to Havana via Kingston. Travelocity.co.uk also generally has OK deals.
Do shop around though, as deals vary from minute to minute and there are some truly awful offers around. Lastminute.com once offered us a routing to Montreal on Air Canada and on to Havana with Cubana airlines for more than £800 an absurdly roundabout route at an exorbitant price. OneTravel.com also offered us some pretty standard flights at more than £1,000 when Opodo and BA's offers were closer to £500.
A good target price from the UK is £400 return, though you may have to pay closer to £500. Any more than that and you are getting a poor deal. Club class is usually around £650 one-way or £1,200 return.
Going on from Cuba
Flying one-way to Cuba and then on elsewhere tends to add disproportionately to the cost. If you want to do this, or to book an onward flight from Cuba, you are generally better off booking from the UK as airline offices and reservation systems are not very efficient in Cuba.
Non-European cities you can fly to from Cuba on Cubana or other airlines include Montreal, Toronto, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Caracas, Costa Rica, Fort de France, Grand Cayman, Guayaquil, Kingston, Lima. Mexico City, Montego Bay, Nassau, Panama City, Pointe-a-Pitre, Quito, Santo Domingo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile and Sao Paulo. Canada's Royal Airlines and Canadian Airlines also fly to and from several Cuban provincial towns including Varadero, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin.
Travel to and from the US
Many tens of thousands of US citizens travel to Cuba each year. There are regular charter flights from Miami and Los Angeles to Havana, but these are only open to members of Cuban-American associations. Technically it is illegal for most US citizens to travel to Cuba, though politicians and official delegations go the whole time.
Generally Mexico is the best route between Cuba and the US. Mexicana and Aerocaribbe both have around two flights a day each way between Cancun and Mexico City and Havana and Cubana airlines also offer services. You can't book these easily from the US, though you can book Havana-Mexico-US or back from elsewhere. The Mexico-Cuba flights are also rarely full, so if you're travelling from the US to Cuba you can usually make a connection by booking on arrival in Mexico.
You will need a valid passport, usually with at least six months remaining before it runs out. You will also need a tourist card. It is better to buy this in advance if possible, though its is almost always possible to buy this from the airline at the last airport of departure to Cuba. Most travel agencies selling packages, tailored holidays, hotels only or just flights will also arrange this for you. Failing that, try the Cuban consulate. Failing everything, you can generally buy the card when your arrive at Havana, but not usually other Cuban airports. Even babies need a card, though a few nationals are exempt Denmark, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have been exempt, but it is worth checking. Cuban immigration also frequently ask to see your onward or return ticket.
The tourist card costs £15 and lasts four weeks. It can be extended for $25. You will also need it to get out. If you lose it you will be charged another $25 at the airport on the way out.
American citizens travelling to Cuba can either obtain tourist cards through a non-US agent, through a Cuban consulate outside the US, or through the airline at the last airport or departure to Cuba. Visits to Cuba can cause trouble for returning US citizens to be safe, ask the Cuban immigration official to stamp your tourist card, not your passport.
There is a $25 departure tax, payable in cash. This is rigorously enforced and the payment stamp is checked before your board the flight.
There are no regular sea passenger services to Cuba, though there have been sporadic ferry services from Cancun to Havana and cruise ships now call regularly at Cuban ports. Yachties can access numerous marinas and harbours the main ones are in Havana and Varadero, but almost any port or major resort will offer a berth or anchorage. You will need a tourist card and a number of specialist companies in Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico organise charters.