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Traveling to Cuba? This Q&A has info on visas, credit cards, hotels and how not to run afoul of U.S. law

American visitors to Havana, whose numbers are expected to rise now that commercial flights are available from Tampa and other U.S. cities, will need to prepare for the unique challenges of a stay there -- including the need to carry cash. [Associated Press]

American visitors to Havana, whose numbers are expected to rise now that commercial flights are available from Tampa and other U.S. cities, will need to prepare for the unique challenges of a stay there -- including the need to carry cash. [Associated Press]

When Southwest Airlines begins direct service Dec. 12 from Tampa to Havana, it will be cheaper and easier for locals to visit Cuba.

Still, the trip isn't as simple as a jaunt to nearby Jamaica or the Bahamas. Here's what you need to know before booking a flight.

Why does it cost $59 to go to Cuba but $91 to come back to the United States?

According to Southwest Airlines, Cuba has its own fees and taxes that it charges when its airport is used. Southwest said that is standard practice in other nations and not unique to Cuba.

Are there other costs?

Yes. You will need to buy a visa to travel to Cuba. Southwest recommends using Cuba Travel Services and provides the company's contact information when you purchase your plane ticket. Each visa costs $50 through the company and CTS will have a counter set up next to Southwest starting Dec. 12 at Tampa International Airport.

Are there any other documents I need to bring?

Your passport, of course.

And Suzanne Carlson of Tampa-based Carlson Maritime Travel recommends that you keep your boarding pass with you at all times in Cuba.

Your name, she said, should be on a government manifest stating you purchased Cuban health insurance. But, in case of a clerical error, your boarding pass is further proof you're insured.

Wait, why do I need Cuban health insurance?

Due to the embargo, U.S. health insurance cannot be used in Cuba.

How much does the health insurance cost?

Health insurance is included in the price of your ticket. But it is not full coverage, so there may be added expenses depending on your injury or illness, said Tom Popper, president of New York-based travel company Insight Cuba.

Cuba is an impoverished nation. Its hospitals must not be as good as American hospitals, right?

Insight Cuba's Popper said that compared with U.S. medical care, some might consider it inferior, but it is far from that. It's just "different." You will receive proper care, he promised.

And major Cuban cities like Havana, he said, have a separate clinic for tourists, "where the care is slightly better than the hospitals for residents."

Can I visit the beaches? I hear Cuba's are gorgeous.

You can visit, but sunbathing on the beach or partaking in anything considered to be purely a tourist activity in Cuba is still a violation of American law.

"It is hard to get caught, but it is illegal," said Vicente Amor, executive vice president of Tampa-based ASC International USA. "You are supposed to go to Cuba to learn about Cuba and its people."

So how can I legally travel to Cuba?

There are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

Before you board the plane to Cuba, you will be asked why you are going, but you won't need to present an itinerary of your activities in advance.

The everyday American looking to travel to Cuba will likely fall under the educational category.

What constitutes an educational trip to Cuba?

That requires you learn about the Cuban culture.

It is a broadly defined category. You can learn about its history, music, food, art, music, environment architecture, sports, etc. You spend your day visiting sites and people related to one or more of these topics. Sometimes that means going to art museums. Other times it can be going to a dinner show to watch live Cuban music.

This can be done as part of an organized tour group or on your own.

How does the U.S. government know if I took part in educational activities?

The government has up to five years to ask you for proof. If you go as part of a tour group with operations based out of the United States, it is up to the tour operator to keep a log of your activities.

If you're traveling on your own, it is still unclear what individuals who are not part of organized tours are to do. Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, suggests you keep a log and take pictures of your educational activities until guidelines are set. And keep all receipts, including those for your hotel and flight.

Is there a penalty if all I do is partake in tourist activities?

Yes. The civil penalty process is administered by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. According to Doug Jacobson, a sanctions lawyer with Jacobson Burton Kelley in Washington, D.C., the OFAC can refer the individual traveler to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, "although that is rare, at least for individual travelers."

The maximum penalty is $84,000 but it is "usually mitigated and settled, ranging from a warning letter to $1,000 to $2,000," Jacobson said.

I hear that the Cuban military operates the hotel industry there and is supported through the profits. Is this true?

Yes, but with a caveat.

Gaviota, which operates hotels throughout the island nation, is a subsidiary of GAESA, a Cuban military holding company, explained Arturo Lopez Levy, a policy analyst for the Cuban government from 1992 to 1994 who is now a guest lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

But Levy said not all profits are used for the Cuban arsenal. And by most standards, Cuba does not have a powerful military.

Most of the profits go to services like military pensions, military hospitals that civilians can use, or even to state-run farms.

And remember, Lopez Levy said, "The employees at these hotels are civilians, and those jobs help them. You will not see military working there."

Still, not all Cuban hotels are connected to the military, so if you want to avoid military-affiliated establishments, visit gaviota-grupo.com to find out which ones are owned by Gaviota.

Cuba has a growing segment of international investors that operate hotels.

And families have converted portions of their homes into inns and bed and breakfasts, or they simply rent out an extra bedroom. These options can be found through Airbnb or travel agents.

Can I book hotel rooms online?

Yes and no, said John Kavulich, president of New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

It is still illegal for Americans to engage in most commercial transactions with Cuba unless licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

You can prepay for your stay directly at the Four Points Sheraton Havana with an American credit card, since it is managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, based out of Connecticut.

But you will need to use a third-party to pay in advance for hotels that are not American operated.

There are an increasing number of U.S. travel companies specializing in Cuba licensed to perform that function, such as those referenced in this Q&A.

Any other advice about booking online?

Vicente Amor, vice executive president of Tampa-based ASC International USA, also warns you should use caution when booking a hotel online, because the transaction may violate U.S. policy.

Since many of these websites are based in other countries, payments by Americans to Cuba are not certified by the Treasury Department, as U.S. law stipulates.

"People can get in trouble for that," Amor said.

Some Cuban hotels will allow you to reserve a room online with a credit card, but they won't be able to process the transaction. So you will have to pay when you arrive, likely with cash.

Wait, why? I can't use credit cards in Cuba?

You can, but only two American credit cards are accepted in Cuba: Stonegate Bank and Banco Popular de Puerto Rico.

You have to physically go to a Stonegate branch to open an account and receive a debit card for use in Cuba. There is a branch location in Tampa.

A credit card can be obtained at stonegatebank.com and does not require the applicant to come to the bank.

Stonegate CEO Dave Seleski told the Times his bank now has 800 ATMs in Cuba.

U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council's Kavulich expects NatBank of Florida to soon announce a MasterCard that can be used in Cuba.

However, Insight Cuba's Popper warned that credit card service remains spotty in Cuba and ATMs could be out of service or money.

So, again, bring enough cash to last the duration of your trip.

Can I use American money in Cuba?

No. You will have to exchange it for the Cuban currency called the CUC, and there is a 13 percent tariff charged to American dollars.

Most hotels can exchange money for you.

Carlson of Carlson Maritime Travel suggests you exchange some at the airport if you are taking a cab to your hotel.

"Otherwise you'll have to run into the hotel and exchange the money to pay the taxi driver," Carlson said. "Suddenly a $10 cab fare will run up to $15 or even $20."

Are there rental cars?

Yes, but there are no American rental car companies in Cuba right now, which means you cannot directly book one from the United States.

So, just as you need a middleman like a licensed travel agent or website to book a hotel room in most of Cuba, you need one to rent a car in advance.

Or you can hope to find one after you arrive in Cuba. But Cuba Executive Travel's Reno warns that rental cars are in high demand and short supply.

What about connecting with my friends and family back home? Is there Internet? Can I use my cellphone?

Yes, to both. So far, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon offer service in Cuba. Check with your provider on fees, but it is not cheap. Calls typically cost between $2 and $3 a minute, texts around 50 cents and data around $2 per megabyte.

Major hotels have Internet. Some provide it to guests for free. Others charge around $10 per hour.

Remember that much of Cuba uses the rounded, two-pin outlets found in much of Europe for electrical devices. So bring along an adapter to be safe.

Are there apps I can use to help me find good restaurants, bars or live entertainment?

Insight Cuba's Popper said there may be a few but he is only aware of one: Havana Good Time. Once downloaded it does not need Internet service.

What I really want to know about are Cuban cigars. Are they better and how many can I bring back?

Whether they are the best in the world as Cuba advertises is up to you to decide. As for how many you can bring back to the United States with you, there is no limit.

What does a box of Cuban cigars cost?

That depends on the brand. Typically, a box can range from $125 to $250, but some brands are even pricier.

I've never been to a nation with a looming military presence everywhere. Is it scary?

What military presence?

That is a common American misconception about the island nation, said Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Standard, an online publication based out of Sarasota that follows Cuban business.

You won't see armed soldiers or military jeeps on every corner. In fact, unless you visit the Museum of the Revolution in Havana to watch the changing of the guard at the eternal flame, you might not see any military presence.

"We do see police but this is quite a civil presence," Werner said. "There is no comparison to traveling over land in say, Mexico or Colombia, where you are constantly facing military frisking and stops."

Should I avoid debating Cubans about politics?

Not at all. Go for it.

"Cubans certainly want to. Everybody speaks out," Werner said with a chuckle. "Nobody shuts up."

Is there a U.S. Embassy in Cuba?

Yes. It is located in Havana. The contact number is (+53) 7839-4100 should you need their assistance.

I don't know any Spanish. Is that a problem?

Organized tour groups will have a bilingual guide and the touristy spots typically have someone who can speak some English. But it helps to be able to speak at least some Spanish when visiting a Spanish-speaking nation, Werner said.

Finally, how early should I get to the airport when leaving Cuba?

Three to four hours before your flight departs, said Insight Cuba's Popper, because the airports are still understaffed and underequipped.

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A typical box of Cuban cigars costs from $125 to $250 or more. A previous version of this story misstated the price range.

Traveling to Cuba? This Q&A has info on visas, credit cards, hotels and how not to run afoul of U.S. law 10/21/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2016 12:17pm]
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