Category: how to

The really easy way to get free access to some of the best lounges in the world for at least a year

The really easy way to get free access to some of the best lounges in the world for at least a year

At one point in my life, I used to think that airport lounges were only for business travelers who flew every week, and figured it was something I would probably never get to experience.

I finally did get to experience my first airport lounge several years ago, when I was able to use one of the lounge passes that came with my United MileagePlus Explorer card to experience the Singapore Airlines lounge at the Taipei-Taoyuan airport. (I would not actually recommend applying for the card through that link, as there are routinely higher offers of 50,000 miles).

Unfortunately, having two lounge passes a year with limited use wasn’t really going to cut it with my travel schedule.

Thankfully, I discovered the American Express Platinum Card from Ameriprise. Now, some of you may have heard of the AMEX Platinum Card before, given its reputation as a fancy, high-end card. But you may have been turned off by the annual fee of $450. Luckily there are several different types of Platinum cards, and the Ameriprise-branded one does not come with an annual fee the first year (and despite the terms and conditions saying otherwise, you do not need to have an Ameriprise account to be eligible for one).

Now, the Platinum Card is awesome for many reasons, but let’s focus on the lounge access for this post. With the card, you get access to:

All American Express Centurion Lounges, which have kitchens run by high-end chefs that will prepare buffets with amazing gourmet food (like the braised chicken and other items below, from the lounge in Las Vegas), and a bar with incredible mixed drinks.

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All Priority Pass lounges, a global network of over 900 lounges in most major airports in the world, including 13 of the top 15 airports in the US (sorry Denver and Charlotte). Now, to be fair, these generally aren’t as nice as the Centurion lounges, and can vary widely in quality. The Priority Pass lounge at the Seymour Airport in the Galapagos consists of just a couch with free chips, coffee, and juice (though the fact that this airport even had a lounge was shocking to me). On the other hand, the Airport Wellness Oasis Lounge at Singapore’s Changi Airport offers complimentary fish spa massages (definitely try it if you haven’t) in addition to a wide range of food and drink. But for the most part, a Priority Pass Lounge will usually give you complimentary soft drinks, juices and certain alcoholic drinks, hot and cold food that doesn’t require much preparation, and free wi-fi (like the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX pictured below). And even the most limited lounges are still often better than the noise of the airport terminal where nothing is free.

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All Delta Sky Clubsif you’re flying Delta. Out of the three major US carriers (United, American, and Delta), I find that Delta generally has the best lounges. Again, they’re no Centurion Lounge, but they’re generally very modern, clean, and offer a decent selection of food and drink. (I’m quite excited to try the one at JFK next week which has a roof deck).

All Airspace loungesa weird network of four fairly subpar lounges at SAN (San Diego), JFK (New York), BWI (Baltimore-Washington), and CLE (Cleveland). When you enter, they give you a $10 credit that you can use, as nothing is free. The one at the San Diego Airport is nice enough, especially as you can watch planes taking off, but I’d avoid the one at JFK in favor of the much nicer Priority Pass lounges there in other terminals.

 

Now as you may have noticed in the title, I said “at least a year” of free access. Yes, if you hold on to the card for more than a year, you will be billed a $450 annual fee. However, one of the other benefits of the Platinum card is that you get $200 in airline credit per calendar year (i.e. if you get it now, you would get $200 now, then be eligible for $200 again on January 1). So if you spend at least $400 on airfare per year, the annual fee almost pays for itself the next year (though actually getting the credit can be a complicated process with very specific requirements, well-detailed on FlyerTalk). On top of that, you get a $100 one-time Global Entry credit, which is also good for TSA PreCheck. Essentially, you have no annual fee the first year and $500 of benefits, which will more than cancel out the annual fee the next year. Not a bad deal. And once you start regularly flying with TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and frequent lounge, you’ll realize you don’t dread airports as much as you used to, and it might be hard to go back to old ways.

 

One important caveat though is that other than the Centurion and Airspace lounges, you will have to pay for any guests you bring with you to the Priority Pass lounges. If you regularly travel with guests (like a family) and want to make sure they can also get in for free, you might want to consider the Citi Prestige card, which allows you up to two guests for free (or more if family) at all Priority Pass lounges and American Airlines Admirals Clubs if you and the guests are flying American. Of course, it is good for many other reasons too.

 

Have a question about something? Feel free to email me or post in the comments.

 

Pictured above: The Virgin America Loft at LAX, a lounge which looks very nice, but overall lacks substance.

Everything you need to know to go to Tibet

Everything you need to know to go to Tibet

Last summer, I continued my trend of going to off-the-beaten-path places and visited Tibet, an amazing place that feels as far away as you can get from China,from a political, geographical, scenic, and cultural standpoint.

However, since the defeat of the Tibetan army in 1950, Tibet has been considered part of the People’s Republic of China, albeit as an autonomous region, despite continuous pleas for independence. Furthermore, it’s no secret that China has been actively trying to erode Tibetan culture at the expense of human rights and make it more in line with the rest of Chinese culture. And herein comes the difficulties with visiting it.

Note: This is not intended to be a guide to what to see in Tibet or an overview of attractions; this will come at a later point.

Booking a Tour

Unless you’re a Chinese citizen, you will be required to visit Tibet as part of a tour. While there is no official resource (that I know of) that lists all Tibet tour operators, you should of course research any organization before booking with one, and try to find one actually based in Tibet, rather than outside of Tibet (in order to ensure more money goes to the Tibetan people).

I booked with Budget Tibet Tour as their price was affordable and had good reviews. The tour was $780 (not including tips), included a Tibet visa (mandatory to fly into Tibet), lodging, guides, national park entry fees, and transportation. Food was not included. Unlike certain other countries, you will have a fair amount of independence and freedom, as you will be free to roam around and explore at night, and be given a time and place to meet the next morning. Obviously, like any guided tour, the sky is the limit for cost, depending on how luxurious you want it to be.

Getting there

While your tour company will often offer to take care of this for you, it is far cheaper to handle it yourself. You basically have two options: take a train there, or fly there. Though I can’t speak from personal experience, if time is not an issue, the train is supposed to be an incredible experience, and you can say that you’ve been on the highest railway in the world (so much that they will pipe in oxygen during high altitudes). The only downside is that it can take up to 48 hours from many major cities in China.

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For those of you on a tighter schedule, you will want to fly into Lhasa Airport (LXA). As the only major carriers flying here are Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, your route will most likely be either on Star Alliance or SkyTeam (sorry oneworld!) The good news is that Air China always has a plethora of award seats available, so if you have United miles (or miles with another Star Alliance carrier), it’s actually not too hard to book an award flight here, as I did last year.

Getting a Chinese Visa

As Tibet is legally part of the People’s Republic of China, you will also need a Chinese visa (assuming your country of citizenship requires it). However, if you’ve done this before (but now have an expired visa), it may be a little more difficult this time. Typically when getting a visa for China (or any other country requiring a visa), the process is to fill out an application, attach proof of airfare and lodging, and give or send it to your closest embassy/consulate.

But when it comes to Tibet, China does not want to encourage Tibet tourism, and therefore if you put Tibet on your China visa application, it will most likely be denied. Therefore, I would strongly recommend booking a fully refundable ticket to somewhere (else) in China, printing out the confirmation, and then canceling your reservation (if you don’t want to put that much on your credit card at once, as refundable tickets can be quite expensive, you can also cancel a nonrefundable for free within 24 hours of booking your ticket if you book on a US-based carrier). You can then do the same for hotel lodging.

Money

Tibet is part of China, and therefore uses the RMB. Major banks and ATMs can be found in bigger cities like Lhasa, less so in other parts. Credit cards are not very widely accepted.

Language

As you will be with a guide for most of the tour, you will also have a translator for all your needs. While older residents only speak Tibetan (a fairly difficult language to learn which will not have much use to you otherwise, though the alphabet will help slightly in Bhutan), younger residents also can speak Mandarin, and if you can speak a little Mandarin, you will be able to converse slightly with local residents. Very little English is spoken, and even tour guides’ English can be difficult to understand at times.

Politics/Sensitive Topics

Avoid discussing any of the following topics with your tour guides: Tibetan independence, political status of Tibet, exile of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government, the relationship between the Chinese government and Tibet, decreased human rights for the Tibetan people, and so on. The police state is even more prevalent in Tibet than in the rest of China, and if you ask about one of these topics, at best you will get nervous laughter from your guide, at worst, a stern lecture. Many guides are constantly operating under the assumption that the Chinese government is monitoring them, and they can be severely punished for speaking out.

Health/Safety

As is often the case with police states, there is practically no risk of any violent crime happening to you. On top of this, Tibetan people are among the friendliest in the world, and are thrilled to have non-Chinese visitors (and may constantly ask to take photographs). Your bigger concern is the air. And I don’t mean air quality, which would normally be a concern in many other parts of China. Rather, Tibetan air is incredibly pure and clean. The issue here is elevation. When you land in Lhasa, you’ll be at an elevation of 11,710 feet, and regularly be at elevations far higher than that throughout your trip. If you have any breathing issues whatsoever (such as asthma), bring all necessary medication and more. On top of that, it may be a good idea to buy some of the canned air sold at most stores in Lhasa in case of an emergency. Be careful of doing anything that exerts too much physical effort at once; I had to catch my breath after 15 seconds of playing soccer with some kids in town.

Food

Most restaurants serve traditional Tibetan cuisine, though there are some restaurants serving Sichuan, Nepalese, and Indian cuisines, all reflecting their proximity to Tibet. Yak meat is especially prominent in Tibetan cuisine, though thanks to the Buddhist influence, it’s not impossible to get by as a vegetarian. What will be hard is if you only like eating “Western” food, as there is very little Western influence or restaurants in Tibet (though there are some knockoff versions of popular Western snacks sold in stores). Make sure to try butter tea at least once! Most meals will cost around $5-$6 USD.

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Fried yak momos (dumplings)

So is Tibet for you? If you don’t mind getting out of your comfort zone, sacrificing some of your autonomy and exploring somewhere that doesn’t have the amenities you may be used to (but has more than enough culture, history, and beauty to make up for it), then yes. And more importantly, you may walk away being able to say you’ve seen a Tibetan mastiff in Tibet!

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Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Well, in short, my answer would be to go to Abisko National Park in northern Sweden. It’s often touted as the best place in the world to see them, and having seen them two of the three nights I was there, it’s easy to see why.

But moreso, after seeing them again this past week in Iceland, I wanted to take some time to go into what makes certain places good place to see the northern lights, and other places not as good.

In addition to going at the right time of year, there are three things you need: clear skies, little to no light pollution, and to be sufficiently north. The more you maximize each of these, the better your chances are.


How north is “north enough?”

While it’s not unheard of to see the northern lights from the northern United States or the United Kingdom if aurora activity is unusually high, you generally want to be above 61 degrees latitude. In other words, you’ll need to go to one of the following countries: United States (Alaska only), Canada, Denmark (Greenland or Faroe Islands only), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Russia.

How little light pollution do I need?

In general, this will not be a huge concern, as there just aren’t that many major cities that far north. I am mostly mentioning this so that you don’t book a trip to Iceland and stay in Reykjavik the whole time (which would be a huge mistake for other reasons too, considering how many beautiful sights there are to see outside of Reykjavik). If you are staying in Reykjavik (or another major city) on a night when there is a good chance of them being visible, it might not hurt to get out of the city while the sun I setting and wait for the lights in a more remote area. However…

If you see them, just sit back and enjoy them, rather than focus on getting to the best possible location

Hopefully, you’ve done everything you can to get as far away from city lights and cloudy skies as possible. But it’s possible that you may be in an area where part of the sky is still cloudy and/or there’s still some light pollution, and you still see them. While it may be tempting to get in the car and drive to a better location so that you can get an even better display, you can’t always count on the northern lights to wait for you. When I recently saw them in downtown Akureyri, Iceland (admittedly not much of a downtown given that the population is only 18,000), I thought I had the best idea ever by driving to an outdoor hot tub in a neighboring town with far less light pollution. Though it did provide me with the surreal experience of driving “into” the northern lights, by the time I got all settled into the hot tub, they were barely visible.  Furthermore, capturing the northern lights over the roof of a house, or with a city’s landmarks in the background can often make for more unique pictures.

How do I know if I’ll have clear skies three months in advance? (or however far in advance you plan your trip)

You won’t. But most places generally have a predictable weather patter (though this is definitely getting less and less certain now that we’re seeing the impacts of global warming). But there is enough information on the internet about the winter weather of all potential northern lights viewing spots that you should be able to get a general sense. The more varied the weather is, the longer you’re going to want to stay. People associate Iceland with the northern lights more than probably anywhere else (in part because of their very successful marketing campaign to make it into a tourist destination, after its previous attempt to be successful by becoming a global financial capital failed), but the reality is that while Iceland is an amazing country with otherworldly sites everywhere you look, its frequent turbulent weather does not make it a great place to see the northern lights, and I would recommend going for at least seven nights if you want to see them there.

 

When to see them

Though they can occasionally be seen in August or April, a general rule is to go sometime between the fall equinox (September 21) and spring equinox (March 21). I also wouldn’t recommend going too far after the fall equinox or too far before the spring equinox for two reasons: first, auroral activity tends to be strongest closest to the equinox, and also because if you go up to the Arctic region in mid-December, you should be prepared to enjoy nothing but darkness, as the sun is only up for a few hours every day.

Once I’m there, how do I know if they have a good chance of coming out that night?

To know how far south you can see the Northern Lights, you’ll want to rely on something called the kp index, which is explained better on this page than I ever could. The higher up you are, the lower kp index you need. Given that the kp index usually doesn’t get much higher than 3, this is why it’s a good idea to be above 61 degrees latitude. Furthermore, it might help to consult a weather forecast to see where there might be the best skies.

What to look for

If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is the northern lights, then you’re not seeing the northern lights. Trust me, you’ll know. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be looking for something exactly like you see in the pictures. The camera tends to pick up more green than the human eye can, so it may appear to be a more faint green.

How to capture them

I’m by no means a photography expert, but from my experiences with other people who are, you will first need a high-quality camera where you can adjust exposure settings (sorry, your cell phone camera, no matter how good it is, will not pick them up). Set the camera up on a tripod pointing at the northern lights (either with or without you in the picture), and use an exposure of 30 to 60 seconds (yes, this can mean standing still in the cold for very long).

What about booking a guided tour?

No! That’s why I’m writing this post! No need!  Save your money!

 

While it’s OK to make the northern lights the primary reason for your trip, don’t make it the only reason. No matter how much you do to maximize your chances, there is no way to guarantee 100% that they will come out. Moreover, there often tends to be an inverse correlation between how good an area is for seeing the northern lights, and how much there is to do in the area. In other words, when you’re not chasing auroras, there’s not a whole lot else to do. So before you book a trip to a remote Arctic town, maybe first look into stopping off at a big city a little bit south, then catching a plane/train/bus (or driving) up North.

While I of course would have been disappointed had I not seen them when I went to Sweden last year, even if they never came out, I still had a great time exploring Stockholm.  On the other hand, on my most recent Iceland trip, my primary goal was not to see the Northern Lights;  as I mentioned above, it is generally not one of the better places to see the Northern Lights due to its unpredictable weather. I planned many other activities to experience the beauty of Iceland, and while I did end up seeing them twice in the eight nights I was there, I still would have had a great trip without having seen them.

I’m not going to have a chance to see them for a while; is there a way I can live vicariously through people who are much further north?

I would recommend following the live webcam from the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park.

 

Other questions? Have your own tips that I forgot, or your own northern lights experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments or email me.

 

Photo credit: David Tse

“How did you get into North Korea?” and other frequently asked questions about visiting the most isolated country in the world

“How did you get into North Korea?” and other frequently asked questions about visiting the most isolated country in the world

Several years ago, I went to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of a guided tour to see what it was really like. It was an absolutely eye-opening experience, which I’m going to be chronicling here the next few weeks, but before getting into that, I thought I’d answer some questions I frequently get asked about it.

“Isn’t it illegal for you to go? How did you get in?”

While the US State Department recommends against traveling there, it is not illegal for US Citizens to go to North Korea (or anywhere, now that the Cuba policy has changed). There are a handful of tour agencies authorized by the North Korean government, and you must go with one of them. I went with KTG tours and had a great time, but to be honest, there is not much difference between the tours given that the government has most of the say in what’s on the tour, and chooses the tour guides. I mostly chose this particular one because the dates worked well for me. If you do a Google search for North Korea tours, you should be able to find a variety of companies with different tour packages.

Note that if you are a journalist, it will be much more difficult to get in (though not impossible). If you are a South Korean citizen, you are not allowed to go. If you are only of South Korean descent, you are allowed to go, though you might face additional scrutiny.

“But will having a North Korea stamp in my passport ruin future travel for me?”

Your passport will not be stamped (though you might have to explain a quick stay in China).

“Will going there prevent my from getting Global Entry/make me lose Global Entry?”

Not as long as you’re honest. Though it’s unlikely they could have found out had I not, I was truthful about all the countries I had been to when applying for Global Entry, and was still approved.

“OK, so how do I go?”

If you’re a US citizen, you must fly in from Beijing. You are responsible for getting to Beijing; your tour package will include roundtrip airfare between Beijing and Pyongyang. Note that you cannot stay for more than 24 hours in China without a visa. If you are not a US citizen, you can take the train in from Dandong, China. Your tour group will also handle all North Korea visa requirements in advance.

“How much is it?”

My three-night, four-day tour was about $1200 excluding tips; if you want to go for longer, it can easily be several thousand. And this does not include airfare to Beijing.

“But what does that include?”

All of the essentials – lodging, transportation, food, admissions to everywhere. This does not include tips, alcoholic beverages, souvenirs, or a la carte special food orders (like dog meat).

“But why should I go? Is it for me?”

If you want to experience somewhere unlike nowhere else you’ve ever been to before, then yes. If you want to relax, then no. If you like traveling independently and doing your own thing, then no.

“But is it safe? What about all those people I see on TV they hold hostage?”

North Korea is unequivocally the safest place I have ever traveled to if you follow all the rules. The problem is that the rules are often very draconian and different from any where else you’ve ever been. Stay with your group at all times, don’t take pictures unless you’re allowed to, don’t criticize the government, don’t talk about religion, don’t bring in anything you’re supposed to, and so on. This will be drilled into your head before you get there, and when you get there, and will be very hard to forget.

On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about being a victim of any sort of crime – it’s the type of place where you could leave your wallet in the middle of the main square and it would be there the next day untouched. As is the case with most authoritarian governments, when punishments for even minor crimes are so horrendous, people tend not to commit them.

“But what about that American student I just saw on TV who got sentenced 15 years of hard labor?”

If you have a hard time following rules that are very explicitly conveyed to you, and/or you don’t see anything wrong with stealing, an authoritarian regime is probably not the place for you to be visiting.

“How’s the food?”

Some was very good, some was not very good. I would not recommend going solely for the food, as it is much easier to go to South Korea, and the food will be similar.

“Do I need to know Korean?” 

No, both of your tour guides will know English. However, knowing a little bit of Korean (or going with someone who does) will make it more interesting.

“When’s the best time of year to go?”

While I did not get to see them, the annual Mass Games are quite a spectacle, and I have heard great things about going while they are occurring. Otherwise, keep in mind that North Korea is pretty far north (sharing even a small border with Russia), and it will get cold in winter.

“Will my cellphone work?” 

No, unless you buy a North Korean sim card. I would not recommend putting anything from the North Korean government in your phone. There have been rumors of being able to obtain a signal from South Korea when near the DMZ.

“Will I have internet?”

Unlikely

“What should I do about money?”

The Euro, dollar, and RMB are all accepted there, though debit/credit cards are not.

So what was it like?”

You can read all about it: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

 

 

How to go to Cuba (if you’re an American citizen)

How to go to Cuba (if you’re an American citizen)

Even before President Obama announced the gradual lifting of the travel ban with Cuba, it had already been high on my list of places to see. Once this news was announced, it became even more of a priority to get there as soon as I could, before it would likely be forever changed by American tourism.

As part of my around-the-world trip last summer, I did indeed make it to Cuba, and it was everything I hoped for – a beautiful country tragically stuck in the past behind an outdated authoritarian government, but so rich in culture, with incredibly friendly people, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, a vibrant music scene, and of course many gorgeous old cars.

But while I eventually plan to write about my trip itself, and all of the things to do in Cuba, this post is going to more focus on how to go to Cuba, as both before and after Obama’s announcement, there has been a fair amount of confusion about the process. (And if you’re visiting this blog from another country, you’re welcome to follow along, but the below might not be of much use to you).

First though, let me caution that if you’re just looking for a Caribbean getaway on the beach where you can sip mojitos all-day at an all-inclusive resort, I would not recommend going to Cuba, as you can do the same thing for far cheaper and with less logistical hassles at any number of Caribbean islands on better terms with the US (and to clarify, I don’t have anything against these types of vacations; I have done them in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica and had tons of fun). In short, you should be going to Cuba if you’re more curious to experience a completely different culture than you’ve ever been to.

However, as general tourism is still not legal, there are still a few steps to take first. So what are the different ways to go?

First, there is what’s known as a people-to-people tour. This is by far the easiest way to go, as everything is taken care of, but also the most expensive, with costs running around $5,000 for a one-week tour, with everything included except getting to Miami (or wherever you’re flying in from). Before Obama’s announcement, this was the only legal way for most people to go to Cuba, and the announcement did not directly affect people to people tours, though it’s expected that it might cause a decline in their popularity with there now being cheaper ways to go.  Only a handful of tour operators have a license to operate these kinds of tours, and they explicitly have to be for “cultural or educational reasons” (i.e. not tourism). I’m not going to spend any more time getting into these, as a $5,000 one-week tour doesn’t really have a place on a budget travel blog, but you’re more than welcome to do further research on your own if this for some reason interests you.

The second way, which was the most impacted by Obama’s announcement, is to go under  a general license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). While this used to be a very onerous, drawn out application process, now all one needs to do is claim that they are going under one of the following categories (from the OFAC web site):

 

  • 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
  • Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firms

 

What’s unclear, however, is how (if at all), this will be enforced. While I haven’t seen reports of people facing problems for their trip not complying with their stated reason, it would probably be a good idea to keep as much documentation as possible that supports your reason. If you are feeling super paranoid however, you can still go through the formal application process.

The last way is to just go. Contrary to popular belief, the restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba come 100% from the American side. Cuba has no problem with Americans visiting, and will welcome them with open arms (well, almost. I was sternly instructed at immigration to not smile for my picture). While a Cuba passport stamp (if they even stamp it) theoretically could present issues when re-entering America, this is rare provided no import laws are being broken, and can be totally avoided if you have Global Entry. In this case, all you have to do is find a flight (albeit through a third contry).

 

Finding nonstop flights from the US

There used to be very limited charter service to Cuba from US airports (mostly Miami) prior to Obama’s announcement; since the announcement, far more airlines have added flights, as you can now fly there nonstop from as far away as Los Angeles. Given that the Havana Airport website isn’t very up-to-date, I instead recommend using Wikipedia for the most up-to-date list of charter flights. These are not bookable with the airline though; instead, a small number of other charter companies (ABC Charters is one of the most popular ones) handle the booking; if you are interested in a particular route, the airline will generally be able to redirect you to the appropriate authority to contact. You will have to sign an affidavit that you are going for one of the stated reasons.

That being said, charter flights tend to be quite expensive for the distance; roundtrip airfare from Miami to Havana (less than 100 miles each way) can run around $500-$600, while other destinations can be as high as $800-$900, and often only run a few times a week. (There are also a few charter flights into cities other than Havana, such as Santiago, but these tend to be even more expensive).

On top of that, you won’t earn any miles on these flights. Instead, you might be better off…

Finding flights with connections from the US

While I know in the past I’ve touted the benefits of ITA Matrix, it still does not allow you to search for flights to Havana from the US. For this, you are probably better off using KAYAK, which recently started to allow these searches (though you will have to book with the airline directly).

And while you will save a little money as well as be able to earn frequent flyer miles, it still won’t be cheap. Casually at dates over the next few months on KAYAK, the lowest I saw was a crazy itinerary for $689 which it found on Skypicker (which I also wrote about earlier) requiring me to fly from San Francisco to Denver on Virgin America, Denver to Cancun on Frontier, then Cancun to Havana on Interjet. If I were only flying as far as Cancun, it would be $300 less.

While I’ve found that KAYAK is the best search engine for flights to Cuba, it still isn’t perfect, and therefore if you have time, you might want to play around yourself with finding flights to airports near Havana (Cancun is a popular departure point), and then separately searching for flights between that airport and Havana.

If you have frequent flyer miles with a non-US airline (or the ability to transfer in frequent flyer miles to a non-US airline), this is a great way to save money, and this is how I booked my flight, using Luftansa Miles and More miles to book a one-way flight from Panama to Havana, and then Avianca LifeMiles to book a one-way flight from Havana to Quito via Bogota. E-mail me if you want to know more.

So do I need to go as part of a tour?

While you legally need to be going for one of the 12 reasons specified earlier, it does not have to be as part of a tour. However, unless you’re extremely fluent in Spanish, I would highly recommend a tour, and would even recommend one if you are.

Though Cuba is an amazing place to visit, it is still very much behind the times when it comes to technology, and things you might take for granted when booking trips to other non-English speaking countries (like lodging, transport, etc.) will be much tougher here, given the almost complete lack of internet access. Going with a local bilingual tour guide will take care of all these hassles. Furthermore, if you ever know anyone who’s come back from Cuba talking about how the food is terrible, it’s likely because they only at at the awful state-owned restaurants. Instead, you’ll want to make sure you eat at the private-owned paladars (in people’s homes), but the good ones can often be hard to find (such as knowing to pull off the highway at a certain kilometer marking), and a local guide will help you avoid being ripped off.

I would strongly strongly recommend Cuban Adventures, which offer 8-day tours including transport and lodging for just over $600 (plus tips to guides). It’s a budget tour where you’ll be staying in people’s houses and traveling by van, but hopefully you can put aside your needs for luxury for just a week. My guide spoke perfect English and Spanish, and I learned quite a lot about Cuban culture that I never would have known if I were on my own. If you mention that I referred you, you can also get a discount. The featured photo in the post was taken at a beachside barbecue that our guide organized for us where he invited his friends to cook fresh fish and play music for us; it really felt like I was seeing the country with a friend, rather than on a tour.

Lodging

As I mentioned earlier, I booked a tour group that took care of all this for me. However, if you are doing it yourself, you’ll want to stay in casa particulares (or people’s houses). Unfortunately, there is no centralized portal for listings; you will have to do some research on Google to find them and contact them directly. Airbnb has recently expanded into Cuba, but they tend to be far more expensive. You can of course book with some of the nicer hotels too, but unless you’re one of those people who always needs the finest things in life, I would recommend staying at someone’s home.

Getting Around

Again, as I booked through a tour company, I didn’t need to worry about this. Car rental tends to be very expensive in Cuba, and bus service might be a better option if you have reasonably good Spanish. While I generally would not recommend this in most countries, the hitchhiking culture in Cuba is very strong and extremely safe, and there are even people hired by the government to help find rides for hitchhikers in need.

 

Money

Cuba has two currencies in effect: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is pegged to the US dollar at 1:1, and is primarily used by tourists (and accepted at tourist-friendly places), and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is primarily used by locals and roughly runs roughly 25:1 against the dollar. While you might be able to politely ask for, trade for, or maybe buy CUPs from locals, non-residents can only legally obtain CUCs.

While this hopefully will change soon, American debit cards are generally not accepted at Cuban ATMs, so you’ll need to exchange money upon arrival. Given that there is an automatic 10% fee added when converting US dollars, you will save money by bringing a foreign currency in and then exchanging that money (if you’re transiting a third country, pull out money at an ATM at that country’s airport). And as you likely will not have any access to your bank account or credit cards while you’re there, be conservative and bring more money than you need, as once you have exchanged all the money you’ve brought, you will not be able to get more money.

Visas

All you will need to enter Cuba is a tourist visa that you should be able to purchase from your airline for $20 USD. Note that you will also need to pay $25 CUCs as a departure tax.

Cellphones

Won’t work here (yet), sorry

Internet

Occasionally, you can get internet using the Wi-Fi from very nice hotels, but for the most part, you’re going to be relegated to paying $6-$9 an hour at internet cafes. In other words, prepare for some time without it.

 

 

As I mentioned, this post is only meant to be about the logistical issues in getting to Cuba, not a guide to what to do in Cuba, which I’ll post about later.

 

Other questions? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments.