Considering a cruise to Cuba? If it seems like every cruise line is now sailing to Cuba, it’s because most of them are. The Caribbean island nation has been making headlines lately as control of its government shifts from the Castro regime (Fidel, and since 2008, his brother Raul) to its new president Miguel Diaz-Canel). What’s more, travel restrictions put into effect by the U.S. government in November 2017 (after they were eased in 2015 by former President Obama) mean there are many can’t-do’s for Americans visiting Cuba — namely staying at government-affiliated hotels, purchasing from prohibited stores or paying with credit cards — which has made cruising more logistically sensible than ever before. But because there are so many options, here are seven things to consider before you book a cruise to Cuba.
Which cruise lines are offering Cuba Itineraries?
There’s a Cuba cruise for every style and budget, from a long-weekend sailing to Havana priced from $399 per person, to a more immersive seven-to-10-night itinerary to several Cuba ports offering insights on history and culture and costing more than $3,000 per person. If you’re looking to book a Cuba cruise, check out the following sailings.
For a quick getaway: Norwegian offers four-night sailings to Havana from Miami on Norwegian Sky and from Port Canaveral on Norwegian Sun that include a free open bar onboard. Royal Caribbean has four- and five-night cruises from Miami on Empress of the Seas that also visit Nassau or Key West as well as four-night itineraries from Tampa on Majesty of the Seas that also call on Key West or Cozumel. Carnival Paradise is cruising four-night Cuba-only itineraries and five-night Cuba and Key West or Cozumel itineraries from Tampa, while Carnival Sensation is sailing five-night cruises from Miami that also call on Nassau or Grand Turk. Azamara Journey will also sail several four-night Cuba cruises from Miami in 2019.
For a more immersive visit: Viking Ocean Cruises has seven-night "Cultural Cuba" cruises in November 2018 and January and February 2019 from Miami that call on Cienfuegos (with an an overnight hotel stay in Havana) and Santiago de Cuba, while Azamara Journey is sailing 9- and 10-night itineraries from Miami in late 2018 and early 2019 that call on Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Oceania Sirena and Oceania Insignia cruise a half dozen 7- to 10-night itineraries from Miami that visit all three Cuban cities. And Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas calls on multiple Cuba ports on its seven-night sailings from Miami.
For a longer Caribbean cruise that includes Cuba: Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America and MSC offer seven-night cruises from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa that call on Havana in addition to two or three other Caribbean ports, such as Grand Cayman, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Cozumel and Nassau. Havana has also been added as a port of call on some of these cruise lines' 14-night Caribbean sailings.
What do you need to do to get a visa before your cruise?
All Americans will need a passport (valid for at least six months beyond your cruise date). They must also secure a tourist visa by filling out a Travel Certification document before boarding any ship; the cruise lines facilitate this during the booking process and you'll be given your visa when you board.
Where will your ship dock?
Havana? Maybe and maybe not. Most cruise lines have received permission to dock at the capital's small cruise terminal. But some (such as Viking) call solely on the island's other cities, namely Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. You'll still get to see Havana, but it will be a bus ride away.
How much time will you actually get to spend in port?
This varies greatly, so look over the cruise itinerary — which port or ports the ship visits and how long it will be there — before you book.
Technically your visa covers you as part of a "people-to-people" educational visit, which means you'll need to be on a guided tour with a shore excursion ticket or a reservation with a third-party tour by a U.S. sponsoring organization to clear Cuban customs for the first time. You will, however, be given free time to wander during excursions and might have time to explore a bit more before re-boarding your ship.
Will you get to experience Havana at night?
To truly appreciate this historic city, you'll want to experience it at night — including, perhaps an evening at the legendary Tropicana nightclub. Some cruise lines are just in Havana for eight to 10 hours, but many Oceania, Azamara and Norwegian ships (as well as select Royal Caribbean and Carnival vessels) spend the night, while Viking includes an overnight hotel excursion to Havana (from Cienfuegos) on all of its itineraries.
What can you bring back to the U.S.?
Cuban cigars and rum, of course. You'll be able to bring up to 100 cigars and a liter of rum home (within the $800 customs limit or you'll pay duty tax). Just purchase them at an authorized retailer and bring enough cash (U.S. dollars can be exchanged in port for CUCs, or Cuban Convertible Pesos, although dollars are often accepted). Artwork and handicrafts are other popular souvenirs.