I noticed in an article in yesterday’s Washington Post that a Cuban American Congresswoman has objected to some new tours planned by the Smithsonian Institution:
“In a blistering press release, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said the Smithsonian was helping what she called “the deplorable Havana tyranny” by sponsoring trips to Cuba. The objections of Ros-Lehtinen, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were first reported in Tuesday’s online editions of The Hill. The Smithsonian has a travel division, Smithsonian Journeys, which does not receive federal funds, and sponsors trips in the U.S. and around the world.”
This made me curious about yet another highly respected organization entering the Cuban Tour market which appeals especially to Americans. I checked out www.SmithsonianJourneys.org and discovered that they are indeed offering 10-day tours, beginning at about $5450 (including the round-trip Miami-Havana flights. These are similar in price to the National Geographic trips. (For a list of American-based agencies (and websites) conducting legal tours to Cuba for Americans, click on “Other Tours.”
They also made me realize how difficult it must be for first-time Cuba travelers to compare these trips, so I’d like to offer some thoughts on this matter. To begin with, the typical tour seems to be 10 days, nine nights. This length is common, because many tours using Specific Licenses are restricted to 10 days. I also personally feel that 10 days is about right for a first trip to Cuba. A week is just too short when you consider all there is to see, although www.InsightCuba.com offers 8-day tours for around $3000. They even offer 4-day 3-night tours for around $2000. (These would probably be most appropriate when there is a specific event you might want to attend, such as a jazz or film festival, and you just don’t have more time to get away). One way to compare values of tours of different lengths would be to simply calculate the cost per day. Otherwise, the type of hotels (3-star vs. 5-star, for example) seems to be one of the biggest variables for tour companies. The time of year makes a difference, based on demand (e.g. winter vs. late spring), The costs of flights (if provided) should be the same. The cost of comfortable, air-conditioned buses should be similar. The other variables (such as meals, guide expenses) should be very close.
So to determine the relative value of different tours, consider the following items:
Is the price of air fare included, or do you pay for and arrange separately? The total round-trip cost from Miami to Havana is about $500, according to the latest figures. You also have to figure in the cost of getting from your home city to Miami and back. The total cost of a round-trip ticket from Cancun to Havana is about $370. (You may see lower fares listed on airline websites, but sometimes there are fees that get added in before you find out your final price). Airline prices generally don’t vary too much with the season, but the demand does. The situation with Miami charter flights is changing all the time, and except for the prices, things seem to be improving. I’ve been on 6am flights that required me to be at the airport 4 hours before departure. I never could figure out why this was necessary for a 45-60 minute flight in a smaller aircraft. I‘m sure it had to do with the travel license requirements and the bureaucracy that regulates this area. If you are flying from Cancun, you have to calculate the cost of getting there from your home city, and possible expenses if you need to stay overnight in Cancun on your way to Cuba. (It is usually not necessary on the return flight).
The costs for individual day activities, such as museum visits, should be about the same. Likewise for day trips like a bus tour to the countryside to places such as Viñales. All the tours I’m familiar with offer most meals or are all-inclusive, covering just about everything. My preference is to have some options for dining out, especially with the recent expansion of the home restaurant (paladar) sector. My experiences eating at these privately-run home restaurants have all been excellent. It has been said that a Cuban chef who works for a hotel may create satisfactory meals, but once he has his own restaurant in his home, his cooking may become spectacular!
In general, the fewer travelers in a group, the more expensive the tour will be for individuals, due to economies of scale. The largest tour I’ve been on was over a hundred participants on a Global Exchange tour in 1999. It was a little hectic, but they divided us up into smaller sub-groups based on our interests, and it turned out to be a good experience. The smallest group I traveled with had just six Americans on an Earthwatch Expedition to a remote biological research station in 2005. We worked with Cuban researchers from the University of Havana. (Among some of the more interesting activities were capturing, weighing, tagging, and releasing juvenile crocodiles. Today, three people from that trip are some of my very best friends.)
There are other miscellaneous items that can pop up. Having Cuban medical insurance is now a requirement of the government since last year, and most tour operators now include it. You will pay for most of your expenses before you leave the states, usually by credit or debit card. Once in Cuba you will need some money for several meals, tips, and perhaps some artwork (if you are traveling with licenses). You cannot use your American-bank based credit card in Cuba YET, so bring along enough cash to cover participation in more expensive additional activities such as golf, scuba diving, or deep sea fishing. Most companies recommend bringing an additional $500 along in U.S. currency, then converting $100 or so at a time as needed. It is perfectly legal to carry U.S. dollars in Cuba. Although Cubans prefer to receive tips in CUC’s (Cuban currency), they won’t turn down dollars. If you convert too much money, you can always convert your CUC’s back to dollars at the airport. In my next newsletter article I’ll talk about different itineraries on Cuba tours.