Editor's Note: Effective June 5, 2019, Americans are no longer permitted to travel to Cuba by cruise ship due to U.S. government policy changes.
Viva la Cuba! Ever since President Obama eased travel restrictions for Americans in 2015, interest in going to the Caribbean's largest island has skyrocketed.
But visiting Cuba still comes with some amount of red tape. Most American travel is done under the auspices of "people to people" licenses -- paperwork issued by a participating organization (such as a cruise line or tour operator) that states you are visiting for educational or cultural reasons.
In 2016, Fathom became the first American-owned cruise line to sail to Cuba on a regular basis from Miami; while the line has ceased operation, mainstream lines sailing to Cuba include Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, Regent Seven Seas, Azamara, Oceania and Holland America. Other lines that sail in Cuba that are open to Americans include Pearl Seas, Ponant, International Expeditions and Tauck..
Here are some reasons why cruising is the best way to visit Cuba:
Roads and infrastructure in Cuba have a long way to go before they are up to the standards of more developed countries. For example, it can take as long as 22 hours to travel the 545 miles between Havana on the north of the island and Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, on the south.
Cruise travelers see more of Cuba than many visitors, because a cruise approaches these cities by sea, allowing travelers to circumnavigate the island. Most cruises that visit Cuba go to at least three ports, including Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Celestyal also adds a beach day.
Land tours to Cuba remain expensive and could get even more so, due to the shortage of hotel rooms. As interest in Cuba has grown, rates at the island's limited number of hotel rooms have skyrocketed; despite the rise, tour operators are having a harder time finding availability.
While cruises to Cuba are not cheap compared to other Caribbean destinations, the sheer fact that there are regularly scheduled sailings there means that costs for a cruise are easier to budget than a land trip. But the limited number of lines sailing to the country means that pricing is a little high. This should drop as more cruise lines enter the market.
On a land tour, participants usually don't have a lot of leeway with their activities. There's one itinerary that everyone follows.
On a cruise, passengers are given a choice of excursions in every port. Because the cruise lines are certified as people to people operators, you are guaranteed that your itinerary will follow the latest rules set forth by the current American administration. While most Cuban ports don't have the independent tour options that you'll find elsewhere in the Caribbean, there's nothing to prevent non-Americans from hiring a taxi or simply walking around on your own.
The old American cars from the 1950s that you see around Cuba are certainly picturesque. But they aren't equipped with modern emissions systems that Americans are used to, and the larger Cuban cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba pay the price with noticeable smog in the air. After breathing car and bus fumes during the day, it's a pleasure to get back to sea air at night.
One of the best reasons to take a cruise, no matter where you are, holds true in Cuba. Being able to unpack once, instead of schlepping your things from hotel to hotel, makes for a much easier vacation. Period.
On my trip, tour guides told me that the Cuban government intends to make building new hotels a priority. And within Old Havana, many of the hotels have newly renovated appearances. The difference is inside, however; even the nicest-looking hotels have electrical issues, and problems with running water and service.
Contrast that to a cruise ship. Although the ships that are in Cuba aren't the newest in the industry and are small by cruise ship standards, they are more modern than most of the hotels on the island. Plus you get cheerful service, entertainment and -- generally -- better and more sophisticated food than you'll find on land.
While more hotspots are emerging, Wi-Fi is extremely limited, and at times almost nonexistent in Cuba. And while the Wi-Fi on your ship can be slow, it will be far better than what you'll find on land.
All visitors to Cuba must use CUC, the currency that's specifically developed for tourists (the locals have a separate currency). Since ATMs and credit cards from American-owned banks are still not available in Cuba, you'll need to bring cash -- either Euros, American or Canadian dollars -- to exchange into CUC. Unfortunately for Americans, there's a 10 percent surcharge on American dollars. Add in the 3 percent change fee that most exchange bureaus also levy, and you're talking about 87 cents to an American dollar.
As a cruise passenger, you'll still have to pay these fees for money that you spend on shore. But since most of your purchases will be through the ship, you won't lose as much as you would on an extensive land tour.
Updated October 10, 2019