Which Cruise Should You Take to Cuba?

MSC Opera docked in Havana, Cuba, with famous cars in the foreground

Cruising to Cuba has undergone great changes in just a few years. American cruise ships, which began visiting the Caribbean's largest island in 2016, keep adding more and more sailings, as regulations fall away. International lines, too, have been developing more itineraries in Cuba, due to interest.

Currently, the only thing stopping a U.S. mainstream cruise line from visiting Cuba is the country itself; there are no U.S. government regulations forbidding cruise ships from going, thanks to measures taken by the Obama administration. Although the Trump administration is tightening up individual travel, Cuba continues to approve cruise line sailings throughout 2017 and into 2018.

All nationalities can visit Cuba as tourists except Americans. Americans still need to travel under one of 12 approved reasons; the most common -- and the one used by cruise lines currently offering itineraries for Americans -- is the people to people visa. (For more details, read Cuba People to People Visa Options for American Cruisers.)

Below, we take a look at the cruising options in Cuba, so you can decide what's best for you. Note: There are several lines that are selling cruises to Cuba that still don't have final permission from that government to dock, including Viking Ocean and Grand Circle. We've left those out, for now.


Celestyal

What It Is: Owned by Greek-company Celestyal, Crystal was one of the first ships to make regular sailings in Cuba that were open to Americans; Cuba cruises began in 2014. The ship, renovated in 2016, carries 1,200 passengers and has most of the amenities that you'd find on a big ship. It also employs Cuban crew and offers several choices of shore excursions in each port.

Itinerary: Passengers board in either Havana or Montego Bay on a cruise that also stops in Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and Isla de la Juventud for a beach day. Starting in 2017, the cruises will operate year-round.

American Friendly? Yes. Celestyal offers a people to people program for Americans, who make up a significant portion of the passengers.

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want some recreation thrown in with their history, as well as more choices at each stop.

Who Won't: Passengers who want an intimate expedition-style experience.


Pearl Mist exterior

Pearl Seas Cruises

What It Is: Operated by Pearl Seas Cruises, which began selling the sailings long before receiving permission, Pearl Mist is a 200-passenger ship offering a packed program of stops on the island. A sister company to American Cruise Lines, Pearl Seas generally attracts a similar (i.e., older) clientele, with a slightly more luxury bent (and prices to match).

Itinerary: Passengers board in Miami for a 10-night cruise that has an overnight in Havana, as well as stops in Isla de la Juventud, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba and Parque Baconao. Sailings began January 17, 2017, and run through April 2017; more Cuba cruises will depart from November 2017 into 2018.

American Friendly? Yes. Pearl Mist's program will follow people to people regulations.

Who Will Like It: Older passengers who still have the stamina for in-depth touring; there is only one sea day.

Who Won't: Passengers who like leisurely cruises with lots of down time, and budget travelers.


Oceania

What It Is: Oceania Cruises became the first cruise line from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings to sail to Cuba in March 2017, with 1,250-passenger Marina. In fall 2017, Insignia will make six sailings; the line has also committed to Cuba in 2018 with sailings planned on Sirena and Regatta through the fall.

Itinerary: In 2017, Marina will sail from Miami on 10- and 14-day Caribbean itineraries that include either one day or an overnight in Havana. The fall itineraries on Insignia, as well as the 2018 sailings, are more in-depth, with the ships making stops in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, as well as Havana.

American Friendly? Yes. All Oceania ships will comply with people to people regulations.

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want a touch of the good life as they sail around the island.

Who Won't: People who are looking for a party hearty experience.


Azamara Club Cruises

What It Is: Azamara Club Cruises, the destination-immersive cruise line from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., made its first sailing to Cuba on the March 21, 2017, departure of 694-passenger Azamara Quest. The ship will return to the island in November 2017 for several cruises.

Itinerary: Currently, the ship's Cuba stop is merely an overnight on Caribbean sailings out of Miami. The line has said that it is looking to add more Cuba ports to other itineraries.

American Friendly? Yes. Azamara Quest will comply with people to people regulations through for-fee shore excursions.

Who Will Like It: Fans of smaller ships that are OK seeing Cuba as part of a longer itinerary.

Who Won't: Passengers who love the amenities of a large cruise ship.


Regent Seven Seas Cruises

What It Is: Luxury line Regent Seven Seas will become the first classic luxury line to sail to Cuba on one of its 700-passenger ships, Seven Seas Mariner. Excursions that are included in your cruise fare include a city walking tour, a Cuban art tour, a rum and cigar tour, a Hemingway tour, a fort tour, a day trip to Soroa, a meal at Havana's first farm-to-table restaurant and a choice of evening performances of the Buena Vista Social Club, Cafe Taberna or a Parisian cabaret show at the Hotel Nacional. For-fee excursions are also available.

Itinerary: Two sailings from Miami in April 2017 will include overnight stops in Havana.

American Friendly? Yes. Seven Seas Mariner will comply with people to people regulations.

Who Will Like It: Upscale passengers who like all-inclusive cruising and have Cuba on their bucket list.

Who Won't: Budget-conscious cruisers or those who want a more immersive Cuba experience.


Royal Caribbean

What It Is: Royal Caribbean has earmarked 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas for Cuba travel. With its first cruise departing April 19, 2017, Empress will be the first true "mainstream" cruise ship to sail to Cuba from Miami. It will also be the first to offer cruises to the island that are shorter than a week.

Itinerary: The first Empress of the Seas sailing will be a five-night cruise from Miami that includes a day stop in Havana. Then in a twist, the ship will continue its Cuba sailings out of a second U.S. homeport, Tampa, through 2017. Empress will offer four-, five- and seven-night sailings; Havana will continue to be a one-day call, on Western and Eastern Caribbean itineraries.

American Friendly? Yes. Empress of the Seas will comply with people to people regulations.

Who Will Like It: Budget-conscious cruisers who don't have time for long cruises.

Who Won't: Passengers who want a more leisurely look at the island.


Norwegian Cruise Line

What It Is: Norwegian Sky, the line's popular alcohol-inclusive ship, has been cruising to Cuba since May 2017; Norwegian Sun will begin offering Cuba cruises May 2018 after a dry dock which also will restructure its fares to include soda, juice and alcohol. Like Royal Caribbean and Carnival, Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Sun offer shorter itineraries.

Itinerary: Both ships' itineraries include an overnight in Havana, and Cuba cruises will be available throughout the year.

American Friendly? Yes. Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Sun will comply with people to people regulations.

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want a quick look at Cuba in a big-ship, party-hearty atmosphere.

Who Won't: People who are looking for an educational, in-depth trip to the island.


Carnival Cruise Line

What It Is: After entering Cuba early with Fathom, Carnival Corp. comes to the island in June 2017 with Carnival Paradise. At 2,052 passengers, the ship will be the largest vessel sailing into Cuba in 2017; like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, the ship will sail shorter itineraries. Carnival Paradise sails from Tampa.

Itinerary: Four- and five-night cruises will begin on June 29, 2017, run through the fall and go into 2018. Some itineraries include an overnight stay in Havana, while others are just there for the day.

American Friendly? Yes. Carnival Paradise will comply with people to people regulations,

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want a "Fun Ship" experience to Cuba.

Who Won't: Passengers who are hoping for a more scholarly bent when they visit.


International Expeditions

What It Is: An expedition tour operator, International Expeditions has added Cuba trips that include time on land with time sailing around Cuba on a chartered ship, the 46-passenger Panorama. The small group lends itself to in-depth exploration with plenty of people-to-people cultural activities. You can't help learning in this environment.

Itinerary: IE's trips depart from Miami on chartered flights to Santa Clara, in Cuba's interior. Stops include Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Isla de la Juventud, Maria la Gorda and Vinales Valley before ending on an overnight in Havana.

American Friendly? Yes. This type of trip is the definition of people to people, with lots of educational opportunities.

Who Will Like It: Travelers who want to combine a cruise to Cuba with time on land, and also don't mind sailing on such a small ship.

Who Won't: Cruisers who are used to big ship amenities and multiple restaurants.


Lindblad Expeditions

What It Is: Lindblad Expeditions, the expedition cruising line that has a partnership with heavyweight National Geographic, began Cuba sailings on a small chartered ship, 44-passenger Panorama II, in December 2016 through March 2017. The program will begin again in December 2017 and run through March 2018.

Itinerary: After a flight from Miami to Havana, you'll spend several days in the capital before visiting the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Cayo Largo, Trinidad and Jarines de la Reina Marine Park on this 11-day itinerary.

American Friendly? Yes. National Geographic has operated people to people land tours in Cuba before, and the sailing will be a natural extension of that program.

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want to see Cuba with experts. (A team that includes a photographer, a naturalist and a cultural specialist will be onboard. Keep in mind that this doesn't come cheap: Fares start at $9,500 per person.)

Who Won't: Cruisers who are used to big-ship amenities or want only a cursory view of the island, as well as people on a budget.


Ponant

What It Is: The French line Ponant began sailing Cuban itineraries in March 2017 on its 64-passenger three-masted schooner, Le Ponant. Besides the usual stops, Ponant has a few smaller ports on its itinerary, which might get passengers a better taste of the island overall.

Itinerary: Ponant's trips begin with a flight from Miami to Santiago de Cuba. From there, passengers board the ship and sail to Casilda (base for a trip to Trinidad), Cienfuegos, Cayo Largo and Punta Frances, before ending in Havana.

American Friendly? Yes. Ponant has activities that meet U.S. people to people requirements. 

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want the intimacy of a small ship and less traveled ports.

Who Won't: Passengers who get motion sickness and only want the highlights.


Insight Cuba

What It Is: A tour operator that has been running trips in Cuba since 2000, Insight Cuba charters Variety Voyager, a 72-passenger vessel, for seven-night trips that leave from Cienfuegos and end in Havana. The company also offers sailing trips on the 46-passenger sailing yacht Panorama between January and April.

Itinerary: The trips on Voyager visit Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Cayo Larga, Isla de la Juventad and Havana. On the sailing trips, you visit those same ports, plus Pinar del Rio, Maria La Gorda and the Vinales Valley.

American Friendly? Yes. Insight Cuba has operated people to people land tours in Cuba before, and the sailings are natural extensions of the program.

Who Will Like It: Passengers who want to travel with some of the country's most expert guides.

Who Won't: Passengers who are fine with a general overview of the island.


Tauck Small Ship Cruising

What It Is: Known for its land tours and river cruises, Tauck is expanding its focus on small ship cruising, with Cuba being a central part of its strategy. Beginning in 2018 and into 2019, Tauck will charter Le Ponant for 10-day journeys around the island.

Itinerary: Passengers will meet in Miami and then fly to Havana for a two-night stay. They will then board the ship and sail between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, with stops in Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

American Friendly? Yes. Tauck's tour will meet U.S. people to people requirements.

Who Will Like It: People who enjoy Tauck's all-inclusive approach to travel.

Who Won't: People who want a more a la carte cruise experience.


MSC Cruises

What It Is: Due to increasing demand, the Mediterranean line MSC Cruises has homeported two cruise ships in Havana. MSC Opera carries 2,120 passengers and has been in Cuba since 2015. MSC Armonia, a ship that carries 2,000 passengers, began Havana sailings in 2016.

Itinerary: Both ships spend several days in Havana before sailing to other Caribbean islands. Because MSC doesn't sell these cruises to Americans, the company can offer a wide range of shore excursions, including beach days and snorkeling.

American Friendly? No. MSC does not sell these cruises to Americans or offer people to people options.

Who Will Like It: Europeans who enjoy big ship amenities, are content with just visiting Havana and want to see Cuba before too many American companies come in.

Who Won't: Passengers who want a more complex trip to Cuba.


G Adventures

What It Is: A Canadian tour operator known for adventure, G Adventures offers several types of trips to Cuba, including sailing cruises on a 14-passenger catamaran to several off-the-beaten path islands.

Itinerary: The marine tour begins with several days in Havana before transferring passengers to Cienfuegos. There, people board the ship for a week visiting the Canarreos Archipelago, with nothing more on the agenda than snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, fishing and other watersports.

American Friendly? The company says that Americans can come if they can procure their own visas. The program is not compatible with people to people, however, so it's pretty unlikely many from the U.S. can go.

Who Will Like It: Laid-back sailors who are tired of the same old, same old.

Who Won't: People who like big ships and are prone to motion sickness.


Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

What It Is: The Norwegian-owned, but solidly British cruise line calls in at Cuba several times a year, both as part of a Caribbean cruise departing from Barbados, and also as part of a world cruise segment.

Itinerary: The line is one of the few that call in at a port other than Havana -- Santiago de Cuba, the country's second city -- on its Caribbean and Cuba cruise on Braemar.

American Friendly? The company says that Americans can come if they can procure their own visas. The program is not compatible with people to people, however, so it's pretty unlikely many from the U.S. can go.

Who Will Like It: Most of Fred.'s longer cruises are adults-only and the average age is 70+.

Who Won't: You are likely to feel a little out of place if you're under 50 or not British, though Fred. Olsen passengers are a welcoming bunch.


Thomson Dream

Thomson Cruises

What It Is: The German-owned, but solidly British cruise line calls at Cuba several times a year, as part of Caribbean cruises departing from Jamaica.

Itinerary: Thomson Dream includes an overnight in Havana as part of its Cuban Fusion cruise; it visits several times a season. It does not call at any other Cuban port.

American Friendly? Thomson only sells cruises in the U.K., so it's unlikely that U.S. passengers will be on the cruise. The company says that Americans can come if they can procure their own visas, but the nature of the sailing is not ideal for a people-to-people tour, preventing most U.S. citizens from hopping onboard.

Who Will Like It: Thomson is a very "British" cruise, so expect British touches (Marmite at breakfast, kettles in rooms, lots of tea and curry, etc.), so if you are an Anglophile, you'll feel right at home.

Who Won't: If you like big shows and lots of entertainment, you should skip this one.


Noble Caledonia

What It Is: The British company operates small luxury ships, which offer a comfortable, informal environment.

Itinerary: Noble Caledonia has only one departure to Cuba a year, but it is the only cruise line apart from Celestyal Cruises that operates a true circumnavigation of the island, calling at Havana, Maria La Gorda, Isla de la Juventud, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

American Friendly? Again, if you're American and can finagle a visa, you're in; however, like the other British lines, the program is not people-to-people friendly.

Who Will Like It: Noble Caledonia sells almost exclusively to British passengers of a mature age, who are seeking an adventurous, culturally enriching cruise. You'll find a smattering of passengers from Australia and New Zealand, too. Most are couples, but there are also singles and groups of friends.

Who Won't: You will likely feel out of place if you are a family with young children or are looking for nightlife, Broadway-style entertainment or high-end spa treatments.

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