Legal Travel, News

Flights, Credit Cards, Still A Hassle for Americans

Locals and visitors to Cuba wait in front of a bank to exchange money or use credit cards to access cash – U.S. cards still not accepted.
Locals and visitors to Cuba wait in front of a bank to exchange money or use credit cards to access cash – U.S. cards still not accepted.

Two big stories this week suggested things were going to get a lot simpler for Americans traveling to Cuba. One was about it being easier to use American-issued credit cards on the island. The other was about approval for U.S.-based carrier United Airlines to begin non-stop flights to Cuba from its gateway cities of Newark and Houston, the first such commercial flights in 50 years. United and seven other U.S. carriers–Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Jet Blue, Southwest, and Spirit–have been tentatively awarded rights by the Department of Transportation for direct flights to Havana from 10 U.S. cities.

However, the reality for now is status quo largely prevails. It’s still difficult flying to Cuba from the United States despite paperwork being much easier. And U.S. credit cards still don’t seem to work on the island.

U.S. arrival area outside Terminal 2 at José Martí International Airport in Havana
U.S. arrival area outside Terminal 2 at Jose Marti Airport in Havana

For direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba, that means for now you still have to travel on charters operated by companies like Cuba Travel Services. There are a lot of flights (over 20 a day) and they are operated from multiple U.S. cities (e.g. Miami, Tampa, Los Angeles, New York) on mainstream U.S. carriers (e.g. American, JetBlue), but they have to be booked directly with the charter provider. They serve a niche market, despite burgeoning U.S. travel to Cuba–and are expensive (almost $500 r/t from Miami).  Flights are often delayed. This can be a huge problem because, as charters, they don’t tie into onward reservations, and the hotel in the terminal at Miami International Airport isn’t most people’s idea of fun.

Board at Miami Airport announcing all flights to Havana one day in June
Board at Miami Airport announcing all flights to Havana one day in June

In addition, charter companies recommend checking in four hours before departure, which verges on the ridiculous for a 7:00 am flight. Once at the airport the check-in process is slow and chaotic at best, although in our experience better than a year ago. A couple of weeks ago, we had to speak to four different check-in agents to get our bags checked in and boarding passes!

So we can’t wait for the new commercial service from the U.S., but takeoff is still pending final USG approval, following a 30-day comment period, and then Cuba’s approval on flight slots. Sources in Cuba tell us that informal negotiations with airlines are advanced. To keep their slots, the U.S. requires that carriers begin service within 90 days of final approval, so it is conceivable commercial flights could start by the end of summer or early fall.

As more carriers get in on the action, flight prices will undoubtedly fall, but there are major questions about Cuba’s logistical ability to handle a sharp increase in flights. One option, available now with some charters, may be more flights into less congested airports than Havana. Provincial cities like Cienfuegos are a good pick—uncrowded, orderly gateways to some of the most charming and unspoiled countryside in the Americas.

Americans and Cubans wait for CTS charter with American Airlines to Havana in June
Americans and Cubans wait for CTS charter with American Airlines to Havana in June

The inability to use credit cards in Cuba is a HUGE drag on travel by Americans, who aren’t used to lugging around thousands of dollars for a short trip. The opportunity cost for Cuba is probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Havana has amazing restaurants and experiences, but they aren’t cheap, and the trend is in the opposite direction. Pack cash.

As of this moment, U.S. credit cards just aren’t an option in most hotels, restaurants, cigar stores, etc. Most U.S. issuers of credit cards won’t process transactions in Cuba.   They are wary of running afoul of U.S. sanctions law, despite clarification from the U.S. that card transactions related to licensed travel are permitted.  On the Cuban side, a staggering majority of hotels, restaurants, bars and other concerns either don’t take cards or aren’t able to process transactions with U.S. credit cards. We’ve tried a lot recently. “Transaction denied.”  More needs to be done there to facilitate.  We hope new announcements this week by Cuban on expanded card acceptance mean that the process will speed up.

Sin pausa pero sin prisa” (without pause, but without haste) is how Cuba’s president has described his country’s process of economic reforms. It seems to be a mantra too for a host of accommodations that could boost travel between the U.S. and Cuba. But we bet on “sin pausa.”

– William McIlhenny, Co-Publisher of HavanaInsider.com