Trip Report

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I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on things I wish I’d known about internet, money, food, and nightlife in Cuba before going

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Other Posts

Coming soon posts on lodging, transportation, Havana, and Viñales.

Money

There are two Cuban national currencies:

  • Convertible pesos: abbreviated CUC. Things you’ll hear Cubans call convertible pesos in Spanish: “pesos convertibles“, “cucs” (pronounced “kooks”), “pesos”, and confusingly “dólares.” Also confusingly, CUC cents are usually called “kilos” by Cubans.
  • Non-convertible pesos: abbreviated CUP. Things you’ll hear Cubans call non-convertible pesos in Spanish: “moneda nacional” or “pesos

Exchange rates are fixed:

  • 1 CUC = 25 CUP
  • 1 CUC = $1 (though note the caveats below)

Between 90% and 100% of your transactions will be in CUC, and prices will almost always be quoted to you in CUC. Since CUC are the more valuable currency, there’s no type of scam related to naming a price in one currency and then charging you the other.

The only scam you could run into with the currency would be getting change in less valuable CUP instead of CUC. They look kind of similar, but even a cursory glance will reveal obvious differences. The main one to look for: the words “pesos convertibles” on both sides of CUC bills.

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Top: 1 CUC. Bottom: 20 CUP

The bills also have a very different design style.

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Top: back of 1 CUC. Bottom: back of 20 CUP

Here are pictures of CUP (above) and CUC (below) for all denominations. I love that both feature 3 peso notes, the only country I know of that offers a 3 unit bill.

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Everything I purchased was in CUC except for street pizzas (see Food below.) While things priced in CUP are cheaper than things priced in CUC, that is entirely a function of CUP prices only being attached to cheap things marketed to locals. There is no advantage to paying in CUC or CUP.

As I said above, there is a fixed exchange rate between the two. If you ever see a price in CUC or CUP, you can pay in either. Many stores have this sign proclaiming that fact, but even without the sign just pay 25x CUP to purchase something priced in CUC or 1/25 the CUC to purchase something in CUP.

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Exchanging Money

I didn’t even attempt to use my ATM card in Cuba because I was certain it wouldn’t work. I did attempt to use my Citi Prestige® Card at the Havana airport to buy cigars, and it was rejected despite being a MasterCard, which announced a few months ago that it would process payments for Americans in Cuba. (Please comment with your experience attempting to use ATMs or credit cards in Cuba.)

That leaves the major option of exchanging money.

You can exchange cash throughout the country at exchange houses, banks, and, I believe, hotels. The exchange houses at Havana’s airport were open at 2 AM when I arrived, so I assume they are open 24 hours.

The exchange houses have about a 6% spread between buy and sell prices, 3% on each side of the “true” exchange rate.

In addition, there is a 10% fee for changing US dollars into Cuban pesos.

That means despite $1 being worth 1 CUC, you only get 87 CUC per $100 at an exchange house.

The best solution is to bring a different currency, specifically euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars, to Cuba so you only get dinged 3% instead of 13%. However, I don’t know a cheap way to get euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars in the United States or at airports, so I was stuck with dollars. (Please comment if you know a cheap–loss of under 5% of value–way to get foreign currencies in the United States.)

Because of the 10% fee for changing them, there is somewhat of a black market for dollars. I was approached to exchange $200 for 180 CUC outside the exchange house at Havana airport. I was told you could get 95 CUC per $100 bill (ie not $20 bills) if you asked around.

Budget

I spent $700 for everything excluding flights for seven days in Cuba. This included staying at casas particulares and no meals above 10 CUC. I think most people will spend more money, especially if they stay in hotels. Bring lots of money since if you run out, there is no easy way to get more.

Internet

Internet takes work in Cuba. There is no cellular data network, so you need to find a place that offers wifi or computers with internet. The only places that offer these things are ETECSA offices and fancy hotels.

ETECSA Offices

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ETECSA office in Viñales

There are about 100 ETECSA, the Cuban state telecom company, offices throughout the country. ETECSA offices offer computers hooked up to the internet and wifi. I never inquired about the computers because I had a laptop, and they were often all full.

Wifi at ETECSA offices costs 2.25 CUC per half hour. You must bring a passport to purchase wifi scratch off cards like this.

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With the user name and password, you log on and start your clock. Ask when purchasing the card how to log out if you don’t want to use the entire 30 minutes at once.

While ETECSA offices have normal business hours like 9 AM to 7 PM, you can usually connect to the wifi outside the building, and the wifi is left on 24 hours.

In Viñales, the ETECSA office functioned smoothly, and I enjoyed a comfortable chair in the air conditioning during the day when using the wifi and sat out front at night if I wanted to connect my phone to wifi to message people on Facebook or WhatsApp. I found wifi speeds to be pretty good at this office, better than at the Melia Cohiba in Havana (more on that below.)

In Havana, ETECSA was a bit more of an adventure. The two offices I tried were sold out of the scratch cards, leaving only renting computer time as an option. All the computers were full though, so I headed for a hotel instead.

Fancy Hotels

Nice hotels also sell wifi. The service is available to guests and non-guests alike. Enter and ask any employee where wifi is sold, usually at the Business Center. I used wifi at two hotels in Havana.

At the Melia Cohiba Havana, a two hour wifi pass cost 14 CUC. You could log in and log out to preserve the time. Wifi was terrible at the Melia Cohiba. It seemed to alternate between offering no connection and a slow connection in 10 minute intervals.

At the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a one hour wifi pass cost 7 CUC. You could log in and log out to preserve the time. Wifi was good at the Hotel Nacional, at least on par with the ETECSA office in Viñales.

Blocked Sites

I had no trouble accessing gmail, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, or any other site I tried. I asked a Cuban what was blocked and she said, “Pornography, snuff films, and some media especially from the United States.”

At the Airport

Havana’s airport has an ETECSA wifi network, though there is no way to purchase scratch cards as far as I know. You may want to purchase extra cards at an ETECSA office during your stay for your wait at the airport.

Food

Private restaurants, called “paladares” in Cuba, have increased greatly in number in the past few years. I ate some of my meals at paladares, some at state-run restaurants, some at my casa particular (more on casas particulares in the lodging post, and some at takeaway places on the street.

At Your Casa

I stayed all seven nights in Cuba in private homes called casas particulares. At most casas, the owner will cook for you for a fee. This is a great opportunity to get typical, local food for a very reasonable cost.

My main tip when eating at your casa is to tell the cook what you like. There isn’t a fixed menu; they’ll just make what you like if you tell them and what they like or what’s cheap if you don’t.

In Viñales, I told the cook I like chicken, pork, and beef, so I was given pork two nights and chicken once.

I ate breakfast and dinner at the casa each night. The meals he made me were colossal.

Dinner was 8 CUC and included:

  • a big piece of chicken or pork and potatoes or a potato-like vegetable
  • a plate of tomato and cucumber slices drowned in oil
  • a big fruit salad of papya, mango, and pineapple
  • a big bowl of rice and black beans (not pictured)
  • a glass of juice (not pictured)

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For another 1.5 CUC, he would give me a can of beer. I got the sense that these prices were suggested to him by a tourism board, and I didn’t try to negotiate.

For breakfast I told him that I only wanted fruit, so he gave me this each morning for 2 CUC.

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I imagine a breakfast with meat would have been more, but I can’t believe how much fruit I got for 2 CUC.

I don’t like seafood, but I understand that that is a very typical dinner at casas. To reiterate, tell the casa what you want, and you’ll get it and a lot of it.

Most of my meals were just cut vegetables and fruits plus rice and beans, so not exactly anything where cooking skill matters. The only things really cooked, the meat and potatoes, were fine. Nothing spectacular, but not hard to happily eat after a long day.

I recommend eating at your casa as it will give you decent food at a decent price while giving you more great contact with locals.

Restaurants

My casa owner in Havana was elderly and didn’t offer food. She told me about a cheap restaurant one block away called “El Rápido.” I saw restaurants of the same name throughout Cuba, so it must be a chain.

I believe that it is a state-run chain, and thus not a paladar, which are family-owned restaurants.

El Rápido printed the menu right on the table and main courses were 2 to 3 CUC.

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One meal I got the chicken breast, which was fine.

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Another I got the spaghetti bolognese, also fine.Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.41.48 AM

Finally I settled on pizza with ground beef and pineapple, also fine. This restaurant did not blow me away, but it was close and cheap, and I liked talking to the waiters, so I ate there every day in Havana.

Of course, there are restaurants with much better ambience and food. In the touristy areas of Havana Vieja, restaurants spill onto the sidewalks and offer live music.
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And you can check out the top paladares on Trip Advisor.

In Viñales, I ate at two paladares. El Olivo was highly recommended by Lonely Planet. I got the cannelloni with mixed meat. It was OK, but not nearly as good as I would expect for a recommended restaurant.

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For another lunch, I ate at one of the other non-descript paladares that crowd the main street in Viñales because it had ropa vieja on the menu, and that was the one “Cuban food” besides sandwiches that I had eaten in the United States. Again, it was OK.Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.43.20 AM

I know, I know. I just described every meal as OK. That’s partly because I am not a good food reviewer and partly because I found the Cuban food I ate to be pretty bland and boring, but not distasteful in any way. I didn’t eat at the top restaurants in the country by any means, but the median level of cuisine on the island badly trails many destinations.

Street

The only purchases I made in CUP were at small take away restaurants with signs like this.

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Most sold pizza and sometimes beers and sandwiches. I got pizza from one in Viñales and one in Havana. These pizzas are super cheap (10 CUP is $0.40) and, surprise, surprise, just OK.Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.44.14 AM Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 11.44.16 AM

Nightlife

In Viñales, the nightlife was the same every night of the week. There are two places, one on the plaza and one on the main street, that offered live music at night. Ask where they are or follow the music

The one on the main street had no cover, but no real dance floor.

The one on the plaza was far more popular despite its modest cover of 1 CUC for foreigners. The music started around 9:30 PM.

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The plaza place had a nice dance floor perfect for salsa-ing to the band. If you are a girl sitting near the dance floor, you will invariably be offered the chance to dance with one of the local regulars.

Both live music spots were vast majority foreigners and local men. I didn’t see prostitutes at either. I actually didn’t see any in Viñales even though they are all over Havana.

In Havana, I had only one weekend night, so I tried to make the most of it. Here’s my makeshift nightlife map:

  • red pin = Fábrica del Arte nightclub and art gallery
  • westernmost black dot = my casa
  • central black dot = Avenida 23 and Avenida de los Presidentes
  • easternmost black dot = Sloppy Joe’s Bar
Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 12.05.07 PM
source: maps.google.com

I started my night by walking to Avenida 23 because I had heard it was the area where people hung out on the streets inside and outside of bars. I didn’t know exactly where on Avenida 23, but I found the nightlife starting at Avenida de los Presidentes and heading northeast from there to the Malecon. I found a group of students–locals and foreigners–with a little guitar circle on some steps on a corner and joined them for a drink.

Always on the lookout for something better, I caught a shared taxi (1 CUC) to the old town to Sloppy Joe’s, a bar I expected to be full of foreigners. It was only half full with foreigners and a few prostitutes at the bar. I headed back to Avenida 23 and Avenida de los Presidentes and asked some students to recommend some bars. I got several suggestions and took off walking. I got a little lost, though I did find a local bar by following the music. It was crowded, but mostly people sitting with friends at tables, so I hailed a taxi to go to the last suggestion I had been given: Fábrica del Arte.

Fábrica del Arte was the best place I found. Downstairs was a quieter bar area and a separate dancing area with a DJ. Upstairs was an art gallery you could walk through. It seemed to attract a middle class Cuban crowd. (Well, way upper class for Cuba, but it felt middle class to me as an American.) I loved the space and the people, so this is the one recommendation I have for nightlife in Havana. Tell your taxi to take you to Calle 26 and Calle 11 in Vedado. Unfortunately I don’t know the best nights or time, but at 1 AM on Saturday night, it was pretty good.

Up Next

I’m halfway done. Next up I’ll explain lodging and transportation options. Finally I’ll give full trip reports for Havana and Viñales.

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

I just spent a completely legal week in Cuba, split between Havana and Viñales. An American in Cuba in 2015 is a six part series on the trip. This post will focus on entry and exit requirements for Americans going to Cuba.

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Sunset Over Viñales, Cuba

Other Posts

Coming soon posts on booking flights to Cuba with miles or cash, money, internet, nightlife, lodging, transportation, Havana, and Viñales.

Introduction

I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba because it’s there, specifically 90 miles from Miami, and I wasn’t allowed to.

Other reasons to go include the chance to see communism before it dies, pristine beach resorts, fine cigars and rum, to see crumbling 1950s beauty, and more chances for home stays with locals than in any other country I’ve visited.

Cigar Time inside a Barn Drying Tobacco
Cigar Time inside a Barn Drying Tobacco

The Current Rules for Americans to Enter Cuba

It has never been illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba, but it was illegal to spend money there without prior approval, and a trip there would be considered de facto proof that you had spent money there.

In January, President Obama announced a loosening of travel restrictions. Instead of having to have the Treasury Department certify that you are in one of the 12 approved categories for spending money in Cuba (ie travel to Cuba), you can self-certify with no advanced proof required. From the State Department’s website:

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses within the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from, or within Cuba that previously required a specific license (i.e., an application and a case-by-case determination)… No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by a general license.

The 12 categories are:

  • family visits
  • official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • journalistic activity
  • professional research and professional meetings
  • educational activities
  • religious activities
  • public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • support for the Cuban people
  • humanitarian projects
  • activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • certain authorized export transactions

I went for journalistic activity, the product of which you are reading right now.

I’m not a lawyer, and nothing in this post should be considered legal advice, but, as a traveler, those categories look pretty broad to me. I’m sure anyone who wants to go to Cuba can find a way to plan a trip that involves a religious or educational activity. There are churches and schools all over the country. And, more importantly, I think the changes Obama announced sent a powerful signal to United States Customs and Border Protection (which he heads as the head of the Executive Branch) that they shouldn’t hassle people coming back from Cuba.

You must pick a category, and while I was never asked to prove my category before, during, or after my trip, I imagine it would be a good idea to have some supporting evidence at hand.

The Actual Steps and Paper Work Involved with Entering Cuba

Have ready for your trip:

  • Passport
  • Printed copies of your itinerary, especially your flight that leaves Cuba
  • Proof of Medical Insurance
  • Euros or Canadian Dollars (or less good, American Dollars, more on all this in a future post on money)
  • Evidence of which of the 12 categories you fall into

I checked in for my Copa flights from Washington DC to Panama City to Havana at Dulles Airport. (More on how to book flights in the next post; more on seeing the Panama Canal on my layover here.)

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Source: gcmap.com

Since I was on a one way ticket, the Copa agent asked me for proof of onward travel from Cuba. I showed her a PDF of my Asiana award from Havana to Bogota on my phone, which took me a few minutes to find. It would have been much easier to have brought a printed itinerary.

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She handed me this form in Spanish, presumably English copies are also available, which asked me to specify which of the 12 categories for a general license to travel to Cuba I fell into as well as some personal information.

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I completed the form and handed it back. I do not know whose form it is and whether the US government ever sees that form.

I was given both my Washington-to-Panama and Panama-to-Havana boarding passes by the agent, and I proceeded through security to my gate and a Chipotle burrito breakfast.

Other than that form and showing my flight out of Cuba, nothing was different about my airport experience at Dulles compared to what it would have been if I had been flying to Cleveland.

In Panama

In Panama City, as I was boarding the flight to Havana, I handed the agent my boarding pass and American passport. She handed me an equivalent form to the one I had gotten at check in at Dulles, but in English.

I completed that form and held onto it, and I was never asked for it at any point by anyone.

I asked her, “Don’t I need to get the Cuban visa here?,” and she said, “Oh yes!” You buy the Cuban visa from the airline for $20 cash.

Onboard I was handed the Cuban immigration form. Pictured below is the English form that asks which of the 12 categories I am (left), Cuban immigration form (top right), and Cuban visa (bottom right.)
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Upon arrival in Cuba, I proceeded to immigration. The agent needed my passport, Cuban immigration form, and Cuban visa.

I thought I was in the clear, but then she asked for proof of my medical insurance. I showed her my card that my American insurance company gives me. It is not travel insurance. She looked it over, and asked me, “This just says the number to call if you’re injured in Hawaii.” I pointed to an 800 number that said to call if injured elsewhere.

She accepted that, and gave me back my passport with half the Cuban visa. Do not lose that half of the visa. You need it to leave.

I’m pretty sure my medical insurance does not cover me in Cuba. I understand that Cuba sells travel insurance on the spot to tourists who arrive without proper proof of travel insurance. I have no first hand knowledge of that.

After immigration, there were a few tables of doctors (or nurses?) who appeared to be giving health checks.

Before you get to the doctors, grab a customs form.

The doctors stopped me, but when I showed my American passport I was let through without a check.

I had not checked a bag, so I proceeded past baggage claim to customs. I went into the “Nothing to Declare” line, and the agent asked for my customs form. Apparently I had missed it. It was right back after immigration. I went back, filled it out, and brought it back to the Nothing to Declare line where the agent made sure it was complete and then dropped it into something that looked like a ballot box.

I was free to leave the airport!

Key Points

  • Have passport, evidence of your category for Cuba travel (though this was never requested), evidence of flight out of Cuba, cash, and proof of medical insurance ready to go at check in
  • Buy a Cuban visa from your airline for $20 before you board your flight to Cuba
  • Get a Cuban immigration form on your flight to Cuba
  • Give passport, Cuban visa, Cuban immigration form, and proof of medical insurance to immigration agent in Cuba. Hold onto your half of the Cuban visa for exit.
  • Get a customs form after immigration and give it to customs agent after baggage claim

Leaving Cuba

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Among the Stalactites and Stalagmites of Santo Tomas Cavern

Things you need:

  • The half of the Cuban visa given back to you by the immigration officer
  • Your passport
  • 40-50 CUC (more on what a “CUC” is in the post on money)

A taxi from Vedado (a section of Havana, more on that in the Havana post) to the airport cost me 15 CUC, negotiated upfront. I believe you can negotiate a taxi from anywhere in Havana to the airport for 15 CUC, but if you are a bad negotiator or try to get a taxi outside of a hotel, be ready with 25 CUC.

The ride to the airport took about 30 minutes, and I got there almost about 2.5 hours before my flight. I almost never arrive more than 90 minutes before a flight, but I was glad I gave myself so much time. It took me 1 hour 26 minutes to get from my taxi to my gate.

I was flying Avianca to Bogota, and Avianca has another flight about 45 minutes earlier to San Salvador. The check in line was packed with people from both flights being checked in by four agents and no self check-in machines. It took me one hour from the start of the line to the end. The agent just needed my passport to check me in.

All other airlines had shorter check in lines for what it’s worth, but you may still want to arrive very early.

After getting your boarding pass, you have to pay the 25 CUC airport tax in cash. The line here was also very long, but the two agents could process people quickly, so I only waited about five minutes.

Next came emigration, which was hard to find because its entrance was blocked by so many Cubans who had come to the airport to see off their friends. The line here was another five minutes. I gave the agent my passport and the other half of my Cuban visa and got through quickly.

At no point during immigration or emigration was my passport stamped. I was hoping they would, but I didn’t ask.

Security took another few minutes, and I was at the gate about 60 minutes before my flight.

The airport does have WiFi. The only way to access it is with an ETECSA WiFi scratch card (more on all this in a post about internet), but none are sold at the airport as far as I can tell. If I had known this in advance, I would have brought one or two with me. There were also computers you could rent, but I didn’t have any more CUC or inquire about their price.

Key Things to Leave Cuba (Arrive very early)

  • Your passport
  • The half of the Cuban visa given back to you by the immigration officer
  • 15-25 CUC for your taxi
  • 25 CUC for your exit tax
  • ETECSA WiFi cards if you want to use the internet

Entering the United States

Global Entry Pitch

I have Global Entry, which means that I never have to fill out the United States paper immigration form and rarely have to speak to an immigration officer upon entering the country. If you have time to get Global Entry before Cuba, do it.

Global Entry saves me a few minutes to a few hours of time in line on every re-entry to the United States all for the cost of a $100 application fee, filling out a lengthy application, and one short interview with a Customs and Border Patrol agent. Plus Global Entry gets me TSA Precheck on all my domestic and international flights, which saves time and hassle when going through security. The $100 fee is totally worth it, but you don’t even have to pay that. Cards like the Citi Prestige® Card offer a $100 statement credit if you pay the application fee with your Citi Prestige. (My full review of the Citi Prestige.)

Entry into United States

After Cuba, I headed to Colombia for four days. This was in no way strategic; I just wanted to visit friends in Bogota. I flew back from Bogota to Miami to Washington DC. When I landed in Miami, I went through immigration. My kiosk experience was the same as always.

  • Scan my passport
  • Take a picture
  • Confirm my arriving flight
  • Answer “No” about bringing anything in that I needed to declare
  • Get my print out

I headed past baggage claim because I had no checked bags and handed my print out slip to the customs agent who waived me through.

Customs Rules

According to the US Customs and Border Protection website:

Can I import Cuban cigars into the U.S.?

Persons authorized to travel to Cuba may purchase alcohol and tobacco products while in Cuba for personal consumption while there. Authorized travelers may return to the United States with up to $100 worth of alcohol and/or tobacco products acquired in Cuba in accompanied baggage, for personal use only.

For further information, see this public notice from CPB.

I brought back about $50 worth of cigars.

What If You Don’t Have Global Entry?

My recollection is that the form that non-Global Entry folks fill out asks which countries you’ve visited on your time outside the United States. I would tell the truth, since if you’re in one of the 12 designated categories listed above, your trip was legal.

Bottom Line

Since January 2015, Americans can enter Cuba and spend money without prior approval of the Treasury Department as long as we self-certify that we are visiting Cuba for one of 12 permitted reasons.

Make sure you have everything you need for entry into Cuba, exit from Cuba, and entry back into the United States before making the trip.

The next post will focus on how Americans can buy flights to Cuba in 2015 with cash or frequent flyer miles.

Request for Comments

Cuba is a hard country to understand sometimes, and often I didn’t ask when I was confused because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Please comment on this and all future posts if you’ve been to Cuba. Did I make any mistakes or omissions? Did your experience differ? Your comments can really help people who are planning a trip to Cuba.

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

11

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You can very easily go to the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks on a multi-hour layover at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. You don’t even need to book a tour.

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Last week I used a 7.5 hour layover in Panama City on a trip from Washington DC to Havana, Cuba to visit the Panama Canal and see two ships moving through its locks en route to the Pacific Ocean. My whole excursion took about four hours from the airport back to it.

Why Go to the Panama Canal and Where Exactly Do You Go?

The Panama Canal is a wonder of engineering and human achievement. Ships are taken from sea level through three locks and other manmade and natural parts of the canal and then back to sea level in a different ocean. At locks, the ships are raised or lowered before moving through. Before the Panama Canal, to get around the Americas you had to go thousands of miles farther to the south of South America.

The nearest locks to the Tocumen Airport in Panama City are the Miraflores Locks, near the Pacific Ocean. These locks are 35 km from the airport and take 35 to 75 minutes of driving–depending on traffic–to reach. Here you can see ships going through the locks from an observation deck just a few dozen meters from the action, and you can tour the museum and Visitors Center.

How to Get to the Miraflores Locks

  1. Hire a taxi at the airport to take you to the locks, wait two hours, and take you back to the airport.
  2. Book a tour.

If you speak Spanish, the first option is definitely cheaper and preferable. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re probably better off just booking a taxi when you arrive.

A quick search shows a tour that costs $107 for one person and charges extra for more passengers. I paid $60–Panama uses the US dollar–total for my taxi, and there would have been no extra charge for extra passengers.

Getting the $60 price took a little negotiating and a little walking around.

After exiting immigration (US passports do not need visa), there was a group of taxi drivers. I asked one what the charge would be to take me to the Miraflores Locks, wait two hours, and bring me back. He brought me over to the official desk, and they quoted me something crazy like $100. I walked outside and found some more taxi drivers. They offered me the trip for $90.

Then I saw one taxi driver alone. He offered me the trip for $60.

My theory is that the taxi company at the airport has a monopoly and exorbitant prices. Taxi drivers are unwilling to undercut the cartel if their co-workers are around. But if you find one alone, you can get a more reasonable price.

In the developing world, I think $60 is fair for 70 km of driving and four hours of the driver’s time. Maybe some drivers would be willing to go for less, but I can’t imagine getting cheaper than $50.

The taxi there at 2:15 PM took about 40 minutes. The taxi back at 5 PM hit rush hour traffic and took about 75 minutes, during which I mostly napped. Both ways, the drive gave great views of the coast and of Panama City.

The taxi driver stayed in the car for the entire two hours I was at the locks, so I left my carry ons in the car. Just in case he was some nefarious thief–he wasn’t–I snapped a picture of his license plate before going into the Visitors Center.

I am very glad I used a taxi instead of a tour for the money savings and convenience of going whenever I landed without having to make prior plans.

The Visitors Center at Miraflores Locks

Foreigners pay $15 for a ticket to the Visitors Center, which includes access to a few short films, a museum, and some rooms that recreate the view of engineers and ship captains during crossings.

First I watched a 10 minute film that runs nearly constantly alternating between Spanish and English about the construction and history of the canal.

Then I walked through displays about the construction of the museum. These were all edifying. They clarified to me who had built the canal, how difficult it had been, and why the United States eventually gave back control of the canal to Panama.

The museum featured a recreation of what engineers at the locks see…

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…and one of what ship captains see. I breezed through the film and museum in about 45 minutes. At that point I headed up the observation deck.

Here’s the view, which clearly shows the 54 feet a ship needs to be raised or lowered to pass the locks.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.24 PM

We were about to watch two ships that were being dropped down to sea level to head further south to the Pacific. There are two paths for the two ships to clear the locks simultaneously.
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When I arrived, the ships were just exiting the Pedro Miguel locks, just visible in the distance.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.42 PM

They trudged very slowly towards us, assisted by tug boats.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.22.52 PM

Dozens of us watched in rapt anticipation. Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.23.13 PM

Finally the two ships arrived at the Miraflores Locks. A man over the loudspeaker–who basically emceed the afternoon–told us the nearer one was a Norwegian Cruise Liner and the farther one was a cargo ship.Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 6.23.28 PM

At this point, the ships inch through the locks with only a few feet to spare and being guided by the small carts on the tracks on either side. The cruise liner had passengers on every deck.
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Finally the ships arrived at the point where they had to wait for water to be drained.

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And slowly the water did drain. Compare its level above and below.

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Unfortunately, it was now 5 PM. I’d been at the locks for two hours, and the museum closes at 5 PM, so I had to go. I didn’t quite get to see the ship pass through the locks completely, but I certainly got the idea.

I napped as my driver fought traffic back to Tocumen. We arrived at the airport at about 6:15 PM, I collected my bag, and handed him $60. My excursion was definitely worth $75 total since I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in Panama.

I already had my boarding pass for my flight to Havana–I had gotten it at check in in Washington–so I headed to emigration. After flipping through my passport, the person asked when I had entered Panama. I replied that I had just entered a few hours earlier and gone to the Canal. I think that’s why I had no stamp because I was just considered in transit. That satisfied the passport checker, and I headed through security and to my gate arriving about three hours before my flight.

My whole excursion took about four hours including traffic, so I think a trip to the Miraflores Locks is fine if you have a 5+ hour layover.

Bottom Line

Copa often offers the cheapest flights and best award space from the United States to South America, Central America, and the Caribbean via its Panama City hub. You can usually select a longer layover of up to 24 hours for no extra money or miles. If you have a 5+ hour layover, head to the Miraflores Locks to see an engineering marvel up close.

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Monday I flew Allegiant Air in a Giant Seat, one of their First Class-sized seats up front, from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

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Allegiant Air is a Las-Vegas-based low-cost carrier that survives by selling bundled hotel-air-entertainment packages, charging a fee for almost everything, and keeping its costs low.

It was a First Class-sized seat at an economy-class price. Was it worth flying a budget-carrier with no frequent flyer program just to save a few bucks and get a bigger seat?

  • How was the check-in, security, boarding, food, and service with Allegiant?
  • What perks came with a Giant Seat?
  • Which Giant Seat should you choose (they have different leg room and recline)?

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Last week, I did a 2 day/1 night hike on the Great Wall of China near Beijing that included 10 miles of hiking on the Wall, several meals, transportation, lodging, and a massage. My brother and I paid $370 per person.

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Hiking the Great Wall was one of my best travel experiences ever. The history, the scenery, the outdoor exercise, and spending time with my brother were a potent combination.

I went with Great Wall Hiking (which gave me no discount and doesn’t know I’m writing this review), and I enjoyed the tour immensely. I wish it had been cheaper, and there may be similar options out there that are cheaper. I’ll give my experiences to help you plan your Great Wall adventure if you head to Beijing. (See also How the 72 Hour Transit Without Visa Works in Beijing, China and Award Space Home from the Great Wall.)

  • What was the itinerary?
  • How was the service?

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I just arrived in Los Angeles after 10 hours flying Asiana First Class on its brand new A380. I booked my seat last month for 70,000 United miles (at pre-devaluation prices using this trick.)

This is a really important trip report because Asiana First Class is a true luxury product that is extremely easy to book with miles!

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Champagne wishes & caviar realities in Asiana First

Award space on the Asiana A380 is wide open in Business Class and First Class between Los Angeles and Seoul, especially at the last minute. Here’s a search for 4 passengers between Seoul and Los Angeles for the next two months. The blue and green days all have award space in Business or First Class or both for 4 passengers on the same flight.

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This flight has 4+ Business Class and 4+ First Class award seats on the same Asiana A380.

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I very much enjoyed my Asiana First Class experience, though there are some things the airline can improve.

  • How was the seat, bed, food, service, lounge, and airport experience?

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A few days ago, I hiked to Sai Wan Village and Sheung Luk Stream in Hong Kong on the advice of an American friend who’d done the hike last year. The hike, lunch, and cliff jumping made for my favorite day of activities in Hong Kong and a stark contrast from the urban activities that dominate Central and Kowloon.

The Sai Wan Village hike is quite famous with even a CNN article on the topic, but I couldn’t find one site with good directions, photos, and maps of the hike to Sai Wan village and Sheung Luk stream, so hopefully this post can be that resource as well as a trip report to inspire you for your next trip to Hong Kong.

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Jumping in at Sheung Luk

The hike is an easy 45 minutes to one hour in each direction along a fully paved path. The main issue is the omnipresent heat and humidity in Hong Kong.

Along the way, you’re treated to views of the High Island Reservoir, and at the end of the path is a spectacular beach and ocean, a fishing village with delicious Chinese food, and a stream with natural pools and waterfalls.

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High Island Reservoir, from the trail
  • How do you get to the trailhead?
  • How do you get to the waterfall?
  • What are your return options?
  • Plus more pictures.

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Yesterday, I flew a United 777-200 equipped with the carrier’s latest entertainment concept: I could freely stream hundreds of movies and TV shows on my own laptop or United’s iOS app. (Hemispheres magazine said that Android compatibility is coming soon.)

I had never seen a system like it, and it seems like the wave of the future as it’s much lighter for United to remove all of its monitors and let us use our own.

I tested out the system by watching the fantastic Searching for Sugar Man documentary on my laptop on my flight from Honolulu to Guam.

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  • How did I like the personal streaming entertainment?
  • What would I improve?
  • How many TV shows and movies were available?
  • Was there internet on my flight?
  • What has United done with all its monitors?

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This is the fifth installment of a round-the-world trip report that started here. We pick up in Hong Kong.

In late February, I flew into Hong Kong International Airport for a 23 hour layover that I spent in Macau. (Don’t worry, I’m going to Hong Kong proper in a few weeks!)

I flew into Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class and out of Hong Kong the next day in Cathay Pacific Business Class. Waiting for that Business Class flight, I headed to The Wing, which is Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge.

Anyone flying Cathay Pacific in a premium cabin can access the lounge, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed into the First Class area since my only First Class flight had landed the day before.

I presented my First Class boarding pass upon entering the lounge and asked: “I flew in in First Class. Can I access the First Class part of the lounge?”

I was allowed into the First Class area and headed straight for the dining room.

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The dining room is large, but the tables are packed in tightly. The room was practically empty, so I would have preferred fewer tables for a more spacious feel.

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A waiter came and presented the a la carte menu, which featured standard Western breakfast dishes like eggs, sausage, bacon, and hash browns.

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I don’t like eggs, so I asked for an order of every side dish, all of which I love. I also ordered an orange juice.

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While I waited for my a la carte order, I checked out the breakfast buffet. The breakfast buffet has pastries, meats, and several Chinese dishes.

  • How is the food?
  • The lounge?
  • The bar?
  • The Cabanas?

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This is the eighth installment of a round-the-world trip report that started here. We pick up in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat is a 900 year old Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple complex just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is the world’s largest religious monument, and the number one tourist attraction in Cambodia.

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Angkor Wat is actually just the most famous of many temples in the area that are collectively known as the Angkor Temples, named after Angkor, the seat of the former Khmer Empire.

The Angkor Temples were the highlight of my six-week trip around the world in Cathay Pacific, Singapore, and Lufthansa First Class this winter. I spent four days in Siem Reap, going to the Angkor Temples for part of every day. Based on my experiences, I have suggestions for the best ways to enjoy your time in Siem Reap and the Angkor temples.

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  • When should you go?
  • How much time should you budget?
  • What miles should you use to get there?
  • How should you see the temples?
  • Where should you stay?
  • What else is there to do around Siem Reap?
  • Plus dozens of pictures!

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Saturday night I had the pleasure of flying Hawaiian Airlines First Class from Honolulu to Las Vegas.

I had an internet outage at home that day, so I headed to the airport about four hours early to try to get some work done on more reliable wifi.

Hawaiian Airlines has the largest check in area of any airline at Honolulu International Airport. When I arrived, I didn’t immediately see a First Class check in area, so I just used a kiosk to print my boarding pass.

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I did see a First Class and Premier check in right after that, and I went over to ask whether my ticket entitled me to lounge access.

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The agent’s answer was hilarious and prophetic: “Yes, but it’s more of a glorified waiting area.”

  • How was the lounge?
  • How was the flight?
  • How was the service?
  • How was the food?

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This is the seventh installment of a round-the-world trip report that started here. We pick up in Cambodia.

I landed at Siem Reap International Airport and got my Cambodia visa on arrival. (Make sure to have $20 in cash and a passport-sized photo. Better yet, check current requirements.)

I had booked my first night at Le Méridien Angkor to test it out and because my preferred hostel was sold out.

Le Méridien Angkor is a Category 2 SPG property, which means it costs 4,000 Starpoints for a free night Sunday through Thursday and only 3,000 points for a weekend night.

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I was staying on a weeknight. Instead of booking a free night, I decided to book a Cash & Points night for 2,000 points + $35.

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Compared to a free night, this was like “buying” 2,000 points back for 1.75 cents each, which I was happy to do to stretch my super-valuable Starpoints balance.

Using points was the way to go with a paid night at the hotel going for around $140. (Every price you see in Cambodia is in dollars. Riel are really only used by tourists for change when a price is less than $1. Conveniently when I went, the exchange rate was basically exactly 4,000 riel to the dollar.)

Outside the airport, I was offered a taxi for $10 or a scooter for $3. I pack light, and the scooter sounded more fun, so saving $7 was an easy decision!

Le Méridien Angkor is about 8 miles from the airport, 3 miles from Angkor Wat, and 1 mile outside the heart of Siem Reap.

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 3.42.50 PM

Whether the location is a positive or negative depends on whether you want to be in the heart of the action or in a quieter area. Transportation options are so quick and cheap that I think it doesn’t matter much.

I arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon on a beautiful day.

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Entrance
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The Grounds
  • How was the room?
  • How was the hotel’s food?
  • How were the grounds?
  • How was the service?
  • Do I recommend Le Meridien as the place to stay when visiting Angkor Wat?

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This is the sixth installment of a round-the-world trip report that started here. We pick up in Singapore.

As the title of this series indicates, my trip was built around flying Cathay Pacific, Singapore, and Lufthansa First Class. I booked those long flights well before I had a plan for my time on the ground.

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When I looked into how I wanted to spend my time in Southeast Asia, I decided to spend eight days in Cambodia. I had to get there and back from Singapore, and the way to do that seemed obvious to me based on previous experience in Southeast Asia: low-cost carriers.

Similarly I decided to spend three days in Slovenia to get back to the Balkans, and I had to get there from London. I knew it was another chance to save my airline miles and book a low-cost carrier.

Both flights could have been booked with traditional airline miles like United miles or British Airways Avios. But they would have been inefficient redemptions where I was saving less than 1 cent per mile used. Instead I saved those airline miles for redemptions when I can get 2 cents of value or more. And I redeemed Arrival miles earned on my Arrival World MasterCard, which can be used for free flights on any airline. (Meeting the card’s spending requirement unlocks $500 in free flights.)

How can you find low-cost carriers on routes you want to fly? How can you book them? What fees do you need to be aware of? Are low cost carriers bearable?

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This is the fifth installment of a round-the-world trip report that started here. We pick up in Macau, China.

I like Las Vegas in small doses, so I’ve always wanted to check out Macau, one of China’s two special autonomous regions (the other is Hong Kong). Macau is famous for being the biggest gambling destination in the world with revenues about seven times larger than the Las Vegas Strip’s in 2013.

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Macau and Hong Kong, 37 Miles Apart

I had heard that comparing Macau to Vegas was a mistake because while there’s a lot to do in Vegas from shopping to shows to just people watching, Macau is just gambling. I had even heard you could see Macau and get sick of it in a day.

That meant this was the perfect trip for me to go to Macau because I only had 20 hours in Hong Kong as part of an American Airlines award, and Macau is a short ferry ride away from Hong Kong International Airport.

I still haven’t spent time in Hong Kong itself, and I want to save it for a trip when I have several days to explore.

The day before heading to Macau, I had booked myself one night at the Grand Hyatt Macau, which usually goes for around $300 per night. The hotel is a Category 4 property, so I booked my night for free with 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, the majority of which I had transferred instantly from Ultimate Rewards.

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I landed at 2:20 PM in Hong Kong, and I was feeling pretty good since I had slept eight hours on my flight from JFK in Cathay Pacific First Class.

I headed toward the ferry counters, which are well signed and before immigration. There are two ferry terminals in Macau, both of which are served from HKG for about $40. One terminal is called Macau on the north end (the Macau Peninsula) and the other, Taipa, is on the south end (on the island of Taipa.) Taipa was closer to my hotel, but I would have taken the first ferry to either because a cab from one ferry terminal to the other is only about $10.

I booked my ferry ticket for a 4 PM departure and boarded the one hour ferry to Taipa Ferry Terminal on Macau.

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How was the Grand Hyatt Macau? Is Macau worth a visit?

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