Contributor: Sarah Arizaga
Part one of this article covered all the prep work I did for my trip to Cuba in late January 2022. This is what I experienced traveling to and from Jose Marti Airport in Havana.
The hardest part of this journey was getting everything packed and ready to go. Check in was a breeze, although American Airlines doesn’t allow online check in for Cuba so I made sure I arrived two hours in advance.
A note about luggage. I’m not used to packing to full capacity so I was confused by the Cuba luggage restrictions. This trip I was taking advantage of Cuba customs fee waiver for medical, food, and hygiene products by bringing donations and requests. Basically, being a mule (coffee and vitamins were the most popular requests). I brought maximum luggage which is: 1 carry on, 1 personal item, 2 check in items which are allowed to be up to 70lbs each, although they charge insane excess bag fees for anything over 50lbs. Total cost of luggage $95.
At check-in in SMF I was asked to show my:
Vaccination Certificate - no longer required as of April 6, 2022
PCR Results - no longer required as of April 6, 2022
Cuba QR Code
I had a very short layover but it doesn’t take much time. There is a Cuba Travel Services stand in the boarding area where they checked my visa and stamped by boarding pass “Cuba Ready”. If you need to buy a visa, that’s where you’ll do it, it takes less than 5 minutes. Boarding my flight to Havana they checked my passport and stamped boarding pass (this also serves as proof of medical insurance). Normally at some point during the check-in process I am asked to verbally state my category of general license, oddly, this time no one asked.
American Airlines used its big dog for this flight, the 9-seats across plane and it was full.
Arriving at Jose Marti Airport
The good thing about flying Jet Blue or American is that the flight arrives at the modern terminal – Terminal 3. This is convenient for picking up my Tourist SIM because the Etecsa office is right outside. In that same complex is the Ecotur office you’d visit in case you didn’t find your Cuban Adventures airport greeter. If I’d have flown Southwest, I’d arrive in Terminal 2, a taxi ride from Terminal 3 so I’d have either asked the driver to make an extra stop to pick up my SIM or go to an Etecsa office in town.
I treated myself to the Airport VIP service so I didn’t have to deal with the baggage claim, I paid $25 in cash. There was a line of VIP escorts offering the service right when I walked off the jet bridge. My VIP escort Manuela* guided me to immigration where my QR code and passport were checked and my visa stamped. I was asked about the countries I recently visited, and then photographed sans all hat, glasses and anything else on my head. Sometimes I am also asked why I’m visiting; this is not the time to say Support for the Cuban People (that’s a US thing). I’d tell them tourism, sightseeing, going to the beach, etc.
Next stop, security x-ray (shoes stay on, no belts, scarves, or jackets). Much to my surprise they now have a body scanner! Yikes.
Then Manuela led me to the VIP lounge where I was offered drinks (even beer and rum!) and snacks. Time to sit back and relax and watch bad TV while Manuela looked for my luggage. It took about an hour, but I was comfortable and I’ve waited nearly 3 hours before so I was happy.
Everyone is supposed to get a half hour free wifi in the Jose Marti Airport (both terminals) but it wasn’t working at the time. There is a smoking room in the lounge for those that need it (leave your marijuana at home).
Once Manuela found my luggage, she loaded it on to a cart and guided through customs where I showed my QR code again to exit the airport. Normally when I’m bringing a lot of stuff my luggage gets flagged for inspection, and I have to explain that everything is a gift. I think Manuela worked a bit of magic. I tipped her a $5.
Getting to Havana
Outside the airport there were plenty of cabs, both yellow taxis and classic cars, all of which should charge the same price. If you don’t have airport pickup, there are lots of people asking if you need a ride. Some are the drivers, and some are just spokespeople for the drivers and will lead you to the driver when you accept the offer. The first time I came this made me a bit nervous, but now I know it’s just how it works. I paid $25 for the 30-minute drive to Centro Habana, same price to all tourist neighborhoods.
I arrived in the middle of the coldest period in Havana history where Cubans don’t leave the house unless absolutely necessary, which means the streets were even more deserted than usual. In all fairness, it was pretty darn cold. Who knew it could get down to 40-something degrees in Cuba? Havana was changed but still wonderful, read about my experience.
To get back to the US, residents must have either the Antigen test or a doctor’s note that confirms recovery from Covid within the past 90 days.
Because my video antigen test experiment had failed, I would have taken the rapid test at the Siboney Clinic kiosk in the airport (available at both terminals) and I would have been able to report back exactly how long I waited, how much, and payment method. But because I was hobbling on sprained ankle by then, I didn’t want to be on my feet any longer than necessary so I went the doctors note route. I can only say that the testing line wasn’t too long, the process seemed to go smoothly, and I have heard it costs $30 and by some miracle, they accept US credit cards. I’d give myself an extra hour to do the antigen test at the airport (so, arrive at least 3 hours before flight). If you’re on one of our tours, the guide will help arrange the test.
Instead, I handed over my doctors note, and a just-in-case printout of the CDC rules. The airline agent seemed taken by surprise and went over the paperwork very carefully (I had to explain that an E-Signature is a signature), but it worked!
Then it was just a matter of going back through immigration (they take your visa so make sure you don’t lose it), security (this time no shoes, my water always makes it through) and on to my flight back to Miami.
Back in the U.S.
This was my 17th trip to Cuba, and I’d say about 6 times I’ve been asked more than the perfunctory “Why were you in Cuba?” question, to which the answer is always “Support for the Cuban People”. This lady wanted to know how I supported the Cuban people, where I stayed, what I did all day, and of course, whether I brought back alcohol or tobacco. I answered her questions easily: bringing donations and supporting private businesses, stayed in a casa particular, interacted with locals, no alcohol or tobacco. Satisfied, she waived me through.
The Trump Era prohibition on bringing back alcohol and tobacco is a real bummer because I had to turn down a gift from a friend who had very kindly bought cigars for me to take back for my father-in-law and husband. But, as with all processes run by humans, the enforcement of this rule is arbitrary, because I saw a woman with duty-free bag of rum who had clearly made it through immigration. The whole process to re-enter US will vary, but for most people, coming back from Cuba is not much different than coming back from Mexico or the UK.
Home sweet home and eager to go back to Cuba! If you have any questions drop them in the comments section!