This is my first time to Cuba, and it was still certainly a challenge of arriving in Havana despite the fact that relations with the U.S. are thawing. Not only did we have to master the challenge of the “flying through a third” city, but then we had to find flights that were actually affordable. We landed on Copa Airlines, through Panama City Airport (PTY). You can read about our thought process of buying our plane tickets here.
At Curacao Airport, where I was departing (having just finished up my business trip), I tried to check in all the way to Havana. That entailed getting Copa to print out my boarding pass from my CUR-PTY reservation, and my separate reservation from PTY-HAV. Then they realized that I needed to fill out a Cuban entry form in order to issue the ticket to Cuba. The form was entirely in Spanish and had special clauses you had to choose if you were entering as a US citizen/resident – none of which were tourism. This is where you had to choose business, religious reasons, education, etc. I chose the reason which was “non-related to commercial reasons” – at least that’s how it was translated to me from the Copa Airline official who spoor mediocre Spanish, Dutch, English, and Papiamento.
There was a moment (actually more than a moment) where I thought this whole Cuba trip was just going to fall apart. But it eventually worked out….
At the CUR airport there was free Wi-Fi, so I was able to do a little more work before leaving. There was also a Royal Bank of Scotland ATM so I used my Chase Debit card to get 400 Euros now. I already had a wad of greenbacks, but we had heard that there’s a 10% tax on exchanging dollars to Cuban CUC currency in Cuba, so Euros was the better bet. I was charged a $4.50 ATM fee by RBS, and hopefully no additional fee or foreign transaction fee by Chase.
The CUR airport was a tiny one with 12 gates. Security was laughable and check-in was easy. Neither check-in nor security had long lines.
I got in to Panama (PTY) just fine after a pleasant flight with Copa. The not-gay male flight attendant also flirted with me and asked for my Instagram ID. And the descent in to Panama was gorgeous.
Dave was waiting for me at the in PTY. I was so excited to see him that I almost knocked over the heavy metal pole that created the lane for boarding and deplaning at the gate. The first thing we did was look for the Cuban Tourist Card for Dave. It was WAY easier in the PTY Airport – he wasn’t questioned at all as to the purpose of this travel to Cuba, nor did he have to fill out that annoying form I have to fill out. He just walked up to an Information Kiosk near Gate 18, paid $20, and was handed the Tourist Card. That’s what I get for trying to get things done in advance!
We had more than 3 hours to kill until our flight to HAV – and tried and failed to get on the 330PM flight to HAV (the gate agent told us that, even though the flight hadn’t boarded yet, the flight registry was already closed, and the Cuban government was very strict about these things and nothing could be done. So we found a spot to sit over by the 1-7 Gates and there was free Wi-Fi and ample power outlets with American plugs. We also walked around PTY and scoped out the dining and shopping situation. The food options were terrible – there was one interesting bar downstairs below the food court area near Gates 15+, and another one upstairs in the food court – but it was too hot to linger upstairs for any large amount of time. There was no “local” cuisine option at all and really the choices were between American fast food chains and some sandwich cafes.
There were a number of Duty Free options which is about the best shopping you’re going to get in PTY Airport. Unfortunately the airport is not very locally oriented, focused more on being a global marketplace of designer brands than offering up locally made handicrafts and authentic cuisine. We noted to ourselves to buy booze on the way back through PTY Airport because the prices were very good at the Duty Free Liquor stories. For example, a big bottle of Grey Goose was $38, and the Herradura Reposado that we like so much was only $48. Of course we also checked the prices on Cuban Cigars to get an idea of why “international” prices are (much more expensive due to the export tax). They were something like 3 for $100. Of course if you bought them at PTY Airport, you didn’t have to worry about smuggling them in to the US (I think).
We stopped by the National Geographic store near Gate 6 to check out their travel collection and try on some Ecuadorian Panama Hats, but weren’t very impressed by the selection (half of the store was oriented to children). We also browed some of the Electronic Duty Free stories to look at point and shoot cameras as well as DSLRs for Dave. For whatever reason, PTY Airport was a “Sony” airport – it was very hard to find camera brands that weren’t Sony. Also amusingly, all the stores had the selection of stuff and the same prices – so I’m fairly certain there’s price setting going on at PTY Airport.
Everything remained on time, and boarding was a breeze. Even though we had “Group 5” printed on our boarding passes for our boarding order, we went on with Group 2 and none of the agents seemed to care or notice. They stamped the back of my Tourist Card after they checked my passport and boarding pass, and let me on. They did NOT stamp Dave’s Tourist Card – we are not sure why.
The flight was 2.5 hours and Copa Airlines served us a bad meal. But, at least it was a meal. I had the ravioli with marinara – there were about 15 raviolis and 1 teaspoon of marinara….possibly the driest pasta I have ever had. Dave had the beef with a scoop of potatoes (looked extremely unappetizing). It seemed like Copa Airlines served free alcoholic beverages but neither of us tried to partake.
After that, he mostly slept and I read “Game of Thrones” (book #2 in case you’re wondering).
The descent in to Cuba gave an interesting perspective on the lack of electricity and populous across the island – lights were very sparse.
We landed in Havana, deplaned, and went straight to immigration. There were 10 or so immigration lines with no more than 3 people in each so it moved very fast. On the plane, the Copa agents had passed up immigration forms that we had already filled out, further expediting the process. The line I chose moved slightly faster than the line Dave chose – but I got grilled by the immigration lady for a solid 10 minutes. I thought for sure I would be pulled in to secondary – not only was I having trouble understanding her questions (and she probably thought I was being insolent), but she didn’t like the face capture biometric pictures she took of me and had to re-do them several times. At one point, she even asked me to “step back” from the booth, as she did “something” on the computer in front of her. Dave said that out of the corner of his eye (he was at the booth next to me), he saw something pop up on her screen that seemed to indicate that I might have been flagged in their system.
She never did ask me “Why” I was in Cuba – which I thought would have been the most obvious and most important question to ask, so of course I didn’t volunteer this information. The oddest question she asked me, but one that I had anticipated due to research I had done, was whether I had “American insurance.” At first I had no idea what she was talking about, especially because she kept pointing to her eye every time she asked the question. Eventually I caught on and realized she was talking about health insurance – so I pulled out my Aetna card, which luckily I brought, and forked it over. This seemed to make her happy. She asked to take my face photo one more time before she finally granted me leave to enter the country. I had of course purposely smiled and obscured my ears for the first pictures, but she was well-trained so she asked me not to smile and she gestured for me to brush the hair off my ears. I hate having my biometric stored in foreign (as well as domestic for that matter) systems.
Finally, when everything was in order, she asked if I wanted her to stamp my passport, and I said “No, please stamp the Tourist Card only” – she complied with this and let me through. David did not get the same thorough treatment, nor was he asked about health insurance, and he was waiting for me on the other side for over 5 minutes, watching me sweat.
Since we had no bags we bypassed baggage claim and went right through security, where our luggage was screened, and we were handed a customs declaration form. We had nothing to declare since we weren’t bringing anything in to sell, nor did we have over $5,000 of foreign currency on us. There was a section on electronics that was vague enough for me to write down that we had 1 laptop and 2 smartphones – but they were for our personal use and not for sale. We went in to the “Nothing to Declare” line and were briefly questioned on those electronics we put down, but as soon as the official understood that they were our personal possessions, he waived us through. The one final check was handing a lady at the very end of the walkway our declarations form, and finally we made it in to the Arrivals Terminal of HAV Airport.
We made it outside and started looking for a taxi when we realized we needed to exchange currency. There are two Currency Exchange bureaus at each end of the HAV Arrivals Terminal, located outside. There are also two more inside upstairs (which we hadn’t noticed when we were walking through). The lines outside were very long – more than 25 people in each, and were quite disorderly. Dave got in the line outside on the right side of the airport, and I scouted inside to find the two more currency exchange bureaus upstairs. The first one I went to (on the right side) wasn’t working because they ran out of money. The second was on the left side was working, and the line was shorter, so I asked some people to save my place as I went down to tell Dave.
Dave hasn’t made much progress in his line, so I took the money and went upstairs to do the exchange for us. After waiting in that line for about 10 minutes, that currency booth also ran out of money, so everyone still in line raced downstairs to get in the line we were originally waiting in. Unfortunately Dave was nowhere to be found so we lost our place, and I had to wait again in the end of the line.
Luckily, the line started moving faster and was only about a 30 minute wait. We exchanged 750 Euros into the Cuban international currency (CUCs, pronounced “cuke” (rhymes with Duke)), which yielded 770 CUCs or so. In line, I was able to chat with a Canadian guy who was married to a Cuban woman and had visited Cuba about 20 times. He gave us some tips on where to go and what to do in Havana. He said:
- Go eat at a little mom and pop restaurant across the street from the Hotel Libre, the former Hilton Hotel.
- Buy a certain type of rum called Legendario
- Don’t get scammed by the taxis, who like to place a long mirror over the meter so you can’t see it. Always negotiate and ask the price upfront.
- Cuban cigars are best bought from people who work at the factory, and you can get a box for $50 if you know the right people.
Finally, Dave showed up after I had exchanged the money, and we found a taxi with a meter to take us to our Casa Particular (in-house B&B), but he insisted on negotiating a fixed rate – he asked for 30 CUC and we settled on 25 CUC.
I hope you can learn from our successes and failures both buying flights to Cuba, and the process of actually flying to Havana. Buena suerte!