Travel report on Cuba

With quite a few of our readers travelling to Cuba within the last few months, we decided to share with you the experience of two travelers who are residents of the United States who traveled one month apart. Charlotte holds a German passport, and Brook holds a US passport.    

What was it like clearing Immigration and customs in Cuba?
Charlotte:  It is a smaller airport, which made the immigration portion faster, but everyone waited a while for their luggage. I entered with my German passport and got sent back out of the line after the immigration officer saw one entry stamp for the United States. A Cuban officer asked me in very broken English why I was coming to Cuba, what I wanted to do there, whom I was traveling with and what I had to do with the United States.
Brook:  No Problems, did not ask typical immigration questions such as where we were staying, how long, etc.   just took picture and that was it.
How did you get to your hotel from the airport?
Charlotte:  My friends had recommended to reach out to Maritza, a local lady who is absolutely wonderful and a management queen. Even though we weren’t directly staying in her accommodations, she arranged for our pick up and rooms. A friendly family member of hers was already waiting for me.
Brook:  We prepaid for a taxi through Casaparticular (who we booked our apartment through) lots of people holding up signs with names when we walked out of airport but none with our name.  So, after standing in line for an hour to get Cuban money we found a taxi driver who spoke English, and paid him $25 for a ride into Havana.
Did you travel out of Havana?
Charlotte:  We did a day excursion to Vinales to see caves and cigar production, and spent three days in Trinidad. Trinidad is another beautiful, colonial city with beautiful beaches nearby.
Brook:  We spent one day in Santa Maria which is about 25 miles away from Havana.  beautiful beaches and some nice little outdoor restaurants to get food and drinks.  Not much else there and not very developed.  If you want a lounger or Umbrella to sit under, you have to pay for them.
Describe your accommodation?
Charlotte:  Maritza organized most of our accommodations and I booked one night in Trinidad via Airbnb. The accommodations we had in Havana were apartments or rooms that were separate from the owner’s apartments. In Trinidad we had two different rooms and they each were inside a local family’s house.
Brook:  We rented a 2 bedroom apartment through Casaparticular.  We paid $65 / night.  It was clean, with a TV and small gas stove to cook.  The bathroom was good with hot water.  No washing machine, so we had to hand wash clothes.  We were about 5 miles away from old town Havana, but still in a built up area.  It was very noisy even on the 8th floor, cars honking horns throughout the night and loud exhausts.
What are ‘touristy’ things you did?
Charlotte:  We got picked up in old timers for taxi rides, but we didn’t pay extra for it or especially book it. We went to one of Hemingway’s favorite bars ‘La Floridita’ in Havana. We bought some cigars. We went to the cannon ceremony in Havana that is held each night at nine o’ clock at the La Cabana Fortress on the other side of the Havana Bay and symbolizes the closing of the city gates. It includes a military ceremony with actors dressed in Spanish uniforms. 
Brook:  Old town Havana, Ernest Hemingway bars and hotel, the cigar factory was closed for construction however a small store was still open to buy cigars (Americans can bring up to 100 back).  We went for a drive in an old convertible (going rate is $50 / hour) this includes your driver and a set route tour around the city.  The bus tour on the open top double-Decker (paid $10 each adult, kid was free) for a 2 hour tour around Havana.  Not a whole lot of great places to get on/off but good overview of city.
What type of food is available for foreigners?
Charlotte:  Cuba is very limited, when it comes to ‘consumption of food’.  There are no international chains and no supermarkets. There are plenty of restaurants in all the touristy areas, but we weren’t impressed with the food or cooking skills. No one was left hungry, but take some snacks with you, like energy bars. Here and there you find some small corner stores, but they are limited to a few items and you can’t snack on a pound of flour!
Brook:  Groceries are very limited… long lines even at Farmers Market, but cost less than $1 for a couple of pineapples and a bunch of bananas.  Didn’t see milk, eggs or sugar.  Lots of very small mom / pop type stores that sold coffee / creamer / soda / beer / etc.   Found several bakeries as we walked around.  Picked up bag of small sweet rolls / muffins for about $1 (or 1 CUC)
Not much Cuban food… some fish with beans, rice, and fried banana.  Most places sell pizza, pasta, and ham and cheese sandwiches.
What type of shopping did you do?
Charlotte:  We bought a few touristy souvenirs and cigars, but beyond touristy items, shopping options are very limited. Stores are difficult to find and the few items available would not appeal to the taste of foreigners. It is definitely not a shopping paradise.
Brook:  Old town has plenty of cheap tourist stores selling the typical tourist filler… Che and Castro everything including hats, shirts, cups, pictures.  We picked up some local painted  art, wooden carvings, fridge magnets, etc.  Cigars from Partagas Cigar Store (don’t buy on the street).  Cuban Rum is cheap $8 for a big bottle of the 3 anos (3 year old).
What was the procedure leaving Cuba?
Charlotte:  Leaving was very easy. For someone concerned they might still need Cuban money after they go through baggage check, there are also currency exchanges in the terminal area.
Brook: Know which terminal you are leaving from as there are three, and in different locations.  Security  was easy and there is duty free once you clear it.  Cuba does not put a date on receipt so if transferring in US through airports, then TSA will not allow liquids (rum) to go through.  Recommend buy rum and take bubble wrap or extra towel to protect bottle and put it in checked luggage.
Did you face any obstacles arriving in the US?
Charlotte:  I was fully prepared for questioning at the US border and had all my documents ready. Especially as a visa holder I had a letter of employment, all my usual documents and I had made a list of the educational activities I had done, to be able to demonstrate that I didn’t just lie on the beach for a week and comply with the allowed activities under US regulations. In the end they didn’t ask me a single question. The Customs Officer just wanted to know whether I had a great time. My concerns seemed to be unfounded.
Most Important Thing to Know: It is not possible to access US bank accounts and withdraw money or pay with cards while in Cuba. You have to take enough US dollars that you can exchange locally as needed for your entire trip. I had to lend money to another girl from Florida because she thought she could use her cards and she completely ran out of money. Not even the banking apps like Venmo or Wells Fargo work, because the (very slow and hardly available) Internet on Cuba blocks American IP addresses.
Brook:  TSA and their typical rude behavior…. see above!!!
Great information from Charlotte and Brook!  For travel deals and error fares to Cuba and many other countries, join our private Facebook group by sending a request to mail@serendipityntravel.com.

The Consequences Of The Ban

Good morning from the Business Class Lounge at Doha Airport! The big news here is that the three major carriers to the US – Qatar Airlines, Emirates, and Etihad, with approximately 15 flights a day in and out of the US have had to change their Cabin crew and Pilot rosters after the ban by the Trump administration. These three airlines employ flight personnel from over 50 countries, which also consists of nationals from the banned countries. These crew members who have been flying in and out of the US are now banned from performing their duties on flights into the US. Speaking with Qatar Airways cabin crew, none of them seemed to care about the ban, and even remarked that there were other countries they could still enjoy!

 

Does it make a difference that your flight lands early?

Three of my last five international flights landed early, in fact the last one landed one hour and fifteen minutes early! It was a Qatar Airways 16 hour flight that ended up as a 14 hour 45 minute flight, (almost) flying over the North Pole and experiencing some pretty heavy tail winds. And, then what always happens, happened. We had no gate available, and had to ‘hold’ on the apron for almost an hour for a gate to be available. The non-availability of gates for the passengers to disembark is getting more and more common when a flight arrives early or even late. When a flight departs at its scheduled time, it is assigned a gate at its arrival airport. Since gates are limited, especially at busy international airports, an aircraft must be in and out within its allocated time. An early arrival or delayed departure would probably end up as a big problem. Ever wondered why your connecting flight would not even wait ten minutes for you? It would cost the airline more in fees paid for extra time at the gate than it would take for them to get you on another flight.

The attacks in Turkey

Will the deadly attack in Istanbul, Turkey, leaving 39 dead and several injured put a dent on tourism into Turkey and affect Turkish Airlines as well? As the dead were mostly tourists, the attacker did not differentiate between locals and foreigners, and seemed to target a location that served both. Terrorist attacks and explosions in Turkey are not rare, and I was in Turkey in early 2016 when an explosion disrupted Istanbul two hours before my flight to the US departed. The airport was sealed to prevent anyone getting in and out, and I was fortunate to be inside the airport. At the time of writing, the US State Department has not made any changes to the previous travel warning issued in October 2016 which stated that US citizens should not travel to certain areas in Turkey.

Turkish Airways is one of the best in the world, with an exceptional Business Class service that outclasses First Class on most other airlines. I experienced their service on the long flight from Istanbul to Los Angeles, and was pampered with their food service served on a trolley, menu selection for your choice of bedding, a tea and coffee service fit for royalty, and friendly cabin crew that would go overboard to make you comfortable. It would be a shame to see this airline go down with less passengers flying into Turkey or transiting through there to Asia or Africa.

PREPARE FOR THANKSGIVING TRAVEL

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There are many that will be travelling during Thanksgiving. Here are a few thoughts on Thanksgiving travel from me, and it is not too early to plan.

Some people have asked me what the best day would be to travel during Thanksgiving. The day with the least air travel is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but the airports will still be packed and you need to get there well ahead of time as drop off access roads and TSA lines will be long.
TIP – When traffic into the terminal gets jammed, get dropped off at the ‘Arrival’ level and take the elevator up. It will save you a lot of time, and stress.

Consider Lyft or Uber to get you to the airport, and your friend or family member will not have to inch their way in heavy traffic to
drop you off. Even getting dropped off at a location close to the airport and taking a Lyft or Uber from there will cause less stress for the person dropping you off.

There are no cheap tickets during Thanksgiving, and every flight will be full, and possibly overbooked. Check in early and get to the gate early to minimize your chances of getting offloaded. Most times, it is the passengers that get to the gate last that get taken off. Be careful of falling for ‘voluntary bumping’ for financial compensation, as every flight will be fully booked or overbooked. Once you are off your flight you might not get on one again!

As ticket prices are sky high during Thanksgiving, think about using your airline miles, if you have any. While I would not recommend using miles for travel within the US, this might be the one time you want to do so, after checking the price.

Almost every year, I have flown internationally on Thanksgiving Day or the day after. Most people do not fly on these days and I have found that flying Business Class using airline miles is wide open. Right now, One World and Star Alliance are showing a lot of destinations open if you are using airline miles.

That Note 7 Causing All The Trouble!

We were one of the first travel blogs that came out with the news about the hazards of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. The United States was all quiet, while three Australian airlines banned the phone more than one month ago. Since then the phone started heating up and catching fire on plane travelling within the US.

Effective yesterday, at noon, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone is now banned on flights. This means that the Note 7 is a forbidden hazardous material, which the punishment can result in heavy fines and even imprisonment if brought on board an aircraft.

Last week, Serendipity’Ntravel spoke with one of our readers – a Flight Attendant on Alaska Airlines. The FA advised us that Alaska started carrying a fire containment bag on their aircraft. In case of a phone catching fire, a crew member puts on special gloves and loads the device into a fire containment bag and seals the flap. The fire is extinguished in the sealed bag due to the lack of oxygen. Unlike previous fires occurring on aircraft, there will be less or no smoke, less damage, and no need for emergency evacuation like the last fire on the Southwest flight on October 5.

Pictured below is what a heat containment bag looks like.

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Error Fare – Los Angeles – Panama

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Our web crawlers found this ERROR FARE a few minutes ago. Los Angeles – Panama – Los Angeles for $149!! Notice that the return flight has a “zero” fare? Go to Orbitz and type in the dates we have listed or try different dates!! This is a great deal if you can get the dates you want. THE ERROR FARE COULD BE GONE AT ANY TIME!

 

$257 to Cuba And Back

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$257 TICKET TO CUBA AND BACK! From San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York on Delta. Just got this information by doing some good travel hacking! Available in December and January – great months for travelling due to vacation. For several decades Cuba was not accessible for American tourists, and now the embargo has been lifted. It would be a good time to visit before thousands of tourists start pouring in spoil everything and also increase prices! This deal will be gone as soon as word gets out on the internet travel sites.

Washington DC – Chile – Washington DC – $386

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WASHINGTON DC – CHILE – WASHINGTON DC FOR ONLY $386. LOOKS LIKE AN ERROR ON COPA AIRLINES!!! Just checked by making a mock reservation for December 30 – January 10, and it went through. Never seen this price from DC before, and makes sense to even fly a couple of hours to DC to connect.
Other dates of availability:
November 2nd to 11th
November 9th to 18th
November 10th to 20th
November 12th to 22nd
Novembe 27th to December 6th
December 30th to January 10th
January 6th to 17th