Visiting Cuba holds an allure for many Americans, thanks to Havana's classic cars and diverse architectural styles, but getting there hasn't always been easy.
Now, though, with President Obama's easing of some travel restrictions, touring in Cuba is getting much easier. Still, Americans need to be aware of some major issues before setting off on an island adventure.
Cubans generally are eager for stronger relations with America, and excitement is building ahead of Obama's visit next week, said Collin Laverty, the founder of Cuba Educational Travel, a tour organizer that focuses on educational and cultural trips for Americans. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit the country in 88 years.
"It's impossible to find a Cuban who doesn't want the embargo to be lifted," Laverty said. "It's hard to find a Cuban who doesn't have family in the U.S. and a cultural affinity. They are very excited about having a normal relationship with the U.S. Everything in the last year has signaled that both sides are open to working to that end."
Take the Obama administration's announcement this week that individuals will be able to travel to Cuba under the "people to people" category, which has previously been approved only for groups of Americans.
That's significant because it will allow Americans to travel to Cuba by themselves or with friends, providing them with more flexibility in how they spend their time. Under the previous system, "people to people" tourists had to prove they had a fully booked schedule of cultural events, which meant Americans had to book a pre-planned tour with a company like Laverty's. He said the typical cost of a tour, including hotels and meals, could be between $2,000 to $3,500 per person per week.
The change to the "people to people" rule "will be extremely positive in terms of increasing the number of travelers to Cuba and the diversity of travelers," Laverty said. He expects their numbers could increase threefold or more because of the new guidelines.
Here's what to know about traveling to Cuba.
Flying to Cuba and visas. Travel from the U.S. requires booking a charter flight, which can be made through companies like Cuba Travel Services. That might change later this year, given that JetBlue (JBLU), American Airlines (AAL) and other U.S. air carriers have applied to the U.S. government for approval to start commercial flights. For now, charter flights are the way to go.
The charter company will secure your visa, Laverty noted. But Americans also have to prove to the U.S. Treasury Department that they belong to one of 12 categories of traveler, such as the "people to people" tourists, or that they're working on humanitarian projects or have Cuban relatives, for instance.
Your credit cards won't work. Americans can't currently use credit cards in Cuba, which makes tourism more difficult, Laverty said. On top of that, many services are run on a cash-only basis, such as taxis, which means Americans need to leave behind their plastic-based spending habits.
Some hotels take traveler's checks, but most tourists arrive with dollars and euros in hand, and then convert them to pesos once they're in Cuba. The hitch here is the Cuban government hits dollars with a 10 percent penalty when they're changed for the Cuban convertible peso, so it's recommended that Americans bring euros or British pounds, which aren't subject to the same fee.
Booking hotels. Most Americans take two routes, said Laverty: They either find a hotel through an agency or book through Airbnb.
"For a young adventurous traveler, staying in an Airbnb and wandering is fine," Laverty said. But higher-end visitors might want a bit more help with issues such as getting on the Internet, using cash in Cuba or hiring a guide for a tour of Havana, which means staying at a hotel might make more sense for them.
Airbnb entered Cuba in 2015, and the company said its listings there have grown by more than 150 percent, making the country its fastest-growing market. Americans from 49 different states have booked through Airbnb's more than 3,000 Cuban listings, the company said.
The Internet and phone calls. This can still be a challenge in Cuba, although Laverty said most major hotels now have Wi-Fi. "You are likely to get slow, inconsistent Internet access," he said. "It's certainly a lot better than it was a couple years ago."
There are also public Wi-Fi hotspots, but you need to buy a card to get access.
As for making phone calls, Verizon (VZ) and Sprint (S) now have roaming agreements in Cuba, but it's not cheap: It can cost as much as $3 a minute for a call, while data costs more than $2 per megabyte.
"Travelers should expect challenges," Laverty said.