A recent trip to Cuba revealed that, unsurprisingly, it’s not as easy as it looks, nor as easy as it might someday become. (See story on that trip here).
Here are a baker’s dozen suggestions, compiled through conversations with our exceedingly competent guides, Anthony Perea of Miami, and Galin Hernandez, of St. Augustine, Florida. These two men, with the help of Galin’s energetic wife, Millie Santiago, have led Caribbean flying trips for six years, and this year, with easing of prohibitions on both sides of the Florida Straits, they aimed their sights at the formerly forbidden land of Cuba.
It took a lot of work, and several visits there on their own, to prepare for the excursion.
1. Plan ahead
Start early, assembling the necessary U.S. documentation and required items:
- U.S. passports can take several months to be issued, if you don’t already have one. It’s a good idea to make sure yours isn’t going to expire in the next three months.
- eAPIS: Register with the Customs service, online, listing your information, your airplane, your passengers, and everybody’s passport number for the trip.
- Purchase your aircraft customs decal at CBP.gov at least a couple of weeks ahead of time and stick it on your airplane as directed. Make a note of your decal number someplace handy, so you don’t have to go back out to your airplane when you clear U.S. customs on your return. Don’t ask me how I know.
- Request a landing permit from Cuban authorities by emailing email@example.com.
- You’ll need General Declarations forms, at least 10 of them, obtainable online, at the same CPB website.
- Your aircraft insurance must not specifically exclude travel to Cuba. This may, as it did for us, necessitate changing underwriters.
- You’ll need copies of your aircraft airworthiness and registration certificates.
- It’s standard to advise possession of a radiotelephone operator’s and station license. Nobody’s ever asked me for those things.
- Acquire inflatable life vests (disable the auto-inflate feature) and rent, borrow, or purchase a life raft. Our loaner, good for four to six people, weighed eight pounds, a tidy little floating boat cushion-sized package easy to find room for, close at hand. We wore our personal flotation devices when over water, because anything you’re not wearing may well not make it into the life raft during a hasty exit. I had a small bright-red floating ditch bag/picnic cooler, stuffed with ePirb, portable boat radio, a couple of bottles of water, a strobe emergency flasher, a white towel, a signaling mirror, and energy bars. My Personal Locator Beacon was in my life jacket pocket.
Know the 12
Right now, an American headed for Cuba must comply with U.S. regulations, and travel under one or more of 12 categories permitted for such a trip, all but two of which require sponsorship and oversight of a legal American entity.
So, if you insist upon venturing there on your own, you’ll have to arrange to visit legitimate Cuban kin, or go on a religious pilgrimage.
You must acquire and complete a “travel affidavit,” which apparently doesn’t have to be turned in anywhere, but should be available if anybody at Customs and Border Protection wants to see it.
Our group of five airplanes went under a People-to-People Cultural Exchange, under the auspices of Anthony Perea’s Miami-based Premier One Aviation (Facebook.com/premier1aviation). To this end, we spent each day participating as a group in organized tours and meetings with Cuban people. Wandering around on our own would not have satisfied U.S. requirements.
Religious pilgrimage, visiting Cuban relatives, and professional journalism are among the 12 options that are also currently permitted.
Tourism is not one of the allowable categories at this time, so remember, should a representative of the U.S. Treasury Department inquire, you are NOT going to see the sights. Potential federal penalties for flouting these regulations are draconian.
Also note that private aircraft traveling to Cuba may remain in Cuba for up to seven consecutive days, but no more, without an export license. That gets complicated.
There are only a few airports where flights from Cuba can land for Customs, including the closest ones, Key West, Miami, and Fort Myers. Key West, being the only Class D airport, was very seamless for us.
Show me the money
Know that at present, Cuban currency is a bizarre combination of money for the locals and money for the tourists. The tourist currency is the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC), pronounced “kook,” which is on par with the U.S. dollar, and can be exchanged at the airport. You will pay in CUCs, and we were advised to not accept change in CUPs, the Cuban local currency, which may be harder for American tourists to spend.
There is only one small Florida bank that can do business right now in Cuba, so take all the cash you need. Your credit cards and debit cards will do you no good, at least so far. U.S. dollars take a 13% hit at the exchange window so consider purchasing Euros or Canadian dollars from your bank before you go.
You must be instrument rated, and on an IFR flight plan to enter Cuban airspace. Cuban approach plates are different enough from what we are used to that it might be a bit of a challenge to decipher without careful study. Do so before you’re in the soup, briefing for a likely missed approach.
Your iPad’s EFB won’t do you any good in Cuba, unless you create your own waypoints by entering lat-longs for intersections and airport. Jeppesen offers complete trip kits for Cuba. I chose to upgrade the Jeppesen coverage for my Garmin 530W to “All Americas.”
This subscription loaded arrival, departure, and approach procedures for Havana’s Jose Marti Airport into my panel-mounted GPS. We needed it, too, with the stormy weather we arrived in. I must admit, in those lousy conditions, the reassurance of our magenta-lined, autopilot-coupled ILS approach into MUHA was well worth the entire Jepp subscription.
You’ll pay dearly for landing fees, handling fees, customs fees, and other stuff. The total came to just under CUC$450 for our Mooney, with pilot, copilot, and passenger. It all is very straight forward, no bribery solicited, but as we prepared to depart, the list of fees occasioned a good bit of misunderstanding, as the policies and charges are in a bit of flux. Go with the flow, unless you are fluent in Spanish and international law, maybe.
Except for cigars and rum, it’s hard to find much to buy, and those accustomed to big-city U.S. prices may be pleasantly surprised. Cab rides were inexpensive and easy to find, especially shared. That was a good thing, because it seemed the only way for a tourist to get around.
Our very no-frills twin-bed hotel room cost CUC$51, double occupancy, breakfast included. Dan’s single cost CUC$39. Other meals cost between CUC$5 and CUC$18 each. Quality of the food varied, but in general was good enough, if a little bland, and while we didn’t purposely drink tap water, we ate everything offered, and had no troubles at all. We probably poisoned any ingested germs with Cuban rum.
Most chargers can use the 220 volt outlets we found in our hotel room. The outlets accept both the European standard two round prongs and the US plugs for keeping iPads, cell phones, and battery packs charged.
If you have an unlocked, compatible phone, you can purchase a sim-card, a Cuban phone number, and prepaid minutes of airtime. Many outlets will rent a phone for use in Cuba, as well. Changes are coming as fast as the information can be updated, and Verizon has just announced its international roaming service in Cuba; details are available at VZW.com/International.
If you don’t foresee a need for phone calls, you might want to remember to keep your smartphone on airplane mode so that everything but the phone part works. The device burns through a lot of power searching for towers.
WiFi is, like many things, different in Cuba. You can purchase a card good for an hour of Internet access at many hotel front desks for $7, and use it on your laptop at WiFi access points, or in upscale hotel lobbies. (Our hotel did not qualify as upscale! There was one terminal in the lobby on which the card could be used, but it was slow, and often inoperable.)
Patience is a virtue
When dealing with bureaucracy, patience is a virtue. Nobody is in a hurry to get through the paperwork and get you on your way. They’ll get it done when they get it done. Be nice.
Speak the language
If you can bone up on your Spanish, you’ll get ever so much more out of your trip. Otherwise, an organized group will be worth finding.
Tips are very much appreciated by tour guides and cabbies. About 10% seemed right. The tip may be already included in the price of a meal. Inquire.
Street performers appreciate your change, which cannot be turned back into dollars, so you might as well spend it on experiences.
Recreational shopping is not the endurance sport it is at home. There are a few stores in the old town of Havana, scattered art galleries, hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops along side streets, and a few pushcart vendors selling coconuts and straw hats, but nothing like you’ve found elsewhere.
You will be permitted to bring $100 in cigars and/or alcohol per adult, and a total, including the booze and tobacco, of $400 in purchases, when you return to the U.S. No food products or fresh fruit, of course. And yes, they will ask.
Art, some of it good, seemed a bargain, as we found in the displays lining a lovely promenade. Original art is not included in the U.S. Customs accounting, so bring back as much as you like.