Cuba cruise report

By Tony Leisner
This item appears on page 12 of the April 2016 issue.

In my letter “Heading to Cuba by Cruise Ship” (Sept. ’15, pg. 12), I discussed the plans my wife, Patti, and I made for a cruise to Cuba in January 2016. Having returned, I wanted to share with ITN readers what happened, what didn’t happen and what has changed since we first signed up for the cruise.
We booked our trip in April 2015 with Cuba Cruise (Toronto, Ontario, office: 855/364-4999,, making our final payment in August.
From Tampa, Florida, we would fly to Montego Bay, Jamaica, stay one night at Toby’s Resort (, then board the Celestyal Crystal for the cruise, Jan. 15-23, 2016, after which we would spend another night at Toby’s Resort before flying home.
We booked well ahead in order to get one of the 11 large balcony suites plus a cabin for my son and daughter-in-law. Our first surprise — while in dry dock following a minor accident the previous summer, the ship had added 43 new balconies, including one for the cabin my son and his wife were in (at no extra cost to them).
Another surprise — our pre-cruise information had explicitly said that only Canadian currency would be accepted on the ship, but, upon boarding, we discovered they were using only US currency. (This raised the cost for Canadian travelers.)
For nearly 10 months after our initial deposit, there was a lot of changing and, at times, conflicting information from Cuba Cruise.
As instructed, and for a contribution of $95, we had enrolled with the Fund for Reconciliation & Development, or FFRD (, so we could travel under their General license for “educational activity” within the Cuba/US People to People (P2P) Partnership.
Because of the US trade embargo with Cuba, we had been told that, in addition to needing our P2P papers, we would not be allowed to board the ship unless we could show proof of having health insurance that covered travel in Cuba.
To my understanding, the problem was that, due to the embargo, US insurers could not pay Cuban health providers directly, meaning a policy holder would have to pay out of pocket for any medical expenses and hope for reimbursement. For sure, Medicare will not pay for Cuban services.
Cuba Cruise suggested I contact Jamaica-based Caribic Vacations (, and through them we bought insurance from a British company; I paid $64 and my younger wife, $40. When we received our copy of the policy from Caribic, the insurance provider shown was Cuba-based Asistur (
Though we were required to have medical coverage, we were never asked for proof of insurance.*
Having enrolled with FFRD, we understood that that organization would arrange our tours and educational experiences. Months before the trip, however, Cuba Cruise sent us their own shore excursion offerings.
Aboard the ship, there were about 300 American passengers traveling on P2P programs under the General licenses of their tour operators. Roughly 200 of us were with FFRD, and the rest had signed up with various tour companies, including Road Scholar, Globus, InsightCuba, Gate 1 Travel and others. Onshore, those of us in FFRD groups traveled in buses marked “P2P Individuals,” while others went on buses marked with specific tour companies’ names.
However, in most of the four cities visited — Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Maria del Gordo and Cienfuegos — the tours for FFRD groups and the other tour groups were nearly identical, although there were some optional tours for the other groups. Cuba Cruise had taken over all of the shore excursions for P2P groups, having created their own version of a P2P-compliant program, including extensive onboard presentations and lectures along with bus excursions.
We confirmed this with the ship’s director of shore excursions and port activities, who explained that having multiple P2P programs was too difficult for the ship to manage, so they had created a single itinerary for all P2P passengers.
The P2P shore excursions were as good as any we’ve taken in almost 100 countries. They included more sightseeing than simply meeting Cubans; one shore visit in Maria del Gordo was a beach barbecue with snorkeling and diving options.
Actually, as spelled out in the Cuba Cruise tour itinerary, passengers on shore excursions often were able to leave the tour early in order to wander on their own, then find their way back to the ship.
In Havana, we had two days and an overnight. The first day, our group had two bus tours and a free evening to attend a show (we chose the Buena Vista Social Club). The second day, we had another tour, though Patti and I chose, as did most of our fellow group members, to skip that tour and wander around Old Havana, have lunch and meet some Cubans.
Of the 40 people scheduled to have been on that shore tour, only nine actually took it. Most of those who didn’t take the tour could be seen in small art galleries, museums and shops instead. Patti and I enjoyed a fantastic seafood lunch, including lobster, with sugarcane juice and beer.
While my family and I were enrolled with FFRD, I, myself, also traveled under a research license. I carried my credentials and a letter from the university where I work. My family was allowed to accompany me in activities that contributed to my research interests.
On our second day in Havana, my family and I came across a parking lot full of old cars along with a dispatcher. We chartered a driver in a 1957 Buick convertible for a private tour. There was a printed brochure with tours and prices, but we opted to customize a tour. We asked to see the army base where a few Russian missiles and weapons were on display and to drive through some of the lower-income neighborhoods.
Many Cuban professionals, such as doctors, teachers and academics, are earning tips as tour guides that exceed their other incomes. Our driver spoke five languages.
We had been a bit confused about the currency requirements. We did exchange US dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), and then we found that when we tendered CUC, we often would get change in US currency.
The Cuban government charged a total of 13% to change US dollars to CUC, but when paying merchants with US dollars, that didn’t apply. Cuba needs US currency for foreign purchases, so the US dollar was usually welcome. The official government tobacco stores (with Cuban cigars) took US dollars and credit cards. (Remember, the total maximum purchase value of rum and cigars that you’re allowed to bring back into the US is $100 each.)
For our trip to Cuba, Patti and I took 24 Little League baseballs to hand out. This brought smiles to several children’s faces, as some of their baseballs were held together with duct tape.
Coming back to the US, we cleared Customs and Immigration in Miami. Patti and I both have Global Entry cards [visit and, under “Travel,” click “Global Entry”], but we decided to try an experiment.
My wife used the kiosk and got her printed confirmation of clearance; it didn’t require listing the countries we visited. I chose to not use my GOES card and instead filled out the standard Customs form, listing “Jamaica” and “Cuba.”
Both of us sailed through with no questions asked. My son reported that he was asked if he had been to Cuba and if he had any cigars. He answered in the affirmative and was told the cigars were probably not real Cubans. He showed them the receipt from the government store. The officer sniffed the cigars and pronounced them “fantastic.”
In Cuba, US visitors are welcomed with open arms. The support for tourism is expanding, with brand-new Chinese-made tour buses. The vast majority of Cubans have never known any life other than what they now have, but the landscape is changing rapidly. We look forward to a return in about five years to see what happens when there is not a Castro as president.
Tarpon Springs, FL

*ITN Contributing Editor Wayne Wirtanen, who writes the column “Eye On Travel Insurance,” made some calls and is still verifying information received from certain insurance providers, but he did learn the following regarding insurance coverage for Americans traveling to Cuba.
The insurance provider Travelex provides a third party to pay for medical expenses in Cuba. A Travelex representative said that US-based credit cards are not accepted by medical providers in Cuba.
Despina Gakopoulos, Public Relations representative for the tour operator Road Scholar (Boston, MA,, wrote, “All Road Scholar participants traveling to Cuba are provided with [our] standard travel assistance plan, which, in addition to other coverages and services, covers emergency medical evacuation or repatriation from Cuba to the US, should it be necessary.
“In addition, all participants are provided with separate Cuban medical insurance provided through Asistur, a Cuban insurance provider. This insurance is required by the Cuban government for all visitors. It provides coverage for sickness and accident medical emergencies that occur while in Cuba, and participants requiring emergency medical care in Cuba will not have to pay for the care out of pocket.
“Cuban medical insurance does not cover any medical care required for preexisting conditions. If the medical treatment/medication is required due to a preexisting medical condition, the traveler will have to pay out of pocket for the care. Nor does the insurance cover out-of-pocket expenses in Cuba for medication or for gratuities to [personnel who make] house/hotel in-room visits.”