One Sunday evening at the kitchen table we were juggling ideas for the winter vacation. After making notes of various options and itineraries, we ended up booking a MSC Armonia cruise to Havana from Miami. The culturally rich island with a strange, colorful and also somewhat sad history was included with a tempting 2 days and one night visit to the capital.
Embargo and cruises from the U.S.
As you may know, relations between U.S. and Cuba have long been complicated. For the past six decades United States has had an embargo against Cuba. Without going any deeper into the politics, we can say this fact worried us a little when booking our cruise to Havana. Planning for this cruise was a little more concerning than usually.
We had talked about Cuba for a long time. During our previous Caribbean cruises the island had been visible on the horizon several times.
Also, we have visited the Southernmost point of the Continental US in Key West. There is the famous marker buoy just mere 90 Miles from Cuba.
As Finnish citizens we could have taken a direct flight to Havana from Finland with no extra hassle. However, we wanted to experience a cruise to Havana from Miami, something that has been only possible since 2015.
Cruising is regulated and regulations seem to be changing constantly. Travel from the U.S. must fall under one of the 12 approved categories ranging from people-to-people activities to trade related visits.
What documents you need to cruise to Havana from the US?
- You will need your passport. Make sure you have copies of it just in case.
- We got something called a Travel Affidavit for both of us to fill in prior to cruise to Havana, we had to give the forms at the cruise check-in. This form identifies that your visit falls under one of the approved travel categories. We checked the MSC people-to-people option.
- Cuba Issued Visa was facilitated by MSC and the cost was added to our onboard account. It was a special form we had to fill in advance onboard and give to the authorities at immigration.
Cruise from Miami to Havana arrival: what to expect
It’s weird how insecure you may feel when you arrive to an unfamiliar border and you don’t really know what is expected of you. These moments we feel blessed we have the Finnish passport, one of the most trusted travel documents on earth.
Two days before Havana we participated a very informative MSC lecture on what to expect at arrival. We were explained how to fill the Cuba Issued Visa forms that would be delivered to our staterooms. We were encouraged to choose the people-to-people alternative as the purpose of our visit. This form, along with our passports and cruise cards should be available at immigration.
Our fellow passengers asked if they can wander around when in Havana. We got an answer that if asked at return to U.S. we’d have to be able to prove (for the U.S. officials) we’ve been participating in a people-to-people programme both days. We were shown a statement sent to MSC (and all other cruise companies sailing from the U.S.) by the U.S. officials that quite clearly explained we should have people-to-people related activities both days at the port. He didn’t, however, say we couldn’t wander around after the excursions. (And we did).
We think it was a very good idea to attend this cruise to Havana presentation for many reasons. Some of the stories also surprised us: passengers sometimes wish to help the local communities by bringing much needed items along. Unfortunately the cruise crew can’t make sure these items can be taken ashore. One time a guy had brought a great number of kids’ baseball gloves for the local baseball club kids. The ship crew had already informed the border officials of this delivery and got green light. Unfortunately the warm-hearted passenger was never allowed to bring the gloves to Havana.
Cuban currency specialities
How about the currency during your cruise to Havana? You can’t exchange Cuban currency before arrival. We exchanged U.S. Dollars (Euros and convert better, best if you bring them from home or exchange some before cruise), at the terminal building soon after exiting immigration. There are official government currency exchange centers (CADECA) around Havana and currency exchange is also possible at hotels, resorts and shopping centers.
Cuba still has two official currencies. CUP (Cuban Peso) is primarily used by the residents of Cuba, CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is most frequently used by travelers.
CUC is also more valuable that CUP. When you buy stuff and get money back, make sure you get CUC bills: they only have pictures of buildings, CUPs have faces of important people.
As things keep changing all the time we can’t say if it is true, but we learned that credit cards issued by any American bank can’t be used in Cuba. We were, however surprised that U.S. dollars were accepted at most restaurants and bars, for example. Read more updates here.
Heading for our excursions
Our cruise to Havana package included two people-to-people excursions, that were chosen for us. We could have changed one or both to something else and actually after day one In Havana we went to the excursions desk and changed the second day excursion to other excursion.
Anyways: our excursion tickets were delivered to our stateroom. They stated the meeting point onboard and the time we’d have to be there before exiting the ship. Everyone got a group number sticker and told when it’s ok to walk out.
At immigration the first day at port our visa forms were collected and passports were stamped. The next day there was no passport control as we walked off the ship.
At the terminal building, after immigration, we were a little worried if we’d have enough time to exchange the currency. But soon we realized that everyone else at the currency exchange were on their way to their excursions as well.
In conclusion, the official paperwork and arrival parts of our cruise to Havana from Miami went smooth and we were ready to start experiencing the city with endless stories to tell.