I was aboard the first commercial flight from Miami to Havana since 1961

Before my plane took off last week, it had been 55 long years since a commercial flight from Miami landed in Havana. 

Scott Mayerowitz/ AP
On June 9, 2016, Galo Beltran, Cuba country manager for American Airlines, tests a handheld baggage scanner at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Beltran is based in Dallas. The Department of Transportation said in June that six airlines: American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest and Sun Country, have been selected for routes to nine Cuban cities other than Havana.

Before my plane took off last week, it had been 55 long years since a commercial flight from Miami landed in Havana. While that in itself was historic enough, the recent death of Cuban president and revolutionary Fidel Castro created a lot of media frenzy around our one-hour American Airlines flight.

This is the first of three posts covering my trip to Cuba, and I'll talk about how to best plan a frugal trip to the island nation in a later article. But booking was as simple as booking any other flight, so long as your reason for visiting fits into one of the 12 categories you'll need to select while checking in at the airport. These categories are:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

As I am a writer here at Brad's Deals, "journalistic activity" was the obvious choice. Tourism for the sake of a vacation is still technically not allowed by the Federal government.

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m., so we arrived at Miami International Airport around 5:30, to check bags and allow plenty of time in case of any hiccups. Plus, we wanted to enjoy what I expected would be a celebration at the gate for the new route.

Travel to Cuba requires a Cuban visa, and American Airlines made it really easy to get via a partnership with Cuba Travel Services. One phone call, three days and $85 later, a visa arrived on my doorstep. The visa application is hilariously simple -- you actually fill in all the information yourself. It's essentially an $85 piece of paper.

Armed with that piece of paper and our passports, we found the kiosk next to the gate staffed by Cuba Travel Services employees, who check all the necessary documents to make sure you're "Cuba Ready." They stamped our boarding passes with "Cuba Ready," and we were good to board the plane.

At the gate, various representatives from American Airlines and Miami Airport were speaking to the media. After they were done, the Cuban food and coffee began flowing, and we started the boarding process.

Due to my Platinum status, I was eligible for a free upgrade, which cleared just three days before this historic flight. After watching the ribbon cutting ceremony, I boarded with the first class cabin. We received some awesome gifts, like an American Airlines/Cuba branded Cuban hat, a pin, and a certificate from American for the inaugural flight.

Once on board, I was offered some juice or water. Totally normal. Then, Lester Holt from NBC Nightly News sat down next to me. Not so normal! He was traveling to Havana to cover the Fidel Castro news. This gave me even more reason to think that this would be no ordinary trip to Cuba.

It was 7:30 in the morning, so I wasn't planning on drinking any alcoholic beverages, even if they were offered to me for free. But we were informed that they wouldn't be served anyway. Apparently the period of mourning for Castro that Cuba was currently operating under involved a few alcoholic restrictions.

We received a water cannon salute from the ground team at MIA, and then we were in the air. The flight lasted only an hour, which is incredibly short for an international flight, let alone for a flight between two cities that have been so closed off from each other for such a long time. We followed the Keys and then went due south, and landed in Havana before 10 a.m.

Stepping off the plane, we were bombarded by members of the media who were covering the historic flight. It was a bit like being a celebrity for a moment! I said goodbye to my new friend Lester, and cleared security no problem.

This story originally appeared on Brad's Deals.

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