US to begin commercial flights to Cuba: How soon can you go?

The deal is a breakthrough, but it will likely be a few months before Americans can book flights.

Jose Goitia/AP/File
The first passengers of the first flight of Continental Airlines from Miami Florida, arrives at the Jose Marti Airport of Havana,Cuba on Nov. 1, 2001. The United States and Cuba have reached an understanding on restoring regularly scheduled commercial flights, Cuban and American officials said Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2016 on the eve of the anniversary of detente between the Cold War foes.

If you are an American itching to visit Cuba, you may soon be able to book a flight to the island nation.

On Wednesday, Washington and Havana reached an agreement to allow commercial airlines to establish service between the US and Cuba, the Washington Post reports.

The restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba has unleashed a surge of interest from US travelers eager to visit the long-prohibited country. However, experts say it will probably be three to six months before US carriers can begin selling tickets to Cuba, the Post reports.

Since the United States announced the start of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Obama administration has been working steadily to ease US congressional restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba.

“It makes no sense that Americans can travel freely anywhere in the world except Cuba," said Tim Rieser, foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont told the Wall Street Journal in August.

At this time, travel to Cuba remains restricted. Americans have to provide a reason to travel to the country, and that doesn't include sitting on the beach and reading a book. You can't just be a tourist, yet. There are only 12 authorized reasons, including visiting family, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in public performances or athletic competitions.  

Earlier this year, American Airlines announced that it would begin offering charter flights to Cuba from the West Coast

So far, only one other major US carrier has opened up direct flights to Havana following the renewal of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. In July, JetBlue Airways Corp began direct charter flights between New York City and the Cuban capital in July, the first such flight in decades.

For those who prefer sea travel, there are cruises available that visit the country, although mainstream cruise passengers are considered tourists. The New York Times reports that, “owners of cruise ships and passenger ferries can operate between the United States and Cuba without a license, so long as the people they are carrying are licensed to travel there.”

Some infrastructure exists as cruise ships owned by non-American companies have been traveling to Cuba for years. In July, American cruise company Carnival Corporation announced that it would begin to offer trips from Miami to the island nation.

In September, Verizon announced that it will provide mobile phone service in Cuba. Customers using a “world device" – a device capable of receiving signals in Cuba – will need to first subscribe to the Pay-As-You-Go international travel option, Verizon said.

While Verizon is the first cell phone carrier to make its way to Cuba, other American companies have launched services in Cuba, too, including MasterCard, Netflix, and Airbnb.

Travelers to Cuba can also use US credit and debit cards during their travels. Last month, MasterCard and Stonegate Bank announced that their cards are now active for use in hotels, restaurants, and other stores in Cuba. 

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