Booking our last-minute cruise to Cuba

I’d wanted to go to Cuba for a while, but I wasn’t planning on doing it as soon as early October. After all, we’d just gotten back from our 7-day Pacific Coastal cruise!

However, fate intervened: In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Royal Caribbean was having trouble filling its cruises to Cuba from Tampa (on board, we were told the previous two sailings had been only 60-70% full). I’d learned from the excellent CNBC documentary Cruise, Inc. that cruise lines made most of their money from drinks and shore excursions (along with other extra charges), not really from the cruise fare itself. So I wasn’t surprised to see Royal drop the prices on cruise fares to Cuba.

In this particular case, the price drop was irresistible: The total cost of our 4-day cruise to Key West and Havana was just over $800 total for two people, including taxes and fees. We kept the price as low as possible by booking a guarantee oceanview room. (We could have made it cheaper by booking an interior room, but to be honest, I was still a little scarred by my experience in an inside room on Majesty of the Seas!)

I did learn, however, that the price savings for booking a last-minute cruise are often offset by the cost of purchasing last-minute airfare. In this case, our tickets from North Carolina to Tampa for the cruise were pricing at just under $500 apiece, due to the fact that we were only one week away and we needed to fly at certain times. Fortunately, I still had the companion certificate I earned from my Delta American Express card, so I used that to keep the overall costs down.

Overall, if you have the flexibility and are relatively close to a cruise port, last-minute deals on cruises can be a good option for you. I’ll write more soon about some strategies for finding some last-minute cruise deals.

A Day in Havana, Part II: What we did

When we boarded the ship, we found out that the tour we had originally purchased, called “Hemingway’s Havana,” was cancelled and we would have to find an alternate tour. Although we were disappointed, the tour we chose as its replacement, “Old Havana City Sightseeing,” was a more than suitable replacement.

The buses we boarded for the roughly 3-hour tour were very nice – comfortable, cool, and with a more than serviceable bathroom. It even had toilet paper! (We were reminded frequently that this is not usually the case in Cuba.)

Our tour gave us a great introduction to Havana. We stopped at a cemetery, at a cigar store, at the Christ of Havana statue, and at a local crafts market. It was a nice combination of riding around (in the air-conditioned comfort of the bus) and walking around to take pictures and learn more about Havana and Cuba.

We finished the tour around 1:30 pm, which left us plenty of time, before our 7:30 all aboard call, in which we could explore the area around the port. We started by walking away from the port down a narrow street. We wound up stopping at a restaurant about two or three blocks away where I had Ropa Vieja, a traditional Cuban dish (being from North Carolina, I described it as “Cuban BBQ”), and the hubby had garlic shrimp. We tried one of the local beers, Bucanero. (In researching this blog I found some fascinating background on Cuba’s national beers here.)

Emboldened by our beers, we started walking further into Havana. It was then that I learned one of the best pieces of advice I can give to people visiting Havana – follow your ears. We heard some fantastic Cuban music coming out of a tiny bar and decided to go in and check it out. We had some rum drinks – a daiquiri for me, a mojito for him – and danced to the music as best we could in the available space (not much).

We walked on and found ourselves in the Plaza Vieja, a lively square where we stayed a bit to watch some street performers. I had decided that I wanted to take us to the “Museo del Ron” (Museum of Rum), and so we walked a route based on the map we’d been given. (Better PDF versions to come, but for now you can view the maps below.)

We had been told that you can change foreign currency for CUCs at hotels, and given that we were getting low on cash, I decided we should do this. We stopped at a hotel and asked about changing our pounds for Cuban currency. The desk clerk agreed to do this, but she said somewhat apologetically that she wouldn’t be able to give us as good an exchange rate. To me, that was fine – at that part of the day, it was pretty much a convenience fee. I exchanged 100 pounds for 110 CUCs.

It turned out that the so-called “rum museum” was really an attraction created by the local rum, Havana Club. It took up several buildings and featured a pretty little courtyard with a small bar where you could buy rum drinks. We tried a couple and even had a drink made with rum and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice! We were getting ready to leave when we heard a band playing in the complex’s bar, where they served all of the Havana Club products. We were convinced to stay for another drink and some more fun Cuban music. We stayed until the band finished its set and walked on.

Once we made it to the end of the day, I was longing for the A/C on that cool tour bus. Although most have plenty of ceiling fans, there’s little air conditioning in the bars and restaurants in Old Havana. My advice is to dress in cool clothing and just be prepared to be hot and sweaty – try not to let it bother you. I can guarantee you’re not the only one.

After we left the Havana Club/Museo del Ron, we thought we might head straight back to the ship. But we passed by a restaurant with an invitingly breezy patio and decided to have a seat. Turns out we were at a Harley Davidson motorcycle bar! I believe the place was called Café Ciclo but unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures, and to be honest I had had a LOT of rum at this point. Some fun decor made this an easily identifiable place on the same street as the Museo del Ron:

{{pictures to come}}

We had a snack and a big bottle of water, and I tried the other local beer (Cristal), while we cooled off and prepared to head back to the ship.

My day in Havana definitely left me wanting more. I can’t wait to come back on a cruise with an overnight stop or even fly in for a couple of days. Soon!

A Day in Havana, Part I: Disembarking and customs

Finally, the day that we’d been waiting for was here. I set my alarm for 6 am so I’d be awake for our early (8 am) arrival into Havana. However, it was October, and sunrise time for Havana wasn’t until nearly 7:30. I realized that almost all places looked the same in the dark – I probably could have slept an extra half hour.

We stayed in our room getting ready and kept an eye out our window to see when it started to get light. At around 7 am, we went up to the Windjammer to get some coffee and breakfast, and after that we headed up to the top deck outside to get some pictures as we sailed into Havana. The pre-sunrise pictures were the best – soft light and some great colors in the sky. There was a lot of excitement on deck as we approached Havana.

Our shore excursion in Havana had a listed meeting time of 8 am in the ship’s theater. We showed up and found about half the ship there as well! (Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit.) We learned that they use the theater as a staging area for the departure of tour groups. You have to go through immigration as soon as you get into the cruise terminal, and this process often gets backed up. Better to wait in the air-conditioned theater!

We did wait, for about 45 minutes, in the theater before our tour group was called. We disembarked and waited for a few minutes before we were allowed into the terminal, where we stood in lines about 7-8 people deep at one of about 15 stations, each of which were manned by a Cuban immigration officer.

When it’s your turn, you go up to the officer’s station by yourself, regardless of whether you’re traveling with someone else. (I suppose with children it might be different.) You hand the officer your passport, your Cuban visa (given to you when you check in for the cruise), and your cruise card. You’ll be asked to take off any hats and also glasses, even if they’re normal glasses you wear for correcting your vision. A hanging digital camera will take your picture, your passport will be stamped (twice, one for your entry and one for your exit), and you’ll be on your way.

After passing through immigration, your next stop is straight ahead of you. It’s the place where you change your money for CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso), the money that’s used by visitors to Cuba. I’d read on a couple of blogs that you’re best to bring money that is not American dollars, if you can (e.g. Euros, British pounds, Canadian dollars); the Cuban government charges a tax on the change of American money. (Can’t say I blame them.)

Knowing this, I brought some Euros and British Pounds that I had left over from previous trips. At this first stop, I changed 220 Euros for 250 CUC. In hindsight, I wish I had changed more at the cruise terminal, but that’s largely because we wound up spending about 150 CUC on cigars. If you’re not planning to make that sizable of a purchase, this amount of cash should be sufficient for you. (You can read in Part II how we changed some money later in the day.)

With our passports stamps and our CUCs in hand (well, in my purse), we headed out to meet our bus for the day’s tour. (Read more)