Last updated: 03:33 PM ET, Tue February 23 2016

Traveling to Cuba: Top Tips and Advice From Travel Agents and Tour Operators

Destination & Tourism | Travel Leaders Group | Lisa Iannucci | February 23, 2016

Traveling to Cuba: Top Tips and Advice From Travel Agents and Tour Operators

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On March 21, President Obama flies to Cuba to improve relations and, thanks to the recent civil aviation agreement that allows other Americans to fly there too, tourism is bound to explode. Before booking your flight, what should you really know?  

“There is a lot of talk about how much Cuba could and will change once tourism restrictions are lifted further,” said Rebecca Heidgerd, of StudentUniverse, a travel booking serving for students and youth. “And it undoubtedly will. The embargo from the last 50 years has left a distinct and unique culture and experience unlike any other Caribbean destination. And to travel without a license you’ll need to go for one of 12 reasons deemed acceptable by the U.S. government and provide an itinerary.”

READ MORE: 5 Hotels and Resorts in Cuba We Can’t Wait to Visit

It’s also a little less expensive to get there. “However, you still cannot book a flight or a vacation to Cuba like you would any other Caribbean destination,” said Diane B. Mullahy, President of Travel Leaders in Framingham, Massachusetts. “Legally, U.S. travelers still must book their travel through a company that has been granted the required license and visa by the Cuban government.”

Greg Geronemus declared that Cuba is far from ready to satisfy the overwhelming demand. “The problem: hotel capacity,” said the co-CEO of smarTours. “Even before President Obama's momentous announcement, finding a hotel room was already a significant challenge. Now, with greater awareness among Americans that legal travel to Cuba is possible, this significant challenge has become greatly exacerbated.”

One of the simplest ways to see the nation is to book a people-to-people educational program with a company that provides these experiences. “Take advantage of special excursions that allows the traveler to enjoy the diverse offerings of Cuba, from the breathtaking architecture of the region and the restorative community projects to samplings of authentic Cuban flavors,” said Tom Carr, President & CEO of All Inclusive Outlet.

These programs also have an educational component. “That allows you to learn more about the people, history and culture of Cuba,” said Heidgerd. “Americans now have the opportunity to select a shorter vacation package, which can be two nights and less regimented. The package includes a comprehensive guidebook that allows you to roam more freely on your own. I still highly recommend having a guide, though, as you can see and learn so much more.”

Also be aware that while the Wi-Fi is getting better, it is not the same as in the States. “Also, cash is still the main currency,” said Mullahy. “There isn’t very much infrastructure for credit cards or ATM cards, so Americans should be prepared to have cash while traveling.”

When it comes to driving around the country, make sure you plan ahead. “This cannot be a last-minute decision,” Mullahy advised. “These arrangements need to be made ahead of time through one of the negotiated companies that holds the license and visa.”

On the fun side, when planning your itinerary, Mullahy lists several must-sees. “The touristy things are important, such as visiting the cigar factory, the famous Christopher Columbus cemetery — one of the great historical cemeteries of the world — and seeing the artwork of Jose Fuster in the little village Jaimanitas,” she said. “A trip to Cuba should also include a visit to Hemingway’s house and the fishing village of Cojimar. Plus, Old Havana is beautiful with its cobblestones, cathedral, shops and restaurants.”

READ MORE: Travel to Cuba: ‘A Moment in History for Travel Professionals’

There's no shortage of talk about Cuba as an up-and-coming hot destination for the American traveler, but Geronemus said that much of the attention revolves around Havana. “Certainly Havana has a tremendous amount to offer, but there's so much beyond Havana on this vibrant island, and Camaguey is a destination that cannot be missed,” he said.

“The artistic talent is simply unbelievable in this unheralded city, where you get to rub elbows with the likes of Martha Jimenez and Oscar Lasseria, among many others. Camaguey will surprise you in the best possible way. Once discovered by the American tourist, it’s going to be a must-see destination.”

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