Havana

Photo by TropicalHarmony.com

By: Lauren Durden

On December 17th, 2014 President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. These changes included easing some of the travel restrictions that barred Americans from traveling to Cuba and ever since travel forums have been abuzz with conversations on visiting the island nation. Questions began to ariseWhat kind of trips are permitted by the U.S. government? What kind of paperwork do you need before, during and after your trip? How do you actually get to the island? Can I bring back a box of Cuban cigars?

Heres everything you need to know.

What kind of trips are permitted by the U.S. government?

There are now 12 categories of authorized travel between the United States and Cuba. Previously, before President Obamas announcement, if you wanted to travel to Cuba you needed to submit a special application that was subjected to a case-by-case review.

The 12 categories of authorized travel include family visits, official trips on behalf of the U.S. government, journalistic travel, research-related travel, religious activities, athletes competing in sporting events, humanitarian work, and research or educationally related travel, among other authorized travel classifications. In most cases, tour companies employ educational reasonings for travel. These trips usually include travelers interacting with people and historic sites throughout Cuba. This is the easiest way for someone without family ties to the country to be granted access, as travel purely for tourist activities is still strictly prohibited. For more information, you can read the entirety of the travel restrictions and authorizations here.

What kind of paperwork do you need before, during and after your trip?

As with all international travel, youll need an up to date passport and shouldnt expire for at least six months after your travel to Cuba. Youll be required by the Cuban government to apply for a visa in order to enter the country. While you can obtain these yourself, your tour company will often sort out the visas after getting the needed paperwork and information from you and your travel companions.

How do you actually get to the island?

Currently, JetBlue is the only U.S. based airline company with direct flights to Cuba, departing out of Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and New York City. American Airlines announced earlier this month that the airline will begin offering flights to Havana, departing out of Los Angeles as of Dec. 12, and are looking to expand to other departure cities within 2016.

Can I bring back a box of Cuban cigars?

First things first, how are you going to buy those cigars? Its good to keep in mind that American credit cards arent yet accepted throughout Cuba. That means youll have to get your hands on enough Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) to last throughout your entire trip. While there is a second legal form of currency available in Cuba, the Cuban Peso (CUP), its rarely used by tourists and has a different exchange rate.

Cuban currency is not available internationally, meaning youll have to bring your cash with you and exchange it once you arrive in Cuba. While you can covert U.S. dollars, theres a 10 percent fee to exchange them. However the U.S. dollar is the only currency that gets hit with a fee, bringing euros or Canadian dollars to exchange is a simple way to avoid paying the penalty.

Now that youve got your cash in hand, you can finally buy some goods! There is no longer a per diem rate imposed on American travelers and you can now make as many purchases related to ordinary travel expenses as youd like. New American regulations only allow visitors to return home with no more than $400 in merchandise, of which only $100 of your purchases may consist of alcohol or tobacco products for personal use.

One last tip to remember on your travels is that the infrastructure of Cuba is not the same as what you may be used to. A low number of ATM machines, infrequent Wi-Fi availability or working connection, and difficulty buying travel necessities are the norm. Be prepared with enough cash for your trip, a willingness to disconnect during your travels, a suitcase packed with all of your toiletries and essentials, and a roll-with-the-punches attitude and youll be sure to enjoy yourself and the vibrant nation of Cuba.