The Latest Updates on Cruises to Cuba

The 17th-century El Cobre Cathedral, Cuba’s most revered Catholic shrine, is perched on a hill overlooking Santiago de Cuba, a new port of call for many cruise lines.

HAVANA, Jan. 24th The race is on for voyages to Cuba — home to a rich heritage, colorful 1950s classic automobiles, iconic music, pulsating nightlife and people-to-people opportunities.

It’s also a new Caribbean experience close tothe U.S. The big news? In addition to new Cuba cruises from Apple Vacations, late last year, the brands of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd along with small ship operator Pearl Seas Cruises received approval to begin sailing to Cuba from the U.S.

Also toward the end of 2016, Fathom received Cuban approval to add calls at Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, on six of its upcoming cruises to the Dominican Republic.

These seven-day voyages depart February 26, March 12, March 26, April 9, April 23 and May 7; fares start at $599 per person double. Other lines are already sailing to the island nation, just 90 miles south of Key West, FL, and a short distance from many embarkation ports in Florida.

Particularly excited about the upcoming Cuba sailings is Frank Del Rio, NCLH’s president and CEO, who, at the age of seven, emigrated with his family from Cuba to the U.S. “As a Cuban-American and founder of Oceania Cruises, I am incredibly proud that one of Oceania’s vessels will be our company’s first to sail to Cuba,” Del Rio says.

“This is truly a dream-come-true for me, and I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana and get to know its rich culture and its warm and welcoming residents.”

NCLH’s first cruise to Cuba will sail from PortMiami on Oceania Cruises’ Marina on March 7. This 14-day Cuba inaugural voyage called “Old Time Rhythms” will call at Havana; Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; Harvest Caye, Belize; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; Colon, Panama; Cartagena, Colombia and George Town, Grand Cayman, plus spend three days at sea.

Two other 10-night cruises on Marina, sailing March 21 and 31 roundtrip from Miami, will also call at Havana this year; both will have an overnight stay, so guests have two full days at the destination.

Of particular interest to luxury cruisers, Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Mariner will call on Havana during two seven-night sailings departing April 11 and April 18 from PortMiami. The ship will spend two days in Havana and two days at sea, and feature calls at the new Harvest Caye (Norwegian’s new private island experience) in Belize and also Costa Maya, Mexico. Free and unlimited tours of Cuba designed for Regent guests will provide an authentic Cuban experience focused on people, music, art, history and culture.

The line stresses that the tours comply with the regulations of U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Onboard, guests will hear Cuba-focused presentations from guest lecturers and scholars. These two Regent Seven Sea Cruises sailings are priced from $2,999 per person and include airfare, unlimited shore excursions, Wi-Fi, fine wine and spirits, and other amenities.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s short-cruise ship, Norwegian Sky, will also sail from Miami on four-day Cuba and Bahamas voyages, starting in May. The itinerary includes two days in Havana (one overnight stay) and a beach day at Great Stirrup Cay, the line’s private island experience in the Bahamas.

On the RCCL front, Royal Caribbean International’s newly revitalized Empress of the Seas will become the largest ship to sail from the U.S. to Cuba, when it departs on a five-day itinerary from Miami on April 19. After that, it will reposition to Tampa and operate two departures with Havana calls — a seven-night April 30 cruise and a five-night May 20 sailing.

Empress of the Seas will then homeport in Tampa for the summer season, operating a series of four- and five-night sailings that include Cuba port calls. This will be Royal Caribbean’s first summer program from Tampa.

Royal Caribbean says it plans to offer its guests authentic Cuban experiences on land, such as Havana sightseeing options and Hemingway-focused tours. Back onboard Empress of the Seas, guests can keep that Cuba spirit going at the two-level Boleros, a Cuban-focused entertainment venue that will showcase the isle’s history, legends and traditions.

Guests, for example, can hit the floor for salsa dancing or savor a hand-rolled cigar and mojito. In Cafe Royal, they’ll also find such Cuba favorites as cortaditos and café con leche.

This ship also has multiple dining options, a rock climbing wall, new pools and whirlpools, an adults-only Solarium, Vitality Spa and complimentary Adventure Ocean youth program, among many other big-ship features.

“Having Cuba open up to more mass-market cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian is definitely going to make it more affordable to cruise to Cuba,” believes Uf Tukel, co-president and co-founder, WMPH Vacations / iCruise, Delray Beach, FL.

His agency is a top producer for multiple cruise lines and he believes that “additionally, past passengers of these cruise lines, especially those who live in Palm Beach County and South Florida will appreciate a new destination and an alternative to the Bahamas.”

The upscale Azamara Club Cruises will operate a 13-night roundtrip Miami cruise on March 21 that will include an overnight stay in Havana as well as calls at Key West and Tampa, FL; New Orleans, LA (two overnights); and Cozumel, Mexico.

“Destination immersion is the heartbeat of our brand as expressed by our overnight stay in Havana, Cuba,” says Larry Pimentel, Azamara’s president and CEO, noting that the line strives to provide authentic, interactive experiences. “Cuba has been a destination on our radar for years…”

While Azamara is building Havana into an existing itinerary, it will, in time, add additional Cuban ports into several itineraries. Among Azamara’s “Land Discovery” offerings will be a four-hour “Hemingway’s Havana” tour, which explores literary connections between Cuba and the late American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Cruisers will see where he lived, fished, dined and sipped his favorite cocktails.

Other Azamara excursions include “Old Havana City Sightseeing,” showcasing Havana’s city center with its fortresses, government buildings, historic squares, notable cemeteries and an artisan market, plus an eight-hour “Best of Havana” Tour that includes in-depth sightseeing and an authentic Cuban meal.

Starting Jan. 17, small ship operator Pearl Seas Cruises will begin 10-day Cuba cruises on the 210-passenger Pearl Mist roundtrip from Port Everglades, FL. The ship will circumnavigate Cuba and call at Havana and many southern coast ports, including Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba.

“There is a significant demand to visit Cuba on a smaller ship and we are honored to be among the first cruise lines to have access to the country,” said Timothy Beebe, Pearl Seas’ vice president. Eleven cruises are planned through May, all roundtrip from Port Everglades.

The first major U.S.-based cruise line sailing from Florida to Cuba was Carnival Corporation’s social-impact brand, Fathom, which began cruises on Adonia to several Cuban ports in 2016. However, last fall, the company announced that these Fathom stand-alone cruises would cease by June. Its ship, Adonia, is returning to P&O for Southampton summer sailings.

However, Fathom’s social-impact concept will continue for shore excursions on Carnival’s other brands, along with yet-to-be-determined future opportunities, Carnival Corporation said. The company has applied to Cuban authority to sail to Cuba with its other brands; nothing had yet been received at press time.

One line that’s also still awaiting approval is Viking Ocean Cruises, which says it plans new “Central America Shores & Cuba” voyages on November 17, November 24, December 1 and December 8. These seven-night sailings, if approved, will depart Port Everglades, spend two days in Havana, then call at Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Key West, FL.

Cruises embarking in Havana? Now that commercial air service has been re-established between the U.S. and Cuba, some clients may opt to embark their cruise ship in Havana. MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines are among the big-ship lines currently sailing from or calling at Havana. Check with the individual line, though, for paperwork requirements for Americans boarding the ship in Havana.

Clients prefer a small ship? Celestyal Cruises is now on its fourth year of Cuba cruises, sailing year-round from Havana with educational and cultural exchange activities. Celestyal’s all-inclusive Cuba cruises include two days in Havana and call at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.Peregrine Adventures’ eight-day voyages on m/s Panorama sail to ports in western Cuba.

The cruise, drinks, entertainment, gratuities and select excursions are included in the cruise fare. Sold onboard is one pulsating shore option — an excursion to the Tropicana Cabaret, Havana’s biggest nightclub. The cruise embarks every Monday from Havana and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Last year, Ponant Cruises, a small-ship luxury line, also received approvals for voyages to Cuba. Its 2017 Cuba program proved highly popular, with eight-night cruises between Havana and Santiago de Cuba now “sold out.”

Peregrine Adventures also recently introduced new small-ship adventure cruising roundtrip from Havana. Now through April, Peregrine’s eight-day voyages on m/s Panorama sail to ports in western Cuba. They’re operated in partnership with Variety Cruises. Calls include Cienfuegos and Maria la Gorda, and during the cruise, clients can explore Havana’s neoclassical architecture, try out salsa dancing, and visit tobacco farms, among many other experiences. Fares start at $5,900 per person.

Cuba Travel Requirements

While the U.S.-Cuba embargo remains in place, recent legislative changes allow 12 specific types of travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. If a trip to Cuba meets all the requirements of one category, cruisers generally are authorized by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to travel under a “general license,” meaning that people can travel without any additional government approvals.

Most cruisers will qualify under the “educational activities including people-to-people travel” category. People-to-people tours are education-based trips designed to promote interactions between travelers and the Cuban people. Just inform clients that this type of travel allows for little, if any, free time, as the cruiser’s time ashore will be spent on specific activities.

All cruise travelers, including all children, traveling to Cuba must have a U.S. passport, valid for at least six months after the Cuban travel. U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not allow U.S. guests to travel to Cuba just with a driver’s license and birth certificate.

A visa from the Cuban government is also required for entry to the island. Other requirements also may apply, depending on the client’s individual situation. Ask the cruise line about specific paperwork / documentation requirements before booking.