There is a lot to cover when traveling to Cuba. Traveling to Cuba is not like the typical Caribbean cruise destination. If you are a US Citizen traveling to Cuba, I would also recommending checking out my other post, American Travel in Cuba for additional information.
Booking and Pre-Trip Planning
It all began in December of 2016. Royal Caribbean International® announced three Cuba sailings on Empress of the Seas®, a ship that just returned to the fleet. The 5-night inaugural cruise to Cuba was out of Miami, but just a few weeks later was the 7-night inaugural cruise out of Tampa. It took only a few days before we had a confirmed booking on the sailing out of Tampa.
After booking came the fun part of a vacation, the research and planning. The major question was what to do in Cuba. Our sailing would arrive at 8AM and depart at 8PM, which left plenty of time for people-to-people interaction. We decided to book the morning three hour Easy Panoramic Havana tour through Royal Caribbean leaving us time in the afternoon for a self guided tour. More details of the Royal Caribbean and self-guided tours are later in the post.
I downloaded an offline map of Havana through Google Maps for our self-guided tour. I was able research and save locations to the offline map. This would later allow us to use my phone for navigation even in airplane mode.
Also prior to leaving for Cuba we exchanged USD to CAD as I learned there would be a 10% surcharge plus approximately 3% conversion fee to convert USD. Chase Bank offers “fee free” foreign exchange for their customers. Even though Chase offered fee free exchanges I checked their rate against a currency conversion app, XE, for the current interbank rate and learned we were still charged a small amount to convert. We made sure to bring enough cash for the day, as very few locations will accept credit cards. In addition, the ship’s ATM shuts down the night before arriving in Cuba.
Embarkation was very quick. We arrived at the port a about an hour after the time posted on our SetSail pass and had no lines at security or the check-in desk. We printed two copies of the affidavit and filled it out prior to arriving at the port. One copy was for Royal Caribbean and the other was for our records. We were asked about our Visa and filled out and signed one more form. It had options of either purchasing a visa on our own, purchasing through Royal Caribbean or a statement where we would not be getting off the ship in Cuba. We purchased the Visa from Royal Caribbean at $75 per person. Royal Caribbean charged the fee to our SeaPass account.
Early Morning Sail In
One recommendation I heard was to wake up for the sail in to the Havana Harbor. The ship was scheduled to arrive in Cuba at 8:00 AM with an expected clearance at 8:30 AM so we set an alarm for 6:15 AM the night before. This was perfect timing as by the time we woke, put on clothes and walked up to Deck 11 above the Windjammer we were right outside the channel. The sun was rising and to the left was the Morro Castle and to the right Old Havana.
We had an excursion booked through Royal Caribbean so disembarkation was fairly quick. I have heard those doing a self-guided tour did not experience any delays, but did have a slightly different process. Our excursion group met with two additional groups in Boleros on Deck 6. When we checked in we were provided a free bottle of water per person and directed where to sit.
After a short wait, we were escorted by Royal Caribbean staff to deck 5 as we had received the all clear from Cuban authorities. Once entering the terminal we lined up to go through customs. Our passports were compared against our visa, photo taken, visa surrendered, passport stamped and returned. After customs we went through security that included x-rays and metal detectors.
Once we passed through security we saw shops on both sides of the terminal and at the other end the currency exchange booth with around a dozen tellers. We opted not to exchange money at that time, as we did not want to delay the rest of our group. If done again, we would have exchanged our cash at the time as the line was short and we still had some members of our group that were still going through security.
The tours met under the terminal, down a couple flights of stairs. There is a small elevator for those needing assistance. The exit to the terminal is also downstairs. The bus was air conditioned and practically brand new. We waited for about 10-15 minutes for the remainder of the group to clear customs and security.
The Easy Panoramic Havana tour had two guides and the bus driver. The tour made four stops at Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), Fusterlandia, Christ of Havana and Morro Castle. During the drive the guides provided us with information and history of their country. The guides gave 20 minutes or more to explore the area on our own and we never felt rushed. At Morro Castle there was a small shop where you can purchase drinks, rum, cigars, and guayaberas. We decided to skip the shopping since the store was small and it was hard to get a space at the cigar counter.
The bus also had a cooler with bottled water available. Between the free bottle from Royal Caribbean and the tour operator we had the opportunity to stay well hydrated. I am a native Floridian and it was a very warm day and should have drank a little more water than I did. The only thing that saved our sailing is the overcast weather and rain; otherwise it would have been a lot warmer.
Our tour ended between 12 and 1 and dropped us off in front of the cruise terminal. We went upstairs to exchange our money and were the only people in line. Again, we brought Canadian Dollars to avoid the 10% additional surcharge for USD.
After exchanging our money we set off on our self-guided tour, with the first stop being lunch. Crossing the street to Plaza de San Francisco we headed towards Plaza Vieja as I was in search of a mojito. We found an upstairs restaurant that had a small covered outdoor seating area, as the sky was growing darker. The restaurant, named Don Eduardo Alegre, overlooked the plaza. They had a menu downstairs and after reviewing decided to give it a try. I order a mojito and chicken fajitas and my girlfriend ordered a mojito and cubano sandwich. The drinks were excellent, my “fajitas” were very good and the cubano sandwich was two pieces of white toast with ham, pork, cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Overall the cost for lunch was not bad, just over 20 CUP which effectively equates 1:1 to $20 and then a few CUC for 10% tip.
After lunch our next stop was Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes De San Jose, a handcraft marketplace in a huge warehouse. We took a direct route to the warehouse cutting through the neighborhoods of Old Havana. You will find hidden gems and great deals available so make sure to take time to explore the market. I noticed that some of the artwork had the same reoccurring theme, an oil painting of an old car in front of La Bodeguita del Medio, but there were other pieces of art. We bought a small postcard art piece for 5 CUC as well as two magnets for 1 CUC. Almacenes San Jose also has fresh coconut water for 1 CUC. A few of the official Royal Caribbean tours have a stop here, but it is within walking distance from the terminal so that didn’t make that a deciding factor for our tour.
We decided to head towards additional parks and plazas I had previous marked, but this time decided to avoid the backstreets and walk along the water. We passed Plaza de San Francisco and the cruise terminal and then cut in to see Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral and Parque Cervantes, each unique in their own ways.
During our self-guided tour we wanted to make sure to stop at the well-known bars and restaurants. We first headed to La Bodeguita del Medio which claims is the birthplace of the mojito. This was the first time we saw a large gathering of people. After snapping a few photos, we opted to not stop for a mojito but instead move on to our next stop, Sloppy Joe’s. There we had another mojito and due to a recommendation order a Cuban. Sloppy Joe’s cuban probably is as close to a Tampa Cuban as you can get. It was large and only cost 7 CUC. Their mojito was very good as well. The last bar stop was El Floridita, known for its daiquiris and was a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway. Due to crowds we only stopped for the photo opportunity and not for drinks.
We then decided to head back towards the ship, but were on the lookout for stores that sold rum and cigars. This was the only aspect of the trip we did not plan. The shop we found, Cohiba Experience, had reasonable cigar prices and we purchased a box of 10 of Romeo y Julieta numero dos. Each cigar cost around 6 CUC. Romeo y Julieta uno were about a CUC more. Cohiba is also another popular brand and depending on the style of cigar can cost a lot more than the cigars I purchased. The rum we picked up at the store in the terminal. We bought a 700ml of Havana Club Blanco and 350ml of Havana Club Anejo all for less than 8 CUC.
Returning to the Ship
We first exchanged our remaining CUC back to USD. The additional 10% surcharge is only for exchanging USD to CUC, not CUC to USD so it was easier for us to return home with USD. Getting back on the ship is the reverse of disembarkation. We walked through the x-ray and metal detector in the terminal and then went through customs/immigration control. Tip: Make sure you still have your passport in an easy to reach location to expedite the process.
Empress of the Seas® Review
Empress of the Seas® is Royal Caribbean’s smallest ship in the fleet. When launched in 1990 she was the largest passenger cruise ship. Despite her size she does have a lot of heart thanks to the crew. Initially I had concerns about a week long itinerary on the smallest ship, however it was nice to be on an intimate ship and Royal Caribbean has done a great job adding unique extras to this ship such as hammocks, large outdoor loungers, Sunday Brunch in the main dining room and the only smoke-free casino in the fleet. The staterooms are smaller than most other ships but for us that was a non-issue as we are only in our stateroom to change, get ready, sleep or pick up/drop off items.
The size was apparent when bouncing between the 5 bars on the ship, Boleros, Schooner Bar, Pool Bar, Crown and Viking and The Casino with a bonus bar at Windjammer. There is also no Solarium, but for our cruise it didn’t matter, as there were only 8 kids. The bar in Boleros did not open until 2 PM and in Viking Crown Lounge until 9 PM. In Cozumel the computer system in Schooner was not booting up properly, so due to that issue and the limited number of people on the ship the bar closed down in the middle of the morning/early afternoon and the only bar available was the Pool Bar. Schooner is the largest in the fleet but we really enjoyed Boleros. There is a deck behind Boleros that was a great spot to watch everyone hustle back to the ship, especially in Cozumel.
The ship is well maintained for being almost 30 years old. There are issues here and there but the major issue was the air conditioning, especially in the casino. Maintenance was working around the clock during our cruise to improve the issues. From reading online it is an ongoing issue, but near the casino on the deck outside was a pallet of parts covered by a tarp. The main dining room was a little warmer some evenings but only slightly, nothing too noticeable to most of the other guests.
- Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. After our day in Cuba we had walked 7-8 miles.
- Drink plenty of water and then drink at least a bottle or two more.
- If possible and it won’t delay your tour exchange your money first.
- Contact your bank, AAA, and other locations to see if you can exchange USD to CAD or GBP before leaving.
- If you know Spanish brush up as it will make it easier to communicate.
- Plan, plan and plan. Planning will make the entire trip a lot more enjoyable but also don’t be too rigid to adjust. This includes downloading Havana in Google Maps on your phone and starring locations you want to visit.
If you have additional questions regarding Cuba you may contact me by requesting a quote, e-mail, phone
813-438-2270, or Facebook Messenger, however to utilize my full services and recommendations you must book through Trader Sam’s Travel.
I can assist in booking and planning your trip to Cuba. Part of my services, provided at no additional cost to you, is being your travel expert to Cuba. If you have already booked directly through Royal Caribbean you can transfer the booking to Trader Sam’s Travel as long as it is within 60 days of the booking and is not paid in full.
Photos provided courtesy of Einselen Photography.
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