Since President Obama lifted the ban on travel to Cuba, the forbidden fruit of the Caribbean is now within reach for American tourists. If Havana’s high on your bucket list, a cruise may be an easy and economical way to get there. Ships of all sizes are setting course for Cuba, including Norwegian Cruise Line, which started sailing to Havana in May of 2017. Whether you’re wondering about a family cruise to Cuba or are already on board with the idea, here are tips to ensure smooth sailing for your whole crew.
Despite new travel restrictions imposed by President Trump in June, cruiseship travel to Cuba is booming. Worried about how to legally travel to Cuba? Interested in visiting Havana, but wondering if you should go with kids? Concerned there’s complicated paperwork and Visas required? Here’s the fine print on cruising to Cuba.
Getting On Board
We travelled in August, 2017, from the Port of Miami. Norwegian made the intimidating process of getting approval to visit Cuba super easy. With the click of a button (and a $75 processing fee), you can have the necessary people-to-people Visa to visit legally. I checked with Norwegian, and nothing about the Visa application or cruising to Cuba has changed since the headlines of President Trump imposing new travel restrictions. Despite the news headlines, it’s still just as easy.
Other benefits to cruising to Cuba? Again, it’s easy— not a whole of travel planning necessary. Since it’s a cruise, you won’t need to figure out where you’re going to overnight or eat. In addition, sailing with Norwegian is one of the least expensive ways to visit the island (cruises start at $550). And don’t forget, you also get a day on Norwegian’s private island in the Bahamas.
A Fine Port
The ship pulls right up to the pier, eliminating the additional time required to get on and off the ship when you have to tender. The cruise terminal also happens to be right in the heart of Old Havana, so you don’t need to hop in a cab to get to the center of town. This all adds to the ease of going back and forth to the ship and utilizing the kids club for a couple hours, while still making sure your kid experiences Havana.
Mom and Dad may be excited about exploring the architecture and cobblestone streets of Old Havana, but not many kids are. Instead of dragging them around Old Havana, bring them along for the kid-friendly, easier part of the tour, and leave them on board in the fun kids club for others.
Norwegian’s Kids Club
Norwegian’s on-board kids club means you can leave your child on-board while you tour the island. In our case, that meant we left our 9 year-old on board for a couple hours while we went to museums. We later picked her up, had lunch on board, then took her for a driving tour in one of those old classic convertables. With the wind in her air and not too much walking involved, she was a happy tourist. After dinner together, we brought her back to the kids club and the adults went out to hear live salsa music. Everybody’s happy!
Norwegian’s kids club is free up until 10:30 p.m. From 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. it costs $6 per hour. Norwegian does a great job with the kids’ activities, so we never heard any complaints about going back to the kids club, nor did we have any guilt about bringing our daughter there.
Getting Around Havana
Kids will definitely get a kick out of driving around Havana in the classic American cars from the 1950s that are still being used as taxis. It’s a snap to hail a cab right as you walk out of the cruise terminal. Wave your hand at one of the classic convertibles in eye-popping colors. You can ask them to drive you around the island for an hour or two. Negotiate your price, find a friendly driver, then hit the road. Don’t worry about taking a pass on the first or second car; more will be coming around the corner! Another kid-friendly way to get around is via horse and carriage. Again, plenty are parked right outside the cruise terminal.
Pretty much all drivers and shopkeepers will take U.S. dollars. If you want to change to the Cuban peso currency, there’s a currency exchange in the cruise terminal as you exit.
You will need Cuban currency if you plan to buy the souvenir everyone asked me to bring home… the coveted high-end Cuban cigar. Lots of people will try to sell you cigars on the street. Don’t buy them, they’re not real. Just politely say, “Lo siento, pero no” and move on. We were directed to a luxurious cigar shop inside the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. There’s no sign outside telling you about the cigar shop; you just have to know about it to find it. I recommend this sophisticated cigar shop if you’re looking for world-class Cuban cigars in keepsake wooden boxes.
Used to be you couldn’t bring more than $100 worth of cigars back into the U.S. from Cuba. That’s about four or five of these high-end cigars. Now you can bring home $800 worth and up to 100 cigars. I was told to keep receipts in case someone in customs asked for them. They never did, but I kept them just in case.
On Board Norwegian
The incredible range of activities found on today’s megaships can be overwhelming. Ice skating! Surfing! Rock climbing! Being one of Norwegian cruise line’s older ships, you won’t find that on the Sky. For us, this cruise was all about the destination… Cuba. Still, there are two pools, four Jacuzzis, a spa, a casino, live music, and comedy shows to keep you entertained.
As always, dining is one of the highlights on the cruise. How it became tradition to order multiple entrees on cruises I don’t know, but the tradition’s going strong. Now’s the time to experiment with things you’re not sure you or your kids will like. Always wanted to try bouillaibaise or tilapia? Now’s the time. If you don’t like it, ask for something else!
Norwegian’s motto is freestyle or “no rules” cruising. You don’t need to make reservations for dinner. Just show up when you want. Norwegian is on board with other cruise lines offering a cadre of complimentary dining options, as well as additional fee a la carte restaurants. As long as the lines weren’t long, the cafeteria buffet-style Garden Cafe always had decent food choices. The Palace Restaurant and Crossings were two other sophisticated sit-down complimentary options for dining.
If you want to splurge, Norwegian Sky has several a la carte, added fee restaurants: Cagney’s steak restaurant, the Italian restaurant Il Adagio, a sushi bar and a French option, Le Bistro. Bon appetite!
If this post has piqued your interest in traveling to Havana, Norwegian Cruise Line is adding four-day cruises to Cuba from Port Canaveral in May, 2018 (from $599 a person). The sailing will overnight in Havana, but visits Key West instead of the Bahamas.
Curious about Cuba? Post your concerns or experiences here!