Sailing to Cuba – Q & A With Jen the Travel Agent!

With a number of cruise lines about to start Cuban sailings, I figured it’d be about time to do a little Q & A with my wife, Jen. Last June, she sailed the Fathom Adonia on a 7 day cruise that stopped in 3 Cuban ports, so I thought it’d be good to pry some of that knowledge and experience out of her before those other lines set sail!

I’ll also add a shameless plug here: If you’re interested in sailing to Cuba and are looking to work with a travel agent to do it right, contact us, we can help! Now, on to the Q & A!

Q: What were the people like, and were they welcoming of American visitors?

A: Most of the people we talked to were excited to see Americans and wanted to talk to us as much as we wanted to talk to them. 

Q: Which port in Cuba was your favorite, and why?

A: Havana.  The people were so nice, the architecture was beautiful and there was much to see and do.  Seeing the old cars driving around was so neat and everyone we encountered was happy to talk to us and answer questions. 

Q: How does Cuba compare to other Caribbean ports?

A: For Americans, there isn’t the opportunity for water sports or adventurous excursions like in other Caribbean ports.  All of the tours were focused around educating us about Cuban history, people, leadership, etc. 

Q: Any negative interactions with anyone while in port?

A: In Santiago de Cuba, there was a lot of aggressive panhandling that became a little overwhelming for some people.  That was the only port that we encountered that in though.

Q: Was any additional documentation required before sailing, things like a Cuban Visa?

A: Yes. Cuba does require a Visa for entry, and in my case Fathom took care of that, with the cost being covered in the cruise fare. Be sure you know how this works with your chosen cruise line, whether they obtain it for you, and if the $75 charge is built in to your fare, or if you have to pay extra. When you start considering a Cuban cruise, this should be on your list of things to ask the cruise line or your travel agent.

Q: In port, how (if at all) did debark and embark differ from other ports? Did they stamp your passport?

A: They only stamped our passports on the first day, but we had to show it and our Visa every time we got on or off the ship.  Each time we got off we had to go through security and have our bags x-rayed.

Q: Did you prepare for this trip by researching Cuba at all?

A: Definitely, if you don’t know what you are in for, you could end up being very disappointed.  Visiting Cuba is not like visiting anywhere else and while you are able to explore on your own now, there are regulations around this and you will want to be prepared for the record keeping you will need to do.  For Americans, it is not a place where you can go to just hang out on the beach and enjoy the sites. 

Q: What tips do you have for each port?

A: Havana is safe to walk around and explore on your own and I encourage you to talk to the locals, most will be thrilled to share.  Cienfuegos is a little more laid back while Santiago de Cuba is much busier and while I never felt unsafe, there was certainly much more panhandling than in either of the other ports.

Q: Did you have to exchange money prior to leaving, or did they take US dollars?

A: You cannot get Cuban currency in the US, so it must be converted when you get there.  There is a 10% fee to convert USD, so I actually got some Euros to exchange.  As it turns out, with the exchange rate, I ended up getting exactly what I would have if I had just exchanged USD.  There are 2 types of Cuban currency, the CUC and the CUP, which is the Cuban peso and only used by locals.  You want to make sure that you get all of your change in CUCs as CUPs are nearly worthless.  You can tip in USD, but the locals have to pay the penalty when converting as well, so better to just plan ahead and get plenty of CUCs.

Q: Any other general tips you’d like to share for those looking to sail to Cuba?

A: There are many more options for cruises going to Cuba now than when I went, so I would definitely do research to figure out which on fits best with what you are looking to accomplish.  And obviously, contact a Travel Advisor, there are still many nuances when traveling to Cuba that makes having a professional in your corner invaluable.

That’s all for now, enjoy a few shots from her trip!

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Carnival Vista – First Impressions

Anyone who’s been following our social media accounts has probably noticed that we spent the last week aboard Carnival’s newest ship, the Vista. This was our national conference for our travel business, hosted by our franchise’s parent company. An 8 day conference aboard a cruise ship? Yea, that’s my kind of conference :).

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you may remember that our conference last year was aboard the Norwegian Escape, and that my primary post-cruise blog post was more of a pros/cons list (well, plus one food post. The yummy, yummy food). My plan here to to do something similar. With multiple sessions happening during sea days, it’s not really fair to do a full review of the cruise in my opinion, since we didn’t get to experience so many of the things we normally do. That’s not to say we didn’t have fun, so let’s get in to the list!

Note – To save space I’ll be linking to pics vs inserting them in the post

Pros

  • The Ship: She really is a beautiful ship, and continues the same beachy decor the Breeze has. There are some positive additions as well, including the large DreamScape in the atrium and the smaller one in the casino. I really do like the decor theme in this class of their ships.
  • The Cabins: Overall, nice. We had a standard balcony on deck 7 aft, and aside from a slightly hard mattress were comfortable all week. We had really good cabin service all week as well.
  • Matt the Cruise Director: While we didn’t get to enjoy all the entertainment staff had to offer, we saw Matt around the ship a lot, and he was always smiling and friendly, even in the face of our own stupidity (like when one of our suppliers sent a huge group of us down to the gangway in La Romana well before we were allowed to get off :)). Matt seems like one of the better CDs we’ve encountered on past sailings.
  • The Staff: Everyone was great this week. Granted, they knew there were several hundred travel agents on board, but everyone we encountered was very friendly, and always offering to help with anything you needed.
  • The MDR food: Really good all week. We ate there all but one night and I honestly don’t remember anything I had that was bad. People like to knock Carnival for their food, but the MDR food seemed better than what I remembered from the Breeze, and I liked that too
  • The SkyRide: Super fun, great concept. Jen and I did this on the first sea day and had an absolute blast. If it’s running, it provides an awesome view at sunset, too. Highly recommend doing this. Just note that you’ll see this in my cons list, too.
  • The Internet: I’m sure some will disagree with me, but we had both the mid-range and premium packages, and I felt that it was noticeably better than the Oasis’ Voom internet. Peak times were a little slow, but I didn’t encounter much in the way of downtime, and as Instagram shows, I was constantly posting ;). For satellite-based connectivity on a moving ship, they’ve done a solid job.
  • Lido food: Specifically Guy’s burgers and Blue Iguana’s burritos. Just as good as I remembered on the Breeze, and the lines seemed to move faster than they did on that trip. Mmmmmm
  • The DreamScape: They really are cool. I don’t envy the technical challenges ahead of them (it encountered technical issues a couple of times on our sailing), but it’s a great idea that really makes the atrium look cool.

Cons

  • The Ship: Yes, there is some bad here, too. Namely the main theater, which seems smaller than the Breeze. I assume Carnival was seeing a lot of empty seats in other ships in this class and as a result shrunk the theater, but the resulting design is just horrible. Really bad sight-lines throughout, rows in the back that sit lower than the row in front of them, and an odd center setup that’s totally flat (with non-permanent chairs) result in a place I really couldn’t stand to watch a show. The Divina showed us it is possible to build a large theater without things blocking your view, so what I saw in the Liquid Lounge was just mind boggling. Don’t even get me started on the useless cup tray permanently attached to every other armrest. Too slick to actually hold cups, yet totally uncomfortable for resting your arm on. Another ship design problem was the entrance to the Reflections dining room. Both sides are way too small, so the cattle-call queuing that happens prior to the MDR opening results in everyone standing even closer together. On the plus side, if you come in mid-ship, you can stare at the main DreamScape :).
  • The Pizza: Oh MSC Divina, you’ve ruined cruise ship pizza for me. I only ate this one night, tried 3 different varieties, and finished none. The pizza on Oasis was actually better than this in my opinion.
  • SkyRide: While super fun, it has a serious design flaw that results in it being unreliable later in the day. We were told that moisture/sea air end up making the inside of the track really slick as the day goes on, which can result in people getting stuck around the back of the track. Happened to me, so I got to see it first-hand. You basically end up unable to move forward on the uphill portions, as pedaling gets you nowhere (it can’t grip due to the moisture). In my case, I kept at it for a couple of minutes and finally hit a spot where it caught and propelled me forward, but we saw several cases where the operators had to go fish people off by either towing them from aother bike, or pushing them with one. The second to last sea day we were in line to do it again, and they closed it early due to this issue when we were next up. They took our names and told us we could jump the line the next day (the final sea day), but by the time we got done with sessions at 4pm, it was closed for the day for the same reason, with mechanics working on the bikes. Grrr…. As I said in one of my posts, do it early, or risk not getting to go.
  • The Casino: Small and smoky, to put it bluntly. Much like the Escape last year, this is a brand-new ship and the smell of smoke permeates every inch of the casino already. We didn’t gamble once as a result, and we were really missing the Divina’s smoke-free casino.
  • Temperature variances: They seemed to be having HVAC system issues all week, as it was really hot in parts of the buffet area (for example) while freezing in the theater (according to Jen :)). We did see people working on HVAC a couple of times, and heard that the buffet HVAC was down early on in the cruise.

I’m sure there are a few things I’ve missed here, but these are the big ones I wanted to call out, and frankly the cons really weren’t that big of a deal. We had an amazing week onboard, and the team at Carnival couldn’t have been better hosts. We’re admittedly Carnival fans, and this sailing only solidified our opinion of the brand. It truly was an amazing week on a beautiful new ship. One of these days we’re going to have to sail her again as normal passengers so we can experience everything the ship has to offer!

That’s all for now. After a short stop in St Petersburg to pick our daughter up and do some laundry, we’re off to Disney World for the week!