Booking an early flight to Cuba? Here's what to expect

Booking an early flight to Cuba? Here's what to expect, As flights to Cuba's smaller cities launch, U.S. fliers face a different airport experience.

SANTA CLARA, Cuba -- A new era for U.S.-Cuba aviation began last week with JetBlue Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale to the Cuban city of Santa Clara. The historic flight marked the resumption of regular, non-charter passenger service between the countries for the first time more than 50 years. It’s all expected to ease the process for travelers on both sides of the Straits of Florida, with “regularly scheduled” airline service now an option. Previously, customers eligible to go to Cuba had to rely on charter-only options that were restrictive, expensive and cumbersome to book. JetBlue Flight 387 flight served as something of a test run for both the Cuban airports and the U.S. airlines that are adding regular service to them. Service will ramp up slowly, eventually building to approximately 90 daily flights covering nine destinations by late November. It’s Havana that will likely be the real test as to whether Cuba’s airports – and U.S. airlines – are up to the challenge of the spike in travel from U.S. passengers. But the Havana flights -- which will add 20 more daily flights to the U.S.-Cuba schedule -- won’t begin until late November and December.  For now, that leaves the spotlight squarely on Cuba’s “other” airports, where the build-up is already underway. Silver Airways launched its first service a day after JetBlue's inaugural flight. American Airlines’ first Cuba flight commenced Wednesday (Sept. 7), with additional frequencies and destinations launching though Sunday (Sept. 11). Southwest, Frontier and Sun Country also will begin flying to Cuban airports other than Havana later this year.

But for the three airlines already flying regular flights there – JetBlue, American and Silver – each already have operated charter flights to Cuba in the past, experience that positions them well for their new scheduled services. The carriers already know how to coordinate with Empresa Cubana de Aeropuertos y Servicios Aeronáuticos (ECASA) -- the government-owned company which oversees aviation in Cuba, including air traffic control, airport operations, passenger handling and aviation safety.    Most passengers will not notice these challenges, focusing instead on securing the correct paperwork for travel to Cuba. Visiting as a tourist remains prohibited under U.S. law; travelers must certify that they meet one of the 12 defined categories. They range from educational and sports trips to cultural immersion and support for the Cuban people. The journey also requires Cuban-issued travel insurance as well as proper entry documents from Cuban authorities. The types of entry documents needed vary by the type of trip.   American and JetBlue -- the two big airlines now flying to Cuba – each approaches these paperwork requirements differently. Both include required travel insurance in the price of tickets. The processes diverge from there, however.    JetBlue allows travelers to digitally sign the required U.S. government affidavit online. It also sells the tourist card for $50 to eligible customers at the airport check-in counter. Passengers receive one free checked bag (up to 50 pounds and 62 linear inches) with all tickets to Cuba.   American is working with its long-time charter partner – Cuba Travel Services -- to ensure the paperwork is properly handled, though passengers remain responsible for acquiring the necessary documents and approvals. Both American and JetBlue allow award bookings on the new flights to Cuba; American does not yet have them available online while JetBlue does. Silver Airways does not offer a loyalty program.

After clearing immigration and security there is plenty of room to sit, but little else in the way of amenities in the terminal at the Santa Clara airport. (Photo: Seth Miller, Special for USA TODAY)

Upon arrival at Cuban destinations other than Havana, travelers can expect to find airport terminals sized for the capacity and frequency of the new flights though not necessarily well appointed.     Most U.S. airlines flying to Cuba are using single-aisle jets holding 150 to 160 passengers. Silver is flying smaller tubroprops.   In Cuba, most airport terminals are sized to handle larger twin-aisle aircraft that bring in higher passenger and luggage loads. The immigration hall, check-in and departures areas are all well suited to process this flow. Amenities in the terminal typically include some form of currency conversion, duty free shopping and stores selling souvenirs. Snack bar selections are more limited, but are adequate for the number of passengers the terminals currently handle. Wi-Fi is available in the terminals but – as in the rest of the country – it requires login credentials that can be purchased from most tourist hotels. In September 2016 the price was 2 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) – about $2 U.S. – for one hour of access.   Perhaps the best news for the airlines is that they have time to grow in to their new scheduled Cuban operations at the smaller airports. Most airlines’ schedules for cities other than Havana include just one or two flights daily at each destination.    The real test may come at the end of the year when access to Havana opens. U.S. airlines competed vigorously for those flights, easily filling the 20 daily flights allocated for U.S. carriers seeking to fly to the capital city. That will bring a crush of flights, presenting far greater challenges for Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.   The terminal currently used for the U.S. charter flights is large but offers limited amenities. It is unclear how well it might handle multiple overlapping arrivals and departures throughout the day, which will be the case once U.S. airlines reach their combined limit of 20 daily flights. That’s on top of charter trips, which are expected to continue (though likely with shrinking frequencies).    With less than 90 days until the Havana service begins, there remain challenges to work out as U.S. airlines ready to welcome new customers to Cuba.

Seth Miller is the New York-based author of the Wandering Aramean travel blog and a contributor to Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog. You also can follow Seth on Twitter at @WandrMe and on Instagam at @wandrme.

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