The majority of Cuba's 3 million annual visitors arrive on the island on a tour package, with flights, accommodations, and meals included. Independent travel to the island is still a bit on the adventurous side—conditions are improving all the time, though—and an organized tour does make things easier.
The preponderance of these packages feature multiday stays at beach resorts and Havana hotels—5 to 10 days is most common. Most excursions are managed by tour operators in Canada and Europe. The Cuban government works directly with them to book rooms in the many hotels and resorts that have been constructed in the past two decades. Canadian tour operators fly charters from various north-of-the-border cities directly to airports near the resorts. Resort-focused tours offer frequent departures year-round, with better deals to be found in the May–November off season. Until the embargo is fully lifted, this type of leisure tourism is officially prohibited to U.S. citizens, although some Americans do book such tours.
Newer to the mix are excursions that fall under the broad umbrella of people-to-people or cultural exchange tours, and several such operators are approved by the U.S. government. Group sizes are small (15–20 people max) and the tours are designed to give you an opportunity to meet Cuban people, with activities such as visits to schools and cooperatives, in addition to standard sightseeing. Look carefully at a tour operator’s itinerary on its website. Most offer an eclectic look at art, dance, sugarcane, schools, and cigars. You’re bound to find something on the schedule to pique your interest, even if that’s not the entire focus of the tour. A handful of operators do provide more theme-based itineraries in addition to their general all-Cuba tours. Know also that itineraries occasionally (only rarely) need to be tweaked at the last minute. Your morning at the artisans’ cooperative might be substituted with a salsa lesson. You are required to stay with the group and participate in all scheduled activities. (No, you may not break away to laze on the beach.)
The Havana-Trinidad-Cienfuegos circuit is a common itinerary among these tours; beach resorts such as Varadero are never included. These tours usually begin and end in Miami and use special charter flights by U.S. airlines. Arriving in Cuba early or staying on posttour are not allowed. Since activities don't depend on good weather, few seasonal-based price variations exist. A given company's Cuba tour might depart only a limited number of times a year. The biggest complaint about the cultural tours is their price, and they do look expensive at first glance. However, accommodations, food, guide services, in-country transport, and costly charter flights are included. However, with commercial flights expected to begin by mid-2016, the airfare portion of the price tag may be reduced. Until commercial flights begin, you'll need to find your own way to Miami; remember to factor that extra cost into your budget. Sticker shock aside, most participants in people-to-people tours come away with glowing impressions of their visits to Cuba.
Abercrombie & Kent. A 10- or 13-day tour offered by Abercrombie & Kent takes in much of the island and focuses on Cuban art, cuisine, dance, and health care. 1411 Opus Pl., No. 300, Downers Grove, Illinois, 60515. 800/554–7016; www.abercrombiekent.com. Tours from $5,695 per person.
Alexander & Roberts. A 9- or 13-day itinerary takes you to Havana, Camagüey, Santiago, and Baracoa with visits to theaters, schools, art studios, and cooperatives. 53 Summer St., 03431. 800/221–2216; www.alexanderroberts.com. Tours from $4,995 per person.
Classic Journeys. Autos, architecture, and agriculture are the focus of Classic Journeys’ four- or seven-day tours that take you to Havana and Viñales. 7855 Ivanhoe Ave., Suite 220 , California, 92037. 800/200–3887; www.classicjourneys.com. Tours from $3,995 per person.
Coda International Tours. In keeping with the interests of Coda’s predominantly gay-lesbian clientele, its tours include time devoted to issues of LGBT advocacy in Cuba as well as the standard looks at art and education. Eight-day tours take you to Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. 12794 Forest Hill Blvd, Suite 1A, West Palm Beach, Florida, 33414. 888/677–2632 ; www.coda-tours.com. Tours from $3,754 per person.
Collette. A mix of music, agriculture, and cigar making is on tap with Collette’s nine-day tour that takes you to Havana and Cienfuegos. 162 Middle St., Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 02860. 855/355–8687; www.gocollette.com. Tours from $3,779 per person.
Cuba Explorer. The eight- or nine-day excursions of Cuba Explorer include a general trips around the island as well as more focused tours dealing with nature or photography. The operator also customizes tours for educators and students. 816 Peace Portal Dr., Suite 151, Washington, 98230. 888/965–5647; www.cubaexplorer.com. Tours from $1,839 per person.
Cultural Explorations Cuba. Focused solely on Cuba, Cultural Explorations Cuba offers three tours of five, seven, or eight days that take in a mix of painting, ceramics, cigars, Hemingway, and Jewish Cuba. 352 N.E. 3rd Ave, Delray Beach, Florida, 33444. 561/921–2425; www.cultural-explorations.com. Tours from $3,325 per person.
Drod Culinary Adventures. Cuban cuisine is the focus of five- or seven-day tours led by Chef Douglas Rodriguez, award-winning master of Cuban restaurants in Philadelphia and Miami Beach. The entire process is on display, from sea or field to preparation to plating and eating. 8011 N.E. Bayshore Ct., 33138. 954/693–6562; www.chefdouglasrodriguez.com. Tours from $4,995 per person.
Gate 1 Travel. Gate 1's nine-day tour takes you to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara for a look at education, literacy, theater, art, and revolution. 455 Maryland Dr., Pennsylvania, 19034. 800/682–3333; www.gate1travel.com. Tours from $3,399 per person.
Global Volunteers. The nonsectarian Global Volunteers focuses on interaction with Cuba’s different faith groups during its eight-day tour that takes you to Havana, Santa Clara, and Ciego de Ávila. 75 E. Little Canada Rd., St. Paul, Minnesota, 55117. 800/487–1074; www.globalvolunteers.org. Tours from $3,795 per person.
Globus. The three tours offered by Globus last 9 or 17 days. Shorter tours delve into central or eastern Cuba, with a longer island-wide tour if you have more time. 5301 S. Federal Circle, Littleton, Colorado, 80123 . 877/797–8791; www.globusjourneys.com. Tours from $2,459 per person.
Havanatur. In Havana they offer one main city tour, which visits most of the major sights in the historic center. They also offer a number of guided day trips in Viñales, Varadero, and Cayo Largo. Calle 3, esq. de Calle 74, Miramar, Havana, 7204–6417.
Insight Cuba. Pioneering Insight Cuba focuses solely on the island and offers an impressive 10 excursions of 4 to 13 days. In addition to island-wide tours, you’ll find excursions devoted to jazz or Cuba’s vintage cars, as well as the opportunity to do a long weekend or even to participate in the Havana Marathon. 2 Clinton Pl., New York, 10801. 800/450–2822; www.insightcuba.com. Tours from $2,895 per person.
International Expeditions. IE’s 8 or 10 day tours take you to Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Viñales, with close-up looks at art, ecology, and Hemingway. One Environs Park, Helena, Alabama, 35080. 844/684–9462; www.ietravel.com. Tours from $3,998 per person.
Intrepid. An impressive 12 tours of 8 to 22 days make up Intrepid’s offerings, including culture-focused excursions devoted to sailing the Cayos and cycling. Not all tours qualify as People-to-People excursions. 380 Lonsdale St., Level 3, Victoria, 3000. 800/ 970--7299; www.intrepidtravel.com. Tours from $965 per person.
Mayflower Tours. A nine-day tour by Mayflower mixes sugarcane, cigars, theater, and gardens in Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and the Cayos. 1225 Warren Ave., Downers Grove, Illinois, 60515. 800/323–7604; www.mayflowertours.com. Tours from $4,199 per person.
National Geographic Expeditions. National Geographic’s nine-day tour takes you to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and the Bay of Pigs at Playa Girón, with looks at art, education, and nature. 1145 17th St. NW, Washington, District of Columbia, 20036. 888/966–8687; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com. Tours from $5,995 per person.
Overseas Adventure Travel. OAT’s 12-day tour delves into Cuban art, literature, farming, and fishing and takes you to Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. 1 Mifflin Pl., Suite 400, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. 800/955–1925; www.oattravel.com. Tours from $3,995 per person.
Road Scholar. The 10 Cuba offerings of Road Scholar include island-wide tours with a variety of cultural activities, as well as excursions focusing on photography, homestays, and family outings. Tours are 7 to 22 days. 11 Ave. de Lafayette, Boston, Massachusetts, 02111. 800/454–5768; www.roadscholar.org. Tours from $2,995 per person.
Smithsonian Journeys. History, art, literature, and economics are the focuses of Smithsonian’s eight- or nine-day tours that take you to Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos, with a pretrip panel discussion in Miami to get you informed and up to speed. Smithsonian Institution, Box 23182, Washington, District of Columbia, 20077. 855/330–1542; www.smithsonianjourneys.org. Tours from $4,995 per person.
Tauck. Looks at art, artisans, clothing, sugarcane, and the revolution are highlights of Tauck’s 13-day tour that takes you to Santiago, Remedios, Holguín, and Sancti Spíritus. 10 Norden Pl., Norwalk, Connecticut, 06855. 800/788–7885; www.tauck.com. Tours from $7,465 per person.
Travcoa. Two island-wide tours of 7 or 10 days make up Travcoa’s offerings and focus on art, entrepreneurs, and education. 100 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 1700, El Segundo, California, 90245. 888/979–4280; www.travcoa.com. Tours from $4,995 per person.
Air Canada Vacations. Tour packages of 5 to 16 days to Havana, Varadero, Guardalavaca, and the Cayos are offered by Air Canada Vacations. Airfare from several Canadian cities is included on its namesake airline. 5925 Airport Rd., Suite 700, Mississauga, Ontario, L4V 1W1. 877/529–2079; vacations.aircanada.com. Packages from $832 per person.
Nolitours by Transat. Resort stays in Havana, Varadero, Guardalavaca, and the Cayos of five to 16 days are offered by Nolitours with airfare included on its affiliated Transat Airlines. Departures take place from several Canadian cities. 300 Léo Pariseau, 2nd fl., Montréal, Québec, H2X 4B3. 866/556–3948; www.nolitours.com. Packages from $949 per person.
Sunquest. Sunquest offers 4- to 16-day resort packages at beach hotels in Varadero, Guardalavaca, and the Cayos, with airfare included from several Canadian cities. 2355 Skymark Ave., Suite 200, Mississauga, Ontario. 877/485–6060; www.sunquest.ca. Packages from $1,089 per person.
Sunwing Vacations. Tour packages of 5to 16 days from several Canadian cities to Havana, Varadero, Guardalavaca, Santiago, and the Cayos are offered by Sunwing Vacations, with airfare included on Sunwing Airlines. The operator offers many last-minute Web-only specials. 27 Fasken Dr., Toronto, Ontario, M9W 1K6. 877/786–9464; www.sunwing.ca. Packages from $595 per person.
TMR Holidays. An operator dealing only in Cuba travel, longtime specialist TMR Holidays offers 5- to 16-day packages to Havana, Varadero, Trinidad, Santiago, Guardalavaca, and the Cayos, with charter airfare included on departures from Montréal. 300 rue Léo-Pariseau, Suite 500, Montréal, Québec, H2X 4C2. 855/453–3936; www.vacancestmr.com. Packages from $919 per person.