Several months ago, when Carnival Cruises announced that it would soon begin offering cruises to Cuba, it did so in the strangest way. Instead of promising a standard cruise program, one that would visit several Cuban ports and allow passengers to tour the highlights of those locations, it characterized its program (perhaps inadvertently) as consisting of one long volunteer vacation. On arriving in Cuba, passengers presumably would engage in work activities of benefit to indigent Cubans, performing unskilled labor in several Cuban industries or activities.
It was obvious that Carnival executives assumed that the program could be operated legally only if passengers engaged in worthwhile work of a charitable nature. Why else would a cruise program – called “Fathom by Carnival” – subject its passengers to continuous labors in that Caribbean nation?
Well, the first Carnival cruise has now been completed, and apparently there were no labors of any sort associated with it. Travel Weekly Magazine placed a reporter aboard that cruise, who sent back standard reports of the typical sightseeing offered to cruise passengers in every Cuban port they visited. I read every one of those dispatches printed in Travel Weekly, and could not discover the merest glimpse of volunteer labors performed by cruise passengers. They were taken to cathedrals, dance performances, meetings with Cuban artisans and to every other sample of Cuban culture and life. They did not seem to wash a single dish or bring a single meal to tables in Cuban soup kitchens. They did not tutor a single child or dig a single well.
The Carnival Fathom operates most Sundays from Miami throughout the year, and most cabins start at $3,380 per person based on two people traveling together (a few interior cabins go down in price to as little as $2,710 per person for off-season dates). That’s considerably less than the cost of most land tours of Cuba, which generally cost a forbidding $5,000 and $6,000 per person (RoadScholar, the former Elderhostel, has them for less), including air from Miami. While a normal weeklong land tour should cost much less, it appears that features added by the Cuban government bring the price to the above outrageous levels, and it will be a long time before group land arrangements in Cuba cost less for American travelers.
If you can make your way to Montreal or Toronto as the departure point, you could book a far less expensive Canadian tour to Cuba (www.sunwing.ca and vacations.aircanada.com have them at remarkably low costs of less than $1,000, including airfare), but the Canadian packages are all for beach vacations that do not comply with U.S. legal requirements for a trip to Cuba.
Therefore, for smart Americans, the cost-conscious route to Cuba continues to be a totally independent tour, which is reached via flight on Air Jamaica to Havana through a stop in Kingston, Jamaica, or a flight on Aeromexico to Havana with a stop in Cancun, or a flight on numerous carriers to Havana via Nassau, Bahamas. And once in Havana (via taxi from the airport into town), you can use our buddies at Airbnb.com to book a casa particular (a room in the apartment of a Havana resident) for your stay in that city. And then you simply wander about, interacting with Cubans and enjoying an up-close look at the authentic Cuba – not a gussied-up contact with pre-arranged Cuban actors.
Cuba, through a totally independent tour pursuing one of the 12 activities named in recent U.S. regulations, is a real experience at a fraction of the cost of group arrangements on land or via cruise.
Note to the reader: Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip. The information in this column was accurate when it was released, but prices are competitive, sometimes limited and can always change without notice.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.