It’s no secret that many airlines are diving into the Cuba market – nearly every US airline has already started flying to Cuba. Specifically speaking, JetBlue, American, United, Delta, Frontier, and Spirit all currently have flights to Cuba, and Alaska and Southwest are commencing service within the coming weeks.
There are currently 20 daily flights to Havana alone from the US!
On Monday, I was on board a historic inaugural flight- JetBlue flight 243, which was the first commercial flight to Havana, Cuba to depart from JFK in more than 50 years! Starting November 28, JetBlue began daily service to Havana from JFK (and HAV-JFK too).Inaugural flights in general are always a lot of fun- usually characterized by a party at the gate, music, special guests, and a whole lot of in-flight surprises. JetBlue’s Havana service became the airline’s 100th destination in 22 countries, so it was a pretty big deal!
Unfortunately, since the inaugural flight to Havana was scheduled just 3 days after Fidel Castro’s death, JetBlue pulled back a bit to respect Cuba’s mourning period, which is set to end on December 4. Kudos to the airline for being sensitive to the Cubans.
In case you weren’t aware, during the mourning period in Cuba, there is a ban on music and the sale of alcohol at local restaurants and shops to prevent Cubans from “celebrating” during this time.
With that being said, I think the airline made an appropriate decision to not have music or a band perform during the pre-departure festivities, and to also eliminate the on-board surprises that JetBlue has been known for on some of their previous inaugural flights (such as giveaways, in-flight bingo, etc.). My recent flight between Newark to Barbados was SUPER fun (more on that later), so I know all about the JetBlue “inaugural experience”.
When I arrived at JFK on Monday morning at 6:15 am, I was directed to a special check-in area, downstairs at terminal 5, where I had to fill out an affidavit indicating my reason for visiting Cuba, and to pay $50 to obtain my visa.
The check-in area was flooded with news reporters interviewing passengers and JetBlue executives about the buzz surrounding the historical inaugural flight, which was an interesting sight in itself to see. In fact, many of the passengers later saw themselves on on the news while we were in flight!
Luckily I arrived early because that process took a bit of time. After all of the paperwork was done, I went up to the gate where there was a full buffet of delicious Cuban food for all to enjoy (I may have eaten way too much ropa vieja at 7 am).
I especially loved all of the fun touches (such as inaugural cake, cookies, and decorative loaf of bread).After a few words from the JetBlue team and NYC officials, there was a celebratory ribbon cutting ceremony before boardingOnce on board the sold-out inaugural flight, each seat had a commemorative RuMe reusable tote bag waiting for us (with a great bag tag too), containing a battery pack, a ticket to the Museum of Natural History (to see the special ¡Cuba! exhibit with a guest), a Cuban art print, and a Cuban flag (which we used for a in-flight group photo). We also received a separate “amenity kit” from the duty free shops containing chocolate bars and a name-brand fragrance (mine was an Armani cologne)The flight left a few minutes late, but we arrived in Havana on time (avgeeks can even watch a video of the take-off here). En route to Havana, we all held our flags up for a memorable photo-opp.Perhaps the most heart-warming moment of all, was seeing this on the ground when we landed in Havana:As you already know, all of the US carriers are moving into the Cuban market. But keep in mind that even with with the recent increase in travel and new communication between Cuba and the US, travel to Cuba as an American is still pretty restricted, especially since a visit that’s solely for tourism remains illegal.
As an American, you are required to meet one of 12 “authorized travel” categories in order to obtain a visa, but JetBlue is staying competitive by making it easier for travelers who do qualify to visit (I was especially impressed when I saw that health insurance was included in a ticket price).
It’s also worth noting that flights to Cuba are reasonably priced since so many airlines are now flying there (I even saw JetBlue fares for ~$200 round trip!).
According to JetBlue’s press release, the airline is taking a number of steps unique to its Cuba launch to set it apart from competitors known for offering high prices and inferior service:
- Affordable fares: JetBlue offers a low starting fare to make Cuba more accessible to those visiting family members or traveling to Cuba for cultural, business or group travel.
- Health insurance included: JetBlue includes Cuban government-required health insurance coverage for all travelers on all Cuba-bound flights so that customers do not have to worry about obtaining the insurance separately.
- Affidavit in a few clicks: Under U.S. regulations, every customer traveling to Cuba must complete an affidavit affirming the customer is going for one of 12 reasons of approved travel from the U.S. Department of Treasury. JetBlue has built the completion of the affidavit right into the booking process so it can be finished in only a couple of clicks.
- Day-of-travel Cuban Tourist Visa (Tourist Card): Separate from the U.S.-regulated 12 categories, Cuba requires visitors to obtain an entrance visa onto the island. For customers who qualify for a Cuban Tourist Visa (Tourist Card), JetBlue will make those available for purchase upon check-in at one of its gateway airports or at the gate for connecting customers on the day of travel. All travelers to Cuba should make their own determination with respect to the appropriate type of visa required by Cuba for their purpose of travel.
While American Airlines announced that they’ll be cutting service on some of their Cuba routes, JetBlue doesn’t seem to have any immediate plans to reduce service to any of the 4 destinations they service in Cuba.
Overall it was quite an incredible experience to be part of history. I was offered a seat with just days notice, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have cold feet about visiting Havana completely alone and without a plan, especially during the death of Castro!
But they say the best things happen by accident, right? I ended up meeting a diverse group of travelers in the long immigrations line at HAV, and we ended up spending every day together!
*In full disclosure, JetBlue invited me to fly with them to Havana. I was not compensated in any other way, and all opinions and stories are my own.