Is Travel to Cuba Worth the Hassle?

By Laura Michonski
October 3, 2012
Courtesy <a href="" target="_blank">darkroomillusions/Flickr</a>

Cuba has long been forbidden territory for Americans. Only the most intrepid travelers have made it to the country, mostly by going through Mexico or Canada.

But the rules are changing. This year, the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, making it possible for Americans to go to the small Caribbean island as long as they make the trip with a licensed tour operator performing "people-to-people" trips. The goal? To encourage interaction between the two countries.

This week we introduced our first-ever deal to Cuba. At $1899, the price tag is higher than most of our deals, especially for a destination that is so close to home.

The rate includes your visa, round-trip airfare to Havana, four nights in the city, all meals, transfers, and your tour guide. During the trip, you'll meet Cuban artists, a professor who specializes in U.S./Cuban relations, and you'll visit an elementary school and housing project.

Our deals team spends an enormous amount of time finding and vetting deals to make sure that the offers we highlight in our Real Deals section are just that—real deals—not the smoke and mirror "discounts" you find on many other sites.

We hemmed and hawed about whether or not to feature this deal. On the one hand, it's an opportunity to experience a picturesque city with a fascinating history, not to mention one that has traditionally been tricky for us to visit.

On the other hand, it's pretty pricey and as anyone who knows anything about Cuba is aware—a Cuban vacation isn't your typical Caribbean getaway. You don't come here to work on your tan, down mojitos, and practice your moves in the disco. You come here to see the sights and learn about history. And careful planning is essential. You have to bring with you all the cash you plan to spend because there are no ATMs in the country and credit cards aren't accepted. WiFi connections are slow, chances are you won't get service on your cell phone, and the lack of streetlights makes it difficult to get around after dark. And good luck getting to know the locals—Cubans are notoriously reserved, especially around foreigners.

Still, the price is pretty good when you consider that it covers pretty much everything you'll need while you're here (food, board, tours). Plus, there is the allure of this part of the world and the novelty of being able to visit an area formerly off limits. The case for including the deal was compelling and eventually, the "for Cuba" contingent of our office won—and the deal was featured. Whether you book it or not is up to you.

What do you think? Were we right to include a deal to Cuba on our site? And would you ever consider booking a deal like this?


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New York’s Long Island City Booming With New Hotels

Long Island City, a waterfront neighborhood in Queens, is a "hot bed of hotel development," according to New York City officials. There are currently 17 hotels in Long Island City, with a total of 1,500 rooms, with five more properties (or an additional 650 rooms) already under construction. Long Island City is already home to a Four Points by Sheraton, a Fairfield Inn, a Country Inn &amp; Suites, a Holiday Inn, and a Wyndham Garden, which is opening next month. Some of the area's independent properties include the recently opened Z NYC Hotel, Ravel, the Queensboro Hotel and the Verve Hotel. The allure of Long Island City is undoubtedly its location right across the East River from Manhattan and convenient subway connections to the city. There is also a thriving arts scene there, including MoMA PS1, the Sculpture Center, the Noguchi Museum, and Fisher Landau Center for Art. "Long Island City is fast becoming a popular neighborhood for leisure and business travelers alike with its wide range of affordable hotel options, great cultural attractions, thriving restaurant scene, and seamless public transportation to midtown," said George Fertitta, CEO of NYC &amp; Company, New York's tourism marketing arm. The development in Long Island City is indicative of the city's overall hotel building boom, with New York on pace to have 90,000 hotel rooms by the end of 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced. Approximately 40 new hotel projects are scheduled to open in the next 30 months, with 13 properties (or 1,865 rooms) slated for boroughs other than Manhattan (five in Long Island City, three in Queens, one in the Bronx, one in Staten Island and three in Brooklyn). But with more hotels coming online, it doesn't mean it's getting any cheaper to stay in New York. Room rates are steadily increasing, according to city officials. But that hasn't kept the tourists away. Last year, New York City welcomed 48.8 million visitors who collectively spent $31 billion. And, hotel occupancy throughout the city has remained at close to 85 percent. More from Budget Travel: Now Departing: NYC to Hawaii Nonstop for $212 4 Tools for Finding the Perfect Airplane Seat A sneak peek of the 9/11 Memorial site


Silent Discos Gain in Popularity Worldwide

A quiet storm in the nightlife scene is gaining mainstream attraction. A silent disco is a dance party where clubgoers don cordless headphones and tune in to a live broadcast from the DJ booth. Stumble upon a silent disco, and you'll feel weird. Everyone is dancing, yet you can't hear the music. Silent discos were invented in 2005 at the British Glastonbury Festival. It was a case where the old saying&mdash;"Necessity is the mother of invention"&mdash;rang true. Event organizers were worried about upsetting local neighbors with loud bass, so they passed around wireless headphones to share music in certain circumstances. Silent disco debuted in the U.S. in 2006 at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music &amp; Arts Festival. It was a late-night alternative, allowing some people to keep dancing while campers could sleep in peace nearby. But it's only in 2011 that silent discos have gone mainstream, thanks to the equipment becoming easier to buy or rent. (Each headset and wireless transmitter costs about $35 to buy.) In late October, JetBlue hosted a silent disco at its JFK terminal in New York City. Around the same time, London's giant neo-Ferris wheel, the Eye, became a spinning silent disco, filling the pods with DJs and giving visitors a chance to listen to their beats via headsets. The London Zoo has gotten in on the act, too. To find venues at your next getaway, do an Internet search for your destination's name and the phrase "silent disco." For example, in San Francisco there's a frequent Silent Frisco party. Events are upcoming in Atlanta on Nov. 19, Memphis on Dec. 3, and Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 10. It's not every day you can quote Friedrich Nietzsche on a travel blog: "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." In other words, partying in silence has never been so cool. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Holiday Travel: To Go Home Or Go Away 14 Ways to Survive a Holiday Flight Trip Coach: Share Your Upgrade Strategies


Can You Ski Park City on the Cheap?

Figuring out how to do an affordable ski vacation presents a conundrum for active budget travelers. Even if you can snag a discount on lift tickets online, how can you afford accommodations that aren't miles away from the mountain? And how do you avoid the overpriced bowl of chili? With Utah celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games next year, a PR team representing Deer Valley, The Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort came to town. We put the question of affordability on the table. How, we asked, can budget travelers do world-class ski resorts and not break the bank? They hit me with a bevvy of ideas, based on their local knowledge. And they were quite convincing that Park City, with advance planning, can fit into the budget category — except, perhaps during the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 19-29, 2012), when the historic silver mining town fills up with celebrities and onlookers. Transportation Big news: You can now cut rental car costs. Just launched last month is public bus service between Salt Lake City and Park City, a distance of about 30 miles. The service is a cooperative effort between the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), Park City and Summit County. Bus stops include ski resorts. The fare for the express coaches is $5.50 each way, and the buses even have WiFi. Lodging There are of course budget chain hotels — Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, et al — but Park City also has some fun hybrids. Chateau Après Lodge is only 150 yards from the main Park City Mountain Resort lifts, with rates from $110 per night for two, including private bath, HD TV, free high-speed wireless access and continental breakfast. For the truly budget-conscious, there is a dorm available for $40 per night per person. For a B&amp;B; experience, the Star Hotel is right on Park City’s historic Main Street and serves up 11 rooms with shared bath and living room. We're told it’s like going to grandma’s house. Rates from $95 to $190. Dining Skip the $10 chili. Park City has a wealth of dining in the cheap eats category including a bunch of ethnic eateries and bakeries. Favorite local spots include A Wok Away in the Prospector Square area, serving up Chinese food, with dishes under $11. The Bridge Café and Grill, located on the Town Lift Plaza in downtown Park City, features Brazilian cuisine — a Prato Feito platter with a grilled 8 oz. Certified Angus Steak, black beans, saffron rice and collard greens, is $11.25. Near downtown, Davanza's is a top choice for hand-tossed pizza, $7.50 for a personal-size pie, $2.75 for a slice. And the locals' choice for Mexican is El Chubasco, located in the Prospector Square area, where you can get a "giant" chicken burrito for $6.95. Our sources also suggest visitors check The Park Record, the local newspaper, which frequently has 2-for-1 dining coupons. Packages and online savings The "ouch" comes for those who plan to spend more time on the slopes than après ski — a full-day lift ticket at Deer Valley, for instance, is a whopping $96. But you can save with multi-day passes, by buying lift tickets in advance, with Stay and Ski packages (if you can find one that meets your specific needs) and by checking ski discount sites — Liftopia for one has Park City Mountain tickets for December skiing from $44. More from Budget Travel: Ask Trip Coach: Affordable ski vacations Cool ski resorts Bosnia for ski bums


Learn a New Language for Under $100

In the summer of 2009, I traveled to Italy for the first time with my friend and her family. Armed with our Italian phrasebooks and a few cheat sheets from my younger sister (who had studied Italian in high school), we were off, but every chance I got to actually speak Italian was met with Italians who already spoke English and tried to put me at ease by speaking my own language. Finally, on the train from Rome to Milan, I was seated with a few native Italian speakers, but I just froze up. What if they didn't appreciate me unintentionally butchering their language? I had a five hour ride and didn't want to spend it in silence, but I chickened out big time. Now that my father is planning to take my sister and me to Paris, Rome, and Venice next summer, my chance to redeem myself is on its way. I've since come across three websites that allow users to sign up and not only practice a new language, but learn it for under $100. While I haven't had a chance to seriously begin my language&ndash;learning endeavor, I thought I'd share the results from my first round of research. My plan is to select one and report back sometime after our little Italian adventure and let you know how it all worked out&mdash;if you have used any of these programs and liked (or disliked) them, let me know! Learn a new language on your computer, iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Languages offered: English, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. Cost: Sign up to try a course for free, then select a payment plan for the remaining lessons: Depending on how much time it takes you to work on your new language, you can be charged $12.94 each month for the one&ndash;month course, $7.45 per month for a six&ndash;month course ($44.70 charged every six months), or take the recommended three&ndash;month course for $8.95 per month&mdash;charging $26.85 every three months to your card. First impression: I tested out the first free lesson for the course in Italian. It seemed like a pretty easy set up, similar to flashcards, but with pronunciation practice as well. You can hear the phrase, understand the context, and at the same time, learn how to spell it as you go. During the review portion, you are asked to type in the correct responses, and pressing the help button will give you hints. There's no rush and if you need to start the course over again, you can. BBC Active Languages Choose which level you wish to learn&mdash;beginner, intermediate, travel or reference&mdash;and learn at your own pace. Languages offered:Greek, Chinese, Arabic, English, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. Cost: Ranging from 24.99 British pounds (about $40 USD) for the "Talk Italian Box Set: Lessons 1 and 2" to the "Talk Italian Book &amp; CD Pack" for 14.99 British pounds (about $24 USD). BBC Active Languages also featured a wide range of language books, audio CDs and the obligatory phrasebook, all for under $50. First impression: Unfortunately, there really isn't a way for me to test these lessons out since you have to order and ship the items first. It seems like more of a traditional route with books, CDs and DVDs compared to web lessons, but was recommended on the website of my local library as an inexpensive way to learn a new language. I came across some reviews for the books on Amazon and Helium, the worst being that the lessons were hard to follow, the best being that certain users would recommend the products to beginners. Has anyone had a successful experience with BBC Active Languages? Livemocha Founded in September of 2007, Livemocha uses social media to connect native speakers to those trying to learn a new language. Languages offered: Arabic, Bulgarian, German, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Dutch, Indonesian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Catalan, Korean, Croatian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian (Bokmal), Polish, Portuguese (from Portugal and Brazil), Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Czech, Turkish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Greek, and Urdu. Cost: The free membership gives you access to the beginner and intermediate materials for any language, including the "Learn" and "Review" sections, as well as the opportunity to connect and chat with native speakers via social media. To gain access to more involved reviews, writing and speaking exercises, members can earn Tokens by assisting others in learning a language&mdash;whether you're providing submission reviews, helping with translations, creating flashcards, contributing tips, or completing coursework&mdash;or purchase them from the website to gain immediate access. For the most in depth reviews, speaking and writing exercises, members can purchase the Gold Key, allowing access to all exercises for all 38 languages, for either $9.95 for one month, or $99.95 for one year of unlimited access. First impression: The hardest part for me was sticking to my plan to learn Italian. I would be interested in refreshing my Spanish and maybe even adding French or something different like Catalan to my repertoire. I am very intrigued by the idea of getting language, pronunciation and dialect tips directly from those who speak it everyday. It's kind of like a facebook application for language&ndash;learning and the lessons are pretty intuitive to work through. Users can post photos from their location and the website helps you make friends and match up with native speakers who are willing to offer tips. Be aware that the lessons do require Adobe Flash Player in order to use them, as the non&ndash;flash version isn't quite as exciting. Have any of you used these websites yet, and if so, would you recommend them to a beginner? Tell us about your experiences below. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL What's Your Biggest Language Gaffe? Learn Spanish in a Land of Volcanoes Freebie: A fun New Way to Learn Foreign Words Online