Winter is a great time for Canadians fed up with the freezing cold to escape south. Sun, beach, and plenty of warm temperatures. Cuba is a popular vacation spot for Canadians, who are not restricted from visiting like the Americans. Besides the mainline carriers Air Canada and Westjet, charter airlines like Transat and Sunwing offer very competitive packages to Varadero, the main resort area east of Havana.
Despite being peak season, I scored an air and hotel package for 4 nights for about CAD 750 per person, double occupancy. The downside is a very early 7am departure out of Toronto, which was very challenging by public transport at that hour.
Air Transat recommends arriving at the airport 3 hours prior to departure. Packing light, I checked in online earlier so theoretically I wouldn't even need to visit the check-in counters at all, giving me some more sleeping time. However, the bottleneck would be security, which I have experienced some issues at Terminal 3. When I left for the airport at around 5am, the expected line-up time on the security website showed 30 minutes for T3 international.
Check-in has been streamlined to kiosk, then bag drop. It was easy to print my boarding pass and luggage tag at the kiosk, while the line to the bag drop counter moved steadily and it only took about 5-10 minutes to send my suitcase to the hold. By now, the security waiting time had improved to about 15 minutes. At this hour, there were plenty of charter flights to warmer sun destinations.
Terminal 3 is an aging facility and there are not enough seats for a full narrowbody flight. My plane had already parked by the time I reached the gate, which had people flowing out of the nicer bar table seats with the ipads. There were also long lines at several of the food outlets for breakfast at this hour.
Boarding was timely and first impressions were it's an old plane. It was tidy and leg room was decent from a budget carrier expectation. My knees didn't bump into the seat in front of me. Today's flight time would be 3.5 hours and we left the gate on-time.
We taxied to the de-icing area to clean off before departure. There were plenty of trucks waiting to do the job, but I noticed there was no colour residue unlike some of the other de-icing I have gone through elsewhere. I wonder if anyone would know if a spot was missed.
We took off towards the west with the snow-covered city below. There were some clouds so we had a few bumps on the ascent. The crew offered headsets and amenity kits at an extra charge. The headset would be used to watch the movie on the overhead screen. An announcement was also made that portable electronic devices could be used throughout the flight as long as they are in flight mode.
Cuba arrival cards were distributed and the crew went through how to fill these out, emphasizing they don't have extras and we would need to purchase one for a fee on arrival if we made a mistake. These cards are expensive to buy if flying a US carrier or overseas passport holders but are included in the price of my package, which is typical for flights departing from Canada. These cards are not exclusive for Canadians so if you live overseas and don't want the hassle of finding a Cuban embassy for one of these, just book a flight out of Canada.
The paid bistro cart came and went and behind it was the complimentary drinks cart. The rest of the flight was uneventful and by the time I woke up, we were over the Florida Keys and the descent into Varadero began.
Air Transat portrays itself as a lower-cost leisure airline. It is not designed to entice premium passengers to pay the extra buck for a lie-flat seat to the Caribbean. While they don't fly the newest planes with the best amenities, the seats are comfortable enough. After all, the Caribbean isn't really that far from Canada, and the really rich folks probably wouldn't be interested in my cheap package and find a more expensive vacation in the Maldives.
I was excited to see Cuba's coastline. However, the weather deteriorated as Varadero was having a cloudy day.
We touched down at a fairly empty airport on schedule. A lot of the passengers were excited to be in warmer lands and an applause erupted out.
The airport looked old but functional and the line at immigration was manageable. It was confusing at first since you can't see any of the agents. Each counter is an enclosed cubicle with frosted glass. A working counter would be lit inside.
Once processed, my luggage came out fairly quickly and soon I was land-side. An Air Transat representative was at the exit and I went to ask for my bus to the resort. To the left of the exit is the cadeca to exchange some Cuban convertible pesos, a different currency from what locals use but for tourists, this is the currency we use in the country. The 2 photos below were taken on my return flight to show the location.
A lot of Chinese-made buses were parked at the exit but it was easy to find my bus. An enthusiastic guide accompanied us to the hotel, giving advice on what not to do in Cuba during the 40 minute ride into town. Don't exchange money with individuals on the street, attend the welcome meeting with the tour rep at the hotel tomorrow, book excursions with the tour rep, and remember to tip!
Not all the cars were clunky old Americans though!
Air Transat offered an affordable package option to Cuba. Everything went quite smoothly and I was particularly impressed with the airport transfers at Varadero, which were very organized and makes visiting a new country quite hassle-free.
Varadero is about 2 hours east of Havana and caters for foreigners who want a nice resort, beach, and meals within the confines. Havana doesn't offer this, as their hotel reviews are generally bad to mediocre. In recent years, a growing number of tourists have started to rent casas in Havana for a more authentic local experience. If you want to lie on a beach for a week, stick to Varadero, but if you want to see Havana's crumbling urban cityscape, save the time commuting and live there.
For my Havana photos, click below to access the gallery.
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