On Tuesday morning, the US and Cuba signed a civil aviation agreement in Havana, marking the first time since the Cuba embargo was put in place half a century ago that Americans will be able to fly to the island on commercial airlines.
It’s a huge breakthrough in President Barack Obama’s push to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries, but it’s also an enormous opportunity for Americans who are now thinking of making Cuba their next vacation spot.
It is still technically illegal to travel to Cuba as a tourist, and will remain so until the embargo is lifted.
But the Obama administration has already made it much easier to travel to Cuba under one of 12 permitted categories, including trips with humanitarian, religious, or educational missions. Though gaining permission from the government once required preapproval and a detailed itinerary, Americans wishing to travel to Cuba now need only check the right box on a visa form at the airport.
Even so, Americans wishing to vacation in the island nation must do so on costly charter flights leaving primarily from Miami and New York, leaving them little flexibility in planning trips.
"We’re in a Cuba travel bubble right now, where prices are very high, and there are limited flights available," said Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. "With the opening of commercial flights, it means you’re going to have a huge increase in daily flights to Cuba, which can only mean prices will become competitive and be driven down."
Resuming commercial flights between the two nations removes one more obstacle between Americans and tropical Cuban vacations.
Why are commercial flights so much better than charter flights?
Right now, charter flights from New York and Miami – the two main sites where charter companies have based their hubs – operate on sparse schedules and cost much more than reasonable market rates.
Flights out of New York only leave a couple of days a week, for example. And they run about $850 per ticket. A flight from Miami to Havana, which is about a 40-minute trip, runs about $450. Needless to say, these flights are not eligible for mileage points, either.
By all accounts, a vast majority of these flights — approximately 20 per day – are completely booked.
Under the framework of the current deal, American airline providers will be able to fly to Havana up to 20 times per day. They can also operate up to 10 flights to each of Cuba’s nine other international airports. According to NPR, that allows for as many as 110 flights bound for Cuba per day. That means the deal will allow for more than five times the number of flights currently being operated.
The hope is that once commercial flights resume, the increased competition will drive down ticket prices. It will also mean that flights to Cuba will be offered at more airports, cutting down the cost of buying connecting flights to Miami or New York.
Commercial airlines offer numerous services to consumers that are not typical of charter companies. People will be able to buy tickets online, for instance, and have access to 24-hour customer service.
There are so many American airline companies vying for flying rights that once commercial flights actually resume, consumers will have their choice of airline through which to apply points and accumulate mileage, as well.
When will commercial flights actually begin?
Now that the agreement has been signed, airlines have a 15-day window to submit applications to the Department of Transportation, permitting them to serve Cuban destinations. Each carrier would also have to work out details with Cuban aviation officials.
So far, airlines including American, Delta, Jet Blue, Southwest, and United all plan to apply for routes, some to multiple Cuban cities.
US officials hope to parcel out flights to different carriers by the summer. That would mean that if all goes as planned, the first flights will take off by the fall — just before Obama leaves office.