Cuba

Excursion Focus: Old Havana City Sightseeing

In:
Category: 
12Jul2018

Many people visiting Cuba on a Royal Caribbean cruise are very likely visiting Havana for the first time, and for those that want to see the highlights of the Old City of Cuba's capital, Royal Caribbean's Old Havana City Sightseeing tour offers just that.

We were also one of those first timers in Cuba on a recent Majesty of the Seas cruise, and picked this tour as a way to cross off some of the most famous landmarks in Havana.  It is impossible to see all of Havana in just one day, but this tour aimed to take us to the more popular spots.

Description

The Old Havana City Sightseeing tour is listed as a 4 hour bus tour that drives through much of Havana and offers stops at four places along the way.

This tour is offered directly by Royal Caribbean, and we booked the tour prior to the cruise.  The list price for this excursion is $99 per adult and $79 per child.

In the case of this tour, guests are instructed to meet onboard the cruise ship in the ship's theater. 

Royal Caribbean splits up guests among different buses, with each bus on its own schedule and with its own tour guide.  When it is time for your tour group to depart, Royal Caribbean escorts guests off the ship, through Cuban Customs and onto a waiting bus.   

This may sound simple, but it does take quite a while.  Going through Cuban Customs, security and money exchange goes at a snails pace in a very un-air conditioned building.  I estimate it took us 90 minutes to go from when we arrived at the theater to actually boarding a bus.

Once on the bus, your tour leader will introduce themselves and welcome you aboard.  By far the best part of the tour is the fact you will go all around Havana in an air conditioned coach bus.  I cannot understate the value of having an air conditioned base of operations to fall back on.  Havana is quite a hot and humid place to visit, and unlike so many other spots in the Caribbean, air conditioning is quite rare in Cuba.

While on our tour, we had the same bus, bus driver and tour leader for the entire duration of the excursion. This meant we could leave anything we wanted onboard the bus and it would be waiting for us when we got back.

The Old Havana City Sightseeing tour makes four stops as it navigates the streets of Havana.  These stops include:

  • Morro Castle
  • Plaza de Revolucion
  • Cristo de la Habana statue
  • Colon Cemetery

The exact order you visit may vary, as our tour guide optimized the tour to visit spots with little to no shade earlier in the day and save the spots with shade for later in the day.

A great deal of other sights will be visible from the bus as you drive through Havana and your tour guide will narrate the entire trip. Many blog readers asked us after the tour if there were any restrictions on what we could see or photograph and there really were none.  Our tour guide was more than happy to answer any and all questions we had and helped shed some light onto the Cuban way of life.

Our first stop was the Colon Cemetery, which is where a great deal of Cuba's most famous filmmakers, politicians and baseball players are buried. The bus dropped us off towards the entrance, and then a special guide escorted us through the cemetery and pointed out some of the more famous mausoleums.

The cemetery is massive, and there is not enough time to even see half of it, but it was incredible to see the detail in some of the burial spots.  

Our next stop was Revolutionary Square, where some of Cuba's most famous speeches were given.  Odds are if you watch an old news reel of some of Cuba's early days following the Communist Revolution, you will see someone speaking from this area.  It is basically a very large parking lot, with some government buildings surrounding it. 

There is also a fleet of classic American cars (or at least the exterior of classic American cars) that double as taxi drivers show off in the area. 

After a quick introduction to the history of this area, we were given some time to walk around on our own and check it out.  Most people tended to flock towards the classic cars to see them up close and take photos with them. There is no cost to any of this (unless you opt for a ride), although if you get into the car, a tip is customary.

Our next stop goes to check out Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera’s Cristo de la Habana statue, which keeps watch over the bay from a hilltop. 

The Christ of Havana statue is a large sculpture representing Jesus of Nazareth that was commissioned in 1953. The statue was carved out of white Carrara marble, the same material used for many of the monuments of the Colon Cemetery.  The statue is about 20 metres (66 ft) high including a 3-metre (10 ft) base.

The park where the statue is located provides a great view of Havana, your cruise ship and the harbor.

The final stop took us to Morro Castle, a stately fortress at the mouth of Havana harbor.  

Not only is the castle a fine example of Spanish colonial defenses, but there is also a bit of shopping you can do inside and outside the fort.  

The tour does not actually include admission to the fort, but you do get to go inside a small part of it that leads up to the entrance.  You are free to walk the grounds of Morro outside and explore without any cost.

When you get off the bus, there are a number of shops set up outside the fort you can browse.  In addition, you will be taken into a rum and cigar shop inside the fort that is optional to visit.

Most of the stops are 15-30 minutes in length.  The stop at Morro took about one hour and the Colon Cemetery was closer to 30 minutes.

At the conclusion of the tour, the bus returns to the port area, although you are free to tour on your own after that.

Comments

Going to any port of call for the first time means you likely have your own list of landmarks you would like to see, and Havana certainly has plenty of good candidates.  The Old Havana City Sightseeing does a good job at providing an introduction to Havana and overview of some of the more notable spots.

Of course, this is a group bus tour, which means the pace of the tour is largely dictated by the tour leader (and whomever shows up last to board the bus) and it does not leave a lot of room for personal exploration.  That is not necessarily a bad thing either, but do not expect a hands-on walking tour of the city.

The best part of this excursion is the air conditioned bus.  Having a bus to go back to between stops and relax, recuperate from the heat and humidity, and rest makes for tackling a city as large as Havana much easier.  Everyone's patience is higher when air conditioning is involved and after taking this tour in July, I do believe it helped make the overall experience better.

Our tour guide was also very knowledgeable about Cuba's history and current role today.  He encouraged us to ask questions and always took the time to explain concepts and programs that are not something you may find elsewhere in North America.  

Between the places we stopped to see and the many other places we saw from the bus, I felt the Old Havana City Sightseeing excursion provided a great starting point for my first visit to Cuba.  I may have preferred slightly more time on my own to explore, but the tour was perfect for anyone who has never been to Havana previously. 

Cost: $99 per adult, $72 per child.

Royal Caribbean releases 2019 Cuba itineraries for Empress of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas

In:
23May2018

Royal Caribbean released today its Short Caribbean and Cuba itineraries for its two smallest cruise ships, Empress of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas.

The new sailings are available for booking now, and run from April 2019 through the end of December 2019.

Majesty of the Seas will sail from Fort Lauderdale and offer 4-, 5, and 7-night itineraries to stops in Cuba, the Bahamas and Western Caribbean.  Some itineraries include overnight stops in Havana, Cuba.

Empress of the Seas will sail from Miami, Florida and offer a variety of sailings to multiple ports in Cuba, along with visits to other Western Caribbean ports. Empress will not only offer overnight stops in Havana, but will also visit other Cuban ports, such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

You can view a full list of 2019 itineraries for Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas.

Save $50 on Cuba cruises with new promo code

In:
Category: 
22May2018

Royal Caribbean is offering guests a $50 instant discount on Cuba sailings on Majesty of the Seas or Empress of the Seas when using the promo code 'CUBA'.

Cruise must be booked between May 22 and May 31, 2018 and applies to select sailings departing on or after 6/22/18.

The offer includes:

  • $50 instant savings for those guests booked on any Cuba sailing departing on Empress or Majesty of the Seas between 6/22/18 and 4/10/20.
    • Promo code CUBA must be entered or provided at the time of booking to be able to receive the promotional offer.
  • 50% off cruise fare of second guest booked in the same stateroom as first full-fare paying guest
  • “Kids Sail for Free Offer”offers free cruise fare for 3rd guests and higher who are 12 years old or younger on 4 nights or longer Europe, Bahamas, Bermuda, Hawaii, Canada, Coastal and Caribbean sailings departing between 9/1/18 – 5/31/19.
    • The Kids Sail Free Bonus excludes sailings between 11/17/18 – 11/23/18, sailings between 12/17/18 – 1/1/19 sailings between 2/15/19 – 2/18/19, sailings between 3/16/19 – 3/30/19 and sailings between 4/13/19 – 4/22/19. Instant savings amount shown in USD and will be converted to currency used for cruise purchase.

Offer is combinable with select promotions.

Offer open to residents of US, Canada, Puerto Rico and select countries in the Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean talks social media, Symphony of the Seas, Cuba, guest spending and more

In:
26Apr2018

During Royal Caribbean's first quarter 2018 financial call with investors, the company shared some interesting anecdotes, facts, and insight into the ever changing cruising environment.  While most of the information discussed in these earnings calls deal primarily with financial indicators, cruise guests can glean some insight into how Royal Caribbean runs its business.

Social media driving demand

Off the bat, Royal Caribbean's top brass was quick to point out that social media is crushing it in terms of raising the brand's awareness to consumers, assuaging myths about cruising and most importantly, driving demand.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) Chairman and CEO Richard Fain spoke about the impact of social media, "I attribute some of the recent healthy growth and demand to our success in the social media environment. Our social media teams really are doing an amazing job."

RCL Chief Financial Officer Jason Liberty also talked about how social media has helped Royal Caribbean this quarter, "Levers, like social media and so forth, are really helping break through stereotypes on cruise and we have seen a real change in our new to cruise volumes.  That is also suggesting that a lot of these past detractors are becoming fans of cruise."

Symphony receiving tons of good press for a sister ship

There is no question that Royal Caribbean is proud of the launch of its newest ship, but the executives were down right impressed by how well Symphony of the Seas is selling, especially considering she is the fourth sister ship in the class.

Mr. Fain spoke about the public's reaction to Symphony of the Seas, "The public reaction to Symphony of the Seas was surprising even to us. Even though she is the fourth in the amazing Oasis Class series of ships, she has so many new amenities and attractions, that our guests and the media were simply blow away. Rarely has a sister ship received such press, and rarely has it been so deserving of it."

Mr. Liberty expanded on the results Symphony of the Seas has brought to the cruise line, "Prices for Symphony have not only exceeded our lofty expectations, they have also been even better than we saw from Harmony last year."

Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley shared an anecdote about Symphony of the Seas' early success, "The week after we introduced Symphony of the Seas, our bookings beat track by 50%. That is the week after we introduced the ship, so it's really performing well."

Consumers want shorter, more frequent vacations

A trend that Royal Caribbean has picked up on is the desire for short Caribbean getaway cruises.  As a result, Royal Caribbean has invested heavily in Mariner of the Seas and the improvements coming to CocoCay.

"We're seeing more and more people opting for shorter, but more frequent vacations. We are responding to that call by modernizing Mariner of the Seas, which is one of our Voyager Class ships, and we're raising our game in the short cruise market with this upgraded vessel, " Mr. Fain explained, "At the same time we also announced a major upgrade to our private destination in the Bahamas at CocoCay that we are calling, appropriately I might add, Perfect Day. Perfect Day in that destination will be another great addition to our Caribbean offering.  It is really thrilling to see the work take shape, and I'm certain that this destination will get tongues wagging just as much as our new hardware has done."

Michael Bayley also spoke about what Royal Caribbean is doing to meet customer demand, "We're very excited about Mariner as a product coming into the shorts market, and that's very much focused on new to cruise, and Millennial, and that really is the on ramp for that market.  That ship is literally like having an Oasis Class ship in the short product market, because its capacity is just over 3200-3400 every three or four days."

Guest spend & onboard revenue is up a lot

If you want to find the "secret sauce" to what is making the biggest difference in Royal Caribbean's quarterly growth, onboard revenue is a big factor.  This means the things guests spend on their cruise above and beyond the cruise fare.

Mr Liberty spoke about the growth the cruise line is seeing in this area, "The main driver of the positive earnings in yield was the continued strength in onboard revenue, which was up 6.3% for the quarter. This result is notable considering that it follows an 8.9% improvement from the first quarter of 2017."

"Guest spend from onboard activities has continued to shift towards areas that involve experiences over buying things, and this quarter was no different. Beverage packages, specialty restaurants and internet were the main revenue streams driving the quarterly beat."

Mr. Bailey also spoke about the onboard revenue growth that Royal Caribbean is seeing, "We've been really pleased with our pre-cruise sales, and we've seen a significant uplift year over year that's been increasing for the past couple of years and it's been a big driver of onboard spend.  We kind of figure, for every dollar that we earn pre-cruise, we'll see somewhere between a 30 and a 50% uptick in the onboard spend."

"And then of course over the years, we've invested quite heavily in new venues, new attractions onboard of our ships and many of those are revenue generating.  We're beginning to see a lot of those now yielding superior revenue because of the kind of services they provide."

Cuba update

Another area that we received an update on was Cuba and cruises there.  A recent leadership change alongside strong demand for cruises to Cuba generated an update on where the cruise line stands with regard to this newly offered destination.

Royal Caribbean Chief Operating Officer Adam Goldstein spoke about Cuba, "We've been commenting over time about the fact that the Cuban market has been a good market for us to enter. The customer satisfaction about Havana has been very, very high. But the reality is that there is still just one functioning pier that ships can go to on either side of the pier in Havana.  There is going to have to be some type of considerable infrastructure improvement that takes place over the next several years, that will probably take time."

"I think what we've been seeing lately is that the Cuban Government has gotten a little bit more efficient in maximizing the use of the pier on both sides, and our company has definitely been a beneficiary of that. We've been able to increase the number of sailings on a year over year basis, even though their capacity hasn't increased."

"For what it is, it's been terrific, but in the overall sense of our portfolio, it is still fairly small. And we haven't seen any change whatsoever in their attitude towards us or their dealings with us, as it relates to their change in government to this point."

A look at the state of digital marketing

Michael Bayley provided a look at how Royal Caribbean is leveraging digital marketing (as opposed to traditional marketing) to better reach customers.

"We think that there's better targeting, and it's a more efficient channel. And certainly, with our social media presence, we believe that we've maneuvered ourselves into a really strong position in our space. In fact, we just recently conducted an independent survey of where we are positioned in terms of the social media universe, and we came out of it exceptionally well, in terms of how people view Royal Caribbean through that lens and how they are engaging with Royal Caribbean."

"We are also seeing that with the response from onboard internet, and how people are using the accelerated internet to utilize social media to actually promote our brands, which has been really quite effective."

Video: The Absolute Best Way to Visit Cuba

In:
Category: 
01Dec2017

Royal Caribbean now is sailing to two exciting new ports, in addition to visiting the nations's capital of Havana, guests can now explore Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos on the southeast coast of the island. Plus, guests can stay overnight and experience the island’s vibrant night life.

Royal Caribbean expands Cuba sailings in 2018 and adds two new ports

In:
30Nov2017

Royal Caribbean announced today it is doubling its sailings to Cuba in 2018, with two ships offering cruises there - Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas.  In addition, Royal Caribbean is adding two new destinations to itineraries.

The new Cuba ports will of Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos on the southeast coast, will be visited by Royal Caribbean and add a new dimension to an array of 4- to 8-night Caribbean adventures on Empress of the Seas that open for sale today.

Departing from Miami year-round, Empress cruise vacations will include 7-night Best of Cuba itineraries to Cienfuegos, Havana and Nassau, Bahamas; 5-night sailings visiting Key West, Florida and spending the night in Havana; and an immersive 8-night journey to Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Grand Cayman, and Labadee, Haiti. Majesty of the Seas will continue the 4- and 5-night offerings to Havana that include day and overnight stays, departing from Tampa from April to October 2018, and Ft. Lauderdale from November 2018 to March 2019.

All sailings to Cuba will offer shore excursions designed for guests to experience the destination and to comply with the people-to-people educational exchange activities requirement as set forth in the U.S. regulations.

“Cuba is such an important part of Caribbean culture, and we can’t wait to call on Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos next year, showcasing even more of the country’s scenic beauty, rich history and distinctive architecture,” said Michael Bayley, President and CEO, Royal Caribbean International. “Cruising remains the easiest way to visit Cuba, and with both Empress and Majesty sailing there in 2018 and 2019, we hope to make it that much easier for adventure seekers to experience the legendary island.”

Royal Caribbean adds Cuba cruises from Fort Lauderdale on Majesty of the Seas

In:
21Nov2017

Royal Caribbean released a new batch of 2018-2019 sailings to Cuba on Majesty of the Seas from Fort Lauderale, Florida.

These new sailings are available for booking and begin in November 2018 and extend through March 2019.  There are also a number of other Majesty of the Seas sailings from Fort Lauderdale, that visit destinations in the Western Caribbean.

Majesty of the Seas will offer 4- and 5-night sailings to Cuba, including some overnight stays.

Royal Caribbean to offer cruises to Cuba from Port Canaveral on Majesty of the Seas

In:
14Jul2017

Royal Caribbean has added a second cruise ship that will call on Cuba, Majesty of the Seas from Port Canaveral, Florida.

Majesty of the Seas will depart Port Canaveral on March 25, 2019 for a 4-night cruise that will visit Havana, Cuba.  Thus far, this is the only sailing to Cuba on Majesty of the Seas available for booking on Royal Caribbean's website.

Until now, Empress of the Seas has been the only Royal Caribbean ship to offer cruises to Cuba, having begun service in April 2017.

Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley had indicated the cruise line had plans to send Majesty of the Seas to Cuba in an interview earlier this year.

Royal Caribbean sees no impact to Cuba cruises from new U.S. policy change

In:
Category: 
16Jun2017

President Trump announced new restrictions on Friday to curtail travel and commercial ties between the U.S. and Cuba, but it appears there will be no impact on Royal Caribbean cruises to Cuba.

On Twitter, Royal Caribbean confirmed that there will be no impact to any sailings that visit Cuba as a result of the new U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Royal Caribbean currently offers year-round sailings to Havana, Cuba on Empress of the Seas from Tampa, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida through March 2019.

Expert tips and advice for visiting Cuba on a cruise

In:
Category: 
11May2017

Royal Caribbean made headlines last month with the commencement of regular cruises that stop in Cuba, which marked a historic milestone for the cruise line. With more and more sailings destined to visit Havana, we reached out to experts that recently visited Cuba on their cruise for advice and tips when spending the day in Havana.

We spoke with three writers who just wrapped up cruises to Havana.

Planning

Colleen: Bring your visa and passport with you when you disembark – but know you’ll be turning over your visa when you go through customs. If you’re getting back on and off the ship, customs officials only need to see your passport stamp. Your visa will remain on file with customs. If you’re concerned about handing over your visa, take a photo of it on your phone before you disembark.

Halee: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes.  A lot of the walkways are cobble stone and not kept up (not everything is handicap accessible).

John: Get up early to watch the sail in to Havana harbor. This is a wonderfully scenic port to pull into at sunrise and the forward decks can fill up fast with people wanting to snap pictures. The city reveals itself on the starboard side, and a fortress (El Morro) and statue of Jesus.

Halee: Print out a Map of Old Havana area to keep with a notebook.  This way you can mark where you've been (in case customs asks if you venture off) and have an idea of where you are.   While you are pre planning you can also mark things you want to see prior to going.

Excursions

John: Havana is extremely walkable and interesting. Make time to wander and explore. The people are friendly, and we found many who wanted to know where we were from just to chat and tell us how excited Americans were able to finally come see their country.

Colleen: Book your excursions before you sail. This ensures you will get to do what you want to do, and it also takes the hassle out of making sure you are adhering to the strict Cuba travel requirements.

John: Many might also ask whether you are interested in cigars or rum and tell you about a "Today only, the cooperative is having a half-price sale. And when you buy from the cooperative, this helps Cuban people get food vouchers." This "cooperative" is really a private business out of sight of the government, and the hawker might ask to show you where it is and lead you to a room in a private residence where they indeed might have really good deals on cigars. But you should know what is really happening so you can decide whether to go make a purchase. Note: the cigars we saw in these cooperative can be about $5 each compared with about $10 or more at an official store you can find along the waterfront or other areas in the city.

Currency

Colleen: You can pay in U.S. dollars or Euros. Yes, cash is king in Cuba, and more and more, businesses are taking American and European currency. Be aware: You will get your change in Cuban Convertible Pesos, though. That’s the Cuban tourist currency, and you can only spend it in Cuba.

Colleen: At some places, like Havana’s famous Tropicana Club, you’ll actually spend more if you pay with U.S. dollars. For example, a beer cost 5 pesos, but if you paid in U.S. dollars, it was $6. Presumably, this is to cover the hefty 10% tax the Cuban government levies on purchases made using the U.S. dollar. If you’re concerned, convert your dollars to euros before you travel to Cuba; there is no tax on the euro. Speaking of cash, take lots of it if you plan to shop, and make sure you have plenty of small denominations for tipping.

Halee: Download a Currency Exchange App (I used XE Currency).  It works offline with the most recent data from when it was online so if you are unsure on the conversion you can have peace of mind.

Dining

John: Grab a freshly made guarapo. This is a national drink for Cubans. You can find vendors feeding stalks of sugarcane into contraptions to squeeze out fresh sugarcane juice. It's added to chipped ice and makes a high-calorie and refreshingly tasty energy drink to give you a quick pick-me-up as you wander Havana on a hot day. It's cheap, too, going for less than $1. Also, try to grab a snack of churros at one of the street stands. We heard people raving about the warm, sugary fried dough sticks they got for $ for a dozen.

Pages