Preparing For Your Trip to Havana, Cuba

After a weeklong adventure in the Caribbean, we are back from Cuba! We loved our entire trip — from salsa lessons in Central Havana to exploring the plazas in Old Vieja to horseback riding in Vinales. If you appreciate bright colored, abandoned buildings, strong coffee, and hospitable people, you will fall in love with Cuba. We certainly did! Today, I’m sharing all of my tips for planning your trip to Cuba.


How To Visit Cuba (Getting a Visa) 

Getting to Havana was surprisingly easy. The following airlines fly to Cuba: American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta — though not all fly to Havana. I flew Jet Blue to Havana (highly recommend!) and Spirit back to the States (never again!!).

If you book your flight through JetBlue, you can buy your Visa through them for $50 when you arrive at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. This was less than a 5-minute ordeal! When you purchase your ticket online, you will be asked why you are visiting (FYI, this is your “affidavit” for future reference so hold on to your receipt). You can select one of 12 reasons for your visit to Cuba. Will and I selected “professional research” as this was valuable research for both my blog and book writing (visit my About section for my lifelong goal!).

Most travelers we met went for “aid to the Cuban people” or independently under a people-to-people trip so long as they could prove there was “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” We were not questioned about the purpose of our trip at any point, but we were prepared to explain if necessary.

*Note: Spirit charges $100 for a visa, which is why Will, who flew separately on Spirit, purchased his visa at the Cuban Consulate in D.C. for $50. He took a traveler’s check and his passport and filled out the visa form when he arrived, where he explained his reason for his visit and the address of where he would be staying. He had to drop off his form and pick up his visa in-person. The whole waiting process took about one week. (Thank you to Neha for this awesome tip!)

Where To Stay

Stay in a casa particular (aka Cuban home). Not only does it provide additional income for Cuban residents, but it also gives you a taste of Cuban culture. Because I was traveling from Fit Approach’s yoga retreat in California, I arrived at our casa particular several hours before William. And I’m so glad I did because I was able to talk to our casa owners for a long time! Our hosts, Judith and Orlando, and their grown children, Dayron and Dariana, live in Old Havana, three blocks from the Capitol, which looks suspiciously like our own in Washington, D.C. Hm… 😉

Our host family was a true delight. We were thankful to get to know them and learn a little more about their life in Havana. Cuban life is difficult. Taxi drivers and waiters often make more than government-employed doctors, food is rationed and expensive, and the internet is not easily accessible or affordable. Dayron smiled a lot as he told me about their large Baptist church, favorite foods (beans mixed with rice and served with meat!), and favorite activities (socializing – to which he added that Cubans waste too much time “talking, talking, talking”).

Judith made us a delicious breakfast! Casa particulars typically offer homemade breakfast for 5CUC/person.

Our hosts raved about the weekly “packet”, a 1-terrabyte USB drive created and sold by a private organization that offers access to world news, YouTube videos, fashion, and American movies. Imagine only having access to the outside world through a thumb drive that you get once a week! We loved learning from our family but were also sad to hear how complicated life is in Cuba — thanks to the government. “It’s so complicated, Cuban people can only laugh,” someone told me on our trip. Though life is hard, we were repeatedly impressed by our joyful, hardworking family.

We used Airbnb to book our reservation but this site is also a helpful resource. Be forewarned — start your search and request to book early on in your vacation planning! Because of limited internet access, you’ll more than likely receive a response at least 24-48 hours later. If you try to book late during the busy season (mid-November to mid-March), most of the places you’ll want to stay will be full.

*If you are planning to visit Havana, I do not recommend staying in a hotel. They’re overpriced and inconsistent. Stay with a family and experience real Cuba!

Preparing For Your Trip

As you prepare for your trip to Havana, you’ll want to check off a few things on your packing list. Leave your computer at home because you won’t have access to wifi (unless you buy a 1-hour card for 4CUC and use it at a hotel). It’s a refreshing way to unplug and experience the sights and sounds of Havana! Download maps.me (Havana) on your phone prior to leaving! This is how we navigated Havana. Trust me, you do not want to skip this step. 🙂

Because it’s located in the Caribbean, Cuba can be hot and humid! Pack light layers and comfortable shoes as you will want to explore most of the city on foot. Fair warning: the streets have a lot of potholes and random construction, as well as friendly stray cats and dogs, which means it isn’t particularly well-kept. For our trip, I packed rompers, sandals, espadrilles, tennis shoes, a hat, sunglasses, my Kindle, our camera, and a small purse. That was perfect and fit nicely in my carry-on. Though it did get a little chilly mid-week (even our hosts were surprised by the last of the winter weather!), I had a light jacket to keep the breeze off my back.

For our trip, I also packed Pepto-Bismol pills, anti-diarrheal medicine (TMI?? Don’t drink the water, folks!), wet wipes, protein bars, band-aids, Sweat Cosmetics sunscreen, and tissues (for the bathrooms that either ration or don’t provide toilet paper). You never know what situation you might find yourself in and to be honest, we used everything but the anti-diarrheal on our trip.

If you are planning to check a bag, I would encourage you to pack items that you can give to your hosts or friendly Cuban strangers. It’s hard for Cubans to get access to goods we don’t think twice about, including toothpaste, feminine care products, and aspirin. I could only pack 3 oz. bottles, but I plan to bring more goods, including peanut butter, next time!

For Americans, our final tip is to exchange your money into Euros prior to leaving the U.S. You’ll save money on transaction fees as there is a higher fee to convert USD to CUC. Also, exchange it back before you leave Havana! Our friends were randomly selected at security for a bag search and then forced to give up their remaining CUC because “CUC does not circulate in the US”. We couldn’t find any information about this online, but hopefully, this tip saves you time and money!

I will share my Havana travel guide later next week. If you’re interested in traveling to Havana, comment below or feel free to email me <courtney@thedaringdarling.com> with any questions. I’d love to hear from you!

xx
Courtney

Up, Up, and Away! Spring Travel + prAna Review

It’s been a busy travel month! In fact, I’m writing this from the 8th airport I’ve visited in the last 7 days. Writing that sounds a lot crazier than it actually is — a lot of those stops have been layovers. Last weekend, we said goodbye to ski season with a quick trip to Big Sky Montana with friends. Most recently (as in yesterday), I spent the most beautiful weekend in sunny California with the Fit Approach team for the EMPOWER Sonoma Retreat. I’m already looking forward to our next sunny destination… and, as soon as my long layover is over, I’ll be saying hello to CUBA! I’ve got my hat, sandals, and sunglasses ready for the tropical climate. (My prAna tank made it on the trip too! I’m hoping Will and I can do a few workouts in between our exploring).

Because of the busy month, I almost forgot that we are less than a week away from the first day of Spring. Winter went by too fast for me, especially because it didn’t really snow in D.C. But I admit I’m still a little excited to say hello to the sunshine and all of the wonderful things that come with spring — mainly, Easter, spring cleaning, and D.C.’s beautiful cherry blossoms.

I recently received these pants and top from prAna’s spring line, and I’ve been living in their Chetan capris. I love the funky print and soft material. While I wouldn’t wear them to a hot yoga class or running because they aren’t as sweat wicking as I’d prefer for my workouts, the capris are perfect for a restorative yoga class or just running errands! I also loved this top, which I would definitely include in the workout apparel category.

I love prAna and their commitment to creating sustainable clothing. My dad – the organic farmer that he is – sings the praises of hemp products, especially in clothing. Learn more about why hemp matters here. I love that prAna isn’t afraid to try products like these to create healthier, more sustainable clothing. Want to check them out yourself? You can shop the prAna spring line here! You can use my discount code “S4P17TDD” for 15% off your order (valid until 3/28/17). 

I just heard them call my boarding group number, which is my cue to leave! It’s up, up, and away for me. I’m Cuba-bound! 😉

xx
Courtney

I received these products as part of a Fit Approach influencer campaign. All opinions are my own. As always, I appreciate all of the brands that support the #sweatpink community. 

Yoga, Wine, Running: EMPOWER Sonoma Retreat

I’m currently at the airport en route to my next destination (any guesses where?) and reflecting on an amazing weekend spent in Sonoma, California. Fit Approach hosted its first annual EMPOWER retreat in beautiful wine country, and I was thankful to be involved in the planning and execution.

Before we left for the yoga-filled event, I told my mom that I hoped it would be fun. She wisely responded, “Anytime a group of women comes together, it’s fun.” Don’t you love moms? (I feel pretty lucky that both my incredible mom and hilarious Aunt Sho were able to make the trip too.)

We happily sweat our booties off (thanks to Jamie’s signature HIIT yoga classes!) and indulged in delicious meals throughout the weekend. Westerbeke Ranch was the perfect setting for our sunny retreat and the twenty-five women who came together over their shared love of community, yoga, wine, and trail running made the weekend even more special.

The theme of the weekend centered on “empowerment”, the idea that it’s important to do what moves you, inspires you and makes you your best self. For me, this includes setting goals, moving my body through exercise, and spending time with the people I love. They make me BETTER!

My pants are by prAna. Fun fact: 5/6 of our team ordered the same pair… and we did NOT coordinate.

I was particularly excited to meet so many amazing women, from Jen, who solo-traveled through more than 35 countries, to Caren, who successfully left the corporate world last June to be her own boss (she’s killing it, by the way) to one of my dearest friends Becky, who has always excelled at everything she puts her mind to… and this time it includes law school, raising a rescue puppy, and growing the #sweatpink community!

We opened the weekend with ice-breakers (spirit animals and fun facts, anyone?) and ended with hugs and well wishes for future adventures. We made plans to stay in touch and cheer each other on as we took on new challenges, be it yoga inversions, trail running, business goals, or planning future retreats. The weekend was more than fulfilling. It was invigorating and inspiring, and that was precisely the point. I feel inspired by the strong, caring, and beautiful women I met and can’t wait for future #IAmEmpowered events.

Have a glorious week and stay tuned for my next adventure!

xx
Courtney

P.S. Want to join us for the next empowered event? Fit Approach & Titanium Racing are hosting the EMPOWERED Race Series this August! Join us for the FIRST women’s only yoga and running festival weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Best Skiing Near D.C. – Blue Knob Resort

On Sunday, it was 65+ degrees and sunny in D.C. — the perfect spring day. (Forget that it’s February, and we are supposed to be in the middle of winter.) To take advantage of the good weather, which isn’t so rare these days, we took an early morning walk through Georgetown, went to church, and then sprinted to the Dupont Farmers Market for apples and yummy Greek food at Zorbas. This perfect spring-like weather has put our dreams of a long ski season on the East Coast to rest. Thankfully, we ended our ski season at Blue Knob All Seasons Resort. This mountain might just be our favorite place to ski near Washington, D.C.

Blue Knob All Season Resort

Over the past few weeks, we skied at Whitetail, Liberty, Wintergreen, Wisp, and finally, Blue Knob. Of all of these ski resorts, Will and I both agreed that Blue Knob is the “best in class” mountain for mid-Atlantic skiing. For less than $50/day ($42 for military + dependents), we enjoyed the 5-hour flex pass, winding our ways through Blue Knob’s long trails and short lift lines.

Blue Knob Lift

Located in Pennsylvania, the resort is less than a three-hour drive from D.C., and we drove through scenic backcountry roads to get there. According to its website, Blue Knob Resort is the “highest skiable mountain with the most challenging slopes in Pennsylvania.” Relative to the rest of the region, Blue Knob has a reputation for being an advanced mountain; but, don’t let this scare any beginners away. The mountain offers 100 acres and 1072 vertical feet of challenging runs and a terrain park for skiers of all levels.

Blue Knob Ski

Such serious skiers!

 

For a three-day weekend, the resort was surprisingly quiet. We loved how often we had the trails to ourselves and enjoyed skiing all the open runs.

Blue Knob Ski Trai

We can only imagine how great the skiing must be when the resort gets a lot of snow and can’t wait to return next winter! Until then, we’re getting ready for our final ski adventure out West and preparing our road bikes for a sunny spring.

xx
Courtney

When to Book Cheap Plane Tickets

We love to travel, but plane tickets are often so expensive that sometimes I’d rather take a long road trip where we get 32 miles to the gallon and can bring unlimited snacks and liquids (no 3 oz. baggies required) than hop on a plane with limited leg room and baggage restrictions. But you can’t drive to Europe.

Or an island.

It’s almost Spring Break for us — and yes, I’m no longer in school, but Will is, so “Spring Break” is still happening. In planning our upcoming getaway, I learned a few helpful travel tips, including when you should buy plane tickets.

++BUY PLANE TICKETS ON A SUNDAY

In mid-December, Expedia, in partnership with the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) and other industry sources, released a comprehensive study of worldwide air travel trends. After examining billions of passenger flights from January 1, 2016, through October 24, 2016, the study concluded that Sunday is the best day to buy plane tickets. When booked on a Sunday, prices were, on average, 11% lower for domestic travel. From the U.S. to Europe, Sunday ticket savings were as much as 16%.

Per the study, ticket prices are the lowest they have been since 2013, and the ARC predicts that overall ticket prices will continue to drop. What’s this mean for 2017? It’s an incredible year to travel! ARC analysts predict that competition will continue to flood the market, which means more options for travelers.

From my study abroad experience in Florence!

++ BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS 21 DAYS IN ADVANCE

There is one caveat to the “book on a Sunday” rule. The study showed that some trips were up to 30% cheaper when booked three weeks before the departure date versus flights booked within the 21-day window. Other online sources believe that the “prime booking window” for domestic flights is between one and four months when airlines are likely to introduce sale fares.

If you can’t help being a last-minute traveler — meaning, within the 3-week timeframe — you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for Tuesday afternoons. By this point, airlines will know if their weekend flights are fully booked. Keep in mind that flights really are more expensive the closer you get to your departure date. Why? Seats at the lowest fare levels sell out as a flight fills. This is when it’s extra important to sign up for price alerts. 

++ BUY A ONE-WAY TICKET BOTH WAYS

If you’re willing to put in the time, it can be worth it to buy two one-way tickets. We love the ease of using Google Flights to book our trips, but it doesn’t always show us the best combination of flights, especially because it doesn’t pull Southwest or budget airline information. We like to mix and match our airlines for travel, which can work great if you’re willing to do your research.

++ AVOID THE BUSINESS COMMUTE

Try to avoid flying on Friday. This is a big travel day in the business world and airlines know it, which means they aren’t afraid to increase the prices for flights they know they can fill.

Bridgette & I went to Cascais, Portugal for a beach day.

++ BE FLEXIBLE

Not set on a date? Enjoy the flexibility of your journey and use the map on Google Flights or Skyscanner to explore inexpensive options. You select your departure airport and Google/Skyscanner will populate prices for different destinations.

The price of a flight is determined by how booked that flight is. Empty flights will run their lowest possible fares. The same cannot be said of full flights. The easiest way to save money is to avoid traveling to a popular place a popular time. Otherwise, book your flight early.

With all of these tips in mind, it’s important to remember that the cheapest flight isn’t always the best flight. Watch out for hidden fees, long layovers, and inconvenient departure airports. (How many of my DC friends have gotten excited about a cheap flight out of a “DC area airport” only to realize it took off from BWI?)

Now it’s your turn. What’s your best air travel tip?

Until next time & happy travels,
Courtney