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Update: After receiving authorisation from the US Treasury Department, Airbnb will begin offering its services to travelers of all nationalities from April 2, 2016. Due to ongoing changes in US and Cuba’s legislation, other online booking services might soon follow suit, though they are yet to confirm. Note the methods listed in this article will still work, if you’d prefer to bypass Airbnb’s service fees, or book accommodation in parts of Cuba with few listings.
“We’ve determined your location to be in Mexico. We are not licensed to provide booking services for this listing.”
I looked at the message at the top of Airbnb’s website in bewilderment. Had the warning been about the property being haunted, I would not have been more surprised.
In late 2015, I was trying to book a room in Havana for my upcoming Cuba trip. I wanted to stay in a “casa particular,” Cuba’s traditional accommodation: private homes where owners are allowed by the government to rent out spare rooms to tourists. As with plenty of other trips in the past, I turned to Airbnb. I’d used the shared-accommodation site in dozens of places, and it had always resulted in fantastic experiences.
When the US government announced it was rekindling relationships with Cuba in 2014, it opened the way for an explosion of tourism to the island. Travel to Cuba would stop being penalized. New flights were announced between Havana and several US cities. US travel agencies started gearing up for an influx of Americans jumping at the opportunity to take a bite of the formerly-forbidden fruit.
The Airbnb Conundrum
Airbnb is usually my first option for lodging for, well, anywhere. So, since I knew that Cuba had been added to the listings, I turned to the company’s site – only to be stopped cold in the middle of the process.
I first thought that maybe it was a Mexico thing, some odd legislation or something – so I switched on my VPN and made my laptop believe it was in Spain, my country of residence. The same message appeared at the top of the screen.
“We’ve determined your location to be in Spain. We are not licensed to provide booking services for this listing.” I shrugged, and tried a few others. Maybe the UK? Same result. What about Canada? Canadians supposedly love Cuba. No dice.
As it turns out, only US-nationals are allowed to book Cuban properties through Airbnb. US legislation, as it currently stands, forbids any American business from encouraging non-US travel to Cuba – and until the law changes, nothing can be done about it.
Airbnb, right now, is only allowed to offer its Cuba listings to US nationals allowed by law to travel to the island. This includes citizens engaged in 12 specific activities, such as professional research, journalism or athletic events, and Airbnb asks for proof of such activity when booking.
For everyone else, Airbnb’s hands are tied. I recently checked the website again, and the wretched message no longer appears at the top of the page. Instead, when a computer with a non-US IP address clicks on “Request,” Airbnb directs them to a 404 page: “Oops! We can’t seem to find the page you’re looking for.” Tough luck.
Hitting this roadblock, I wondered if other websites would have the same issue. A quick search of Hostelworld, Best Day and Hotels.com yielded nothing – Cuba was not even offered among the options. I have since given it a go in other non US-based websites: still no luck, even in Singapore-based Agoda and Netherlands-based Booking.com.
This is because US legislation details fines against all investment in Cuba – even by non-US businesses. And despite the relaxing of some travel and trade restrictions, the laws are still in force and there is no end in sight.
First option burned, let’s move on.
The Roundabout Way
This was an unknown situation — online booking sites had never failed me in the past. I let my bafflement sit for a minute, and then had a stroke of genius.
If these properties are listed on Airbnb, chances are they have their information somewhere else on the internet, I rationalized.
So I looked up the names of some Havana listings I liked on Airbnb, and Googled them, hoping they would be included in some virtual Cuban Yellow Pages.
It worked: all of the six or seven places I looked up were listed somewhere else. Some had nice, well-built websites; many more had simple but updated Blogspot sites. All of them were included in one or several of Cuba’s “casas particulares” databases: Casaparticular.com, Casaparticularcuba.org or Mycasaparticular.com are some of the most comprehensive.
These sites are mostly informational, meaning they will include details of casas particulares, but not book rooms for you. If they do have a “Book Now!” button, it will redirect you to a form that simply e-mails the information to the owner – but you then have to wait for their response regarding availability, and take it from there.
I e-mailed a couple of the places with Gmail accounts from my personal e-mail, and both replied within the day. Mission accomplished.
So, to sum it up: use Airbnb to check out the places, the location, photos and reviews (if they have them), then Google the name of the casa particular for its contact info, and book your room independently.
(Of course, if you are a US-national who is allowed to travel to Cuba, you can skip this plan of attack and book directly on Airbnb. Nothing’s stopping you!)
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Back to the Basics: Booking Outside of Havana
This strategy worked phenomenally for Havana: I had it solved in a few hours. However, when trying to book a room in another city, I was not that lucky.
As part of my Cuba itinerary, I had planned a couple of nights in Trinidad, a charming colonial town in the south coast of the country. Encouraged by the relatively painless experience booking my lodging in Havana, I tried the same strategy.
Googling the name of properties or looking them up on the Cuban databases yielded results almost immediately. I e-mailed the properties, expecting to receive a response under an hour… but it didn’t work. When I had yet to receive a reply the following day, I tried a couple of others. One replied they were fully booked, the others stayed mum.
Why were the experiences so different? A little detail: the e-mail server. Whereas in Havana most e-mail addresses were Gmail-based, in Trinidad – a smaller, albeit touristy, town – it was Nauta that reigned supreme. Nauta is the internet server from Etecsa, Cuba’s state-owned telecom company and only cell and broadband provider.
This explained everything. Cuba’s internet is one of the least efficient in the world, and Nauta’s server is often down, meaning e-mails get returned to the sender or lost forever. And if even if things are working properly, chances are the owner will not see the message for a while: the internet is too expensive for many Cubans to afford to log in constantly.
What to do then? Do it the old-fashioned way: call them, or wing it.
All listings have a phone number, so you can go ahead and make an international call, just like in the old days.
Alternatively, you can wait until you arrive and try your luck. You can walk the streets and look around for a place that tickles your fancy. Casas particulares are clearly marked with a blue symbol with the legend “Arrendador Divisa” underneath. Or you can trust one of the multiple “jineteros” (touts) that will accost you once you step off the bus or cab.
In my case, I got lucky — my host lady in Havana knew people in Trinidad, and she arranged everything for me while I was there. It is worth asking at your casa particular if they know anybody in your next destination: they might hook you up with someone trustworthy who will offer you a warm welcome.
Of course, there is a way to avoid all this trouble: staying in a traditional, high-end hotel. Particularly in Havana and the all-inclusive mecca of Varadero, most top-rated hotels belong to Spanish chains such as Meliá, Iberostar or Barceló. This makes it easy enough to book through their website, which is hosted in Spain and therefore works without a glitch.
The conclusion? Booking accommodation online in Cuba is possible, but until the US updates its legislation (whenever that may be), requires more than a little perseverance.