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What the US-Cuba commercial flight agreement means for you

The United States and Cuba inked an agreement today to resume scheduled commercial flights between the two countries.

It will be several months before you can book a flight like you do to New York, but when it happens, it will transform the way Americans travel to Cuba. The number of daily flights between the two countries is expected to soar from the roughly 12 we have now to more than 100. Most of those flights will originate in Miami from a variety of commercial airlines competing with each other for passengers.

That means Cuba should get a heck of a lot cheaper to visit. Right now the 35-minute flight costs about $450 round-trip.

The new agreement also eliminates a convoluted charter flight process, which is particularly hard for people without Spanish skills or ties to the island. Charter companies are often obscure, as opposed to familiar and easier-to-trust carriers like American Airlines or JetBlue, that may now enter the market. Many charter companies also conduct business only in Spanish, making booking difficult for English speakers to navigate.

Complications over charters may have prompted U.S. travelers to book full-package tours that simplified flights and accommodations. We’re likely to see a lot more people DIY-ing their Cuba trips the way they would in any other country, by simply logging into a travel site and paying with the click of a button.

“[Charter companies] are going to become irrelevant,” says Emilia Menocal, a creative consultant who frequently travels to Cuba. She has visited the island for work six times this year, booking her flights through Mar Azul or Cuba Travel for $650, including the visa.

Raul Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, a local organization that builds connections between young people in the US and in Cuba and also provides advice to those planning their own trips, hopes a more open air travel market will boost interest in the island.

“The flight represents at least 25 percent of what you spend in a week down there. It adds up, and people get put off by the fact that it’s so much,” he said. “I think that a lot of the charter companies are going to have a hard time competing with these commercial airlines, if in fact the price is cheaper.”

Booking that flight is the hardest part of the trip, he said. Accommodations can be a bit challenging, but getting around, finding restaurants, meeting Cubans — that’s easy.

“Once you’re there, Cuba is incredibly welcoming, incredibly approachable, and easy to navigate,” Moas said.

One thing is going to get more difficult, though, if you DIY— ensuring that you stay on the right side of travel restrictions. There are 12 authorized reasons why Americans can visit the island, and the onus will be on travelers to keep documentation that proves a visit is valid in case the Office of Foreign Assets Control checks up on you.

Moas says enforcement shouldn’t deter people though — most of the travel that Americans want to do in Cuba would be well within one of those 12 categories. “You just have to be aware that tourism is illegal. You cannot go to Cuba and spend a week at a beach resort in Varadero sipping mojitos,” Moas said.

Menocal, who has been traveling to Cuba this year to research a cabaret she is working on, said that enforcement has relaxed since travel restrictions were eased last year.

“Before, they used to check, it was a much more thorough analysis. Now I get the impression they couldn’t care less,” she said. “When you’re coming back through to the U.S., carrying rum and cigars clearly visible, they don’t even ask for a receipt. They don’t even ask why you were in Cuba. Under Obama, it’s been very loosey-goosey since he got elected.”