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Originally published Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 7:02 PM

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Legal travel by Americans to Cuba comes at high price

Tours for legal travel to Cuba are selling out quickly. Travel companies are planning for 2013, but the outcome of the November presidential election makes next year uncertain.

Seattle Times travel writer

Cuba Tours

Here's a sampling of offerings by tour operators licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to offer legal trips to Cuba.

For more information on government-authorized travel to Cuba, see www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba.pdf

Road Scholar: Formerly known as Elderhostel. Five itineraries with departures through July. More dates to be added.

Eight and nine-day trips (18-24 people) focus on art, people and society and Jewish heritage. Prices: $2,295-$3,195 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip Miami/Havana airfare. www.roadscholar.org.

Austin-Lehman Adventures: Montana-based adventure travel company offering nine-day tours (maximum 12 people). Eight departures through June, with plans to add more. $4,498 including Miami/Havana airfare. www.austinlehman.com.

Global Exchange: San Francisco nonprofit, international human-rights organization. Ten-day "Reality Tours" (10-15 persons) for those who qualify as professionals in fields such as music, art, dance, health, agriculture and women's studies. Most tours are $2,600, including Miami/Havana or Cancún/Havana airfare. www.globalexchange.org

Insight Cuba: Large Cuba tour operator and first to be granted one of the new "people to people" licenses. Four to nine-day trips (sold out through March) with departures through July, and more to be added. Itineraries include Bay of Pigs, Havana Biennial Art Exhibit in May and the Havana Marathon in November. Prices: $1,695-$3,500, plus air to and from Cuba. www.insightcuba.com.

National Geographic Expeditions: Twenty-three 10-day "Cuba: Discovering its People and Culture" trips (maximum 25 people), trips sold out and wait-listed through May. More departures planned. $4,995 plus $500 for Miami/Havana airfare. ww.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.

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Anyone who's looked into a legal way to visit Cuba under the Obama administration's new "people-to-people" provisions will relate to this Seattle Times reader's concerns.

"The only legal way I have found is to join some grossly overpriced tour group, and be herded around to very select sights," he said in an email to me. "The prices for these trips ($4,000 plus for a week) appear to be two or three times what they should be."

He's partially right, at least about the costs.

With a 50-year-old U.S. financial and trade embargo still in place, most Americans legally can't book a flight on a discount airline and reserve a $20 room in a family home as many Canadians and Europeans do.

With a few exceptions for students, journalists, aid workers and some others, going to Communist-run Cuba means joining one of the new cultural and educational tours licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Many trips sold out quickly. Tour companies are planning more for 2013, but the outcome of the November presidential election makes next year uncertain.

"It's certainly very much on our radar," says Justin Brown program director for National Geographic Expeditions, whose trips average $500 per person per day, not including airfare to and from Cuba. "If (President) Obama is not re-elected, there's a decent chance these might go away."

The result: "Cuba is being inundated right now," says Malia Everette of San Francisco's Global Exchange, and Cuban government tour operators charge U.S. groups a premium.

Global Exchange, a nonprofit human-rights organization, runs a variety of "Reality Tours" under a different type of license geared toward professionals doing research in fields such as architecture, dance, agriculture and health care.

Not everyone can qualify, but those who do go for about $260 a day, including airfare to and from Havana. That's much less than most of the "people-to-people" tours, but still more than you'd spend traveling on your own.

No beach time

Whatever the tour, examine the itinerary carefully. If your dream is to explore Cuba's beaches or bike its back roads, these trips are not for you.

"You're going to be interacting with Cuban people where they live and work," says Stacie Fasola of Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) "You're going to learn about the country. Not just see it, but learn about it."

I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange in November, then spent five days touring on my own. Some advice:

• Consider cutting costs by traveling with a nonprofit group, museum, university or professional group. Road Scholar programs are open to anyone, and Global Exchange took 700 Americans to Cuba last year. Locally, Dr. Sarah Reichard, director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, is leading a group on a 12-day trip in late February.

• Ask for details on how your tour operator plans to provide you with authentic interactions with Cuban people, a challenge when it comes to group travel. Many of the tours include the same stops, such as a visit to Callejón de Hammel — an Afro-Cuban community project known for its street art and lively rumba performances, but overrun with tourists and people selling CDs and asking for money.

• Expect comfortable government-owned hotels with pools, but don't be disappointed if your group stays in a modern high-rise. Canadian and European groups tend to get first crack at historic Havana Vieja's (Old Havana's) classic hotels favored by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene.

• Familiarize yourself with Cuba's dual currency system. You'll be exchanging dollars for convertible pesos (CUCs), a "hard currency" worth $1 each, minus a 10 percent exchange tax, a tit-for-tat for the U.S. embargo against Cuba. I avoided the 10-percent tax by bringing Canadian dollars.

One of the hardest concepts for outsiders to grasp is that most Cubans are paid a government salary of about $20 per month, earned in the local currency, called pesos Cubanos or CUPs (worth about 4 cents each). Education, housing and health care are free. CUPs buy the basics: cooking oil, cheap meals, coffee cut with pea flour.

But much of what the average Cuban wants and needs — drinkable coffee, washing machines, materials to fix up their homes — is only available to those who can pay in hard currency. (Tourism and money sent by relatives in the U.S. are the main sources).

To get a sense of everyday Cuban life:

• Tip in convertibles, but for a truly local experience, change $5 into pesos Cubanos, and enter government-subsidized Cuba. Buy a 4-cent ice-cream cone. Or patronize one of the fledgling entrepreneurs selling ice cream and pastries for pennies or pizza from their kitchen windows.

• Use your free time to get out on your own. Walk through a neighborhood like Havana Centro, where kids play ball in the crumbling streets. Stop for a 50-cent beer at the makeshift bar set up in John Lennon Park, then walk across the street and have a $10 dinner (hard currency) on the terrace of a restored mansion, home to the French friendship association.

• One of my best experiences was hiring a bicycle taxi one warm evening in Cienfuegos for dinner at a privately run restaurant in the family home of a local nurse and her chef husband. Four of us ate for $30, mojitos included.

• Learn about Cuba's changing economy and differing views about life under Fidel Castro (Cuba's revolutionary leader, who stepped down because of ill health) and Raul Castro (the current president). Follow blogs by Cuban activists on www.translatingcuba.com. Among the writers is Yoani Sanchez, author of Havana Real, whose blog is translated into English by Mary Jo Porter of Seattle.

Contact Carol Pucci: cpucci@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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