I love travel. But I don’t love all-inclusive resorts. They never truly represent the countries they reside in, catering to generally indifferent tourists and showcasing a country’s culture in a pre-packaged form (i.e. cultural shows). At the same time, I can understand the necessity for them as many people prefer to lie safely on a beach for a week, may have young children, and resorts generate revenue and employment for locals.
I’ve never been to one until this past summer. Synchronistically, I’ve never been to the Caribbean, and of all the other choices, Cuba seemed the least overrun by tourism, and, to the delight of many travellers, void of Americans 😉 . Looking at photos of pre-revolution cars zipping past colorful colonial buildings in the background, Cuba’s appeal also extends to Havana’s aesthetics and a vibrant culture.
On top of that, a Cuban climber living in Toronto created a guidebook to the infant but excellent rock climbing scene in Cuba, which satiates my adventurous side. Having adventure and culture satiated, I began looking at flight prices. Since Cuba is open for Canadians to travel to, it receives a large amount of traffic and direct flights from Canadians residing in Toronto.
Looking up flights to Havana, the going rate on sites such as Expedia was about $1000, taxes included. On the contrary, a 2-week all-inclusive package to the nearby resort town of Varadero started around $700, taxes included*. Alternatively, a package to a low end business hotel in Havana ran around the same price, though the hotels in general are disliked.
On top of that, I called the travel agency directly, and discovered that I could add a flight extension for about $100 extra, meaning that I could make my own way around Cuba for as long as I liked, and tack on the resort package either at the beginning or end of my trip. I decided to go with the beginning, since with all travel, it’s nice to have the first night or two pre-arranged.
Regardless, I only stayed at the resort for 2 or 3 nights, and did a bit of diving, before I grew tired of it and skipped town to Havana and beyond, where all the actions was. I definitely have no regrets there.
In summary, here are the steps for travel hacking the resorts.
- Book a 1 week vacation at the resort, add a flight extension.
- Book a casa particulares in Havana in advance, if you plan on going there. I booked by calling while I was in the resort and showing up in Havana, but it was a pain and I was transferred to another place in Havana. In addition, phone calls are expensive in Cuba, internet is poor, and you have to be able to speak Spanish on the phone.
- Enjoy a few days bloating up on buffets and alcohol and lying on the beach before becoming restless.
- Before leaving to Havana or anywhere else, arrange to stay at someone’s house (casa particulares) near the resort for the days you plan on returning to the resort. It’s officially sanctioned by the Cuban government and safe. Alternatively, you can also book a single night with the resort, though availability can be fickle, and it will cost more. The resort package also includes a bus trip back to the airport, so make sure you verify with the travel agent while at the resort.
- Arrange to join the bus tour to Havana, except one way. You will likely be the only person doing this.
- Ditch the resort!
- To get back to the resort from Havana (e.g. Varadero or a nearby resort town), just arrange with the bus drivers on the Malecon (waterfront) near the cathedral around 3:30pm. There are a ton of them lined up all day there.
Again, you can finish your trip at the resort, which is nice, but for most people, the above is the better option. As for my rants and raves about resort life vs independent travel, I’ll post that next!
*Footnote: I was travelling during the low season (August), so prices are generally about 30 to 50 percent less than the fall and winter season. The weather is sunny, but for many people, it can be unbearably hot and uncomfortable.