Let the booking begin! US company now offering flights to Havana

Anita Balakrishnan
A young woman talks on her mobile phone as she walks past a mural depicting Cuban revolutionary leaders January 24, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.
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Hot on Havana? Now you can get there in one step, right from your desk.

A discount online travel agency is simplifying travel to Cuba, saying it is the first U.S. company to offer commercial flight bookings to Havana. on Thursday started providing customers with a simple way to book a trip to Cuba by integrating the purchase of two tickets into a single online interface.

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Other companies like Kayak started displaying airlines servicing Havana, but have not provided the ability to book directly. Expedia and Priceline, which owns Kayak, either declined to share when they will be servicing Cuba or did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since January, U.S. citizens have been permitted to visit Cuba for certain reasons without prior government approval. But to fly commercially, they had to book a ticket to another country, such as Mexico, and use a foreign domestic airline, like Aero Mexico, to fly to Cuba.

This challenge will remain in place until the U.S. Department of Transportation comes to an agreement with the Cuban government. That leaves U.S. airlines unable to offer direct flights or package connecting routes to Cuba.

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In the interim, travelers can use CheapAir to bundle the two international flights. The process will be simplified, but it will certainly not be free of challenges, said the California-based company.

CheapAir will handle the logistics of coordinating with two separate airlines, but it is still two distinct purchases for the customer. That means travelers must also pick up their bags in the foreign "gateway" city and obtain a visa for Cuba there. And because it is two separate tickets, layovers are far from optimized, sometimes even stretching overnight.

Still, CheapAir CEO Jeff Klee said his company will try to make it as easy as possible. CheapAir, founded in 1989, even gives each customer contact information for a live travel agent to help smooth out any issues.

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CheapAir, which says it does $100 million in yearly travel bookings, said its relatively small size allows it to be more nimble than other agencies.

"We pride ourselves on being quick," Klee said. He also said the company was the first to accept bitcoin, and display in-flight amenities in online flight listings. "We don't have layers of management and bureaucracy to make changes to our website."

Klee got the idea after he noticed increased search volume for flights to Cuba, thanks to a U.S. government policy enacted Jan. 16 which eased trade restrictions. The changes allowed anyone who falls within 12 approved travel reasons, such as education, journalism, or humanitarian work, to visit Cuba without providing extra documentation to the government.

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The actions also freed travel companies to book tickets to Cuba. Under the new rules, customers booking a flight will still have to check a box declaring their reason for visiting the Caribbean nation, which CheapAir must keep in its records for government purposes.

Tourism is still illegal in Cuba—travelers are responsible for knowing whether they fit within the restrictions, available on the U.S. Treasury Department website.

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