Starting today, U.S. travelers for the first time can book direct
flights from the U.S. to Cuba using an online travel agency (OTA).
CheapAir became the first and only OTA to offer direct
charters between the U.S. and Cuba, with roundtrip flights available
from Miami, New York City and Tampa to six cities in Cuba.
In February, CheapAir made headlines when it became the
first OTA to offer flights between Cuba and the U.S. on regularly scheduled
airlines, but those flights included a connection in a foreign country and
Havana was the only available destination.
Through a partnership with Cuba Travel Services, which will
be listed as the airline on the booking and which arranges charter flights
operated by Sun Country or American Airlines, CheapAir is offering daily
flights between Miami and Cuba; flights that depart and arrive on Tuesdays
between JFK and Havana; and flights that operate on Sundays and Thursdays
between Tampa and Havana. From Miami a typical flight would be just under $500
with taxes and mandatory medical insurance, round-trip. From New York it would
be about $800.
“It’s a better way to
get there,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir, comparing direct charter flights
with ones that go through a third country. “It’s a stronger offering for those
who want to go and are allowed to go to Cuba.”
Because these Cuba
charters are not in the GDS, CheapAir had to build a separate interface in
order to be able to access the inventory and pass on manifest information to
Cuba Travel Services, Klee said. But as far as the customer’s search and buy
experience, it will be the same as for all other flights.
The rules and
restrictions for buying flights to Cuba are the same as for any American going
to Cuba; Americans can only travel there for one of 12 approved reasons,
including professional, educational, religious and humanitarian purposes. An
American booking a flight to Cuba on CheapAir.com has to check a box indicating
that the purpose of the trip falls under one of those categories.
“This doesn’t change
any of that,” Klee said. “It just makes travel to Cuba a little easier.
Especially because you can fly nonstop.”
Klee said that
reaction to Cheapair’s February launch of flights to Cuba through a third
country was great in terms of the number of searches it produced, and continues
to produce, but that the conversion rate is a lot lower than with other
destinations. He is hopeful that this easier and more convenient way to fly to
Cuba will translate into more sales.
“A lot of people drop
out during the search process,” Klee said. “We don’t sell that many tickets,
but we’re encouraged enough to pursue this next step... There are a lot of
people intrigued by the idea of going to Cuba but just aren’t quite there yet.”
Klee likes CheapAir’s early, and singular positioning in the
Cuba air market, but acknowledges it isn’t likely to last long.
“We like this market and want to do what we can to take
advantage of it,” Klee said. “A year from now none of this will be a big deal.
I suspect there will be scheduled, direct service on major U.S. airlines and
Cuba will be in the GDS. The way you fly to Cuba now is very different than the
way you will in 2016.
“For now, it is what is it, and we are trying to make it as
easy as possible."