Rob Hodel is a happy man these days, as U.S. travel to Cuba reaches what he calls “the sweetest spot it’s been in” since the embargo began 50 years ago.
Hodel, the owner of U.S.-based Tico Travel in Fort Lauderdale with his brother Steve, has been coordinating travel to Cuba for 10 years now, and says the recent lifting of the three-year restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba means more changes are coming.
While visiting with Travel Agent in our New York headquarters, Hodel said the new rules mean the slate on past trips made by Cuban-Americans has been wiped clean and that, as a result, he expects travel to increase dramatically among that group, as well as others now allowed to travel.
To that end, Hodel’s firm is revamping its website—www.destinationcuba.com—and adding staff, anticipating a dramatic rise in demand for services by Cuban-Americans and others now allowed to travel to Cuba, such as those involved in agricultural sales, another area the U.S. government gave the green light to by the president’s signing of the Omnibus bill in mid-March.
“We anticipate a major uptick in clients traveling to Cuba,” said Hodel, “and if travelers now qualify due to the new rules, we’re ready to help them get there—whether they’re flying from New York , Denver, Miami or even Peoria. We think this is also a sign of what’s to come—it’s just a matter of time before more restrictions are lifted and Cuba is open to all U.S. citizens. And it’s long overdue.”
Unlike most agencies now serving the Cuba market, Tico Travel, through its Cuba division, DestinationCuba.com, is a bonded ARC Platinum level wholesaler, which gives it the ability to issue tickets via Sabre and Amadeus reservation platforms with point-to-point airfare from more than 3,000 cities in the U.S. to Havana.
“Newly authorized travelers can avoid the draconian and oppressive restrictions on the limited number of charter flights from the U.S. by booking through us and going to Cuba via third countries on major carriers,” Hodel said. “With charter flights, the short hop from Miami to Havana can run $700 or more and you can only book less than three months in advance.”
Hodel said depending on when you travel, his firm can get much lower fares—sometimes half of what the charters charge—and book them five or six months in advance.
“We can get authorized travelers to Havana much cheaper and faster, without baggage restrictions, extra fees and the long check-in,” he added. “You arrive at a special terminal with the charter flights. too; it’s just a real pain. So we have a huge advantage over the charter flights."
Hodel and his firm are also putting together a program of private home stays.
“We’re offering authorized travelers to stay in private homes at just a fraction of the cost of government-run hotels, so they get to see the ‘real’ Cuba before it’s too late,” he said. “Finding rooms in any of the island's many hotels is going to be an issue. We are working with the many private homes that offer rooms at a much more favorable rate. It also is a way to get to know firsthand how the Cuban people live and the ability for travelers to help improve the lives of their hosts at the same time.”
Hodel, who was a lawyer before getting into the travel business, noted the language in the bill signed by President Obama is crucial for other potential travelers.
"If they allow anyone that is considering selling food or medical related items to Cuba the ability to travel without having to get prior approval, it may mean more Americans will be able to travel. We are going to have to get more guidance from OFAC on this first,” he added.
Founded in 1992, Tico Travel was early to see the opportunities in travel to Costa Rica and Central America, quickly becoming the discount airfare and vacation leader to these destinations. Today, the company is one of the largest wholesale travel companies in volume of airfare sold to Latin America. Hodel's company owns its own hotel, luxury vacation home rentals, restaurant and gated development in Costa Rica.
“[The U.S.] does business with Libya, Vietnam and China, so it’s ridiculous that we do not do the same with Cuba, with whom the United States has never had a direct war,” he added. “It’s time to open up Cuba and also help these people.”