Karin Patrick’s Take on Havana, Cuba

Cuba from the sky

Cuba has long remained elusive to the American traveler. Notions of vintage cars driving through the streets, cigars, rum and excellent music all come to mind. Who wouldn’t want to go?

Over the past ten years, travel restrictions for Americans has slowly loosened, although during Trump’s presidency, the process toward absolute free travel between the U.S. and Cuba has come to a halt.

Karin Patrick has been a travel industry professional since 1978. A German native, Karin moved to the United States in 1983 and currently lives in Florida with her husband, Christopher Patrick, the CEO and owner of CKIM Group.

Karin is a Virtuoso specialty travel consultant, a network of the world’s finest travel advisors and suppliers around the world. She recently returned from Havana, Cuba, a place that is now dear to her heart.

Havana rooftops.
Given the current political climate in the U.S., is it still legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?

Yes. Groups are allowed to travel to Cuba. The loophole is that two people are considered a group and it is entirely legal. I would really like to send more people to Cuba because I really had a wonderful time there.

Where did you go in Cuba?

It was just five days so for the majority of time, we spent in Havana and then we went to Varadero for a couple of nights. The most interesting part was the drive [to Varadero] through the country side.

Where did you stay while you were there?

We stayed at the Kempinski Hotel. It is all hotels in Cuba in that, 80 percent of it is owned by the government, but the rest of it is German-owned. The hotel is not your traditional Cuban style: it is very contemporary, modern and slick. The rooftop bar and pool is very cool and overlooks the Havana Skyline. Having cocktails up there around 5 or 6’o’clock in the afternoon is an incredible experience as the sunsets. Just looking around the pool, you could be anywhere, like South Beach Miami, but when you look out and see that skyline, you know that you are in Cuba. You look down at the street and you see all the antique cars.

I would probably send potential client to the Saratoga as opposed to the Kempinski if they want a truly Cuban experience. I love the Saratoga because it is an old, traditional hotel. It is a five star hotel. The rooms are older, but all very clean. They have updated the place as much as they could. The staff are wonderful and the lobby is very pretty.

Many of the other hotels are mass tourism hotels, they are not really for the type of clients that I would like to send.

Cabaret at Hotel Nacional.
Where else would you recommend to visit in Cuba?

I would recommend going to the Hotel Nacional to have cocktails and see the cabaret show. I would recommend this cabaret over the Tropicana cabaret. It is smaller but the costumes are awesome, and if you don’t want to stay for the whole duration (two hours) you can discreetly leave.

The gardens here are also very beautiful. There was a walk through the tunnels and bunkers, built in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is good to bring a guide with you. Also, at the bar, the pictures of all the celebrities that have been there like Frank Sinatra, that is pretty cool.

We also went to the Partagas Cigar Factory, which was a sight to be seen. All employees make 25-30 dollars a month. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we did a walking tour around the area, which was really really cool. Havana is the oldest metropolis in the New World with the largest collection of colonial era achitecture in the Americas. All the architecture and the art, is just awesome.

The guided walking tour through historical La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is like an open-air museum of architecture, art and culture. We strolled along the narrow colonial streets around Havana harbor, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza San Francisco de Assis and Obispo Street. We ended the walking tour with a demonstration and tasting at the rum museum. Of course we tasted some rums. I bought some home with me, which I still enjoy from time to time.

One of the biggest changes that Cubans recently experienced is they were able to branch out and start their own businesses. This change increased the amount of restaurants available to Cubans and tourists alike. We went to Mojito Mojito close to the rum museum. The food is great there and, of course, the mojitos are famous.

There is live music everywhere, especially in the plazas. It was so nice to see Cubans on their lunch break, enjoying the live music.

We also went on a vintage car tour and learned how they keep them running. We went to another awesome restaurant: La Taberna del Pescador. It is in an old home on the top floor. It is all nicely done, with “antique” furniture.

We also went to Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana. I would recommend visiting this either on the way from the airport, or when you are leaving because it is a little outside of city.

Local residents in Havana Vieja.
What did you love most about Cuba?

I was so impressed by how warm the Cubans were, and how highly they spoke of Americans. I just could not get my head around that. It was a wonderful experience, with the people especially.

How easy is it to get to Cuba?

It is actually quite easy. There are direct flights from Boston, Philadelphia and Fort Lauderdale. Jet Blue has a special checkin area for Cuba flights, which includes the visa counter so you can get your visa right there. The reason why you need a legitimate, authorized travel company to deal with Cuba is because they provide an invitation letter. You show this at the counter, pay a small fee, and you get the visa right there.

Once you get to Cuba, what do you do next?

Usually when you arrive in Havana, there is a meet-and-greet arranged by the travel company. There is a bank teller at the airport where you can exchange your money for CUC (Cuban Currency). The exchange rate is 1.1USD to 1CUC but you also pay a 13% service fee. There was such a long line when we went, that we didn’t bother and went straight to the hotel, where you can exchange money too for the same rate and fee.

You have to take enough cash with you for the extent of your visit as you cannot use credit cards.

We also took a lot of goodies with us, like cosmetic items. Some of the group took children’s books and crayons. We gave these away while we were there to our guide and some of the maids.

Mojito Mojito bar and restaurant.
How safe is Cuba?

There were a lot of positive aspects to Cuban society as well. Education is free which is a plus and Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world. It is wonderful, you can walk late at night without worrying about anything happening. You feel really safe there.

We also visited a maternity house where women can spend the last three months of their pregnancy and the first couple of months after the birth with the baby.

Who would you recommend a trip to Cuba to?

It would have to be someone that is open and interested in history. They have to be open to seeing diversity. It is sometimes shocking to witness people living under very dire circumstances. It is an ideal place for someone that is well traveled and that has seen many parts of the world. It is a very rewarding experience to see what Havana is like after not being able to go for so many years. I think every American should go actually.

What else would you recommend?

It’s really important to have a good guide. I would say it is best to spend a minimum of three nights. I work with three main companies here in the U.S. that know Cuba inside and out, and that work very closely with the guides there. Once you are there, most of the time, you are traveling around, you will be accompanied by a guide. You will have some free time to yourself, and the guides will give you recommendations of where to go.

Avoiding Back Injury While Traveling

Tips for Avoiding Back Injury While Traveling

Travel Healthy

Travel plans can mask the fact that travel itself can leave our backs – which often bear the brunt of heavy luggage, cramped transportation and unfamiliar beds – vulnerable to further injury, according to Daveed Frazier, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center. “Travel can be extraordinarily hard on the spine, something that may seem like an afterthought when we’re excitedly making plans for our summer vacation,” explains Frazier, who completed two spinal surgery fellowships and is a published author on spine disorders and treatment. “But between cumbersome bags, uncomfortable seats, and too-soft or -firm hotel mattresses, the very idea of travel can be daunting for those with pre-existing back or neck pain.” But injuring – or further injuring – your spine while on vacation doesn’t have to happen if common sense measures are taken before and during your trip, he says. Here’s what Frazier tells his patients about how to protect their backs while traveling.

Protect your back while lifting luggage

No matter where your travels take you, the one thing almost everyone needs to deal with is luggage. Beyond packing lightly, if possible, try to use luggage with wheels so you don’t need to strain your back to carry heavy bags. Other baggage-conscious tips include:
* Bending at the knees and using leg muscles to lift bags, rather than bending at the waist. * Avoiding twisting the lower back while lifting bags. * Distributing weight evenly on each side of the body. * Carrying shoulder bags on alternate shoulders for short periods of time to avoid stressing one side of the back. * Renting a pushcart to move through stations and airports. * Taking advantage of curbside check-in at the airport so you don’t have to handle the bags yourself.

Traveling doesn’t always involve airplanes or trains

Sometimes an old-fashioned road trip is the ticket to paradise. But whether you’re sitting for hours on planes, trains or automobiles, the mere fact that you’re sitting for long periods requires some forethought to prevent back pain. Here are some ideas to help with your pain. * Use a lumbar support pillow for your lower back, or rolling up a sweater or blanket in a pinch. * Use an inflatable travel pillow around the neck to avoid neck strain while resting or sleeping in a sitting position. * Align your back against the back of your seat, keeping shoulders straight, and avoiding hunching. * Getting up frequently and moving around. Sitting too long stiffens muscles and places stress on the spine. Once you reach your destination, you’ll also reach your new (temporary) sleeping spot, which likely involves an unfamiliar mattress. Frazier offers a simple back-friendly tip for this eventuality. “While you can’t bring your own mattress along on trips – wouldn’t that be wonderful? – you may be able to pack your own bed pillow,” Frazier notes. “This is a good idea, since we usually wear in our pillows in such a way that make them most comfortable for us, and familiar to our neck and back.”

Greece Travel Article – Credit Cards & Travel Safety

Greece Travel Article –  “Greece Update From Gwen Mead”

Avenue of Lions on Delos Island, Greece
Avenue of Lions on Delos Island, Greece

I’ve just returned from a most fantastic visit to Greece – during the most economically challenged period in modern history, and I would return in a heartbeat! The beauty of the country has not been affected by the economic crisis. The landscape is just as beautiful as ever, the beaches just as relaxing, the sun just as warm, and the people just as wonderful. All the reasons you could ever think to visit Greece are still there unchanged.

Credit Cards and cash availability

For the US traveler – credit cards issued by U.S. banks work with no restrictions. Clients should be prepared to bring enough Euros to cover expenses should shops and restaurants, metro and ferries require cash payments and for tipping and emergencies. The ATM’s are offering U.S. travelers Euros and there are ample ATM’s to choose from. All of the ETE Collection members transact business in USD, so US issued credit cards will always be accepted. They all have contingency plans in place to have ample cash reserves to cover operating expenses and payments to suppliers, and cover commissions. It’s business as usual!

The Greek islands are maintaining their supplies in high quantities, so restaurants, bars, and car rentals still transact with credit cards and no issues are being faced. The ATM’s in the islands have no one waiting in lines and machines are full. All visitors to the islands are commenting that if they did not read the news, they would not have known any issues were occurring.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens Greece
Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens Greece
Are there any safety issues? Any danger of unrest?

Greece is quiet and peaceful and the people are still as warm and hospitable as ever.
The Greek people understand very well that tourists are helping Greece and their economy and they love the American visitor. Furthermore, the Greek islands have always been peaceful and the atmosphere has never been affected by what happens in the capital.

I observed a peaceful demonstration in Athens, with lots of whistle blowing and children and dogs participating. Most demonstrations are scheduled, so authorities know when they will occur. The Grande Bretagne and King George have the best security in the world and they excel at making the guest experience safe and enjoyable. They have contingency plans and back doors to enter/exit away from the square. Athenians still enjoy coffee in the cafes blocks away from the protesters. These are democratic demonstrations in support of or against policies of their own government, not tourists. I’ve seen the strategic areas where the press broadcast – and they maximize any opportunity to “make news”.

Qantas becomes First Airline to help combat DVT while Traveling

Qantas AirlinesTravel and Exercise dont need to be mutually exclusive. Just see what Qantas Airlines is doing to help keep their customers fit and healthy…READ MORE

Qantas becomes first airline in the world to introduce exercise video to combat DVT while traveling (but don’t worry, you don’t need to change into your gym kit)

5 Things That Can Slow Down the Passport Process

5 Things That Can Slow Down the Passport Process

Passport processing delays can disrupt or ruin the most meticulously laid travel plans. Caused by human error or unforeseen circumstances, delayed passport issuance can be frustrating and cost an individual thousands of dollars in non-refundable travel reservations. Ideally, a traveler should apply for a passport months in advance of an international trip. However, sometimes an unexpected need to travel arises, and the timely receipt of a passport is of the utmost importance. Although there are certain factors out of an individual’s control, following the application and fee instructions carefully can help to ensure timely processing and receipt of that coveted little blue book. Some of the top reasons for delays in passport processing are as follows:

Human Error

Whether it is on the part of the applicant or the government employees tasked with the processing, human error is one of the biggest causes of passport delay. Often, a traveler has missed a field in the application, or the appearance of their signature varies enough between documents to cause concern. It is imperative that the application is filled out concisely and in its entirety, and special care is taken to keep each signature as true to form as possible. However, even when the application is received in good order, human error can occur during its processing. The United States issued 14,087,341 passports in 2014. Even with quality review processes in place, some degree of human error is unavoidable when handling such a high volume of requests.

Inadequate documentation/Incorrect fees Continue reading “5 Things That Can Slow Down the Passport Process”