"Why Cuba ?"
"Why not!" was my eventual reply after wife Claire had been suggesting it for several years.
The more I looked in to it, the more appealing the idea but I was certain of one thing. I didn't want to end up in one of those all inclusive resorts that most tourists head to as I had designs on the Zapata Peninsular and the birding opportunities that could be found there as well as other interesting locations that don't feature in the package holiday brochures.
It had to be a D.I.Y. package then. Thomas Cook fly to three airports, Valadero in the west, Cayo Coco more to the middle and Holguin towards the eastern end. You can also get a scheduled flight to Havana, also at the western end of Cuba, but for that it's both more expensive and less convenient than flying directly from Manchester, our most convenient airport.
Thomas Cook it was to be then and, as we were going for a month and would be carrying a lot of baggage, it took little persuasion when Claire suggested we try their Premium Class for the first time.
30kgs of hold and a wonderful 10Kg of cabin baggage each meant that basically I could overload with camera gear. It also means you get to choose your seats, get free drinks and a bit of extra legroom for sleeping on the overnight trip home. Not cheap though, £1340 is the most I think I have ever paid for a pair of flight tickets. You could have had 2 weeks at one of those all inclusive resorts travelling economy in the same plane for not a lot more! For me though, it's all about luggage,cabin luggage, and the need to satisfy from ridiculous obsession with wildlife photography!
With flights and dates confirmed the next thing was to book a car. "Google" car hire and up comes "Travelucion". They are a non Cuban based rental agency who book a car on your behalf with one of two state owned car hire companies.
The deal sounded good. A Skoda Fabia or similar for "from $31 a day" soon became a booked rental for 28 days at 1360 euro transaction. "From" should read "minimum" in adverts! With airport parking booked too we had already spent £2400 with not a bed booked. This could be a dear do, but hey ho, it was somewhere totally new and the prospect was really quite exciting.
I was soon planning my holiday which was to include the "Grand Tour". If you have a hire car you might as well make full use of it. Cuba is around 1000 miles long, so starting in the east, we would head west along the north coast having arrived at Holguin, which on investigation seemed the best bet both for flight price and the ability to pick up a car at the airport.
Next step was to book accommodation and I decided to do so in advance using both hotel booking agencies, Cuban "Casa Particular" agencies and in one case, directly to the Casa who have their own web site.
Casa Particulars are B&B's. When Raul Castro took over the Cuban presidency when brother Fidel stepped down, the Cuban economy was ( and still is) in a pretty dire state. To stimulate the economy lots of enlightened measures were taken. Freedoms denied for years were suddenly introduced. Cubans could sell their own homes, own and run certain businesses, even allowed mobile phones and foreign travel if you were lucky enough to afford it. The Casa Particular business is flourishing. Currently Raul's previous limit of two registered rooms has recently been increased to a limit of four but most are still at the two room level at the moment. We decided that was the route we wanted to go, a more intimate and insightful way of travelling a foreign country.
Using Trip Advisor to research out the ones with the best reputations for food,comfort and the ability to communicate in English, the bookings were made. I used two agencies.
both of whom were excellent in their communication, the latter also providing excellent street maps to help you find your chosen Casa.
Confirmations were pretty much by return but you are also asked to reconfirm the booking at least 2 days beforehand to guarantee the availability when you arrive. It's not that difficult even if you don't have a phone as each Casa is only too happy to phone on your behalf as you progress on your journey. The reason for confirming is that you are not required to pay a deposit so Casa's, who have to pay a fixed weekly licence fee occupied or not, feel vulnerable to the "no shows" and if you haven't reconfirmed are likely to let your room go to anyone who arrives ahead of you on the day. Licence fees are an expense that have to be covered so you can understand their predicament . With the financial embargo that has been placed on Cuba, collecting foreign monies in advance is not straight forward so, along with the sometimes problem of very limited internet access, Cuba's Casas are very much a cash business ( along with everything else).
Everything was now in place, all we need do was wait for nearly 6 months before departing Manchester in late January 2016.
Or was it?
Well, not quite. Whilst trawling the Trip Advisor web site I came across a rather disturbing forum thread about Travelucion. It seems that I may well have fallen to a scam.
The bottom line was basically if you read Travelucion's small print you are allowed to cancel your booking until they issue the final voucher 3 days before departure. It costs you a fee of 11% of the total paid to do so... in my case over £100. Some had decided that when asked to confirm their booking with photocopies of their driving licence and credit card this wasn't acceptable. Why I don't know as the first 12 digits of the card could be blanked out on the copy. When the monies were returned they had had the deduction made, but at least they had got their money back.
I couldn't find any reports of people having not got their car but there again, I couldn't find any that had either, well not at first. As time passed more people contributed to the thread. A panicky client was posting regular updates that he still hadn't had his money back despite 8 emails requesting it was immediately done so. 8 emails within one day of cancelling was hardly going to help speed up the eventual return of his money which he actually got only a few days later.
The panic was spreading though, more people were cancelling, more people were complaining about the 11% they had lost. I was starting to have my doubts too. A phone call to their 24 hour help line did nothing to boost my confidence when at first it said their voice mail was full, days later it simply cut off. An email to the person I'd made the booking with was passed to their accounts team who took the time to reply to my letter acknowledging that they knew about all the adverse criticisms and it was in the hands of their legal team. The terms and conditions were there for all to see, I would get my car but was free to cancel should I wish..... but although not specifically pointed out it would cost me! I decided to stick with it but I spent many a restless night wondering what would happen if we turned up and there wasn't a car. By now someone had reported that that was the case with them. They were the only one but it was one too many. Someone else reported that they had got their car but that they had received a letter just before they were due to fly stating that Travelucion had decided to switch the rental agreement to the other hire company as the former's fleet of cars was no longer considered good enough. The switch involved an additional payment but you could cancel if you wished. No mention, but no doubt the 11% fee would come in to practice.
You almost started to wonder if Travelucion's objective was to take as many bookings as possible by advertising the cheapest prices then hope as many as possible cancelled earning them an easy 11%. Very clever business proposition indeed. I was still nervous but decided to play poker. My investigations had at least discovered that Travelucion was a financially sound set up so I was confident I would get my money back in full if they failed to deliver which had been the case in the one incidence I had discovered.
Ah well, wait and see.
What looked pretty certain though was that if I didn't get my booked car it was unlikely I'd get another as there is a shortage of hire cars. I also discovered that the rental companies don't confirm their car availability until 2 weeks before the rental dates begins. The agency has your money for much longer than they have the guaranteed booking.
5 days before we flew we were sent an email from Travelucion telling us that they were switching my hire to another company for reasons that the cars were bigger, better and newer. The good news was that the new company charged $5 a day less for insurance ( which you paid separately and directly to the hire company), the bad news was it meant an increase charge of 140 euros to me. I was of course allowed to cancel.
The same letter they had been sending out 10 months ago. Now this did sound like a scam at getting more money however,I paid up and received my car rental voucher by return.
I was half way to getting my car and felt a lot more confident.
The costs were mounting up, the car now costing around £45 a day without fuel. Fortunately once there prices are very reasonable it seemed. However, armed with a pretty thick wad of £20 notes for their cash economy and lack of ATM's in lots of places, I knew we would get by no matter what lay ahead at Holguin Airport!