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What U.S. travelers need to know about new Cuba rules

You no longer have to be part of a group tour to visit Cuba as a tourist.

On Tuesday, President Obama again eased restrictions on travel to the island nation, just before his own visit from Sunday through March 22.

But don’t plan on plopping down on the beach for your stay.

“You still cannot go just as a tourist,” said Jared Alster, cofounder of the guided tour search engine Stride Travel. "They must have “a full-time schedule of educational activities.”

Though U.S. travelers are no longer limited to pricey people-to-people tours, they must affirm that their visit is for at least one of 12 sanctioned reasons, including educational exchanges and people-to-people experiences.

This means you have to figure out a DIY itinerary and "retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities," according to a U.S. Treasury Department information sheet about the new rules.

Group tours that provide these records have other advantages too.

"Anyone who wants to go to Cuba on their own, good luck," said Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons tour operator in Long Beach, which has sent hundreds of people to Cuba. "Good luck navigating it. It's a mess."

Hotel reservations can be notoriously difficult to obtain.

Worldwide interest in Cuba has prompted a big increase in tourism, but the number of available hotel rooms in Havana has not increased, said Moore, who was in Cuba just 10 days ago.

Travelers can choose to stay in a private home, called a casa particular, which is a great way to have an authentic experience and mix with the locals. Airbnb lists rooms for as little as $15 a night. But remember, there's no guarantee on what type of room you'll get.

Also, because reservations in some home stays aren't typically confirmed with a credit card deposit (many Cubans don't have bank accounts, Moore said), you may make a reservation and arrive to find your room was given to someone else.

Lastly, you'll need to take cash. Your U.S. credit cards still won't work in Cuba, not because they are prohibited but because the systems haven't been put in place yet to make them a reliable option. So almost all transactions, including meals and tours, are in cash.

You can expect more changes this year too.

Daily flights between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Havana may start as soon as September. Alaska Airlines or American Airlines may get to operate the route once a Department of Transportation decision has been made in June, Moore says.

And Wi-Fi and Internet options have improved greatly in the last year too, she says.

But there's one thing she hopes won't change. 

"The Cubans are very conscious and proud of their heritage and their history and their culture," Moore says.

Info: U.S. Department of Treasury Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba

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