CheapAir.com, an online travel agency, is moving into the Cuban market in a big way. On Thursday, it became the first U.S. online company to sell tickets for both charter and scheduled airline service to Cuba.
At the moment only American Airlines, JetBlue and Silver Airways are flying scheduled flights to Cuba, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has authorized six airlines to provide scheduled service to cities outside Havana. Not all the airlines have announced start dates, but Southwest Airlines is expected to announce its Cuban itineraries Thursday.
In late November and early December, major U.S. airlines will begin providing scheduled service from the United States to Havana. At this point, American Airlines will be the first with a flight from Miami to Havana scheduled for Nov. 28.
Eventually, travelers will be able to book flights between the U.S. and Cuba on eight major airlines that have received DOT approval to fly to 10 destinations in Cuba.
“Thanks to that, it has greatly expanded the inventory of Cuba flights we’re offering,” said Jeff Klee, the founder and chief executive of the Calabasas, Calif.-based company. CheapAir.com also is offering a Miami-Havana charter operated by Havana Air.
Although online travel agencies sometimes offer airfare discounts, CheapAir.com will be selling tickets at the same prices charged by the airlines.
However, booking on CheapAir.com will give travelers the ability to compare various airlines’ offerings and to mix and match travel segments on different airlines, said Klee.
“As far as I know we are the first U.S. online company to do Cuba,” he said.
CheapAir.com’s interest in the Cuba travel business was piqued in January 2015 when the Obama administration announced new rules on travel to Cuba that allowed a wider range of Americans to visit, permitted the use of debit and credit cards issued by U.S. banks, and eliminated a per diem rate on how much Americans could spend on their visits.
“As soon as we saw the rules had changed, we became interested,” said Klee, who launched CheapAir from his college dorm room in 1989. Since then, the company has sold more than 3 million airfares.
In February 2015, CheapAir added Cuba flights to its search engine that connected through Mexico after seeing a big uptick in online searches for Cuba. “That didn’t sell very well. The connections were tough and it was expensive,” said Klee.
But that April, it began working with Cuban Travel Services to sell charter flights to Cuba. “Any seats they gave us, we were able to sell,” he said.
With all the airlines now jumping into Cuba travel, “we have gone from not having enough seats to more seats than we can possibly sell at this point,” Klee said. So many airlines applied for Cuba routes, he said, because “I think none of them wanted to be left out. But frankly, it was overkill. It will be a buyer’s market for the next year and I think we will see a lot of discounting.”
Booking air travel to Cuba on CheapAir.com is similar to booking a trip to New York or Chicago. “The only difference is in the final step you have to indicate the reason you’re traveling,” said Klee.
The United States only permits travel in 12 categories, including family visits, travel for educational and religious activities, humanitarian trips, and travel in support of the Cuban people, which includes people-to-people visits.