Evergreen / What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria

Everything I wish someone had told me

Written by: Serean Bechara


Hello first time readers and long-time Wheels Up lovers! As a Content Creator on this website, I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of you at trade shows, online, in the sky, on Skype, and everywhere else you beautiful travel professionals are found!

From our interactions, I’ve come to the conclusion that incentives and agent rates are nice but to get those, you need to SELL so I’m here to help!

I recently had the chance to explore Cayo Santa Maria for the first time and I learned a lot in my travels. There was quite a bit that I wish I had know prior to my trip that would have made it an even more enjoyable experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I had so much fun that the week flew by! However, I spent the first day and a half basically sorting out my vacation and everything I was going to do.

That is where you as a Travel Agent, Advisor, and Travel Professional come in.

How can you ensure your clients don’t go through this and that you get repeat bookings?


Well, let’s jump right into it…


They need contact information IN Cuba

Yes, it’s true that your clients can reach you anytime because you’re awesome and dedicated. BUT they shouldn’t have to because they should know who their Representative is on the ground in Cayo Santa Maria that will be visiting their resort.

I landed in Cuba with a +52 number of a Santa Clara Representative that was in Mexico.

FUN FACT: That was not helpful (I know, I know, SHOCKING).


In fact, this Representative, once I got a hold of her, had no idea who the person was that would be coming to the resort and told me that I was supposed to have an appointment.

“I’m sorry….wha?”


Strangely enough, your clients will get to their resort and be told that their Representative from Hola Sun, Air Transat, Gaviota, Sunwing, etc… will be in a general area at around 9:00am. This is only about 15% true and varies daily based on whatever their schedules are.

These schedules are not posted, the resort will know nothing about who your clients’ Rep is and how to contact them.

So save your clients the trouble by arranging an appointment with their Representative for when they arrive because believe me, it’s a wild goose chase when they are there. Tell your client the person’s name and their local phone number in Cuba so that the resort doesn’t tell them,

“By the way, you have to pay for that phone call of the only contact number you have that happens to be in Mexico and not here.”


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


I think you’re getting where I’m going with this. The first day, first interactions, and first impression of the Rep (and/or lack-there-of) will shape whether their vacation will be stressful for them or the best time of their lives.


What to do when they get off the plane (and how to get back on!)

Flying to Cuba isn’t a problem from any Canadian airport. The tricky part is what your clients should expect when they land at Abel Santamaria International Airport.

From my experience, you can’t rely on the Representative of Air Transat or West Jet to connect your clients to the appropriate shuttle bus.

Why would I say that?


Let me tell you a tale…


I arrived at the airport on a Saturday afternoon at 4:30pm. My flight departed and landed on time so there were no problems there. My problems began when I exited the plane.


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


I flew with Air Transat and was promptly met with a lady in a light blue shirt from the airline who asked for my friend and I’s names. She proceeded to show us our names on a piece of paper and told us our shuttle bus number.

She said, “It will be either over there,” pointing one way, “or over there,” pointing in the complete opposite direction.

As someone used to the Canadian shuttle bus system to hotels, I (thought I) knew that the shuttles came in intervals.

We proceeded to ask the same lady where the currency exchange was so that we could quickly do that before proceeding to the shuttle bus. She pointed us to where it was (about 20 steps away) and then we went off.

For Context: I was advised to do my currency exchange from CAD to CUC at the airport because the fee at the resort would be higher.


We spent approximately 10 minutes at the currency exchange.

We went to look for our shuttle bus.

We couldn’t find the number.

We went back to the same lady as before.

She tells us that our bus left and that they were looking for us.


Then this happened…

Me: “….but you knew we were right around the corner, you pointed us there. Why didn’t you tell her?”

Air Transat woman: “You’re not my responsibility.”


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


Yes folks, you read that right! We. Were. Not. Her. Responsibility. Fantastic!

NOTE: This is not about Air Transat as a company (obviously), this is about the fact that any company can’t control the actions or lack-there-of of their employees and your clients need to be fully prepared for these kinds of situations because it can happen (and has happened).


I’ll save you all the details of a very long story where the gist is that we ended up having to wait for the Montreal flight to land to leave in their shuttle bus, ended up getting to the resort at 9:00pm, never saw our ‘proper’ representative (who we didn’t know of, nor who to contact), then ended up being told they couldn’t find our reservations.

That is a whole other set of problems.


So what should you tell your clients? Why am I telling you this?

Well, the charge for the currency exchange was about $4.50 to exchange $150 via Credit Card so tell your clients that they can forget about doing the exchange at the airport, find someone from the Tour Operator they are with (like Hola Sun) and not the Airline reps because they are not their responsibility. 

Tell your clients to save the photos for later and get on that shuttle bus!


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


What’s important to know for the way back?

There is a very good chance that their flight home (like mine) will change departure time, and therefore shuttle bus times.

Get them to meet with their Rep in the lobby of their hotel or resort the day before to confirm when their shuttle will leave and when the plane is departing and landing so they can plan accordingly.

My plane? Decided to depart 2 hours early so I had to be in the lobby at 5:50am and rearrange who was picking us up at YYZ.


I know what you’re going to say about that, “but Serean, I can tell them if their flight changes.” And that is very sweet of you, but it may be too late, or you may not be able to make contact with them because what if they don’t purchase WiFi? What if they’re not at the resort that day? There’s a lot of variables so you just want them to be prepared.


Let’s talk money

Even with tensions high between the USA and Cuba, it’s the USD that counts in Cuba. Tell travellers to leave their Canadian money at home and to convert cash before they leave (when the rate of exchange is low).

If they do it in Cayo Santa Maria through Credit Card then they will be charged USD for whatever CUC they want to take out.

1 CUC = 1 USD

So the currency exchange will ask how much your client wants to take out in CUC and they will charge their Credit Card for the exact same amount that will show up as USD. The rate of exchange will then depend on the day they did the transaction so it’s better to do this ahead of time to save some money.


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


How much money will my clients need?

Of course this depends on the duration of their stay, if they’re at an all-inclusive resort, if they plan on doing excursions, if they’re travelling alone, with their friends, family, partner, etc…

So I’ll just give you a rundown of my stay with a friend of mine because we absolutely made the most out of our time in Cuba. Regardless of the disaster that was our first day-and-a-half, a guardian angel at Hola Sun turned it around for us by fixing everything and putting us in the right direction.

So we actually ended up having the Caribbean vacation of our lives (because we don’t like to think about the first 1.5 days).


So what did we do, how much did it cost, and what do I personally think is an amazing itinerary for 2 people?

NOTE: We were told that there will be changes in currency that may come into effect in 2019/2020. This may completely change the CUC currency for tourists.


Here’s a quick rundown:



• Catamaran (with open bar and snacks) + Snorkeling + Dolphin Show + Kissing a Dolphin + Lobster Lunch + Free time at the Beach (if weather permits) = 89 CUC per person
• Private tour guide and taxi for my friend and myself to go to Remedios, Santa Clara city, and anywhere else our heart desired for a day (on our own schedule) = 130 CUC total
• Speedboats + Catamaran (with non alcoholic beverages) + Snorkeling = 39 CUC per person

We booked all these excursions through Gaviota Group while we were at our resort, Melia Las Dunas. We did the excursions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the order above.


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria



This is where it gets a bit tricky because travellers interact with so many people in a resort at all times of the day. You have have 3 different people serving you drinks in the span of an hour! 1 CUC is generally a good rule of thumb for this kind of scenario but your clients will definitely have to feel out who they connect with in terms of staff.

I ended up connecting with a specific bartender who we always went to and so I would just tip her 3 or 5 CUC a day because she was awesome and would make up random drinks for us.

Also, our maids were the absolute cutest! Just take a look at what they did with our towels (the second photo is actually my sunglasses that were on the bedside table, I was so impressed). We definitely tipped them a little extra for having so much fun with their job.


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


Something I definitely wanted to touch on in this part of the article is the notion of “gifts.” One of our incredible tour guides from Gaviota broke it down for us. Basically, you can tip in USD, CAD, or CUC, they are grateful for all of them. And yes, they absolutely accept gifts of any kind.

How can you make sure it goes to not just one person?

Well, our guide told us that they pool all the tips and gifts from your bartenders, bus drivers, servers, hosts, and all the other workers. They then divide it up between themselves as equally as possible (which was very nice to hear).

So even if you leave some baby clothes and you’re like, “how do I know if this person has a kid?” Don’t worry, someone else, just as deserving, will make great use of it.


What your clients need to know about travelling to Cayo Santa Maria


Cuba is definitely filled with a great community of people that look after each other and I witnessed it every day that I was there.

Want to check out my specific experience at Melia Las Dunas (including what to expect in terms of reservations for restaurants, the food, the life jackets – you’ll understand later – the incredible nightlife, and more? Check back on Monday for the new article!

Until then, I highly suggest you check out Hola Sun’s Sales Tools & Resources page to get an idea of what Cuba’s top Tour Operator offers. I would also urge you to look into the hidden gem that is Labranda Cayo Santa Maria.


Have any questions, comments, want to share your own experience? Feel free to email me at sbechara@wheelsupnetwork.com.