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Jasmin: Last summer, my boyfriend, 3 kids, and I enjoyed an all-inclusive beach vacation in Cuba after a long (and grueling) school year. We really needed a trip with NO agenda, non-stop tourist attractions, or pressure to see as much as we could – just sunshine and ocean!
Because of the kids’ other summer plans, our travel dates weren’t very flexible, and I had trouble getting award flights and hotels in the Caribbean to line up with our schedule. If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation, don’t despair! There are ways to book paid travel with flexible points and no blackout dates – even package vacations.
In this series, I’ll share how I booked the trip and our flight and hotel experiences. And give you tips about traveling to Cuba, especially with kids!
Note: Currency conversions in this post applied around the time of the trip, but are slightly different now.
A Family Vacation to Cuba Trip Report Index
- Part 1 – Introduction and Planning
- Part 2 – Sunwing Flights to Holguin
Our First Experience With Sunwing Airlines
Our vacation packages included non-stop, round-trip flights on Sunwing Airlines between Toronto and Holguin, Cuba. We’d never flown Sunwing before. But having flown other Canadian charter airlines in the past, I had an idea of what to expect.
1. Get to the Airport Early! (No, Seriously … EARLY)
Sunwing does NOT have automated kiosks like most full-service airlines. We arrived ~2.5 hours prior to departure, and discovered a huge line at the check-in counters.
I’m not sure if they were short staffed that day, or if they just had a lot of flights going out around that time (it was a Friday afternoon). The kids weren’t terribly impressed at waiting in such a long queue.
After waiting for over an hour, a Sunwing agent started pulling Holguin passengers out of the line to check-in ahead of everyone else. The flight was completely full, but luckily we were assigned seats together. I didn’t pay the extra 20 Canadian dollars (~$16) per person each way for advance seat selection, because that would have added an extra ~$160 to our trip cost (~$16 X 5 passengers X 2 flights).
One thing I like about Sunwing is that everyone gets a free checked bag, up to 50 pounds. We only needed 3 bags total, so used the other 2 free bags to pack goodies to give away in Cuba.
Once check-in was complete, we made a beeline for security, which also had a massive line! Luckily, Toronto Pearson is one of the Canadian airports with shorter, trusted traveler security lines. Folks with Global Entry or NEXUS (and their travel companions) can access a shorter lane, and you don’t have to remove your shoes, belt, liquids etc. But you still have to remove your laptop.
So I showed my Global Entry card and we were through security within a couple of minutes.
Pro Tip: If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, you can skip the long lines and access priority security lanes at Toronto Pearson airport.
2. Priority Pass Select Saved Us Money
I have Priority Pass Select membership because I have the Citi Prestige® Card. It’s saved us a ton of money when we travel, because we don’t have to pay for snacks and drinks at airports with Priority Pass lounges.
And if you have membership from the Citi Prestige, you can bring your family with you – including ALL your kids under age 18 – for free. That’s different from the Priority Pass Select membership you get with the AMEX Platinum cards, which only allows 2 free guests (regardless of whether they’re family or not).
There are other cards that come with complimentary Priority Pass Select membership, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ritz-Carlton Rewards® Credit Card. You can read about the best credit cards with lounge access here.
Toronto Pearson Terminal 3 had 3 Priority Pass locations we could access, but because we were short on time we visited the Plaza Premium Lounge closest to our gate (I sure would have liked to check out the Air France / KLM lounge though!).
By the time we made it to the lounge, we were starving. Luckily, it wasn’t terribly busy when we arrived, which was a relief.
There was a small buffet with salads, chips, and sweets…
…muffins, pastries, cookies, and cereal…
…2 kinds of hot soup, along with ramen noodle cups…
…a questionable-looking “beef teriyaki” dish…
…and rice and cabbage to accompany.
Because we only had ~30 minutes to enjoy the lounge, we scarfed down a quick light meal and sodas…
…and the adults enjoyed a refreshing pre-departure beverage (or 2) from the self-serve bar. All told, I figure we saved at least $40 compared to buying a meal and drinks in the terminal.
Note: This lounge does NOT make announcements when your flight is boarding. So keep a close eye on the time!
3. A Pleasant In-Flight Experience
Despite being a full flight, boarding was smooth. We were a little delayed because of the late arrival of the inbound flight.
Sunwing planes are newer, with leather seats. The seats seemed super narrow at the top, which allows you to easily see and visit with the folks in front of and behind you. While this might be a good thing for families (perhaps they did it on purpose) it might be disconcerting to have a stranger peeking at you in-flight!
Word of warning if you’re tall – the seat pitch (distance between the back of your seat to the back of the seat in front of you) is super tight. Most airlines have a seat pitch between 31 and 32 inches. Sunwing planes only have 29 inches of pitch.
On a short flight like ours (~3.5 hours) it wasn’t a dealbreaker. But I can’t imagine being 6 feet tall or more and sitting like this for hours.
It made no difference to the kids of course!
The in-flight service was friendly and efficient, with a bilingual crew based out of Montreal. Most of the passengers were in good spirits owing to heading to the tropics for vacation.
The kids were thrilled when the crew handed out children’s beach bags containing coloring supplies and an inflatable beach ball.
Shortly after take-off, the flight attendants came around with complimentary glasses of sparkling wine and Cuba tourist cards (included in the price of the vacation package).
Sunwing has a surprisingly extensive on-board menu, which includes dishes inspired by celebrity chef Lynn Crawford of Food Network Canada. Soft drinks, juice, tea, and coffee are free, otherwise everything else costs money.
We decided to try a couple of items in the interest of blog research. 😉 My daughter and I split the Philly Steak Sandwich, which cost ~9 Canadian dollars (~$7) and was tasty.
And my other daughter ordered the Tapas Box, which was similar to snack boxes on other airlines and cost ~$8.
There are onboard movies (shown on those old-style flip-down screens, not seatback screens) so bring headphones. You can also purchase these onboard for ~$2.
4. Arrival at Frank Pais Airport, Holguin
The Holguin airport is small! There are no jetways, just a common aircraft parking area in front of the terminal building. We deplaned via airstairs and airport staff led us to the terminal.
The sun was just setting as we walked across the tarmac to the main terminal building, where we cleared customs and immigration.
The Cuban customs and immigration agents were polite and didn’t ask many questions. However, each traveler must have their photo taken.
After clearing customs, we collected our bags from the baggage hall. Because we were the only flight there, this didn’t take much time.
Tip: If you’re traveling as a group, have one person stay by the carousel and wait for the bags. Another can get in line for the currency exchange, which is just before the exit doors from the baggage claim. This saves time waiting in line!
Once we got our bags and exchanged money, a Sunwing representative pointed us to the air conditioned motor coach which took us to the Memories Holguin resort (~1 hour drive).
We had a pleasant experience on Sunwing Airlines from Toronto to Holguin, Cuba. While it’s not fancy, the service was very good and the planes are new and modern.
My family didn’t like waiting so long in line to check-in (over an hour). Because of this, we had less time than we’d hoped to enjoy the lounge before departure. So arrive early if you’re traveling with Sunwing!
Holguin airport is compact and tidy. The Cuban officials were polite and collecting our luggage was straightfoward.
Stay tuned for my review of the Memories Holguin Beach Resort!