I originally status matched with Copa to receive Star Alliance Gold status which provides free United Club access (even when flying domestic economy). I thought it unlikely that I would actually fly with the carrier…especially to Cuba! Well, that status really paid off with upgrades on all 4 legs of my Cuban adventure, amazing on-board service, and an impressive connecting hub in Panama.
This is part one of a three part trip report to Cuba:
- Copa Airlines – JFK – Panama City (PTY) – Havana (HAV) / Havana (HAV) – Panama City (PTY) – JFK
- Meliá Cohiba – Havana, Cuba
- Royalton Hicacos Varadero Resort & Spa
Since non-charter flights to Cuba from the US had not yet started in April when we took this trip, we were looking at connections in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. We originally purchased Air China’s Montreal (YUL) – HAV flight ($325), but we got an even better deal thanks to a Copa $209 sale…and then I used my Barclay Arrival Plus card to offset the charges.
I ensured my Copa ConnectMiles number was input for the entire itinerary and was very excited when the airline cleared my 2 flights there and 2 flights home at the 72 hour mark (including the outbound connection to Havana the following day)!
They offered my friend a chance to bid for an upgrade, but I told her to hold off as I’d try to upgrade her at the airport…though the recommended prices were somewhat reasonable.
It’s a manual procedure at the airport, but there was absolutely no one else trying to upgrade guests on any of our flights. My friend (w/ no Copa status) received upgrades on all four of her legs as well (you’re welcome D)!
The standard check-in lines were huge at JFK with many passengers traveling with a ton of luggage. However, the first class / Star Alliance Gold check-in area was empty. We were asked to fill out a form indicating the reason for our trip, though the check-in staff did not ask any questions regarding the form itself (I was traveling for the blog). They did however want to verify that we had proper insurance. I had read mixed reviews on how much effort Copa put into checking that your insurance was actually valid in Cuba. I showed my standard UnitedHealthcare card and informed them that it worked overseas. They asked me to confirm multiple times before printing out our boarding passes.
The flight did not depart until 1:55 AM, arriving early morning in Panama City with a 7:36 AM connection to Havana. Service on-board this extremely late night flight was amazing. Dinner, dessert, snacks, and breakfast were served in First. I was interested in sampling everything as it was my first time flying Copa, but I could see how this might be quite bothersome for passengers looking to sleep as lights were kept on during food service.
The New York flights are typically operated with one of the newer 737-800s and ours had that new plane smell! Leather seats, built-in USB connections, power outlets, new IFE systems, large overhead bins, and Boeing Sky Interior. The leather seats were recliners, but the leather was new and comfy and the flexible headrest was great. We were also provided a sealed blanket and pillow.
A quick look at Economy (which was packed)…
The food selections were pretty impressive for the relatively short JFK/PTY legs and for the even shorter PTY/HAV flights. Here are all of those menus:
There were two flight attendants assigned to First and both were taking our orders. They greeted each passenger by name, stepped in between the two seats to greet the middle passengers, and took drink, dinner, and breakfast orders (you could choose to not be disturbed for breakfast).
…and multiple breakfasts
The salmon, chicken, omelettes, and crepes were all tasty and my drink was constantly refilled. My only complaint was that on the 5 hour and 11 minute middle-of-the-night flight to Panama, breakfast was served 2 hours prior to landing. All lights were turned on at that point and it was basically only two hours after dinner was served.
The in-flight entertainment system was brand new, speedy, and responsive. Large headphones were also provided to First class passengers. The connecting gate notification and information provided on-screen was impressive.
As we were landing in Panama, the flight attendants went over to each passenger, put their hand on their shoulder, and said “it was a pleasure having you on-board, enjoy your day”. Really, really, impressive service on such a short flight.
Once we arrived in Panama it was time to buy our Cuban visa. WOW, this could not have been easier! We were told at JFK to visit any customer service desk at the airport in Panama and simply ask for a Cuba visa. No paperwork, no passport, nothing was required besides $20. We handed them our cash and they gave us a blank form. My friend even bought a few extra visas! It was so strange for the process to be so easy given the warnings and difficulties you hear about in the US.
Time to head to Cuba! I could not wait…and it was going to be country #75. This 737-800 was one of the older in the fleet, with different leather seats, IFE, and no Sky Interior. The plane was older, but the service matched the JFK-HAV flight.
Landing in Havana…
Now, the only other concern we had (besides the visa and health insurance) was actually entering the country. Again, wow so easy. Handed over my passport, visa, and customs form. The agent asked where I was visiting from. I said New York, he said I really want to visit there, and then he stamped my passport. Done and done! CUBA!!!
On the return back to NYC, we once again had one of the newer aircraft. There were only 2 other people in First and my friend was once again complimentary upgraded based on my status. One note about the PTY hub. It’s really well organized, easy to find your gate, and staffed with agents to facilitate your connections. I was impressed and would totally connect here going forward when United only has saver award availability to the Caribbean via Panama (something I used to ignore).
Up next: Meliá Cohiba – Havana, Cuba