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Bargain Border Crossings: Making Canada and Cuba More Accessible (and Cheaper, Too!)

Most of this column is about Cuba; if you're interested only in low fares from the U.S. to Canada, click here.

September 8, 2003 -- Cuba is a gorgeous island with a rich culture, friendly people, and an unpleasant government. But there's one thing that makes Cuba unique: Americans are essentially forbidden to travel there.

(Technically, you can go but U.S. citizens are forbidden to spend money there, but it's tough to be an independent traveler without spending any money.)

The ban has nothing to do with Fidel Castro's repressive government; the governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Burma are just as bad or worse, and there's no ban on traveling to those lands. The ban has nothing to do with the will of most ordinary Americans, who have opposed it in poll after poll.

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The ban isn't partisan, either. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed bills each of the past three years that would have allowed American tourists to show Cubans the benefits of democracy and capitalism. Another attempt to dismantle the ban is going on in the House right now.

President Bush, on the other hand, supports the ban. He's beholden to a bunch of sour-grapes Cuban exiles in South Florida, who are convinced that the ban will help topple Fidel Castro's socialist regime. (The ban's been around for 19 years. Castro's beard gets grayer, but his grip on power is no less firm.) Bush vows to veto any attempt to let Americans travel freely.

In fact, Bush plans to make things even harder at the end of 2003. Since 1999, some US travelers have been able to go to Cuba as part of organized, licensed tours. The Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is eliminating "people-to-people" licenses at the end of this year, which will shut down many tours.

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Going to Cuba ... Anyway

Some Americans have been voting against this massively unpopular ban with their feet. By buying separate tickets from the US to a non-banned location like Toronto, Montego Bay or Cancun, and buying tickets on to Cuba from a foreign travel agent, you can visit the places thousands of Canadian, European and Mexican tourists already see.

Of course, there's a risk to this: if you get caught coming back from Cuba, you'll be fined. There are even tales of OFAC investigators prowling Canadian and Mexican airports to try to stop Americans engaged in the horrifying crime of tourism. Get the full, gory details and a list of legal, licensed Cuba tour operators at www.frommers.com/destinations/cuba/3173020032.html.

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US tourists are getting punished, but Canadians will soon have more options to see Cuban shores than ever. On December 2, Air Canada will launch year-round, non-stop scheduled service between Toronto and Havana on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. They'll also ratchet up winter seasonal services, offering options for travelers from Calgary, Toronto, London (ON), Ottawa, Montreal, Moncton and Halifax to fly to Varadero, Holguin, Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco and Havana.

When we checked on Air Canada's site for early December dates, roundtrips from Toronto to Havana were a very low C$440.84, including all taxes and fees. Flights to other destinations were more expensive: nonstops from Montreal to Varadero were C$727.25 and flights from Toronto to Varadero were C$682.84.

Air Canada also has a pretty good sale on for travelers between the US and Canada. Sale fares are available until Sept. 18 for travel before Dec. 15, and the lowest fares are available at www.aircanada.com. Expect these fares to be matched by other carriers, especially American. Fine fares we saw include (roundtrip, before tax):

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  • New York or Boston-Ottawa, Toronto or Montreal: $156
  • Chicago-Montreal: $204
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver, Calgary or Edmonton: $204
  • Atlanta-Toronto, Ottawa or Halifax: All from $206-216
  • Miami-Vancouver: $258

Pretty much all of Air Canada's routes are on sale, so you're sure to find fares from your city. Make sure to check AC's fares against other airlines by using a major travel agency site such as Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia. If you're flying from New York or Fort Lauderdale, also check Canadian budget carrier JetsGo (www.jetsgo.ca).

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