US restricts Americans from staying at certain Cuba hotels. Ryanair flight held in France.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the January 2019 issue.

Cast in bronze, with a marble base, the Three Graces fountain (1869) in Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux, France, depicts Zeus’ daughters Aglaea (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth) and Thalia (Good Cheer).

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 515th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine, which, nearly 43 years ago, became the first travel publication to print travelers' brutally honest assessments of tours, airlines, cruises, etc., without regard to whether or not a company was an advertiser or a potential advertiser.

But we are fair. When a letter of complaint about a travel firm comes in to ITN from one of our subscribers, the staff collects more information or documentation from the traveler, then presents the letter to the company, allowing them an opportunity to provide a response for possible publication.

Sometimes, no response is sent by the company, which is noted if the letter is printed.

When a response is received, ITN staff take all points into consideration, usually doing further research and often requesting additional information. Occasionally, it is determined that the complaint is unwarranted, so the letter is not printed or certain parts of it are not. When we decide that a complaint letter should be printed and we have a response from the company, both are printed.

There are times when a complaint letter is printed for which the response clearly shows that the company did everything correctly yet could not have prevented the problem. Things just go wrong sometimes. When we print a letter like that, we are sure that our readers know better than to assume that just because a complaint letter is printed, the company must be at fault. We trust our readers to maintain open minds, weigh the evidence and determine what the lessons are that merited having the letter published.

Our goal in printing any letter with specific criticisms is not to give a company a black eye. It is to provide information that may be of interest or value to travelers, pointing out what can go wrong and, hopefully, what can be done to correct the problem or prevent it from happening in the first place. Prevention may involve a change in company policy or in its Terms & Conditions fine print or simply an awareness by the traveler.

A former Senior Editor at ITN, the late Lei Chatfield, used to say, "It's not what a company did wrong that's important; what's important is what they did in response to the problem."

Again, with millions of people traveling, complaints are bound to be registered. ITN will continue to print subscribers' candid accounts of their experiences and will continue to offer each company the chance to represent their side in any matter.

Have your eye on Havana?

Travel to Cuba by Americans is still generally considered legal by the US government, with certain restrictions. One restriction imposed on US travelers by Washington is that they are not allowed to spend money at businesses with ties to Cuba's government, armed forces or intelligence services. This includes a number of hotels that, though operated by private companies, are owned by one of the branches of the Cuban government.

The list of banned businesses is sizable and is regularly expanded. In November 2018, the US Department of State added 26 entities to the list, including 16 hotels, among them the Iberostar Grand Packard Hotel in Havana, owned by the Gaviota Group, part of the Cuban military's business arm.

Without knowing it is on the list, a traveler might think this hotel — a 5-star property with an international-hotelier brand name — is approved by the US government. Luckily for travelers, the State Department has a website showing the entire list of banned entities (www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/cuba/cubarestrictedlist/287349.htm), so it can be checked before travel plans and reservations are made.

According to the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which maintains the embargo against Cuba, travelers who have already booked a stay at a hotel will not be found liable if that hotel subsequently gets put on the list.

You might be wondering how the government would know that someone had stayed in a particular hotel.

One way is that every traveler is required to keep a record of all of his or her activities and expenditures in Cuba, including receipts, if possible, and hold onto that record for five years. Travelers must present that document if requested to do so by a Customs officer or by any other government official in the five years following the trip.

An honestly prepared record would include each hotel at which someone stayed. (If a traveler is in a tour group, it's the tour company's responsibility to create those records for its tour members.)

Another way for the government to find out is to subpoena any bank or credit card records, if a stay was paid for by a credit or debit card. Banks and credit card companies are not required to double-check whether or not a transaction is being done with a banned entity, but their records will show where transactions took place.

The penalty for illegal activity in Cuba is typically a fine, and it can be a hefty one, in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Rest assured, traveling to Cuba is still legal under many conditions. In fact, staying at a non-Cuban-government-owned private accommodation meets the requirement for traveling under the category "Support for the Cuban People," which is one of the 12 authorized purposes for which Americans are allowed to visit Cuba, according to the OFAC. "Tourism," itself, however, still is not one of the permitted reasons.

Inclement weather, emergency maintenance, staffing issues…. Among the reasons for an airplane to be grounded, here's a new one.

On Nov. 8, before a Ryanair flight was able to take off from Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD) in France to head to London Stansted Airport (STN) in England, French authorities grounded the flight and forced all 149 passengers to deplane. Why? The French government had seized the airplane, holding it as collateral for the 525,000 (near $594,525) that was owed to it by Ryanair.

The money had originally been paid to Ryanair by France from 2008 into 2009 to subsidize flights to the nearby Angoulême-Cognac International Airport (ANG), which had just opened about 80 miles from Bordeaux. This allowed Ryanair to operate from that airport essentially for free.

However, the European Commission determined, in 2009, that those subsidies were illegally given, so Ryanair was responsible for paying back the French government.

In the November grounding, after a 5-hour delay, the passengers were able to fly to Stansted on another Ryanair plane.

As for Angoulême-Cognac International Airport, it appears that no commercial flights of any sort are operating there at this time.

CORRECTIONS and CLARIFICATIONS

• In his column "The Mindful Traveler," Mark Gallo's October 2018 article about smartphone tools for travelers continues to elicit addenda from our subscribers, this time from Jane B. Holt of Hinesburg, Vermont.

Jane wrote, "Just a quick 'heads up' about Mark Gallo's instructions for downloading Google Maps for offline use when Wi-Fi or data connectivity is not available: it is not possible to download maps for Japan."

Jane is correct. According to Google, "Downloading offline maps isn't available in some regions because of contractual limitations, language support, address formats, or other reasons." One of those regions is the entire country of Japan.

If any reader knows of any other regions for which maps cannot be downloaded, send us a note.


• On page 39 of the November 2018 issue, a writer mentioned having seen an Andean albatross in Ecuador's Cotopaxi National Park. Harry Conwell of Topeka, Kansas, called in to point out that there is no such bird.

It is likely that an Andean condor is what the traveler saw in that high-altitude park.

If you are a single traveler who enjoys cruising, we're still soliciting responses to this information request from Edna R.S. Alvarez of Los Angeles, who would like "solo travelers to each share the experiences they've had in a ship's assigned-seating environment at mealtimes."

She offered the following questions, and if you can answer any of them, please write in: "How did it work out? Were you seated exclusively with other solos? Was there resistance to seating you with couples? Did you have better experiences on small ships or large? What specific cruises have you taken where, as a solo, you were comfortable with the meal seating? Which cruise lines have open seating during all meals? What advice can you offer to improve a solo's chances of sitting with other diners?"

Subscribers, when citing cruises, please include the year each took place and whether you were on an oceangoing or river ship, along with an idea of its size (thousands, hundreds or dozens of passengers?). You may mention the names of cruise lines and ships that you recommend, but, for this article, the names of lines and ships about which complaints are cited will not be included. (Complaints about recent cruises submitted for publication will be handled separately.)

Email editor@intltravelnews.com or write to Solos and Assigned-seating Dining on Ships, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Responses will be printed in the magazine.

Here's something we need ALL of you to write in about. This is the January issue, so it's time for our annual poll on the countries everyone visited in the previous year. Check your Facebook posts, gather up your luggage flight tags or, um, just grab your passport.

If you are an ITN subscriber, make a list of all of the nations you visited outside of your own country anytime in 2018 and email it to editor@intltravelnews.com or address it to Where Were You in 2018?, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Remember to include the mailing address where you receive ITN.

The numbers we collect will be used to attract potential advertisers, which will help keep this magazine coming to you each month, so it's important we get a high return. It's easy to do, it's only once a year, and you might even find it fun to think back on your travels while you make the list.

A couple things to keep in mind — Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau all are officially part of China and are not separate nations; visits to any or all count as only one visit to China. Similarly, a visit to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be counted as a single visit to the United Kingdom. Nonsovereign territories will be tallied but listed separately from official nations.

For participating, a few lucky subscribers will be rewarded. After we receive everyone's lists, we'll put all of the email printouts, postcards and letters into a bin and hold random drawings for prizes, either a subscription extension for yourself or (your choice) a gift subscription so you can share ITN with a friend.

The deadline for entry is March 31, 2019, and I'll announce the country-count results — and the names of the prize-winning subscribers — in the June 2019 issue.

Each year, your answers tell us which countries are trending and which are "falling off the map." ITN readers are an endlessly curious lot, and the findings are sure to inspire, so even if your whole list comprises only Austria or Azerbaijan, for the most complete count in our tally, we need you to send it in today!