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Trip Reports / 5 Days in Havana, Cuba
« on: March 03, 2019, 09:40:20 PM »
My wife and I were looking for a relatively close, but interesting destination to visit in the summer, and we took a 5-day trip to Cuba, with most of our time spent in Havana. It's an incredibly fascinating place, so close to home, and I would encourage everyone to visit if they can, and see / experience it, before things change significantly there. (Full disclosure… this trip took place in July ’17, and this trip report was languishing on my computer for some time. But fortunately, I don’t think things have changed much in Cuba since then.)

We flew there direct with Delta and the flight there was pretty uneventful. Before we checked in, the airline attendants asked us to complete affidavits regarding the purpose of our travel. They also sold us the Cuban Visas (which are needed to enter the country).

When we arrived in Havana, we first waited on a long line for passport control. They took pictures of us for their records, and then we passed through a metal detector and had our carry-ons x-rayed, to see if there was anything inside that they would be concerned about us bringing in. Then we waited some time for all of our luggage to come out.

We were traveling with six suitcases. Of course, we brought a lot of food and a few cooking appliances, but most of our bags were filled with items such as medications, books and toys that we were donating to the Jewish community in Havana. Needless to say, we were a bit concerned about having our bags scrutinized by customs.  In the course our arrival, we learned that before any checked baggage reaches the baggage claim area, every bag is x-rayed and the tags are marked with a letter or code indicating whether the x-ray showed some contraband items inside. As we were exiting customs with our bags, we were sent back for our bags to be inspected by a customs official.  At first, they just checked a couple of our bags, and we realized that the tag on one bag had been marked with an a series of letters indicating that there were drugs or medications inside. When they opened the bag, we kept showing them different food items that we had brought, until they just accepted that the x-ray had really shown food and not medicines. But then when we attempted to exit again, the customs official noticed that a couple more of our bags had been marked as well, but were not yet hand-checked and stamped as approved. So they sent us back yet again, and this time they had us wait in a long line of people off to the side. It seemed that this area was designated for those whose bags needed to be checked more thoroughly for items that were illegal to import, as well to collect import taxes on certain items. Eventually, we found one customs official to assist us, and after looking more closely at the tags on our luggage he determined that one of the bags was marked as having had an illegal appliance in it.  Thinking this was just a misunderstanding, we opened our bag and showed them a hot plate that we had brought in our suitcase. It turned out that this was big “no-no”.  So the agent took the hot plate and put it aside and instructed us to continue waiting in line. After waiting another hour or two, we finally got a customs officer to take us ahead of some of the locals who were waiting to pay import taxes. (Americans do not get any VIP treatment in this country, and if you’re not proactive, you can sit and wait for hours, for the bureaucratic process.)

When they were finally ready to process our contraband, out came the voluminous paperwork and a huddle of about 5 or 6 officers, along with cameras to take pictures of the hot plate that they were confiscating. There was some old-fashioned carbon paper to make multiple copies of each form, our IDs and passports being passed around, and finally a special burlap bag for securing the contraband in customs. (They expected us to wait in line again to retrieve the hot plate upon our departure from the country, but of course that was not going to happen.)

The gentleman next to us in the Customs processing area was a Cuban-American visiting his friends and family, and they were taking away a couple of wi-fi extenders from him, which apparently were also a big “no-no”.  I asked him if he could explain why they were not allowing the hot plate to be brought in, and he seemed to think it was because there is a transistor inside, which theoretically could be used to create a communications device. Strange.  Either way, I was happy to hear from him that we could easily buy a new hot plate in some of the local stores in Havana. Welcome to Cuba …

Once you exit the arrivals area, your next stop will need to be the money changing booth. You are always better off arriving with Canadian Dollars or Euros, because they add a special tax when you change US Dollars. There was a long line of people waiting for the exchange booth outside the arrivals area, so I went up to the Departures area where there were a couple of booths with far shorter lines.
A couple of things about the lines in Cuba. There will not be many lines that you will need to wait on, although for locals, waiting on long lines seems to be a way of life. But when you do need to wait on line, and especially a line that includes locals you need to strike a balance between slightly aggressive and polite, because it seems like the local custom is to let their friends cut the lines ahead of any other people who are waiting.

Back on the subject of exchanging money, there are two types of currency in Cuba (though there may be a plan in the works to phase that system out). There is the convertible currency which is supposed to be used to pay for all things that tourists pay for. The convertible currency is always on par with the with the US dollar. And there is the local currency which exchanged at a rate of 25 for $1 or a 4-1 convertible peso. When they change money for a foreigner, they will always give you the convertible pesos. Although you may not find any need for the local currency, you're probably better off using it when buying from any street vendors or anyone else that locals tend to buy from. But it seems that the only way to exchange money for the local currency, is to go to one of the money exchange stores located throughout the city and country, but not at the airport. Hotels also change money, but will only give you the convertible currency.

Like everything else intended for tourists, taxis are paid for it in convertible currency. A taxi from the airport to Havana cost 25 CUC (which seems like an astronomical sum for Cuba, but like most tourist revenue, that money is probably shared with the government).

We stayed in a nice hotel bordering Old Havana. There are obviously very good reasons to look for accommodations on Airbnb. You can certainly save a lot of money that way, and you’ll find some relatively nice places to stay. In addition your money will go to locals, rather than to the government which seems to own every single hotel. There are some new expensive hotels that have opened recently as well as some other ones being built now and I saw some prices as high as $500 to $600 a night. The hotel we stayed at was ranked around number five on TripAdvisor and it was pretty nice, though not as expensive as some of the newest hotels. What was really nice and about our hotel was that there was unlimited WiFi included in the rate, while in most hotels, you will need to buy an hourly WiFi card (which only lasts one hour) and type in a new code to activate every new card. If you stay in a private residence through Airbnb, you will not have any WiFi, unless you go to a nearby park with Wi-Fi, or to a hotel and buy one of their passes to use within the hotel.

My cell phone service is with Verizon, and if I would have used it in Cuba it would cost $3 a minute for phone calls and some exorbitant rate for data usage. Receiving text messages was not that expensive – I think Verizon charged around $0.05 or $0.10 each. But sending text messages would cost $0.50 each, so we tried to avoid that. The best way to communicate is to connect to WiFi, and then use WhatsApp or some other app to make phone calls or send messages and emails.

As far as kosher food is concerned, there is really very little that you can buy in Cuba. In terms of drinks, there were some places where we found Coke, Light Coke, and Sprite which were manufactured in Mexico, but somehow they were always hard to find when we were looking for them. There were also a number of stores selling Pepsi that came from Ecuador but we weren’t sure about the kashrus on those. I saw some Pringles from US with OU in a couple of stores, as well as some grocery stores which had pasta, some canned or jarred vegetables and some other odds and ends with a hechsher on them either from the US, South America, or elsewhere. But you really can't count on finding anything kosher there other than some fruits and vegetables, which you won't find much variety of either. So, bring your own food.

While we were in Cuba, we visited all of the synagogues in Havana and met with a number of members of the local Jewish communities. (We were also there for Shabbos.) There is a lot of help that you can provide to different community centers and synagogues as well as to individuals there.  I'm not going to cover that topic here, but if you are planning a trip, please feel free to reach out and I can try to assist you with contacts, information and resources.

I'm not going to go into depth either about things to see and do in Cuba (because there are plenty of other resources for that information), but there are plenty of things to do on a short trip to Havana, as well as other places worth visiting throughout the country if you have more time.  But keep in mind that it can be a six to eight-hour drive to some of the other large cities and destinations within Cuba.
Regarding banking in Cuba, there are no US credit cards accepted in Cuba so everything must be paid for with cash (or other foreign credit card). I noticed that there were quite a few websites that I was unable to access while there, in particular any American bank or financial website, or even QuickBooks online. There were also a variety of other websites that I wasn't able to access. I'm not sure if this is a result of restrictions from the US side, or whether Cuba is blocking access to these web sites. Either way, don't expect to access just any website while in Cuba. Regarding electricity, many of the hotels have 220-volt European style outlets (and may or may not have voltage converters available guests’ use). But it seems that the newer hotels generally have both 110- and 220-volt outlets in the rooms, to cater to visitors from the North America and Europe.

Leaving Cuba is relatively painless. Of course, they will x-ray all your bags and look for items that you may not be able to take out of the country, but there really isn't much that you'd want to take with you anyway. They don't seem to limit how much rum or cigars you can leave with, although you need to be mindful of the import restrictions on the US side or elsewhere. However, they are concerned about visitors purchasing individual cigars on the street without the government's sealed boxes (because the the government doesn't make their money on those sales), so there are strict limitations on how many loose cigars you're allowed to leave with. But as far as boxed and sealed cigars are concerned, you really just need to have a special receipt from the store where you purchased them from showing how much you paid for them.

After you pass through security at airport there will be a place to change back any local currency that you have, as well as a number of small gift shops and cigar or duty-free shops. Some people suggest that you save your cigar shopping for the airport, but there is probably a far more limited selection in the airport than at some of the stores in Havana. There does seem to be a lot of rum variety available in the airport though, at the duty-free shop.

I've glossed over number of topics in this review, and tried to focus on information that I thought would be most useful and harder to find on your own without having been there. I would also recommend reading the info/posts on this website ( about Cuba, which I found very informative and fascinating, relating to a lot of the things in Cuba that are hard to make sense of. If you like it enough, you may even want to buy his book (I didn't).

I would be happy to try to provide more information, for anyone who is planning a trip. Please feel free to post questions here or PM me, and will do my best to respond.

Up In The Air / Kosher Meals - Can we do better?
« on: March 05, 2018, 12:22:33 AM »
I recently took a couple of flights in first class with sorely disappointing kosher meals. On one of the flights, the (Cathay) flight attendant was completely astounded and embarrassed than the airline would serve such a poor quality and poorly presented meal to a first class passenger, and she apologized to me and encouraged me to complain about it. Most flight attendants have probably seen enough of these meals that they've grown immune to poor appearance and quality, or they just assume that this is representative of all kosher food.  But this experience got me thinking... Why can't we expect better from the airlines?

I think there is a general feeling among kosher travelers that we're lucky if the meal shows up, and we should always expect the worst. On flights in or from the US, kosher travelers have come to expect the worst possible food from US caterers, and no one even talks about their kosher meal experience unless they were fortunate enough to be served a misplaced kosher meal that came from a European caterer.

We know that many of these same airlines source much higher quality meals on flights departing from outside the US, and presumably they are paying more for these meals. In addition, there are a couple of US airlines that serve higher quality meals from the same US caterers that are infamous for the providing the worst meals on most US-based airlines. So it seems that even the US caterers that prepare the worst quality meals, also prepare relatively good quality meals when the airlines demand and pay for it.

If the airlines routinely purchase higher quality meals outside the US, and the US caterers have the ability to provide better meals in the US, then why can't we expect the airlines to demand better quality and possibly even spend a little more on the kosher meals prepared in the US - at least for travelers in first and business class?  What can we collectively do to effect change?

While individual complaints sometimes reach the right person and may have a small impact, I would say the best tool would be a simple website to gather and share photos and reviews of kosher meals. With a couple of clicks, and drop-down selections, travelers could post pictures of the good or bad meals they were served and also rate the meals at the same time. This could easily be categorized and sorted by airline, class, route, etc.  Once there are enough photos and data posted by travelers, this should be a useful resource to refer some of the airlines to, and to help guide the airlines' decision-makers about where there may be much room for improvement, and how some of the other airlines are providing a much more satisfying experience.

Please share any thoughts, ideas, suggestions or critique.

/?tag=cl03f-20This is a great all-in-one laser copier/printer/scanner fax machine, and it usually sells for $179-$199

On The Road / Value in booking hotels through Chase UR?
« on: October 29, 2014, 01:30:48 PM »
Is there ever good value in booking hotels through Chase Ultimate Rewards? It seems that they will give you $.0125 for each UR point, when you use your points to book travel directly through UR.  But are the prices generally comparable with the prices that you'll get booking a hotel (or car or flight) elsewhere? Do you end up paying for tax as well with your points, or does Chase not charge you for tax?
If  UR points are generally valued at 1.4-1.6 cents each, is there ever good value in booking travel directly through UR?


Gerber Graduates Puffs (Pack of 6) on sale now with 20% off coupon, which comes out to $7.13-$8.92 with Subscribe and Save for some of the flavors. Cheapest flavors now are Strawberry-Apple, Sweet Potato and Vanilla, but check each flavor for different pricing. All flavors are OU-Pareve.

Here are a couple of cheap Nivea body wash products with coupons for those looking to "top off" their Subscribe & Save orders for the month (you need 5 items for 20% discount on all S&S purchases for the month):

It looks like you can purchase both of these, since they're separate coupons.

Nivea Smooth Sensation Body Lotion
$1.64-$2.22 with Subscribe and Save (after $1.50 coupon)

Nivea Touch Renewal Lathering Scrub
$1.68-$2.27 with Subscribe and Save (after $1.50 coupon)

For those with kids in sleepaway camp... I've found that nothing makes kids happier than frequent packages. So what better opportunity is there to exploit free shipping with Amazon Prime. Unfortunatey amazon put an end to free prime shipping on cases of water, but there still seem to be plenty of opportunities to send snacks (like the popcorners deal last week), toys, games, etc., to solidify your place as "parent of the year", "favorite grandparent/uncle/aunt", etc.
I've started off with a few links (below), but please post links to anything you find on Amazon that's cheap enough to order on a whim (with Prime/free shipping), and a sleepaway camper might enjoy receiving.
Some cheap toys/gear for sports fans:!3375301%2Cn%3A3386071%2Cp_6%3AATVPDKIKX0DER%2Cp_36%3A-1000%2Cp_8%3A2229060011&bbn=3386071&ie=UTF8&qid=1404867766&rnid=598251011&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_t=701&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1QGPXP7W2ECAFG3CMH2V&pf_rd_i=30&pf_rd_p=1713993182#/ref=sr_pg_1?rh=n%3A3375251%2Cp_83%3AP1NAG809HRZ579XDP%2Cn%3A%213375301%2Cn%3A3386071%2Cp_6%3AATVPDKIKX0DER%2Cp_36%3A-1000%2Cp_8%3A2229060011&bbn=3386071&ie=UTF8&qid=1405356576

Folding stool ($6.16):

Flashing LED Bumpy Rings ($5.86):

UNO Card Game ($6.95):

Water Balloon Tying Gadget ($6.25):

LED Finger Lights ($6.59):

Underwater Diving Rings ($5.99):

Light-Up Bubble Gun ($6.32):

Novelty Mustaches ($6.29):

Light Up Fiber Optic LED Hair Lights ($4.29 - not Prime eligible, but free shipping anyway):

Angry Birds Remote Control Balloon (requires helium) ($8.75):

Giant Inflatable Pickle ($5.09):

Glitter Maracas ($5.97):

40 Bags of Popcorners ($15.84):

Goods For Sale/Trade / Lakewood Gift Cards for Sale
« on: July 10, 2014, 06:35:35 PM »
I have several hundred dollars of gift cards from Lakewood Gift Card Registry, in different denominations. These are accepted at around 150 stores/merchants in Lakewood. (See attached list) I would be willing to sell them for 10% off their face value.  Please PM me if you're interested.


Up In The Air / Delta change fees
« on: June 23, 2014, 08:22:28 PM »
I have a few $100 domestic Delta tickets in "x" fare that I'm not going to be able to use. Does anyone know the rules on modifying or cancelling these tickets? Is there any way to salvage any value from them if I cant fly on the dates that they're ticketed for?


General Discussion / Any way to cancel a Prime Gift Membership?
« on: March 27, 2014, 12:28:16 PM »
I received a prime gift membership and mistakenly opened/accepted it in an Amazon account that I already had an active family/household Prime membership on. (I was under the impression that Amazon would offer me the option of accepting the gift as a credit to my account, since I already had an active household membership, but instead Amazon automatically cancelled the household membership on my account and activated the new Prime Gift Membership). I immediately called Amazon and asked them to cancel the gift membership and restore my household membership, but they insist there is nothing they can do to help.
Does anyone know of any way that I might be able to cancel this membership and either save it for next year or get a credit instead?


Was wondering if anyone has checked out these sites, or any other similar sites, and has any positive or negative experience.



Staples to shut 225 stores in North America as sales fall
10:57am EST

* Says expects sales to decline in first quarter

* Forecasts first-quarter earnings $0.17-$0.22/share vs est. $0.27

* Quarterly revenue falls 10.6 pct

* Online sales rise 10 pct

* Shares fall as much as 17 pct

By Maria Ajit Thomas

March 6 (Reuters) - Staples Inc said it would close up to 225 stores in the United States and Canada - 12 percent of its North America outlets - and forecast another quarter of sales decline as it loses customers to mass market chains and e-retailers.

Shares of the largest U.S. office supplies retailer fell as much as 17 percent after the company also reported weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter results and forecast a profit for the current quarter that fell far below analysts' estimates.

Staples has 1,846 stores in the United States and Canada.

"Our customers are using less office supplies, they're shopping less often in our stores and more online, and their focus on value has made the marketplace even more competitive," Chief Executive Ronald Sargent said on a post-earnings call.

Staples said it had initiated a multi-year cost reduction plan that was expected to generate annualized pretax cost savings of about $500 million by 2015.

Analysts said the store closures, which would take place by 2015, were unlikely to boost the company's results in the near term.

"The company had years to close and shrink the store base and stuck to its guns, and that decision is likely to impact them for the foreseeable future. This is too little, too late," Janney Capital Markets analysts wrote in a note to clients.

The brokerage cut its rating on Staples' stock to "neutral" from "buy."

Staples and rival Office Depot Inc have been struggling to keep shoppers from turning to mass market merchants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and online retailers like Inc.

Office Depot, which reported a surprise quarterly loss last week, said it expected sales to continue to fall in 2014.

"Staples' disappointing fourth-quarter performance further highlights the ongoing secular and cyclical challenges facing the office supply retailing industry," BB&T Capital Markets analyst Anthony Chukumba wrote in a note to clients.


Staples has been shifting its focus to new categories such as business technologies, breakroom supplies, and copy and print services from traditional office supplies like paper and toner.

The company said on Thursday that it would refresh about 20 percent of the products in its stores, adding new items in categories beyond office supplies.

In North America, the company will add eight new categories including maintenance repair and operations items, storage solutions and retail supplies for small businesses.

Staples said it would add about 1,600 items in categories beyond office supplies and remove about 1,000, beginning mid-March.

The company had earlier increased and diversified the items it sold on its website.

Sargent was upbeat about Staples' online sales, which rose 10 percent in the fourth quarter due to higher traffic and strong technology product sales in the holiday shopping season.

Staples forecast earnings of 17-22 cents per share for the first quarter. Analysts on average were expecting 27 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.


Staples' sales dropped 10.6 percent to $5.87 billion in the quarter ended Feb. 1, marking the fourth straight quarter of decline. Analysts on average had expected $5.97 billion.

Excluding the impact of an extra week in the year-earlier quarter, total sales declined 4 percent.

Same-store sales in North America, excluding sales through, fell 7 percent as Staples sold fewer business machines, technology accessories, office supplies and computers.

Staples gets 27.5 percent of its revenue from core office supplies and 20.2 percent from ink and toners.

Sales at the company's international division fell 13 percent, hurt by weakness in Europe and Australia.

Net income from continuing operations rose to $212 million, or 33 cents per share, from $90 million, or 14 cents per share, a year earlier.

The company earned 33 cents per share from continuing operations, excluding items. Analysts on average had expected 39 cents per share.

Staples' shares were down 15.2 percent at $11.37 on the Nasdaq in late morning trading, while Office Depot's stock was down 3.7 percent at $4.73 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Staples' stock was trading at 10.41 times forward earnings as of Wednesday's close, while Office Depot was trading at 32.64 times.

This just in from Plink....

Be sure to get your Staples shopping done before Tuesday, March 11th! Staples is expiring from Plink on 3/11/14. All qualifying purchases at Staples prior to March 11th will be awarded Plink points within 7 business days.

Not to worry, Office Depot will be joining Plink on March 12th for all your office and school supply needs! Look for this great new offer next week.

I'm looking to purchase a new Galaxy S4 for Verizon, and I'd prefer not to buy it on ebay (for Amex extended warranty coverage purposes). Can anyone recommend any websites/stores that would have better pricing on this phone without any contract? Unfortunately my plan is not eligible yet for an upgrade from verizon.

thank you

I've been trying to make some SPG reservations, and I noticed that there no longer is any cash and points availability showing up in searches on the website. When I call SPG, they keep telling me that nothing has changed, just that c&p isn't available for the hotels/dates that I'm searching for.

But when you do a search on the website it longer even shows the option of c&p and whether it is or isn't available - And in the same place on the website where it used to show c&p availability, it now shows an option for "SPG Member-Only Hot Escapes" instead.

Has anyone else noticed this, and does anyone know what's going on with cash & points?

In addition to the c&p disappearance, I was now just informed by a representative the phone that according to an memo that was circulated internallly, SPG cannot process Nights & Flights requests/transfers until further notice. They don't know why, or until when....
Now, I just finished talking to "Corporate" who advised me that Nights and Flights are officially not available now, and "they are allowed to do that because it is not included in the no blackout policy". Hmmmm.....

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