Miami Airport’s Hilton Blue Lagoon Hotel
Miami Airport’s Hilton Blue Lagoon Hotel
Miami Airport’s Hilton Blue Lagoon Hotel. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


“Well, I guess we’re going to all make it to Cuba after all,” I said to Matt. 

“Don’t bet on it yet,” he replied.


If I had gone to Havana with a few American colleagues recently, just getting there would have been something like the account I am about to give: a drama-filled day.

Never mind getting through immigration and customs into Communist Cuba. Just getting this group of four men out of Miami and onto the non-stop flight was a challenge. If you saw the Academy Award-winning movie Argo in which Ben Affleck’s character tries to shepherd a group of American diplomats out of Tehran via air, you’ll get a sense of the tension, pitfalls and hurdles I faced. Boarding a short but expensive $1,000 scheduled American Airlines flight from Miami Airport was not as easy as you might think. None of us were from Florida, but our gathering and rally point was Miami, from which we could fly to Cuba. We each got to Miami individually and teamed up from there.


The Cuban government, for entry, required a negative PCR virus test within 72 hours of boarding. The simplest place I found to facilitate one without an appointment was at the 24-hour testing center on ground level under the parking garage sky bridge across from baggage claim at Miami International Airport. Tests elsewhere were hard to schedule but the airport testing center convenience wasn’t cheap: the test came at a cost of $175…but a printout and email of the results are handed over after about 35 minutes.

One of our traveling members, Matt, decided instead to arrange for his own PCR test through a doctor friend back in Michigan. He said there it would only cost him $25. 


Miami Airport’s on-site, 24-hour testing center
Miami Airport’s on-site, 24-hour testing center. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


The day before the flight, in order to avoid an airport parking fee to access the testing center, I took the shuttle from the resort-like, super convenient Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon Hotel just across the freeway from the airport. The hotel’s shuttle, for guests and those who use their very inexpensive airport parking, was complimentary.  

After testing, we waited outside in the fresh air and sunshine for the results. Tim, who’d flown in to connect onto the Havana flight, sensed something was wrong when the nurse motioned him with a curled finger to come behind a partition to get his results. 

“I tested positive,” he told me when he emerged.

“Now what?” 

Their offer was to test him again at no charge, which they did. 

“What am I going to do? I paid $1,000 for that Havana flight. You guys are going to have to go on without me,” Tim fretted, from a bench outside six feet away. “I am going to be stuck down here in Miami on my own having to find a place to quarantine,” Tim fretted. 

After the second nervous 35-minute wait, his result came back “negative.”

“You want to go two-out-of-three?” I asked Tim. 

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he answered.


Tim, Matt and I spent the rest of the day about six miles from the hotel acclimating with Cigars live music, and Cuban food at the street-front bars and restaurants on Calle Ocho in Miami’s colorful “Little Havana” district. 

The other member of our group, Andrew, didn’t fly into Miami until midnight, at which time he immediately took his PCR test, hopped in an Uber, and checked-in to the Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon Hotel at 1:30 a.m. 

It was a short night for Andrew because in order to catch the 8 a.m. flight to Havana we had to board the first airport shuttle available – at 6 a.m. – from the Hilton. 

And almost all of us did.

A couple of minutes before 6 a.m., As Matt, Andrew and I were seated aboard the shuttle waiting to leave, Matt asked me, “Do you think we should call Tim? He’s not here yet.”

I looked around and said, “If he’s overslept this late, he’ll never make it anyway.” 

We then spotted Tim, who’d already endured the “false positive” test, wearing his brimmed Borsalino hat and tropical shirt pulling his rolling bag down through the lobby at nearly 6 a.m.! The shuttle was full, though, with no more room for him. He’d have to wait for the 6:30 shuttle and hope for the best. He tried to summon an Uber to no avail. 

The race, for Tim, and the rest of us, was on.


Little Havana
Tim and Matt in Miami’s Little Havana. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Airport Agony

The clock was ticking because once we got off the shuttle at Miami International Airport, we went on a wild goose chase. There had been no indication or signage that American Airlines had a completely separate desk for flights to Cuba in a different part of the departures area. We’d waited in line at American Airlines only to be redirected, toting our bags, to another desk. 

Tick tock. 

We eventually reached the American Airlines Cuba desk where we found that before we could check-in, check out bags and get our boarding passes we first needed to go through yet another line and kiosk to present our proof of a negative virus test. Andrew and I, having unfolded and presented our PCR test results, began to proceed to the check-in desk when we noticed Matt wasn’t with us.

“This is not the proper test, sir,” we heard the woman reviewing Matt’s results tell him.

Matt was wide-eyed and started to turn red. He insisted his $25 version was a PCR test. The woman looked the paper again, then looked Matt right in the eye, and slowly shook her head “No.” 

“My doctor gave me this test,” he insisted before the woman went to get her manager. 

With Tim having not even arrived at the bustling airport yet, I was facing the prospect of losing two of my three traveling comrades.

Tick tock…  

The manager eventually emerged from a door at the end of the hall, and, with the test-check woman, we watched them make the long, slow walk toward Matt. When they arrived, the manager looked at Matt…and looked at his test result for what seemed like an eternity. Then, with a shrug and a subtle, resigned flip of the paper, signaled for Matt to be allowed to pass through even though clearly, she should not have.  

While Matt breathed a sigh of relief, I used what breath I still had to berate him.

“’I got mine for only 25-dollars,’” you bragged. See why we paid $175 for an actual PCR test?”


American Airlines PCR test
AA’s initial stop to submit PCR test results. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Tim’s a Tiny Bit Late

After that stressful exchange I looked up to notice that Tim had, in fact, finally arrived in the terminal. He’d somehow managed to find the special Cuba check-in counter and had advanced through the line and was nearly to the counter. So, I left Matt and Andrew at the back of that same line and went up to the front of the line to greet Tim.

“Glad you made it,” I said. “How’d we not see you at the line to present the test results?”

Tim had a blank look on his face. It was a look that told me he’d inadvertently skipped the test result checkpoint – which meant he’d waited in line for nothing and now had to go back to the start, present his test results, and start all over. Once I pointed him in that direction, I looked at my watch. 

Tick tock…

With Tim now trailing behind, I saw that Matt had made it through the American Airlines Cuba check-in line and had moved over toward the wall for the next small line: the Cuba visa counter. The fee to purchase a Cuba tourist visa, which is needed to board the flight and to enter Cuba, was $85. The valid reason we were told to give for traveling to Cuba was to check the category: “In support of the Cuban people.”

Matt and I paid $85 each and filled out the paperwork. As soon as I spotted that Tim had checked his luggage and was making his way over to the visa counter, I knew we’d soon be able to go through the TSA security and on to the boarding gate. 

“Well, I guess we’re going to all make it to Cuba after all,” I said to Matt. 

“Don’t bet on it yet,” he replied.

“Why do you say that?”

“Do you see Andrew anywhere around here?” 


Purchasing Cuba tourist visa
Purchasing Cuba tourist visa. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Passports and Puppies

Before I could start a Miami Airport manhunt for Andrew, I saw his name and number ring onto the screen of my vibrating mobile phone. 

“Hey they’re not going to let me go,” he told me when I answered. 

I struggled to hear Andrew’s call over all the growing noise in the airport but I heard enough to know he sounded serious. I asked him what happened?

“My new dog chewed the edge of my passport so they won’t let me travel. They can’t slide it though and scan it in,” he explained. 

I thought Andrew, knowing the stresses we’d already been through, was pulling my leg, so I called him out on it. But he was serious.

“I asked if they could just punch the numbers in manually but they said they cannot do that,” Andrew told me. He said something about trying to check with the local immigration office but that it was fruitless given the time constraint.  

“Where are you now?” I asked.  

“I’m booking the next flight back to Lansing.”

“You just landed from frigid Lansing a few hours ago. You don’t want to at least stay and enjoy the weather a bit?” 

“I would but tomorrow is the Michigan vs. Michigan State basketball game,” he explained. 

Andrew had already mentally accepted his fate, re-tooled and was off to his next adventure.

And so were the rest of us remaining…or so we thought.


Miami International Airport immigration
Andrew’s last ditch effort at US immigration. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


And Then There Were Three

We’d lost a spirited comrade, but there was no time to dwell on it because it was less than an hour until liftoff and we still had to get through security screening and to the departure gate. We walked briskly toward the TSA checkpoint and while on our way there we passed a huge number of people with carry-on bags standing still and crowding the terminal. After we’d walked past about 40 yards of people, I noticed another 40 yards of people ahead at a standstill. 

“You don’t think those people are doing what I think they’re doing, do you?” I asked Matt and Tim. 

My fears proved true when it turned out they were all, every one of more than a hundred people, standing in line for the TSA screening. The line stretched as far as they could see before it even reached the “back-and-forth” rope line section. We had no choice but to backtrack 40 yards just to get in the back of the growing line. 

Tick tock…After all we’d been through now there was no way we’d make the flight. 

But within moments, airport personnel arrived. They’d decided to open another security screening area at the opposite end of the terminal. The only realistic way they had to get it moving was to lead everyone at the end of the massive line in a reverse parade of sorts in the opposite direction through the terminal…which meant Matt, Tim and I were suddenly first in line. 

Airport personnel were so desperate to get travelers though they didn’t even check boarding passes while herding us into the metal detector stalls.


TSA line Miami
Lengthy TSA line. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Boarding Gate  

Once through security we double-timed it across the seashell-decorated tile and terrazzo terminal floor and made it to the gates with no time to spare. We were the last three to board the flight to Havana.

Believe it or not, by comparison, the arrival, immigration, baggage claim and customs system was bright, pleasant, efficient and smooth. 

Getting out of the Havana Airport to return from Cuba was a much more complicated experience…and a story for another time.   

Tick tock…


TSA Miami Airport
Tick tock TSA ticket. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Read more on Michael Patrick Shiels’ travel blog, The Travel Tattler. Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]

Michael Patrick Shiels

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