the politics of travel

Cuba Crackdown?

Travel companies outside the United States have been marketing trips to Cuba, saying they've found a legal loophole in the U.S. law that curtails travel to Cuba by making it illegal to spend money there.

But those companies are committing "a horrendous disservice to the American people," says Rob Nichols of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. (OFAC is responsible for tracking the assets of terrorists and international narcotics traffickers, for investi- gating miscreants who market weapons of mass destruction, and for pursuing Americans who vacation in Cuba.)

OFAC says it's simply not true that your trip to Cuba is legal if you pre-pay expenses to a third country. In fact, since President George W. Bush took office, the agency has been cracking down on those who travel to Cuba without special permission. During the Clinton administration, OFAC took steps to levy fines on 46 to 188 Americans a year. That figure jumped to 700 in 2001. Figures have not been compiled for 2002, but Nichols says OFAC is committed to "full enforcement." The odds of escaping detection are still decent, given that an estimated 40,000 Americans travel to Cuba illegally each year. Then again, vacationing illegally in Cuba carries civil penalties of up to $55,000. The average fine is $5,500.

The Justice Department can bring criminal charges for traveling to Cuba illegally, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines of $250,000. However, Justice apparently is busy with real threats and has no record of recent prosecutions.

OFAC does issue permits to groups and individuals for study purposes and such; an estimated 160,000 Americans traveled to Cuba with permission last year. Application info:202-622-2480, www.treas.gov\ofac. Marazul Charters (201-319-9670, www.marazulcharters.com) arranges trips for those with OFAC permission slips.

UpRIGHT AND LOCKED

Food Fight

CoGo has been waiting to see what would eventually replace those free, foil-covered plates of stuff that airlines used to pass around during meal times. Three approaches are evolving:

* Catering firms produce meals for airlines to sell. LSG Sky Chefs, one of two companies that produced most old- style airline food, has created a "higher- end, gourmet product," says spokes- man Larry Meltzer. The $7 breakfast consists of cinnamon streusel twists; walnut, cheese and fruit salad; and berry smoothie. The $10 lunch: turkey, bacon, tomato and lettuce on a roll; artichoke, tomato and mozzarella salad; fresh pear; cookie; and water. Northwest is testing the entrees on certain flights.

* Airlines sell well-known brands. Delta is selling Entenmann's cinnamon rolls, Mrs. Field's cookies and Pizzeria Uno sandwiches on certain flights, as a test. Prices range from $2 for snacks to $7 for salads and sandwiches.

* Passengers order meals online for pickup at airport restaurants. Within several weeks, says Earl M. Furfine of Carry-On Cuisine, you should be able to visit www.carryoncuisine.com and order food before a flight, then pick up the meal in the terminal. You'll pay regular menu prices, plus a $1.50 fee.

TRAVEL TICKER

United Airlines posted the best on-time arrival record of 10 major airlines in 2002, with 84 percent of flights on time. American and Continental nearly equaled the performance. Complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation about airline service dropped 43 percent compared with 2001 . . . The U.S. State Department says it has received information that a terrorist group may be planning an attack on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Bahamas for Less

AirTran's systemwide sale includes a $252 round-trip fare from BWI to Freeport, Bahamas. The sale is good for travel through June 7. Sale fares are restricted to certain travel days, and blackout dates apply. A seven-day advance purchase is required. Purchase no later than Tuesday.

Reporting: Cindy Loose, Carol Sottili.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to: cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.