Cuba’s growing popularity as a new travel destination for Americans has left people with many questions about planning for this trip. I recently spent two weeks in Cuba, traveling through Varadero, Trinidad, Havana, and Vinales. In preparation for this adventure, I found it difficult to obtain clear information for putting together the itinerary. I figured I would share my experiences to help out others planning to visit this beautiful country in the future. Here are answers to many common questions and tips on how to make the most of your trip to Cuba.
Are Americans Allowed to Travel to Cuba?
YES, but there are still some restrictions…
Technically, American tourism in Cuba is still a no no but you can travel there under one of the 12 categories of authorized trips.
You’ll need to plan a “people-to-people” trip (reason #8: aka “In Support of the Cuban People”). This means you are meeting Cuban citizens in their normal daily life settings like schools and community centers, but no one will ask to see your itinerary or for proof of these activities. You may be asked, however, at the U.S. airport for your travel reason so have your answer prepared.
Do I Need a Visa?
You can now purchase flights from the USA directly to Cuba, but a Visa is required. Check with your airline first as many of them will sell you a visa at-cost (~$50) and mail it out to you. Not all airlines offer this, for example, American Airlines outsources their Visa process, raising the customer costs to $85. Many airlines will also have the option to purchase Visas at the airport the day of your flight for ~$100 (cash only).
Another option for obtaining a Visa to Cuba is through a travel agency. They can mail one out to you within a few days for around $80.
The visa process, in general, is simple but pricey.
How Much Cash Should I Bring and Will My Credit Card Work in Cuba?
Bring enough cash to cover all of your expenses, including food, transportation, and accommodations. American credit cards and debit cards will not work in Cuba at this time. If you run out of cash during this trip, you are SOL.
What’s the Cuban Exchange Rate?
Cubans use cuban pesos (CUP), while tourists use the cuban convertible peso (CUC). You’ll need your currency in CUC, which has a 1:1 exchange rate to USD.
My advice is to exchange USD for Euros or Canadian dollars (CAD) before your trip. Once in Cuba you can convert Euros (or CAD) to CUC. This will help you avoid the 13% tax, imposed by Cuba, for converting USD to CUC.
You’ll find the fairest exchange rates at local Cuban banks or cajas de cambio (exchange windows).
Beware of locals “accidentally” giving you change back in CUP instead of CUC. It happened to a few of my travel companions. Many local spots will have pricing in CUP, but will accept your CUC currency. Just be sure to know that 24 CUP = 1 CUC and that your change is given in CUC.
Can I Bring back Cigars and Rum from Cuba?
In the past, restrictions limited travelers to a combined total of $100 in rum and cigars. Obama recently lifted this restriction, allowing Cuban rum and cigars to fall under the same limits as alcohol and tobacco from other countries.
Accommodations: Hotels vs Casa Particulares
Hotels in Cuba are pretty much government-owned, resulting in lower quality service and accommodations. Expect to shell out $100+ a night for your room. Food is usually buffet style, although many hotels have restaurants inside. Usually the hotels are further away from city centers and major sites, requiring cab rides or buses to get around.
If you really want to experience the Cuban culture and support the people, casa particulares are my recommendation.
I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and comfortable the casas were. The hosts were also so friendly and helpful, giving us recommendations on restaurants, things to do, and even organizing transportation for excursions.
Many provided beer and water in the rooms for $2CUC and amazing homemade breakfasts for just $5 CUC. Breakfasts always included coffee, toast, freshly made fruit juice, a bowl of fresh fruits, and some variety of egg dish.
AirBnB’s are also an option in Cuba and will offer similar accommodations as a casa particular, but at a higher price point since AirBnB will charge you a fee aside from the host’s asking price.
Is There Internet Access in Cuba?
Wifi is hard to come by in Cuba…and slow. You need to purchase an internet card from someone on the street, certain hotels or the internet company ETECSA. The card is about $2-$3CUC for 60minutes. You have 30 days to use the 60 minutes.
These internet cards can only be used in a wifi hot spot. Most hotels and certain areas in the city are hot spots. You’ll know if a place is a hot spot because locals will be gathered around using their phones and computers nearby.
Here’s what it looks like..
Taxis, Travel Options, and Getting Around
We probably spent the most money in Cuba on transportation. The good news is that there are a few options to choose from. Car rentals are available but can be expensive. Book in advance.
There are plenty of taxis all over, but once they spot a tourist they hike up prices. This is where good bargaining skills come in handy. Yellow taxi cabs are government-owned, meaning drivers pay a government tax daily no matter how much business they had that day. These drivers tend to have higher prices because, naturally, they are trying to make a profit. Private drivers have more negotiable prices. You can usually ask your casa host or hotel front desk to coordinate transportation for you. There are also bus services which can be the most affordable option for solo travelers or couples, however they take much longer than traveling by car would. Get your ticket at least one day in advance and confirm departure times.
Avoid getting completely lost by downloading a map of the country in advance. Use the app called ‘maps.me’ for access to off-line searches and GPS navigation.
A Few Tips:
Cuba is very safe but you should still be on guard for scams.
- Don’t listen to anyone on the streets offering to walk you to a great restaurant/ paladar. They are usually getting a kickback and often the restaurant is no good.
- Don’t be surprised if some restaurants are out of common things like bread or chicken. This happens often.
- Many government owned restaurants are low quality, while paladares (privately owned restaurants) tend to be better. Finding good food at a fair price can be unpredictable. I recommend having a few restaurants picked out in advance or asking your casa host/ hotel for recommendations.
- You’ll find many people selling “authentic” Cuban cigars in the streets for very low prices. Most of the time, if not all of the time, these are cheap knock-off cigars. The only way to guarantee good quality tobacco is to by from a government tobacco store.
In this next post I’ve shared my itinerary, as well as recommendations for restaurants, things to do, night life and accommodations in each of the 4 areas I visited in Cuba. Read more HERE.