Everything You Need to Know About Planning a Trip to Cuba
With regulations governing U.S. citizens visiting Cuba slowly being relaxed in 2016 and several U.S. carriers now offering commercial flights to Cuban cities, interest in Cuba as a travel destination has soared in recent months and for good reason. Cuba is an incredible country. Yes, run down and desperate in many ways as a result of its rigid communist regime, but at the same time colorful, full of life and energy and so very authentic, genuine and friendly. I just returned from a very recent trip and found I had fallen in love with Cuba.
Preparing for my travels, I quickly realized that there was a lot of information to process that seemed to change all the time and was often conflicting. Experiences from past travels might not be helpful for travel to Cuba because there are many things specific to this destination one should know.
And because Cuba is also a new destination not just for travelers, but also for many travel agents, airline employees and financial institutions in the U.S., these traditional sources of information often had no answers to my (many) questions. But it all worked out in the end and hopefully my recent experience can be helpful if you consider planning a trip to Cuba. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
Should You Travel to Cuba Via an Agency or On Your Own?
There are many companies which offer “people-to-people” packages to Cuba, which means that you will travel as a part of a group for a specific purpose such as a humanitarian, cultural or research visit. These tours usually include airfare, hotel, excursions or entry fees to certain attractions and often also several meals. The advantage of booking your trip through one of these agencies is that most of the details, including obtaining a visa, are pre-arranged. Also, most of your expenses will be pre-paid, an important consideration because U.S.-issued credit cards currently don’t work in Cuba. The downside is that these tours are often very costly, can be quite programmed (especially given the current regime which is both restrictive and prescriptive with all tour operators) and as a result leave little room for customization and an authentic experience.
If this approach is not for you, you can travel to Cuba on your own (as I did), but you will need to take care of your own visa requirements, transportation, lodging and everything else you would like to do during your visit. I can assure you, though, having just been through this myself, that it is not that hard and the experience will be absolutely worth it.
Read more >> Sightseeing…Tour Company, Private Guide or Go Solo?
Requirements for Entry to Cuba
To enter Cuba, all U.S. citizens need a passport (valid for at least 6 months past the date of entry), a visa and proof of health insurance.
Despite the regulations on travel to Cuba being less strict than in the past, tourism is currently still not a valid reason to obtain a visa. In order to travel legally, you will have to satisfy one of the 12 categories for authorized travel set by Department of Treasury. (You can find the categories in this document and for more details, visit the DoT website.)
You can obtain your visa by applying to Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. or going through several companies that specialize in travel to Cuba, such as Cuba Travel Services. I chose the latter after months of contacting the Cuban Embassy with no results. The visa costs a bit more this way, but it was well worth it. Their service was very helpful and efficient. They promptly answered all my questions and were great with follow-ups.
Travel insurance is a mandatory requirement by the Cuban government for all U.S. travelers. I was told that it is likely you will be asked about it upon arrival at Immigration when presenting your American passport. I wasn’t, but I would not risk it. I suggest you ask your airline about this or the travel agent assisting you. My travel insurance was included in the price of the airline ticket and cost $25. You can also buy it at the airport when you land in Cuba; in fact, you might be forced to do this if they ask you about it and you do not have proof of it.
Flights from the U.S.
While in the past U.S. travelers were limited to charters or they had to reach Cuba by going through a third country such as Canada or Mexico, several U.S. airlines including American Airlines, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue now offer regular commercial flight service to several Cuban cities, which started earlier in the year. As of December 2016, this also includes the Cuban capital of Havana.
This is great news! My American Airlines flight from Chicago to Varadero was much more economical than booking a charter, and there were also fewer regulations and restrictions such as those related to baggage or check-in time. In addition, there are currently many fare specials due to the promotion of these newly established routes. Another benefit was that the airline facilitated my visa process by putting me in touch with Cuba Travel Services and my ticket also included the obligatory travel insurance (see above). I was told that my boarding pass served as proof of insurance should I be unlucky enough to need it during my visit. Note: for this reason do not throw your boarding pass away after you land, but keep with you for the duration of the trip.
There are three key things you need to know as it relates to money matters in Cuba:
- Cuba operates with two currencies, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC). CUPs are used mostly by Cubans and CUC mostly by the tourists and are obtained when exchanging your home currency after you enter the country. The ratio of CUCs to CUPs is about 1:24. It is a bit confusing at first, but you will quickly get the hang of it.
- As mentioned above, U.S. credit and debit cards are currently not accepted in Cuba, and you won’t be able to access funds at ATMs either. Therefore you need to bring enough cash to cover your entire trip.
- Cash can be exchanged for CUCs at the airports, hotels or exchange houses. The rate is set by the government so it is the same everywhere. You should know there is a 10% fee for conversation of U.S. dollars to CUCs. You can avoid this by bringing another currency, which is not subject to this fee. I chose Euros, and you should be able to purchase currencies from other countries at your local bank in the U.S.
Yes, it’s true…internet access in Cuba is still very limited, so you should plan on being disconnected for a good portion of your trip. Do not panic! (Unless you have a teenager addicted to Snapchat traveling with you, in which case I will let you assess your own risk.) You won’t be totally cut off from the world and your loved ones. There are two ways to get internet access while on the island:
- Large hotels usually offer Wi-Fi for their guests in their lobbies. From my experience they didn’t mind visitors who came onto their premises and pretended to be a guest in order to answer a few quick emails or post a Facebook status.
- There is usually a hotspot somewhere in town (or a few in the case of Havana), which is relatively easy to find by simply asking around. It’s often easy to spot due to the usually large crowd of people sitting around in a park or in a square, glued to their smart phones. I found the internet to be much slower through this access, I’m guessing due to large crowds, unless I was there early in the morning.
In either case, you will need an internet card, which you can purchase at one of the local telecommunication company offices (be prepared for long lines and make sure to bring your passport) or some of the aforementioned hotels (the fee they will charge you might be a bit higher here, but the lines are shorter). At the time this article was published, the cost of a 60-minute internet card was approximately $2 and a 5-hour card was $10.
Travel Within Cuba
If you are a part of a group, you won’t have to worry about this as all your transportation will be prearranged. If you are traveling on your own, your options are the Cuban bus system or hiring a car and a driver. The railway system in Cuba is not well developed and not recommended for travel. For many reasons, mostly related to government regulations, renting a car can be a headache and something you should probably avoid.
Taking a bus from one Cuban city to another can be a memorable experience and very economical, but you need to purchase your ticket ahead of time as the buses sell out, especially Viazul, the company chosen by most tourists. Get to the station early or you can buy tickets a few days in advance at certain places. The service can be a bit unreliable so make sure you are not in a hurry or tied to a schedule. Also, it is not unusual for the old Cuban buses to break down or run out of fuel. For more information and time tables, consult the Viazul website.
We opted for a car service for our longer day trips and had a great experience. It was more than the cost of the bus, but we were not tied to a schedule, had door-to-door service, were able to make as many impromptu stops we wanted and most importantly, we had a wonderful time chatting with our drivers and learning about their lives and Cuba. On one occasion, we were even invited to our driver’s home to meet his newborn son and family, an experience I will never forget.
Things to Bring with You
- Medication: Make sure you bring any medication you need with you because it might be difficult and expensive to find in Cuba. This includes basics like aspirin, ibuprofen, hydrocortisone or even bandages.
- Sunscreen and bug repellent: No matter what time of the year you are visiting, don’t forget you are in the Caribbean and the sun on the island is strong. Sunscreen might be hard to find and is expensive, so bring some with you. A bug repellent is also a good idea, particularly if you plan on visiting certain destinations such as Viñales, the tobacco country on the west side of the island.
- Good walking shoes: You will likely be walking a lot when touring Cuba and flip flops, tempting as they might be, won’t do. Know that the streets of Havana are often run down, full of pot holes and in a general state of disrepair, so good footwear is essential.
- Personal care items: This might be the weirdest piece of advice I have ever offered as a travel blogger, but it is a good idea to have some toilet paper or at least tissues with you at all times. While many bathrooms, especially in Havana, did have toilet paper, many others, especially outside of the capital, did not. Often the bathrooms are “guarded” by an attendant who will hand you one or two (no, not a typo!) sheets of toilet paper after you pay some (usually unspecified) small amount of change. Even if you do find toilet paper, there is often no soap, so make sure to bring hand sanitizer or hand wipes. Also, have some coins on hand for the aforementioned bathroom attendants.
- Small gifts to give away: A friend who was in Cuba shortly before I left suggested I bring some candy to give to kids I might encounter. I cannot tell you how appreciated this was and how much the smiles I received filled my heart throughout my trip. We also tried to leave a small token of our appreciation with our taxi drivers, waiters, places where we stayed, etc., particularly for good service. Things we take completely for granted at home can be invaluable in Cuba. Some items that are coveted by locals include pens and pencils, small size toiletries, aspirin or ibuprofen, razors, deodorant, any kind of clothing or sports items, particularly baseball or soccer, and any small toys for kids. Also, keep in mind that any items you brought for your personal use but feel you don’t need any more might be appreciated. (We left some of our half-used toiletries with our hosts.) As a bonus, this makes room in your luggage for your souvenirs.
Safety in Cuba
I found Cuba to be incredibly safe, one of the few benefits of socialist system. While I would not consider walking downtown alone at night in my home town of Chicago, I never felt unsafe in Havana, even late at night and on darker streets.
That said, tourists can be victims of petty crime, often related to money. Some popular scams include:
- Individuals (such as taxi drivers) suggesting they have no change to give you back. Simply and politely insist and they will usually find it quickly!
- Getting CUPs (much less valuable Cuban pesos) as change when you paid with CUCs (convertible pesos). This apparently happens often as tourist can be easily confused by the unfamiliar currency bills. It happened to me, not on the street, but in a state museum. Instead of 5 CUCs, the cashier gave me 5 CUPs as change and when I confronted her, she completely denied it and claimed it was my mistake. Make sure to pay attention and keep in mind that the CUCs state “Cuban Convertible Pesos” on the bills to help distinguish them.
- Individuals trying to convince you that you gave them the wrong bill. When I gave our Havana taxi driver a 10 CUC bill for our 4 CUC fare, he insisted that I only have him 1 CUC. (It was dark and he tried to convince me that I did not see right.) When I suggested that my eye sight was fine and that I would be happy to call the police to help with our little dispute (a tip I learned in my research before my trip), he promptly returned the 6 CUCs he owed me and drove away. I heard about similar stories for money exchanges, so be careful and know what bills you are handing over (stating that out loud clearly might be helpful) and make sure to carefully inspect your change on the spot.
A Few Other Helpful Tips for Planning a Trip to Cuba
- Cuba is on Eastern Standard Time, like Miami, so no major jetlag to fight even if you are coming from the west coast, which is especially a bonus when traveling with kids.
- For the best weather, travel to Cuba between November and March, just know that this also is the busiest time to visit. (December through March is considered peak season.) Also keep in mind that Cuba is definitely in a hurricane zone.
- I found the use and knowledge of English to be very inconsistent, so brush up on your basic Spanish or bring a dictionary or translation app that works offline.
- No need to worry about converters for electrical voltage. Cuba uses 110V power supplies with American plugs.
- Restaurant tips are usually included in your bill (10% service charge) and additional tips are not expected, though very much appreciated. (We often left one or two additional CUCs, particularly for good service.) Taxi drivers did not expect a tip as is customary at home, especially for short rides in Havana. We did tip our drivers who took us on longer day trips.
- While you might be used to bargaining for your souvenirs, many more things are negotiable in Cuba. The prices offered to tourists often start high, and you need to expertly and most of all, confidently, work your way down to a more reasonable amount. For perspective, we were initially quoted a price of $180 for a car ride from Varadero, a popular beach resort, to Havana, only to end up with a $90 fare for three people.
- Similarly, in Havana, don’t take the first price a taxi driver offers you. (There are no standard fares or price lists per kilometer.) It is fairly typical that you can settle on a price as low as 50% of the initially offered fare. Most importantly, make sure you negotiate your fare (be it with a taxi car, a bike taxi or a horse drawn carriage) ahead of the time.
Different Culture, Different World, Different System
You are traveling abroad, so you are likely expecting and preparing to deal with a different culture and customs. In Cuba, you should also be prepared to deal with the symptoms of the communist regime. Among other things this means that things that might have seemed exotic or exciting while prepping for your trip, can quickly become frustrating when you are there, living the reality.
Be ready for “Cuba time,” inefficiencies, insanely long lines and non-existent customer service. Also, shortages, food or others, are an everyday reality in Cuba. On more than one occasion we came to a restaurant and were told that several items, sometimes more than half of their menu, was not available. Try not to get too frustrated when things don’t go exactly as planned, this is part of experiencing Cuba. It helps to be prepared for it and when it happens, try to take a deep breath and roll with things as much as possible, focusing on the many beautiful things Cuba has to offer and remembering all the things we take for granted at home.
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