Traveling to Cuba can be a confusing process especially as an American so as soon as I landed back in the US from my 11 nigh trip to Cuba I knew I had to write all my Cuba travel tips down ASAP. There was so much I wish I would have known before I went that I decided to compile all the information I wish I would have found in one place into one place!
My friend and I had been talking about going to Cuba for a few years but never got around to making solid plans. So right before Christmas she called me up with a plan to go in January due to the cheap prices and uncertainty of how long this new easy to visit time for us American’s will last. I am always up for an adventure and my schedule allowed so we made it happen and I was not disappointed. As we are both visual artists, my friend a graphic designer and I being a photographer, Cuba was a wonderland. From the colors, textures, and signage everything was alive with a fervent energy, in the first days it was almost overwhelming, a photographer’s paradise. We met many Cubans along our trip and everyone was so lovely and gracious which added an extra level of grandness to our travels.
I will be sharing what my friend and I learned on our travels from a variety of sources including new Cuban Friends, travel guides, websites, and word of mouth starting first with these basic Cuba travel tips. The guides will be by no means be exhaustive but hopefully be useful, especially to the design and photography minded traveler. Just click below in the table of contents if you want to jump to a particular section or just read along!
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WHAT YOU WILL LEARN ABOUT TRAVELING TO AND IN CUBA
(click below to jump to a section!)
This is a general overview of all the Cuba travel tips and information I wish was clearly and easily laid out somewhere before I went on my trip. While it might be out there I never found a complete and concise list of the basic information I ended up finding important during my trip so I wrote it myself :).
*Please note a lot of these Cuba travel tips are tailored to United States Nationals traveling to Cuba as I am American and this is my experience. Also please note this information is based on my experience as of Jan/Feb 2017 and is not to be taken as legal guidance and is subject to change at no notice due to changes in international laws etc. I am not liable for any misinformation in regards to flights; visa, customs, etc. please double check the most current information available before departing.
Update July 2017: Rules have changed again for US Citizens making some of the below information irrelevant for Americans as you are currently not allowed to travel with out being a part of a tour group under the “person to person” or “education” designation as we traveled. Though if you qualify under one of the designations you still can travel freely. That being said there are many great personalized tour groups out there such as El Camino Travel, Fish Eye Journeys, etc. I have not personally used either group but have heard good things about them both!
Currently there are a variety of flight options to get to Cuba. There are slight differences in the process based on if you are coming from Europe or America. As an American I will outline the things you need to know if flying from the US as a US National. If you are flying from elsewhere or have other citizenship, please refer to the appropriate embassy and flight carrier for the correct information.
Purpose of Visit
For American’s we need to select our purpose of visit when flying directly from the US to Cuba. I flew JetBlue and on their site there was a drop down of the approved options that you could travel under when booking your ticket. For my friend and I’s purpose we choose Education/ Person to Person as we were traveling to learn more about Cuba and the art of the country. After selecting this option here we were never asked anything else about it through the entire trip and immigration process. The other Americans we ran into declared education as their purpose as well and seemed to have no problem.
If you can avoid checking luggage avoid it as baggage claim takes FOREVER! I don’t know what they do but it is a laboriously long process. I was warned of this but due to the photo gear I have I cannot bring another piece of hand luggage on the plane so I waited and waited and waited. It did come but it took a while.
VISA/ HEALTH INSURANCE
If you are flying from North America in most cases you can easily purchase your tourist visa for $50 at the airport you are flying to Cuba from but double check with your flight carrier in advance to ensure this is the case. If you are flying from Europe or somewhere else check with your airline in advance as you most likely need to obtain this document in advance of your flight. Your Flight Operator should have the most current information on this for you.
You need to purchase Cuban Health Insurance before arrival in Cuba, if flying JetBlue this is included in your ticket cost and your proof is your boarding pass to Cuba. Once again if flying other airlines check their website for specifics in regards to this.
Immigration/ Customs Forms
As when traveling to any country you are given the standard immigration and customs forms, as an American even though you selected a purpose of your visit when buying a flight (like education/ person to person etc.) on the customs form just put tourist. The specification when buying your flight is for the US government. Otherwise these forms are pretty standard. On your customs form you need to list out the estimated value of everything you have with you but they didn’t even collect our forms so… be honest and they don’t seem to care.
Cash & ATMs
If you are American you need to bring all your spending money with you, as you cannot use the ATMs with US bankcards., for now at least, for Europeans there shouldn’t be a problem but double check before traveling. At the time of our travel it made more sense to covert our USD into EURO for a better exchange rate though this is subject to change based on the current market so check in on the current exchange rates before you travel. For reference the rate was around .83 CUC to 1 USD and 1.3 CUC to 1 EURO during our travel.
Overall at banks, CADECA’s (exchange houses), and hotels the exchange rate is about the same as the government controls it. Unlike most other destinations it didn’t seem like exchanging at the airport, hotel, or bank made much of a difference in what you are getting.
Two Kinds of Currency
To complicate matters Cuba has 2 kinds of currency the CUC, the traded currency referred to as the ‘cook’, and the CUP, which is the local currency referred to as pesos. As a traveler you will usually end up with only CUC, if you need to buy anything that only has a CUP price the current rate is about 1 CUC to 24 CUP. Make sure you are clear on what price you are being quoted so you do not overpay by a lot! The only cases that you will really come across anything you would want to purchase at the CUP price would be street food or produce, everything else is quoted in either just CUC or both prices.
It is customary to tip 10-15% in most cases. If eating out some restaurants will add on a service charge of 10% to your check so look out for that. When it comes to taxis if quoted a price the price will include extra for tip so any additional money is unnecessary.
In Cuba the Internet is run by the government phone agency ETECSA and is only available in specific locations, usually parks but some hotels as well. Once you find a hotspot and buy an Internet card using the internet is easy enough, you log on with the code and password on your card and connect. The speed is relatively fast and works with out much of a problem if your device isn’t old and broken (like my phone it kept dropping the signal though my friend had no problem).
Buying an Internet Card
Out of everything this was the hardest process. Supposedly there are stands for ETECSA that sell cards (2 CUC for a 1hr card) but outside of Viñales we never came across one though they are supposedly in locations all around Havana. We instead went for option B, find a guy at the park that was selling cards for 3CUC for a 1hr card. If you ask your casa or someone else they will not explicitly tell you that you just have to find a dude selling cards as it is technically not a legal thing but they will hint at it. While not totally legal it seemed more like a if we don’t see you we don’t care kind of thing with the police. At the park we bought cards at the police knew what was going on but if they didn’t see the transaction they didn’t care, the guy just had us pop into the store to complete the transaction. Just make sure when buying a card the password has not been scratched to be revealed. You can also buy a card from hotels but they can range in price from 4 CUC to 12 CUC for the 1hr card.
As with everywhere else there are hotels you can stay at in Cuba. Many of these are government owned/ run and are your typical hotel affair. We did not stay in any hotels so I can’t speak to much else about them accept a friend who stayed in one for a few days a few years ago wished she just stayed in Casa’s the whole time
Casa Particulars or Casa’s for short are the main lodging choice of most travelers. Casa’s can be anything from a Bed and Breakfast type situation, to a room in someone’s house, to something in between. Private apartments are available as well if that is more your thing. In general for the most full experience and low cost experience staying in a Casa is the way to go. Not only does the money you spend go to the family running the Casa you get to interact with the locals and in many cases have your Casa cook you a dinner (for a fee of course) that is better than what you are going to get in most restaurants and they usually will make you breakfast as well (once again for a reasonable price).
Booking a Casa
There are a few ways to book a Casa for your stay Airbnb, your previous casa, and showing up in town. As we are Americans and could not use our cards while in Cuba (see “money” section above) we decided to book in advance on Airbnb so we could use a credit card. We had no problems with using Airbnb in Cuba and if you already know your schedule we would highly recommend it. Do note though that due to the limited internet (see “internet” section above) the host will usually only check the app once a day, so don’t freak out if you do not receive an immediate response. We’ve heard booking once in Cuba is more complicated but I cannot speak to that as we booked in advanced of arriving. Another option is once you find your first Casa to ask them if they have contacts in your next destination and they can help set up a Casa for you to stay at similar in price and style to the one you are currently in. The final option is just showing up in town and seeing where it gets you. In most towns there are plenty of vacancies and in places like Viñales the second you get out of the shared taxi or bus you have a crowd of people offering you places to stay.
In Advance of your Trip
As Internet is not plentiful make sure to download the maps for where you will be traveling on Google maps or the like before your trip. We were also told the app Maps.me is good for use offline. Having a paper map with your lodging and other important info marked is good to have as well. Having a guidebook is not a bad idea either for quick reference about a region or city when you can’t find or use internet.‘
“Taxi Colectivo” (Havana)
If you need to get somewhere on the main taxi route this by far is the cheapest and most local way to go. Old, usually junky, American cars run a route around Havana that gets you to a lot of places you need to go for the cheap. For a nice map with the route and more detailed information Cuba Junky has a great article (scroll to the bottom for the map). As an overview though anywhere along the route you wave down one of these taxis and yell your street intersection to the driver (make sure it is on the route, or pick something on the route close to your final destination) if he tells you its okay hop in and enjoy the wild ride and super local experience. Sometimes the driver will stop where you asked them too other times you need to watch out and yell at them ¡Aqui Por Favor! Near where you need to get out so pay attention to the street markers on the ground. When you get out just pay the driver .50CUC a person (or 1CUC a person like we often did as a polite tourist rate but totally not needed) just don’t ask a price as they will tell you something higher but if you pay the normal rate they wont say anything about it.
There are a variety of private taxis in Havana from the pristinely kept Old American cars that are basically for tourists and charge a high price, to new taxis like you would see anywhere to, all types of cars in between. Most cars don’t have meters and the ones that do don’t seem to run them so ask in advance. The price to get around Havana the price should never be more than 10CUC but more often should be around 5CUC, negotiate if needed. There are also bike taxis and tuk tuk like things that you should always ask for the price in advance.
Collective Taxis (Intercity Travel)
While there are buses to get around the country it seems like in most cases that the easiest way is taking a collective (ie shared) taxi and the price is not much more and it is less packed than the buses (from Havana to Trinidad the bus is 25CUC/person and packed, and a collective taxi is 35CUC/ person). Your casa will help arrange a car for you and off you will go. If you are going longer distances it is likely that you will be dropped off somewhere to another drive who will then complete the journey or drop you off to another person depending on the distance. If this is the case you pay your first driver and he will pay the subsequent one. You have no need to worry about being charged extra as your 2nd driver will just drop you off in the final location and will not ask for any additional money. The service though might not exactly be door to door so expect a short walk depending on the driver and town.
RUM, CIGARS, AND SOUVENIRS
As an American it over all seemed a bit unclear what you could or could not bring back into the country. In the end it seemed like as long as you brought a reasonable amount of Rum and Cigars no one cared so buy some stuff especially Rum, it was so cheap and I’m sad I missed out!!
Do note though if you are connecting through the US to your final destination (ie. Havana to Florida, Florida to California) that you will have to go through immigration and customs at your point of entry to the US (Florida in this example) pick up your bag and drop it back off at the connecting luggage counter. If you bought duty free Rum or the like make sure to deposit it into your bag before rechecking it back in, as you are not allowed to take your full size liquor bottles through security when you reenter the terminal for your connecting flight.
OTHER CUBA TRAVEL TIPS
Due to the internet situation having a guide book can be a handing thing when you need to figure something out and do not have access to internet. Also great for learning this guy José Martí was that we kept seeing thing named after! 😉
If you need to call anyone (like your casa) there are working pay phones all around the cities. It is also possible to rent a phone in advance of your trip for a decent sum (my friend decided to do this through Bridges Cuba as she felt more comfortable having it but is not necessary)
Cubans have a varied array of English abilities, in general though most people speak very little English so knowing some Spanish and having the Google Translate Spanish downloaded, if you are not fluent, is a must. Also having notes on how to pronounce letters in Spanish would be handy when trying to take a taxi around. If you have a problem you can’t figure out how to ask or say the country has about a 99% literacy rate so if you can get a translation for someone to read they can help you out that way.
The tap water is not okay to drink so make sure to buy bottled water for consumption. Most casa’s will provide you bottles for a cost or you can by them from the many windows and vendors selling them around the country. If you want to be more environmentally friendly check out the Useful Things to Pack section of my Travel Tip Post for some ideas of other bottles and filtered water bottles you could bring to help reduce plastic waste!
In most cases the food that your Casa makes is going to be better than what you can find at a restaurant. Some Casa’s will ask you and you can ask them if you want them to cook you breakfast and or dinner. Our best meals were home cooked meals at our Casa’s. The only exception to this is Havana as the Casa’s offered breakfast but typically didn’t offer dinner, there are a lot of great restaurants in Havana so don’t fret and see more about Havana below.
Do note if you are a vegan or vegetarian you are going to have an interesting time. Almost everything is based around Pork and Chicken, and it is possible the beans are cooked with animal fat. So be prepared and do extra research into your food!
Try your best to bring everything you need with you, buying anything you forgot could be quite the wild goose chase/ fruitless endeavor. We met some French traveler’s whose bags didn’t make it with them initially and they had to find basics in Havana, which for some items like socks was basically impossible. There are stores that sell things but from what I gathered you might have to try a lot of stalls and shop fronts/ windows of peoples homes to find what you need.
Scams and Such
In general Cuba is a pretty tourist friendly country. There is little if any crime against tourists and all in all is a safe place to visit. That being said there are as always going to be some people that try to take you for a ride if you can. A good rule is to check your bill before paying that everything you ordered is on the bill and the right price, also double check you are paying in the correct currency so you are not over charged. Ask cab drivers in advance for the price, if they tell you in advance they always seem to keep to it.
The only other thing to watch out for is when walking around Havana some friendly locals will come talk to you and then often tell you about some kind of festival or show or thing that if you go by tickets or whatever now you get a better price. If you just say okay and disinterest they end it on that. I don’t know what their aim is but they are not pushy about it so just be polite but don’t go wherever to buy something and you will be fine!