Cuba Travel Tips
For Americans, Cuba is the land of mystery but it might as well be the land of the forbidden as well because of the stringent travel regulations and requirements. Fortunately, following the loosening of travel restrictions in 2016, Cuba has become a lot more accessible from the United States.
There's a few things you have to plan out before your trip. I'll highlight the few that are especially for Americans.
You should just assume that your credit cards and debit cards don't work in Cuba.
American cards are guaranteed not to work. If you try putting it in one of the few ATM's in town or charging them at a hotel, you'll get a receipt print out that says "no aceptar".
Cards issued in other countries are a hit or miss and you definitely have to inform your bank that you're traveling to Cuba prior to your trip. The charges will be converted to USD with about a ~5% service fee.
I'd recommend you bring cash. Budget about $50 - $100 per day for activities, food, drinks, and transportation and make sure you have enough for your hotel or casa if that isn't already paid for.
There are two currencies in Cuba, the CUC and the CUP. Almost all touristy things are in CUC so you can safely assume the price they quote is in CUC unless otherwise specified.
The CUC, or Pesos Convertibles, is pronounced "cook" and is pegged to the USD at 1 CUC : 1 USD.
The CUP, or Pesos Nacionales, is just called "pesos" and is valued at 25 CUP : 1 CUC. When you change for CUP, it's exchanged at 15 CUP : 1 CUC.
In Cuba, the official money exchange is called CADECA. They change many different currencies including USD, MXN, EUR, GBP, JPY, and CAD. Note that there's an additional 10% surcharge for converting USD and MXN. Because of the surcharge, I'd recommend bringing other currencies if you have access to them.
The accepted currencies and their exchange rates are available online from the Central Bank of Cuba.
If you are stuck in Cuba without money for any reason, visit your embassy. The U.S. Embassy will accept in care Western Union wires from your friends or family members in case of emergencies.
Cuban flights are almost always delayed. With that in mind, you have two options: fly from your home country or fly through an intermediary country. It may cheaper and more convenient to purchase two tickets if you live near a smaller airport - one ticket to a larger hub airport and another from the hub to Cuba.
The cheapest routes are probably through the U.S. in Miami (MIA), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), or through Mexico in Cancun (CUN). I went through Cancun and had 2 vacation destinations in 1 trip.
If flying through Mexico, you will need to purchase a Cuba Tourist Card (Tarjeta de Tourista) before getting your boarding pass. Both Aeromexico and Interjet sell it at their ticketing office for $15 USD. They prefer dollars (USD) but will accept the equivalent in pesos (MXN) as well. Arrive an extra half hour early to the airport to get that sorted out.
Know that your return flight has a huge chance of being delayed multiple hours, especially when departing from José Martí International Airport in Havana (HAV). If you purchase separate tickets from two different airlines, say Havana (HAV) -> Cancun (CUN) on Aeroméxico and then Cancun (CUN) -> Austin (AUS) on Southwest like I did, leave at least 8-10 hours of transit time between the two flights. If you have a layover on the same ticket, the airline will usually rebook your connecting flight if your previous flight delayed.
I would avoid Air Cubana (Cubana de Aviación) at all costs unless flying domestic within Cuba. My Aeroméxico flight was delayed 5 hours to Cancun while my friend's same flight on Cubana was delayed 8 hours. His flight was scheduled to leave before mine and he arrived in Cancun an hour after my delayed flight.
Hotels are insanely expensive and subpar in Cuba. There are many international chains of hotels operating in Havana and Veradero now, including Iberostar and Marriott/SPG. They are about $250+ USD a night and get booked up months in advance during high season (November - January and late March).
Hostels, on the other hand, really only exist in Havana and are about $8-10 a night. They're really smelly and dirty compared to the average ones in Europe, but you do get to meet other travelers and mingle. Rolondo Backpacker's and Paradise Hostel Backpackers are the two most popular hostels bookable online. Both are owned by the same people and are right next door to each other. Even if you don't stay there, you can drop by at night and meet some people over drinks on the terrace.
My recommendation would be to book an Airbnb. You'll be saving quite some money with a room running about $50 a night for 2. If you're lucky, your host might show you around or cook you a phenomenal lunch or dinner for a small fee. Just to set expectations, most of the Airbnb's are quite subpar. While the bedding and furnitures may look nice in the pictures, you'll find that the mattress is worn or that the furnitures are falling apart. At least you won't be breaking the bank.
12 Categories for Americans
For Americans flying through the U.S. or Mexico, you'll be required to fill out a form declaring your trip purpose in 1 of 12 legal categories before getting your boarding pass. Practically, nobody seems to check the details or care to ask questions about it. Legally, your safest bet is probably "Educational Activities". If you're interacting with locals or learning things for at least 8 hours a day, you'll pass the cultural exchange and learning requirements.
Unfortunately, scams are almost unavoidable in Cuba. Due to the poor living situations, even a dollar or two is a lot of money to most people. The average monthly wage is the equivalent of about $20-40 CUC a month so everyone has clever ways to rip off tourists. As a rule of thumb, be careful if they speak English.
- Know what CUC and CUP look like. Sometimes vendors will give CUP back as change.
- Never exchange currencies with someone on the street. It's illegal and there's fake money out there.
- Always check to see if you've gotten the right change back. It's very common that street vendors or taxi drivers short change you by $1 or $2.
- Someone might walk you over to a restaurant they recommend and get a fee for the referral charged to your bill at the end of the meal.
- People will talk to you for a few minutes to befriend you and ask you for money at the end. Somehow it's always "money to buy milk for my baby please".
- When you negotiate an amount with the taxi driver, but when you get off, he demands more than the negotiated amount. Be firm and insist on the right amount.
- Sometimes, restaurants have cheaper menus in Spanish and more expensive menus in English. If you read Spanish, always ask for the Spanish menu if the prices seem suspicious.
- Do not order food without checking the prices on the menu, sometimes they charge you whatever they feel like.
- When buying things that are priced in CUP with CUC, sometimes the cashier will charge you at 1 CUC : 10 CUP and pocket the difference.
- If someone lets you take a photo of them, they will want money for it. Whatever change you have in your pocket or 1 CUC will suffice.
- Gorgeous women sitting by themselves in a public place are almost always hookers. Same with the ones that approach men at the bars or night clubs.
A lot of these seem like common sense but I've definitely experienced this 10x more in Cuba than any other developing country I've traveled to.
The food scene in Cuba is absolute garbage. If you're looking to experience Cuban cuisine, go to Miami instead. It seems like most restaurants lack the passion, knowledge, equipment, and ingredients to make amazing Cuban food.
If you're planning a trip, make some reservations well in advance for some of the more well known paladars, or private restaurants, in Havana. Outside of Havana, you really don't have much choice.
Cubans speak more like people from Spain and use some pretty funny words.
- "guagua" - bus, as opposed to "bus" or "autobus"
- "coche" - car, as opposed to "carro"
Most people here are, surprise!, sympathetic to Fidel and the current regime. Show respect when discussing politics. Know that people here are brainwashed and have Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to expressing their views of the world. They will blame their economic issues on America but love Nike and Levi's anyway.
Most tourist heavy areas are fairly safe, just use common sense. Don't have your DSLR camera and gold watch out when walking around late at night and you should be fine.
There's also an official requirement of having traveler's health insurance when passing through customs but it doesn't seem to be enforced.