Once people found out I was going to Cuba, I started receiving a lot of messages asking questions about how to get there. This response is totally understandable as tourism travel to Cuba for US citizens is still prohibited despite recent changes. Unlike many locations you may travel to, traveling to Cuba requires a lot of research on the front end which is best done through people who have already been. So I put together this list of things you need to know before you get to Cuba, I hope you find it helpful!
Category of Travel
It is important to remember that despite all of the recent changes and the relaxed tensions between Cuba and the United States, travel for tourism is still prohibited. With that being said, there are 12 categories of travel that can grant one access to Cuba.
It seems like most people, including myself, select one of the Education options or “support for the Cuban people” as their reason for travel. The education options are fairly easy to support with ‘educational’ activities throughout your visit if you get what I’m saying.
Not all of the airlines ask for this information upon booking, Delta does not.
I have read that you can be contacted and questioned about your travel up to 5 years after your trip, so select your reason with that in mind. You don’t need an itinerary as proof per say, but you’ll likely engage in activities throughout your trip that will support your reason for travel. Keep those receipts/tickets.
The best piece of advice I can give in regards to this is to stay current with rules and regulations as it relates to Cuba as they are changing quickly. With a new administration coming in the United States in T-6 days (and counting), you never know how this delicate relationship between USA and Cuba might change in the very near future.
Most visitors to Cuba must have a tourist card or visa. You can obtain your visa in a number of ways for anywhere from $20-85 dollars:
- Cuban Embassy (if you’re in a city with one)
- Through the airline you’re flying with
- Airports – Many airports have them available for sale. In Panama, they are $20 if you know someone traveling through Panama, ask them to grab one for you!
- Online – This can be confusing because there are supposedly different types of visas and the ones for the US are a specific color which can be hard to find. I looked into this briefly but quickly abandoned after all the confusion.
Purchasing the visa through the airline you are flying with is the easiest method in my opinion. I was able to purchase mine with Delta over the phone for $50 and it was available for pick up at the gate in Atlanta. I believe you can also have it mailed to you but I chose not to do this so I wouldn’t lose it.
The visas are good for 30 days, so if you are purchasing yours outside of the airline, don’t get them too early.
Take special care when filling out your visa once you receive it as customs is very particular about stray markings or crossings out. You may have to repurchase.
Your visa comes in two parts–one for entry and one for the exit. Do NOT lose it or you will have to repurchase.
This should go without saying but I will say it anyway, you still need your passport.
Related: NYE 2017 in Cuba
Understand that US credit and debit cards do NOT work in Cuba with very few exceptions. As a result, you will need to bring enough cash to last your entire trip. There are cadecas (currency exchange houses) at the airport but as with most places you can get better rates exchanging outside of the airport.
Cuba has two currencies, CUC and CUP. CUC stands for Cuban Convertible Currency and it is the stronger currency and more often used by tourists. It seems to remain close to 1:1 with the Euro. CUP is the national currency, the Cuban peso, and is used by Cubans locally. 1 CUC = about 25 CUP and they are used interchangeably in some places. It can be helpful to have some CUP handy but I wouldn’t recommend having a lot. I changed 20 Euros worth during my first trip and still brought home some.
There is a 10% penalty to exchange USD in Cuba in addition to the 3% currency exchange fee. You will see and read a lot about this on the interwebs if you do your research. Let me save you some time. Do NOT take USD to Cuba to exchange. Take Euros. The end. Another option is to exchange Canadian Dollars to Euros. I’m not as familiar with this exchange rate but it’ll still allow you to avoid that 10% penalty. If starting with American Dollars I would keep in mind that the Canadian Dollar is weaker than the US Dollar so be mindful of how much you exchange and have left over. Euros can be used in a lot more places than the Canadian Dollar.
In many cases, you can order Euros from your financial institution (often at no cost) and you just pay the exchange rate. Pay attention to the exchange rates, since Brexit the strength of the Euro has been in constant fluctuation.
Be mindful that you cannot get CUP at the airport.
Tip: Pay for as much as you can (lodging, excursions, etc) before you get to Cuba. I promise you won’t regret it. Why lose some of your spending money to things you could have taken care of before arriving if you don’t have to especially when you can’t get more?
How much money do you need?
You’re probably wondering how much money you should bring with you but all depends on how you travel. How much will you eat? Drink? Where will you go? How many souvenirs do you plan to buy? Liquor? Cigars? As a point of reference, I exchanged a total of 320 Euros which lasted my entire 4.5 days. I actually had about 90 CUC left the morning of my last day and had to make a conscious effort to spend it all.
I recommend bringing more cash than you need (I brought about 660 Euros) and also to not exchange it all at once. Don’t be afraid of having Euros left over. If you travel regularly there are tons of countries where Euros are used, keep the extra for another trip. Another tip is to set aside some cash you know you will have to spend (ex: taxi to the airport to leave) and some ‘just in case’ money. I strongly suggest this because as I’ve mentioned before, US debit/credit cards do not work in Cuba, so the cash you bring is all you have. Don’t get caught with empty pockets! If you aren’t carrying it, you can’t spend it.
If you can avoid it, don’t check any luggage #teamcarryon. As it stands Havana airport is not currently equipped to handle the volume of flights and luggage flowing in and out of it. As a result, a lot of people have been waiting 2-3 hours, yes hours, to receive their luggage.
Tip: Pack an empty bag in your carry on for items you may purchase while there. If anything you can check bags if needed on the way back and still avoid any issues. On both of my trips I checked my luggage on the way back to the States at no cost.
There aren’t a ton of hotels in Havana. I would recommend going the Airbnb route. Aside from it generally cheaper than hotels in most places, there are a number of benefits that come along with using Airbnb in Cuba.
- Hosts often can arrange taxis/travel arrangements at a better rate than you can
- For a place like Cuba where information is very limited online, having access to someone you can give you very specific advice and information from the ground is invaluable
- Meals – Many of them will cook for you for a small additional fee (usually around $5 CUC)
- I’ve heard it isn’t legal for Americans to stay at hotels because it’s considered tourism. I haven’t fact checked this but I will admit it does make sense. So consider staying at an Airbnb or “Casa Particular” as a part of your educational experience. You following?
To keep it simple, just plan to be disconnected. Yes, there are wi-fi cards available for purchase at certain places which can be anywhere from 1-3 CUC (ex: hotels) and wi-fi parks where you can go to use them. Think of them like the international phone cards you can buy: price, quality, and length of time varies.
I didn’t buy any wifi cards during my NYE trip, it almost seemed like something I would’ve had to go out of the way to do. I was too busy living and experiencing. After the first day, I wasn’t even reaching for my phone anymore. I did purchase wi-fi cards during my MDW trip, one on the street in Havana and the other at a hotel in Varadero. Most hotels seem to have wi-fi in the lobby and many parks have it as well. Sure fire way to tell is if you see a lot of people on their cell phones.
Just go into it embracing being unplugged, in many aspects, it is very freeing.
I’ve gotten so many questions generally about traveling to places where you don’t speak the language. Don’t let this stop you from seeing the world, please! For one, we are privileged that English is a global language. There is almost always someone who speaks English even if it’s just a little bit. Now I wouldn’t depend on this but it is just something to keep in mind. Secondly, you’d have to live under a rock to not know just a little bit of Spanish, even if it’s only a couple words or phrases. While I have quite a few years of Spanish language study under my belt, I’m not fluent. One thing I can say about my experiences in Cuba is people will try to meet you where you are. They will try to understand you and if nothing else point or gesture until you understand each other.
With all of that said, download Google Translate and download the offline Spanish. Thank me later. While I did download this, I never used it because I knew it’d be a crutch when I should take the opportunity to practice my Spanish.
I always tell people Cuba is not a place you really want to just show up to. For the most part you won’t have access to information so you want to know some places you see and things you want to do before you get there. For this I recommend the app Maps.me. With this app you can download maps of full cities and add points of interest to them–all of which you can access offline. You can use it to plan out your days or simply figure out how far you are from locations without internet or asking any questions.
What to Bring
Toilet Paper – Many public restrooms either do not have toilet paper or charge a small amount for it. I took 3 rolls down with me just in case and carried either a roll or a big wad wherever I went.
Hand Sanitizer – Similar to the toilet paper situation, some places don’t have soap. Bring some.
Bug Spray – Zika was there. Depending on what time of the year you are going this may or may not be an issue. I went in December without any repellent products and I was fine. On my trip over Memorial Day weekend, I did carry the mosquito repellent bracelets and the mosquitoes were definitely out in full force. Don’t leave home without some sort of protection, and you may want more than one method.
Sunscreen – The Cuban sun is real. If you care about your skin at all, make sure you bring some. You will ‘tan’ with or without it I promise.
Comfy Shoes – I was actually surprised by how much of a walking city Havana is. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, so plan accordingly with comfortable shoes. Ladies, ditch the heels, it ain’t even worth it.
Gifts – If you’re staying at an Airbnb, people often bring gifts for their hosts. It isn’t a must, but it’s certainly a nice gesture especially considering the embargo. I say this because there are a lot of things Cubans are unable to get that are readily available in the States. Some things I’ve heard Cubans love or would greatly appreciate are: chocolate (any American candies), Nutella, toothbrushes/paste, ibuprofen, Oreos, and seasonings.
Have you been to Cuba? Was there anything you wish you knew before you went? Know someone planning to go to Cuba? Please share this with them!
If you have any questions I didn’t answer in this post please drop them in the comments.