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 short 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 which you can find out more about here.
It seems like most people, including myself, select “support for the Cuban people” as their reason for travel.
Not all of the airlines ask for this information upon booking, Delta did not.
I have read that you can be contacted and questioned about your travel up to 3 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 apparently 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 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.
If I am not mistaken, 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 exit. Do NOT lose it.
This should go without saying but I will say it anyway, you still need your passport.
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. Right now it is almost 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.
There is a 10% penalty to exchange USD in Cuba in addition to the 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. EUR to CUC is about 1:1
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.
How much 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 much 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. Another tip is to set aside some cash you know you will have to spend (ex: taxi to airport to leave) and some ‘just in case’ money. If you aren’t carrying it, you can’t spend it.
If you can avoid it, don’t check any luggage. 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.
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
To keep it simple, just plan to be disconnected. Yes there are wifi cards available for purchase at certain places (ex: hotels) and wifi 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 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.
Just go into it embracing being unplugged, in many aspects it is very freeing.
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.
Mosquito Repellent – 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.
Walking Shoes – One way or the other you will be doing a lot of walking, plan accordingly with comfortable shoes.
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.