With the new chapter between Cuba and the US, the ability to travel to Cuba has never been easier for US travelers. I’ll start by saying that this post is not intended to go into the politics of our past or ignore that the reality of traveling is there is much different then living in Cuba.
Traveling to Cuba presented a challenge that I hadn’t faced before on any trip. With little-to-no WiFi on ground, it meant a lot of research had to be done ahead of time, being sure that there was not a detail overlooked. Also not having a credit or debit card that works in Cuba (goes for US visitors), the challenge of budgeting out the exact amount for the trip added another factor to the planning legwork.
After returning from a “smooth” trip, I can say what a breeze it was to travel into and through Cuba! Despite my unfounded anxieties of not being able to pre-book transportation prior to arriving (it was easy to find transportation once we were there) and traveling on a set budget (enough to have some freedom), the time in Cuba was nothing but “tranquilo.”
Here’s what you need to know before traveling to Cuba:
Getting to Cuba:
This is the first and most misinterpreted part of traveling to Cuba. No you no longer need to enter via another country, there are now direct flights from cities like Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, and New York on airlines like JetBlue (who I flew with). Yes you need to enter with the appropriate visa (12 different classifications), which the airlines will ask for when reserving.
This is the biggest part of the equation for Cuba, the process of entering. Here’s what you’ll need:
+ Travel visa valid for 30 days ($50 normally) purchased prior to landing. Note: you need this same visa when you exit the country, and will be asked for it everywhere you check into, so be sure to keep it handy. American citizens have to fall under one of the twelve official reasons for entry, but with Obama’s passing of no longer requiring group travel under the “people-to-people”,” travelers do not need to get special permission ahead of time. I entered under “journalism” as I was headed there to write about Cuba. Your airline that you fly with from the US will offer the visa as part of your ticket or for purchase at the departure gate. On my stop in Ft. Lauderdale, I purchased my visa 30 minutes before my flight to Havana.
*Always check treasury.gov for the most up to date information as there can be new changes.
+ Travel insurance is required to enter per Cuba’s laws (print 2x copies to have on hand). Here’s the insurance I used.
+ Printed copies of full air reservation to show return ticket.
+ Valid passport.
+ All cash for the trip.
Money in Cuba:
This part of the trip was the most challenging, due to the fact that no US bank cards work in Cuba. After hearing horror stories of fellow travelers running out of money, I was determined to be sure that I calculated to the day with an extra cushion how much I would need on ground.
There are two currencies in Cuba, the local Cuban pesos and the Convertible Cuban pesos CUC for tourists. Always exchange for CUC (the only currency you can use as a tourist), and you can do so when you arrive at the airport (prepare for a wait outside of the arrivals terminal.) There’s a standard 3% fee for any exchange, and for USD an additional 10% fee. Often it makes more sense to bring Euros instead of USD — doing the math, what my bank was going to charge me to get Euros, it made more sense and was only a $15 different to exchange USD (all of this information is based on current exchange rates during time of travel). You can exchange at other banks throughout Cuba, though the most convenient is at the airport. It’s always better to exchange more as you can exchange back with no additional fee at Havana airport when you depart.
Budgeting is completely up to how much you choose to plan to spend on transportation (whether it’s private, shared, or public), whether you prepaid for accommodations, how much you think you will spend on food/drink, and how many activities you plan on doing.
Here’s what I budgeted and ended up having enough to spend $80-100 on cigars:
1. Accommodations: I prepaid for all accommodations on Airbnb. (Get $20 on your first Airbnb by using this link to sign up).
2. Food: Daily breakfast ($5 CUC standard), lunch ($10-15 CUC), and dinner ($15-25 CUC).
3. Transportation: $250 CUC on private transfers that are split. What we paid for private taxi for 2 people:
Airport to Havana $25 CUC (this is standard)
Havana to Vinales: $120 CUC
Vinales to Trinidad: $140 CUC
Trinidad to Cienfuegos: $40 CUC
Cienfuegos to Havana Airport: $80 CUC
4. Experiences: $150 (i.e: horseback riding, museums, snorkeling)
5. Spending Money: $100 CUC
The total budget came out to around $100 CUC per day of travel, so 10 days x 100= $1000. I brought in $1300 USD, exchanging only $1000 as my budget for the trip with a $300 cushion. I received around $880 CUC for my $1000 and it was a comfortable amount to dine in a wide range of restaurants and do experiences.
Internet in Cuba:
There’s never been a better opportunity to disconnect than in Cuba. With little to no connection, there’s only WiFi in park squares and sometimes in hotels. The typical rate is $1.50 and up to $2.50 CUC for a 1 hr card, which if it connects (it often didn’t) will give you decent access. ETECSA is the official provider, just ask for a WiFi seller, or pay a bit more from someone selling it on the street (just be sure the code isn’t scratched off yet). Many times it would not connect, so I suggest only trying to when you can and stick to being offline.
Before your trip, pre-download all information you may need to exist offline. Here are your best tools for the trip:
+ The Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba — this was everything in Cuba, and seriously hats off to the folks at Lonely Planet.
+ Download the Maps.me app and download all of Cuba for very accurate maps that have almost everything for directions and works offline. This app was a lifesaver.
+ Spanishdict app for translating with no internet connection.
Language in Cuba:
Spanish is the local language, and to be transparent, English was definitely not spoken often. An app like Spanishdict is helpful in aiding for anything outside of the basic conversation. Many of the casa owners we met spoke enough English for basic conversation. Be prepared for a bit of difficulty speaking, everyone is friendly and be open to that. Eventually you’ll figure it out.
Transportation in Cuba:
With many ways to get across Cuba, time on the road is part of the journey when exploring. My friend and I stuck to private taxis to save on time (see budget above), as it was cost effective when sharing costs. Options include buses which fill up fast so be sure to reserve, “collectivos” that are shared transfers with often many travelers and lower costs, and private-hired taxis. One of my fears before the trip was that transportation would be hard to arrange, but once upon arrival there was no trouble getting a taxi. Your casa or hotel can assist with this, and it’s okay to negotiate down a bit.
Safety and Health in Cuba:
Never have I ever felt so safe in a country, as I did in Cuba. We left our valuables at the Airbnb (with doors locked of course) and had no issues. With that said, common sense should always be practiced no matter how safe you feel. For women, it is to be noted that cat calling it part of the culture but is incredibly harmless. You’ll learn to brush it off fast.
For health, contaminated water is an issue and it is recommended to only drink bottled water. I went the extra step to brush my teeth with bottled water as well. This goes for food as well, be careful where you eat, choosing places that food looks well cooked or comes recommended.
What to pack for Cuba:
Besides the basics like clothing, a few essentials to not leave the US without include:
+ A medical kit. Though there is phenomenal healthcare, the nearest doctor can be far away.
+ Tampons. These have yet to arrive in Cuba, so a box of compact travels were perfect for a short trip.
+ Snacks. There are hardly any convenience stores, so if needing something to hold you over, be sure to bring a few bars for the trip.
+ Wipes and/or toilet paper. I brought both, and was quite thankful I did.
The Immersive Guide to Havana, Cuba
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