Are you thinking about having your own Cuba adventure? Well, you’re probably looking for Cuba travel tips and I’ve got you covered!
Cuba is one of those places that everyone seems to want to visit. It holds a certain Romance which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s because Cuba has stood practically frozen in time for the last 50 or so years. Maybe it’s because its super kind people and warm climate or maybe it’s because for many countries, Cuba is a sort of forbidden fruit. No matter the reason, it seems visiting Cuba is on just about everyone’s bucket list.
Let’s be honest, Cuba isn’t the easiest country to visit. You can fly there from a handful of countries on a handful of airlines and once you arrive, life in Cuba is no walk in the park. But it’s definitely worth it. A Cuba adventure is like no other and you’ll fall in love with the country. So if you’re considering a Cuba adventure of your own, don’t let all the rules, regulations, and conflicting information throw you off your game. I’ve put together some Cuba travel tips that I hope will help you in your planning!
All the Cuba travel tips I’ve shared here are accurate as of the date of publishing.
Cuba Travel Tips: I’m American. Can I visit Cuba?
The short answer is, yaaas!
I’m American too and I visited Cuba. While regulations around visiting Cuba for Americans are fairly tight, it’s not impossible to visit Cuba for US citizens. In fact, in my experience, it was really simple. I bought my flight to Havana, made sure I had a visa, and ended up in Cuba.
That being said, your visit must qualify for one of the 12 authorized categories for travel set out by the US government. Be warned…these categories are allegedly difficult to qualify for but I had no problem whatsoever. They include family visits, journalism, public performances, support for the Cuban people, and humanitarian projects among others. The big one to remember here is Support for the Cuban People. That’s the most common reason for everyday independent travelers to use in order to visit Cuba. Basically, it means you are going to Cuba and plan to have a full-time schedule shopping local and interacting with Cuban people. Technically, you should try to save all receipts from your trip and store them for 5 years in case the US government has questions as well.
Activities that count towards Support for the Cuban People:
- Stay in an Airbnb or Casa Particular.
- Book tours with local guides…you can do this through Airbnb before you arrive. (See Below)
- Eat at local restaurants.
- Hire taxi collectivos.
- Visit local churches
Most importantly, you should avoid all transactions with a GAESA-owned (military owned) business.
So there you have it, yes, you can travel to Cuba if you’re American. Who knows how long this category will last so you better do it while you still can!
Cuba Adventure: Before You Arrive
Cuba Travel Tips: Documentation
Visa: Most countries require a tourist visa when visiting Cuba called a “Cuba Tourist Card.” There are only ten that do not require a visa so chances are you’re country does. You can check the list here to make sure for yourself. The visa allows you to stay in Cuba for up to 30 days and is valid for a single entry. That means if you leave and want to come back, you’ll have to purchase another tourist visa. In order to obtain the visa, you must present proof of a confirmed return flight and insurance. Sometimes you might need to present proof of booked accommodations but I didn’t have to do this so I don’t think it’s always required.
Buying Your Tourist Visa: You can buy Cuba Tourist Card through a Cuban Embassy, a third party operator, or at the airline counter. Before boarding my flight from Atlanta to Havana, I went to the airline counter at my gate, presented my documentation, and purchased my visa. It costs $50 US. You’ll be given a small slip of paper which you need to keep with you for the duration of your Cuba adventure. Sometimes airlines include this in the cost of your flight. But you’ll need to make sure of that before you go.
Other Stuff: Aside from your passport, you also need travel insurance. Cuba requires all visitors to have a travel insurance policy to cover any healthcare issue that might arise. It’s important to have a policy before you go because the Cuban government randomly checks for it and if you can’t provide proof then you might be forces to buy insurance there. I bought my ticket through Delta Airlines which includes travel insurance in the price of the flight. Therefore, my proof was my flight ticket from Atlanta to Havana.
Make sure you print out all your documentation before you leave! It’ll just make life so much easier.
Cuba Travel Tips: Money
Take Cash: If you’re American, you need to take all the money you think you might need with you. Once you are in Cuba, you will not be able to use your credit or bank cards. No American cards are accepted in Cuba so don’t even try it. Even if your card does work, most places just won’t accept cards. I visited Cuba for a week with a budget of $900 US. Cuba isn’t very expensive so you should have no problem if you think ahead.
Get Euros: Before you leave the US or whatever country you hail from, go to your bank and exchange your country’s currency for Euros or British Pounds. When you arrive in Cuba, you’ll get a better exchange rate with these currencies. Unfortunately, Australian dollars are useless in Cuba. Don’t take them because you’ll be out of luck since they won’t be accepted for exchange.
Buying Cuban Currency: As soon as you arrive to the airport in Havana, buy currency. It’ll be the easiest and quickest way. If you use a card, you can pull money out of Buy currency when you arrive. If you can use a card, use the ATM on level 1 of the airport. If not then you’ll have to use the money exchange office outside the airport. Their rates aren’t always consistent and sometimes they don’t give back correct change so be weary. You can also try to exchange money at a hotel’s currency exchange office or Cuba’s national bank, Banco de Cuba. The best way is to use the ATM but if you’re American, that isn’t an option.
Budget: Aside from the cost of your flight and the tourist visa, you’ll want to take into account the costs you’ll incur while in Cuba. Take into consideration lodging, meals, drinks, tours, and transportation. Personally, I paid for my tours before leaving the US through Airbnb. Therefore, for my trip, I budgeted approximately $35 US per night for lodging and approximately $75 per day for all my other expenses. This was definitely being more than generous for other expenses. My housing in Trinidad was well below the $35 budget. In the end, I only took approximately $800 with me and had no issues. Of course, I was not drinking and partying every night so if that’s your goal, plan accordingly. Below you can see my total budget which shows I only went over my planned budget by $31.91, including flights, excursions, and my visa.
Cuba Travel Tips: Flights to Cuba
Flights from the US aren’t that expensive. In fact, as you can see in the chart above, I spent $285.91 US to get from Raleigh, NC to Havana, Cuba. Of course, the cost of flights will vary but you can play around with your dates to get a better deal. Use Skyscanner App to find the best deal …that’s what I used.
Cuba Travel Tips: Technology
Most cell phone companies don’t have service in Cuba. My wireless provider said it would but it did not. So be prepared to basically disconnect. If you need navigation, download Maps.me and then download the map for Cuba before you leave home. This app allows you to have access to the map offline using your GPS. It’s free and fairly simple to use. There are plenty of other options but this is the one I recommend.
Cuba Travel Tips: Lodging:
Book Ahead: It’s good to book your first night’s stay before you head to Cuba, at the very least. Though I would just go ahead and make sure you have lodging booked in the first city you plan to visit to avoid any trouble. Remember, in order to get a tourist visa, you may be required to prove you have lodging booked. So avoid trouble should you randomly be questioned and book ahead of time.
Costs: Lodging is fairly inexpensive in Cuba. You have three options that include Airbnb, Casa Particulares, and Hotels. The cost of hotels is fairly on par with the cost of hotels anywhere else. The only difference, I’ve heard, is quality. As for Airbnb’s, the costs are what you’d expect…though sometimes they can be fairly inexpensive. Casa Particulares can range between about $15 per night on the lower end to about $35-40 per night on the higher end.
Hotels: Hotels are often run by the government and if you are American, technically you should not stay in a government run Cuban hotel. Also, 4 stars does not mean the same in Cuba as it does in just about any other part of the world.
Airbnbs: These are obviously run by locals. If you decide to stay in an Airbnb, you have the comfort of a private space and it will help you meet your requirements for Support of the Cuban People. A major perk of booking an Airbnb in Cuba is that you can pay for it using your credit or debit card before you leave home.
Casa Particular: Many Cuban people have their homes set up so they can rent a room or two out to travelers. These rooms in Casa Particulares tend to have a very at home feeling and provide ample opportunity for travelers to get to know some local people. There are tons of options available all across the country. Here is the Casa Particular I stayed in while I visited Cuba. If you visit Trinidad, you can find an suitable house by walking around or someone at the bus stop will offer you a good deal on lodging.
Casa Particular Isel e Ileana: Isel offers very comfortable accommodations in the heart of Havana Vieja (Old Town) complete with Air Conditioning. Even better is this Casa Particular is LGBT-friendly, the owners are super kind, and you’ll definitely feel at home.
Address: Compostela #153 1er. Piso. Apto. 2, e/ Empedrado y San Juan de Dios, Havana, Cuba
To book: email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cuba Travel Tips: Tours and Activities
I personally suggest using Airbnb to book your tours, excursions, and experiences. You’ll get an excellent price and ensure you’re buying from local people. On top of that you can book Airbnb Experiences ahead of time while you’re still in the states with your credit or debit card. As for other options, I didn’t even bother with them. I’m sure there are some companies you can use but I can’t recommend them as I did not use them.
Cuba Travel Tips: Learn Spanish
I think it’s important to know some basic Spanish phrases before you visit Cuba. Learning Spanish may be one of the most important Cuba travel tips you will see. It’ll help you better communicate while you are bouncing around on your Cuba adventure and it’s just respectful. Even learning simple words and phrases will make life a lot easier and make it more enjoyable as people are very friendly in Cuba and will want to chat with you.
Cuba Adventure: What To Know Once You Are There
There are two types of currency in Cuba, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso. The distinction between the two is very important. Basically, the Cuban Peso (CUP) is the national currency of Cuba and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the currency for tourists. The CUC is 1:1 with the US Dollar but the CUP is 25:1 with the US Dollar. That means the CUP is practically worthless. Most transactions you will carry out will require CUC. Just be careful and make sure any change you receive is in CUC and not CUP. Sometimes, vendors may try to rob you by quietly giving you CUP as change for CUC.
Tip: CUC has images of landmarks on it while CUP has images of people on it. This will help you easily differentiate the two.
Food is generally bland in Cuba due to a lack of spices and other things we take for granted in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, there are certainly some tasty treasures to be found. One of the best things I ate while in Cuba was Rope Vieja, as cliche as that might sound. It was absolutely delicious! Other than that, I really enjoyed eating lechon, suckling pig, in the middle of the Valle del los Ingenios. Both of these meals were home cooked-style which made the experience all the more special.
As for drinks, Rum is the name of the game in Cuba. you’ll definitely want to try a Daiquiri, Mojito, Canchanchara, and Guarapo. These drinks are awesome and refreshing in the Cuban heat!
Wifi does not permeate Cuba as it does in the US and many other Western Countries. What little Wifi that exists, isn’t always the best quality either. You’ll need to keep in mind you are visiting a Communist country so access to Wifi is restricted and monitored by the Cuban government.
Buying WiFi: If you want to use Wifi, you’ll need to buy a Wifi card which can be bought at ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications service provider. There is no such thing as free Wifi in Cuba. It’ll cost you $5 US for 5 hour card. You can get a 1 hour card too but the line at the telecommunications office is usually pretty long so you’re better off getting the 5 hour card. You can also purchase WiFi cards at hotels. Another way is to buy a WiFi card from someone selling them on the street. The price in this situation will be inflated
but it might beat standing in a line for an hour or longer.
WiFi Access: After you buy a WiFi card, you’ll want to connect. Each city has a few places where you can get WiFi access. Havana has many locations across the city including parks and hotels. In some cities, the only place to get access is near the telecommunications building. Once you leave the area, you’ll lose your Wifi signal. Also remember to disconnect your card from WiFi before leaving a WiFi zone because your card will continue to run down your time otherwise.
Cuba’s water sanitation system is not up to the same standards as that of the US or most Western nations. Therefore, drinking water from a faucet is not advisable. If I were you, I’d stick to bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth. Also avoid beverages with ice in them…though I didn’t pay much attention to this and experienced no issues. Bottles of water are fairly cheap in Cuba and you avoid those pesky gastrointestinal problems. In fact, most Cubans don’t drink the water from their faucets relying on bottled water instead. One of my tour guides told me even Cubans experience problems from drinking the water and prefer to use filters.
Taxis: Getting around isn’t too complicated in Cuba. If you are exploring a city, just walk. Nothing is ever too far away. If you need a ride though, you can hire a taxi collectivo for a very low cost. Typically taxis collectivos are the classic American cars Cuba is so famous for. Often, these taxis fill up with riders, so you may share one with multiple people you do not know.
Buses: To get from one city to another in Cuba, you will need to either take a taxi or a bus. Buses are air conditioned and a great way to travel around the country. The cost varies depending on your destination and distance but usually isn’t too high.
LGBT people in Cuba may still face unique legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents but a lot has changed. In the 1960s, many LGBT people were imprisoned or forced into re-education camps in Cuba. Homosexuality was viewed as going against the ideals of true revolutionaries. Then in the 1980s HIV+ homosexuals were quarantined in sanitariums. However, attitudes have changed quite drastically since Cuba has slowly opened itself up to the rest of the world.
While it is not the ideal place for LGBT people, you will still find gay bars and such in Havana. The Cuban Constitution actually bans any form of discrimination harmful to human dignity which has helped transform the landscape for LGBT people. Gay people feel much more able to be themselves in Cuba today even though some stigma still exists. I even saw advertisements for HIV testing and prevention and there is a gay beach near Havana. In other words, as a visitor, I didn’t feel at all unsafe.
Now, does that mean it is totally accepted? No. So, just as in many destinations, exercise caution. Additionally, it’s important to realize prostitution is pretty rampant in Cuba…especially in the capital city of Havana. That nice, hot man talking to you in the park or at the beach just might quote you a price at some point. It’s up to you how you react.
What’s Absolutely Necessary for a Great Cuba Adventure?
When it comes down to it, a lot of this stuff you’ll learn on the fly. It’s great to be prepared with a bit of knowledge of what to expect and what is expected of you but most of us are just winging it anyway. It’s important to remember there is A LOT said about Cuba by people who have never visited Cuba. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you how the country is a very dangerous, Communist place.
But here is the truth:
Cuba is no more dangerous than any other place you might visit. There’s a bit of bureaucratic red tape to hop through if you want to have your own Cuba adventure but it isn’t too terribly difficult to deal with. If you’re American, you’ll quickly learn just about everything you thought you knew about this “forbidden” country is mostly utter nonsense. Yes, it’s still a Communist country but the people there are just like us in that they want to live a peaceful, productive life. You might even find the majority of people you encounter agrees that a change needs to occur within their government.
But the most important factor to a good Cuba adventure is to have fun! All fun requires is a laid back attitude and behaving with respect to local customs and norms. Make sure you do this and you’ll have the time of your life in Cuba.
Discover Trinidad, Cuba with my complete guide to this incredible colonial city!
Are you headed to Cuba? Tell me about your trip in the comments below!
Have you experienced a Cuba Adventure? What are some tips you think people should know?
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