Cuba has always been a bucket-list country for myself and many other travelers. Ever since living in Miami, I have been fascinated with getting to know the true Cuba, the true spirit of Cuba, not the Miami version. Most importantly, I had to get there especially before the embargo lifted.
We did not go with a tour or an educational group, nope, we went off the radar, completely “illegally” into the land of socialism and sensuality with our fingers crossed that we would make it back.
Recently, ever since the reestablishment of diplomatic conversations between the U.S. and Cuba, the country rose to the spotlight to become a prime destination for American travelers. In the last year alone, tourism in Cuba is booming. Not only more travelers from around the world are visiting it, but now Americans added themselves to the tourism mix, even when its not quite legal.
(this video is outside the Parque Central)
Traveling to Cuba is completely inconsistent similar to marijuana in the USA. Kinda wack if you ask me. Oh, you didn’t ask?
Let me tell ya then, its wack. Screw it, #PeopleOverPolitics My hubby and I opted out of tours, educational groups and just hit the road in search of all things Cubano.
My husband and I made this trip a priority for 2015. And, in November/December (2015) I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for the first time. Here I’ll share all the tips I believe you should know before heading there – especially if you’re American.
(and if you know someone considering Cuba as a destination, pass this on will ya!)
NOTE: These tips are current as of December 2015. Cuba is changing rapidly, so it is possible some things might be outdated soon.
1. Print out copies of your passport
This is always something smart to do whenever traveling internationally. I also send digital copies to my Mom as my backup plan’s backup plan.
2. It’s easier to fly through another country
If you are not from the US, you can fly directly into the country. Currently, there are 2 direct flights from the US – NYC and Miami. These are mostly Special Authority Charters. And, if you book through an educational tour and tour package (I did NOT do this), you might have other options available to you and they will get everything ready for you. Since tours are not my style and living in Dallas, I am a 2-hour direct flight from Cancun, it seemed easier to book one of the hundreds of flights there. Then in Cancun, I chose Cubana Airlines to take us into Havana. There are 3 flights per day from Cancun to Havana via AeroMexico, Interjet and Cubana. Flight prices range dramatically with different layovers (from $250 RT to $8500)
3. You need a tourist Visa
We had a 5 hour layover in Cancun. I purposefully made a long layover because I wanted to have a buffer for any weather delays etc that could come up, which made for a REALLY long lunch at TGI Fridays. It was the only restaurant outside of the food court in Terminal 3. Anyway, we purchased our Visa (aka Tourist Card) with Euros at the Cubana ticket counter on the right side of the terminal. It was a small office that opened up about 3 hours before our departure. Approx 25 Euros per person.
4. You can enter with a US passport
The American passport presents no issue when entering Cuba, even without one of the 12 licenses. With my research of Cuba, I knew I would have no trouble getting into Cuba; however, I knew if there would be any challenges it would be when I entered the US in Dallas. Especially since I requested for my passport to be stamped. Yup, I got stamped and my husband did not but I literally had to beg the Cuban Immigration officer to stamp my passport.
5. Most search engines don’t show flights to Cuba.
Expedia, Kayak, and other search engines don’t show flights to Cuba. At the time of writing, only skyscanner.com does show flights from the U.S. that can be purchased online. It even shows flights departing from the U.S., but only buy them if you have a visa – otherwise you will be denied boarding.
You can, though, buy you flights from Cancun to Havana (for example) and have no problem boarding it with just the Tourist Card or visa (which is what we did).
6. Best time to go there is during Snowbird season
Mid November to March is the coolest and driest season just like Miami which I know quite well. Its when every Canadian and New Yorker flocked to Miami and the only folks swimming in the ocean.
July to November is hurricane season, so there’s a chance to stormy weather between these months – especially more towards late August to early October when it’s the peak of the hurricane season. I would not go during these months especially if you have the flexibility to go during snowbird season.
7. Print out ALL of your documents and details before leaving
I remember, in 1985, having a pink address book for all of my friends phone numbers and addresses. So yeah, be prepared to tap in to your inner 80′s child like we did. We printed out all of our research beforehand, including addresses of Casa Particulares, maps, hop on/hop off routes, airline reservations, directions, tips . . .we probably had a stack of 35 papers + a small notebook for other tips we want to walk around with. Plan on not being able to hop on to a computer at all or your iPhone. However, I did have screenshots of important docs etc on my iPhone as a backup. When we were in Varadero and no longer needed most of the paperwork, we passed it on to some lovely Germans staying at the Casa Particular with us and were heading to Havana. Try to do the same or at least leave with your host so they can pass on to the next tourist – the residents do not have access to computers or printers either.
Check out the CARS of CUBA here
8. You need travel insurance
It is required to have travel insurance to enter Cuba. They may or may not ask for proof at the airport, and should you not have any, they could deny your entry or ask for you to buy it there. We did NOT buy any!! Yes, we were nervous the whole time! Our research stated that we would be able to buy it at the airport and it would cost about $3 US per day. We NEVER found the place to buy this, we were also anxious to get on our way, so we just kept moving. If something would have happened and we needed to go to the hospital we would have needed to cough up the cash at the hospital. This was a BIG HUGE GINORMOUS mistake we made but there was nothing we could do once there. We F’d up. We royally f’d it the F up. You would use that language too if you had no medical insurance in Castro land.
Keep reading below – there is no access to cash for Americans.
9. Americans cannot use debit or credit cards
As of September 2015, the Cuban Sanctions imposed by the U.S. does not allow any American to withdraw money or pay with a debit or credit card while in Cuba whereas other nationalities can use credit cards, where accepted. You’ll need cash, not too little and not too much. We created a spreadsheet with all of our daily potential costs to nail down an accurate budget. This is really important.
10. Tell your Credit Card company and Bank you’re going to be traveling internationally
Our credit card company actually knew of our intentions since we booked both airline trips with the card. Sweet! Totally connected. Tell your bank to in case you find yourself attempting to get out cash in Mexico.
11. Cash Money is Needed
We planned on $100 per person per day after doing the budget exercise twice. It covered some of our major transpo needs to dining to souvenir shopping. Plus, we planned on giving away as much as we could to those providing services to us or who were in extra need. We stayed in Cuba for nearly 2 weeks, a lot of cash to have on us the whole time. Because of this, we did prepay for a few things such as our house dining bill prior to it being due. (just to not have to worry about potentially losing it).
12. Take Euros to Exchange
If you take the US Dollar, you will pay a 10% fee for your exchange. Since we brought around $2,400, that would have been a $240 fee!! No thanks. Before we left Texas, we made a stop at our local Currency Exchange, used our debit card to take out Euros. And, it doesn’t have to be Euros, just do NOT take the US dollar.
Once we got into Mexico, we needed Euros to pay for our Visa and airline tax. Again, it was cash only and we were happy that we had cash on us in the proper form. Make sure to bring small bills as sometimes you’ll find Cubana Airlines does not have change which means you would have to overpay. Since you are now on a limited cash budget, its important to hang onto all of it.
Once at the airport, you can exchange to CUC’s – the Cuban Convertible Peso. The line at the airport is loooooong and as usual, one at a time. Meaning, one spouse in, and one needs to stay out. The person with the best Spanish and most alert needs to go in.
Unfortunately, you’ll need cash for the taxi but you may still need to go to the Cadeca for future exchanges or the bank for smaller bills. Imperative to have smaller bills, the more 1′s and 5′s the better (don’t be the dude who shows up to a Garage Sale with a 50 and needs $49.75 in change, right?)
13. Cuba has two currencies
There are two currencies in Cuba: The National Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Peso (CUC).
The money you should exchange for is the CUC, Convertible Peso pronounced (CUUK – with a long U). Your fair skin and blue eyes will do the talking for you.
14. The most common form of accommodation is known as Casa Particular
There are several hotels in Cuba, but the most common form of accommodation are the Casas Particulares. These are rooms or apartments rented by locals for a daily fee. Sometimes, you might rent an apartment for yourself while in other cases you might rent a room in a family’s house and share the common spaces with them. Many families have turned their houses into Casas Particulares with several rooms to make a living in Cuba. If you can, stay in a Casa Particular for the local experience and to help the family’s local business. The base price per night in a Casa Particular is $25+, which is a fraction of what you’ll pay at a hotel. Staying in homes is my favorite way to travel, it really helps the budget and for Cuba we were able to take care of the expense on a credit card via AirBnB. Yup! They are open for business in Cuba. We booked the majority of our stay via AirBnB but left some days open for flexibility. We were also able to pay cash directly to the family if we wanted to extend.
Plus, you get to meet awesome people from all over the world who want to socialize and meet you as well.
An impromptu lobster dinner party on the rooftop with new friends from Mexico City, Iran, Cuba, Canada and France.
Gustavo was our host in Havana who made me coffee all day – the really yummy, potent kind! He and his family were the salt of the earth kind of people. I would recommend his home to anyone staying in Havana all of his details are here
15. Don’t bring jewelry
Or at least limit the jewelry you wear. Besides, the less you pack the easier it is to focus on fun and exploration.
I wear my Claddagh ring when I travel internationally. I also recommend wearing a watch and not relying on your iPhone for the time)
16. Food in Cuba is nothing to write home about
Due to its trade restrictions, Cuba lacks in its culinary delights; so don’t expect delicious meals. Yes, you can find good food here and there, but this is not the norm.
You’ll want to look into Paladares as your best option.
Havana – research Dona Eutimia then make a reservation. This is a small Paladare and you will need to call the night before.
I talk more about where to eat here
(pictured below is Donde Lis restaurant on Tejadillo)
17. Don’t drink or use the water
Simple and easy. Buy bottled water. Otherwise, your tummy and booty will not be happy about it. Thankful to our German friends who had a spare box of Immodium. Yep, add it to your list as the water can sneak into your system in a number of ways.
I prefer my Swell bottle to carry around (purchase the large water jugs and fill your bottle every time you pop into your room). This is something I always do anywhere I travel.
18. Try eating only at Paladares Particulares.
Cuba has two types of restaurants, the state-run restaurants and the privately run ones known as paladares particulares. Try eating at the paladares particulares since they cost about the same as the state-run ones, but usually have better quality. As locals say, state-run restaurants don’t care about the food quality since, in the end, they don’t need the profits (because they are supported by the government). The private ones, on the other hand, if they are not good, they go bankrupt.
How to know which is state-run and which is private? Either ask them before ordering or just pay attention to where locals are eating and queuing. Cubans (who can afford to eat outside) don’t like the state-run restaurants, so they prefer to queue at a paladar particular.
19. Vaccinations are not mandatory
There are no compulsory vaccinations required for Cuba travel; however, some vaccinations may be required to satisfy your Travel Insurance Policy. You will need these Vaccinations at least 2 weeks prior to travel but preferably at least 2 months prior. These are available from your General Practitioner or Clinic and are generally offered free of charge. I choose to use minimal western medicine; however, you have to decide for yourself and weigh the pros and cons of vaccinations. Although I use minimal western, there is a time and place for it considering the potential risks of a country.
20. Take your favorite snacks with you
Not surprisingly, markets there don’t offer much variety since they focus on selling items of first need to locals – which don’t include sweets and snacks. You may find a few snacks here and there, but those are rare, and there will not be a lot of varieties. And they will cost $$$$. Part of the reason I am debt free is not buying things on the go that kill the budget, for example, a small bag of MnM’s in Cuba costs about $2.50. I’d rather bring my own snacks and give that money to someone who could use it more wisely. $2.50 for MnM’s may not be a lot to you but to me, those little purchases add up and are never worth it. I subscribe to Graze snacks – interesting, yummy, delivered to my door in perfect travel packs. This is where I got mine and you can get a FREE box for yourself to test it out. I also brought peanut butter crackers, you know those cracker packs that come in every flavor including those orange ones! LOL. Those make for a great emergency meal or snack and cost about $1 for a pack of 8. However, my Graze snacks have more variety and more nutrition.
21. Cuba has mostly 220v outlets
When I researched, I discovered most are 220v and when I visited, it was confirmed. Had no problems with plugging in my gadgets. Each room I stayed in had both American and European outlets. Easy peasy.
22. Choose State Run Cigar shops
State run shops have the best quality cigars over the private shops. So although you typically pricier to go private, state run shops will ensure the best quality possible.
We bought our cigars from a shop across from the Hotel Nacional, this was the ONE requirement from the hubby so we had to check this off the list. =)
(P.S. if you see us wearing NY Yankees hats in the pictures its because you can trade your baseball cap for a Cubano beisbol cap – Cubanos love the NY Yankees)
23. No Internet
Don’t expect internet at your hotel or casa particular, and even if they have it, it will not be available for you to use it. And even if you find it, don’t expect to have the same experience you have with it at home. This is your digital detox. However, the local telecommunications company (ETECSA) started adding WiFi hot spots on major cities, which can be used with the purchase of a WiFi card that allows you to use it for an hour. More changes on the Internet to come!
Oh, and don’t expect the WiFi to be reliable or fast. Read more here
24. Bring first aid with you (and medications)
Even if you have the money to pay the outrageous fees for market items, they may not have anything available. For example, they had a few large jugs of water costing about $9 US, so if they have it, it will cost a lot. The water cost more than mojitos.
Anyway, when it comes to important first aid or feminine items, plan for needing those and bring them with you. (ladies – this is ABSOLUTELY the best thing I brought that you will save your life when traveling, yes, totally TMI but I would be remiss not telling you about it). We downsized a first aid kit to fit into a small box, i brought medical tape, guaze, aspirin, antibiotic cream, medical gloves, advil, painkillers, bandaids etc. When we were finally ready to depart, we left it behind.
In the pic below (I took on the airplane), you can see what was in my small bag – first aid kit, money belt, SPIbelt, small shampoos, sewing kit, pen (for customs paperwork), snacks, ziploc bags, GoPro with waterproof case, coin dispenser – wrote more about What to Pack for Cuba here
I found a detailed list from Stop Adulting on how to stay safe while abroad, this is a MUST read
25. Use offline maps or preload your Google Maps
Galileo Offline Maps allows you to use your phone’s GPS to show your location on regular and pre-uploaded maps from other sites. Download these maps before going to Cuba. Once you leave your house, you are on your own with whatever info you have written down or in your head.
Also, check out my friend Barb’s article from Stop Adulting on 5 Reasons to Use Google Maps for Traveling
26. Cuba Junky is a good source of information
The first continuous source of info I found was on Facebook – Cuba Junky. From there, you’ll find more great resources. Do LOTS of research. Because once you get to Cuba your are offline.
27. Many Cubans will need milk for their children
Other than petty theft, violent crimes are not common there. What many people do, though, is “friend you” and tell you about a restaurant or café, or some other event somewhere else. They will be soooo friendly, you won’t even know its happening. They begin and end each convo with needing milk for their children and depending on where you are you will be swarmed bu residents begging for milk for their children. You’ll be thankful you have that flyfishing shirt with your valuables zipped up in the front pocket.
And, if they discover that you are American – they assumed we were German or possibly Canadian – then many see you for the $ signs. I have never been to a country where so many have begged for money especially in such a slimy way. My attempt in coming to Cuba after living as a minority in Miami was to see Cubans for the good souls that they are and unfortunately . . . . . let’s just say there are good people and not so good people everywhere. I do not plan on returning to Cuba but if I did, it would be to bring needed items and money to the families I befriended.
(pictured below – the family of Casa Belisa in Varadero. I would return to Cuba to see them again and support them any way possible)
The family dog, Toby. Sweetest pup ever!
We met Toby shortly after hearing the news that our sweet labrador had passed away in the States. So all we could do was love on Toby!
28. You can now bring those Cuban cigars right back to your home
Americans can now import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. So, now there’s no need to smuggle those Cuban cigars, as long as they are under the limit.
Since I had a stamped passport, I carried all items through customs in Dallas, including the camera card. Not only did they not look at my passport, they never looked through my backpack. I walked through with a lot of cigars and a lot of Christmas presents for our family from Cuba with no problem. My customs form and customs printout said 2 different things about what was in my bag. Considering we were somewhat illegally visiting Cuba I had a few anxieties about what a prison sentence in Dallas would like. I mean, would I have access to Starbucks or a hairdryer? Would I make friends who would braid my hair? Would we all sit around and watch Modern Family and giggle?
Thankfully, I’ll never know =)
As with all things at the airport, I really think it depends on the mood of the officer or TSA person that day. One never knows.
29. Learn Spanish
It will make your life easier there. At least learn a few basic words to communicate. Locals are also way friendlier with tourists who at least make an effort to communicate something in Spanish.
Its the right thing to do.
Use the app Memrise for 10 minutes a day, listen to Telemundo, turn to the Spanish radio stations and dig into spanish newspapers in your hometown before visiting.
30. Go off the beaten path
Started walking in a direction away from Parque Central and head into the neighborhoods. No agenda. No map. No plan. Just let the wanderlust take over you =)
31. Have a drink at the Floridita
Contrary to my last tip, go kick up your feet and visit a classic Havana joint that everyone goes to. Afterall, you need to visit one of the Hemingway haunts
32. Always confirm which is the currency the establishment is requesting
Always ask, “is this in CUC or Moneda Nacional?” Or, if the price seems to be really high, them most probably it is in CUP such as a hamburger street joint asking 25.00 pesos for a hamburger. If you paid in CUC it would be like paying 25 US Dollars. I find the Cubans will take whatever you give them and offer no change. Be warned, lol.
At one point, I was buying a snack on the train and they asked for 5 pesos which ended up being a 25 cent piece (in CUC). I still don’t get it.
33. Cuba was a very expensive trip for us
Between the 2 roundtrips per person, transport within the country, no access to kitchens even though we were staying in Casas, being overcharged, expensive restaurants, tipping everyone for everything . . . holy crap . . we were both eager to get back to work and make some money back.
34. Take the 100 year old electric train across Cuba
Read about the train that passes through the old Hershey Sugar Refinery - go here
In this video, the conductor let me stand in the front with him – notice how I am hanging onto the open door
35. Backpack if you can (but definitely do backpack)
Be a minimalist when traveling, it makes things so much easier. We both wore quick dry pants, fly fishing shirts that we could wash every night and minimal shoes. Flip flops and Keens. This left us with our hands free to protect our belongings, jump into a car/train and be ready to move and groove. Dragging luggage thru cobblestone, or even torn up streets is a pain. You don’t need all that shit. Really, if people can move into a Tiny House, you can leave your rolling luggage at home and wear a backpack. Purchase travel clothes that can be handwashed and will air dry quickly.
And yes, the day of this picture, I was referred to as Sir numerous times by Cubans, Mexicans and even Americans at the airport. Oh well . . . . lol.
35. Leave your heels at home
Good shoes are essential for long days of walking and staying safe on all sorts of sidewalks.
I wore flip flops with sundresses and Keens with my more active outfits (these are the exact shoes I wore and LOVE). I had considered bringing cute sandals or wedges and I am so glad I did not. Once you get there, you’ll realize, its so hot, you just want to be comfortable and get as many kilometers underway by foot as possible. (you know what I’m talking about gals, that moment where you are like, I’m over it, hair up, comfy shoes on . . . over trying to look cute)
36. No more Departure Tax
As of December 2015, thats when we departed, there was no more $25 tax to leave the country.
We budgeted for this tax and it was very important that we knew if it needed to be paid as we were on a strict cash budget. Because if we didn’t have the money, we were not leaving.
As of right now, that tax is gone (or processed into your flight fee). Not totally sure yet. I strongly recommend checking into this before your trip.
37. Do NOT tell companies in the US your are going to Cuba
Things are very inconsistent right now. Its like marijuana in Colorado. Its legal in the state but illegal federally.
Before we left Dallas for Cuba, we took out Euros from a Currency Exchange here – we discovered in this process that up until October of 2015 if they found out you were headed to Cuba they could not exchange your money. Even though they could not give you CUPs or CUCs.
Upon our return we went to Northpark Mall to exchange our leftover Euros to US Dollar and found out that if you mentioned travel to Cuba, you would need to present your license for traveling to make the exchange happen. So until the Embargo is officially lifted and things are solid, shush your mouth. =) And if you live in a conservative part of the country like I do, if you are not going to Cancun or Disney World, people will also have an opinion on your trip to Cuba. More of a reason to take your children – travel is always the best education
Phew . . . . that’s a lot to know. Cuba was a hassle to travel to and travel within but I guess that’s what makes it an adventure!!
Will we go again? Well, we have a lot of countries on our to-visit list BUT if we ever return it would be for the people.
You might be interested in checking out:
Happy trails in Cayo Coco