Cuba Travel Tips for First Time Travel to Cuba

Cuba can seem like a difficult place to travel to for a multitude of reasons. First, due to limited internet, it can be difficult to get in touch with local Cubans. Second, for that same reason, many local Cubans can’t publish a lot of Cuba travel tips online. Third, due to the embargo against Cuba, it’s often confusing for Americans to understand the legalities behind traveling to Cuba.

Related: How to Travel to Cuba, Legally from the USA. 

Recently Updated: July 2019

Travel Safety in Cuba

Finding it difficult to get Cuba travel tips and real-time information, I took to Reddit. To my relief, despite an emotional political cloud over Cuba, everyone could agree on one thing: it is an incredibly safe destination for tourists! The Cuban government imposes harsh punishment for Cubans who harm foreigners. It can happen, but it’s very rare.

Solo female travel is very easy as well. However, there is an extreme amount of street harassment from men in Cuba. Especially when they congregate in groups. As a woman, strolling down the street by yourself in Cuba can quickly turn into a stressful affair. The street harassment was always uncomfortable to bear but ultimately nothing ever happened with the exception of one man (of hundreds) who began to scream at me. Cuban women tell me they hate it.

Health Insurance Before Traveling to Cuba

Legally, Cuba requires all travelers to have health insurance coverage. You may or may not be asked for proof on arrival. If you’re arriving on a plane that came directly from the U.S., your airline may have already included this in the price of your plane ticket. Check with your airline. Worst case scenario, you can purchase health coverage on arrival (or ahead of time here).

Related: The U.S. Embargo Against Cuba is Still in Place, Here’s Why It Needs to End

Exchanging Money in Cuba

In Cuba, you are legally prohibited from exchanging currency anywhere that’s not a goCadecavernment-owned Cadeca (an official currency exchange office). Cadeca’s will almost always have a very long line. So allocate time for this.

After waiting in line for 30 minutes at the airport, it was finally my turn. I got to the counter and was asked: “Are you departing or arriving?” And I answered, “I just got here.” To which I was informed to go to another Cadeca because this one was only for departures (there were no signs about this). So I went to the next one, the same story. Finally, I got to the correct one and the line was so long it seemed to wrap around the airport twice.

Here’s why it’s not worth exchanging your dollars to another currency before coming to Cuba.

GETTING THE BEST RATES PER CURRENCY:
  1. U.S. dollars have a 10% “tax” by Cuban government (plus a nominal fee of about 3%). There has been talk that with the normalizing of relations with the U.S. that they may waive this tax soon, so be on the look out.
  2. If you try to avoid the 10% tax by exchanging your USD into EUR/CAD make sure it’s at a place where the exchange rate won’t cost you more than 10%. Otherwise, you clearly might as well just take USD to Havana.
    • Example: Official market rates for CAD to USD is $ 1.00 USD = $ 1.30 CAD. But the currency exchange business is trading $1.00 USD = $1.15 CAD (Already lost ~15%). So why bother?
  3. You could exchange USD for CUC on the black market for about a 5-7% loss ($100 USD for $95 CUC) but then you take black market risks (ie: getting robbed, cheated, it’s illegal, etc).

For calculating OFFICIAL CUBAN daily exchange rates click here

All in all, it is best to take USD, CAD, or Euros over all other currencies because you can also exchange these at hotels, which is a GREAT option if Cadecas have an hour long lines/are shut down/etc.

Using Credit Cards & Banking in Cuba

Leave them at home. Bring C-A-S-H. Despite what the news or your bank says, American credit/debit cards will NOT work. Be careful even when trying to even check your bank balance from Cuba. Chase refused to let me log in, and Charles Schwab suspended my bank account just for trying to check the balance from Cuba. I could only access my account with Charles Schwab after I could prove to them that I wasn’t in Cuba anymore.

How the Dual Cuban Currency Works

cuban-currency-600x332

According to a story by a Cuban family, once upon a time… U.S. Dollars reigned in Cuba. At one point, one dollar was worth up to 200 Cuban pesos. In order to regain some control, Cuba made dollars illegal. Then came the creation of its second currency, el CUC. Today, Cuba has two currencies: CUC (international currency) and CUP (national pesos). The CUC is pegged to the dollar 1 to 1.

1 USD = 1 CUC = 25 CUP

I advise carrying both currencies because it helps with Cuba travel costs. Some places that only foreigners go to, may only accept CUC. But with CUP you can pay for things that are in the national/cheaper (local) prices, since these places may not have enough change if you use CUC.

Finding Accommodation in Cuba

official-casa-particular-symbol-cuba
Casa Particular Homes – Symbol

In Cuba, there is a shortage of hotels, so since the 1990’s the government has allowed Cubans to take part in their own version of Airbnb called “casas particulares”.  So you can stay in the home of a Cuban person for about $20+ a night. You can find these homes via the blue anchor sign in homes or on Airbnb!

It is completely normal for a traveler to arrive in Cuba with nowhere to stay and ask people to take them to a casa. Sounds crazy, I know. But someone will always know someone else. Remember, Cuba is one the safest destinations I’ve ever visited.

If you have a particular budget or a certain standard, you can always go Trip Advisor, search for a particular accommodation, and call the place through Skype to reserve.

Transportation in Cuba

Van through Cuba from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo to Baracoa.
Taking this van from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo to Baracoa.

At first, I would only get around by private taxis ordered by business owners for my own safety as I got comfortable adapting to Cuba. By the end of my travels, I was getting into stranger’s cars with other strangers and driving for hours to different towns and cities. You can take collective car rides within cities or across the country.

From Havana to Trinidad, I paid $20 for a shared taxi with another girl I met at the bus stop. Bus stops are where you will find people offering rides in their cars. This is also where you can take Viazul buses to other towns. Viazul takes longer and costs the same (sometimes more) as a private taxi.

You can hop on national buses with Cubans for insanely good prices. I traveled from Las Tunas to Havana for 10 CUC. That’s a 10-hour drive for $10 on a bus with AC and TV. I took trucks (camiones) across parts of Cuba for $2. I hopped in the back of shared vans with hand-made seats in the back.

Finally, there is also  Cubana Airlines which can take you between various Cuban cities for a couple hundred dollars.

Transportation is everywhere in so many forms. It all depends on your time availability and budget. 

Commission Referral System in Cuba

My first day in Havana, I was guided by a very helpful man who bargained and called restaurants for me. It was very nice and I felt safer leaving a trail of my whereabouts since I was traveling solo, but it is possible that he was mostly working towards getting a commission by referring me. In Cuba, this is a commonly used commission referral system for private sector businesses like casa particulares, restaurants, and cabs. You’ll hear people asking if you need a taxi, a place to stay, or a restaurant to eat. When he/she find someone who needs one of these things, they run to the respective owner and get a commission for referring you. It’s sort of like Uber, Airbnb, or Seamless.  It can be cool or kind of suspicious depending on how it’s used.

A Fool and His Money

This is the biggest Cuba travel tip. A big issue in Cuba is called jineteroism. It is the act of Cuban men and women chasing foreigners to be their “friend” and take them around their town. This usually is a scam to either: get you to take them out for the day or woo you into marriage to get out of Cuba. It can be straight up obvious, or incredibly elaborate.

Gifts to the Cuban People

Please remember to bring gifts to the Cuban people. But please be wary of how you distribute your gifts. Do not hand them out on the streets, do not encourage begging from children, and the last people that need your donations are those who work in the tourism sector/casa owners. Orphanages take donations, but to ensure that your donations get to the right place, they require that you register the donation with the ministry before they can accept your donations.

What can you bring? Basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs (I saw little kids playing soccer with a coconut), guitar strings, fishing equipment, needles, or anything that you may throw away could find great re-use in Cuba. Old cell phones, USB sticks with media, old watches, shoes, clothes, medicine, anything can go to use there. Nothing goes to waste in Cuba.

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3 thoughts on “Cuba Travel Tips for First Time Travel to Cuba

  1. Pingback: Legal Travel to Cuba from the U.S., 2016 – A Dominican American Perspective

    • G. Isabelle says:

      No. No updates. But honestly, unless you get a really good conversion rate for USD, you’re probably better off just taking the 10% hit. Because some exchange rate places charge you more and then you lose to whatever Cuba’s exchange rate is to your new currency. I took out pesos and Canadian from an ATM so I saved a little bit.

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