31 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Cuba

Yes – Travel to Cuba is worth all the research you are doing right now. Even though can seem like a difficult place to travel to because of the U.S. travel restrictions which make it confusing. But believe me, traveling to Cuba is one of the best experiences for cultural immersion, outdoors, art, history, and more. Here’s a clear breakdown of the top things to know to best prepare for your trip, including how to travel to Cuba as an American.

Related: How to Travel to Cuba, Legally from the USA in 2020.

Recently Updated: July 2019

1. Yes! Americans Can Travel Legally to Cuba!

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2. 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.

3. 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

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. There is a Dual Cuban Currency– Here is How it 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.

7. Finding Accommodation in Cuba is Easy… Sort of.

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.

8. 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. 

9. 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.

10. Don’t Be 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.

11. 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.

12. Strategic Packing for Cuba is Essential

Bring toilet paper and/or tissues, tampons, razors, toothpaste and/or anything you will need for day-to-day. Do not count on Cuba to have anything for you. Snacks (nuts, cookies, etc)/energy bars are vital for in-between meals. Sitting down at a restaurant in Cuba can be a quarter day event. And unlike the US, it’s not common to pass by stores, fruit stands/food stalls/quick snack grocery stores.

13. You Must Download these Applications!

  • MAPS.ME – This one is critical. Download an OFFLINE GPS map of the entire country of Cuba. You must download the Cuba map after downloading the Maps.Me App.
  • LAHABANA Magazine PDF (Monthly Magazine)
  • VPN plugin for your laptop or phone- If you need to check your bills from home, lots of American companies (including your phone and bank) may block (or suspend) your access to their website from Cuba. 
  • IMO – As a substitute for Skype, in case you need to stay in touch. Communication, especially to the USA, is extremely limited and expensive from Cuba. 
  • Whatsapp – To communicate with others abroad and in Cuba.

14. BREAKFAST IN CUBA

Breakfast is best eaten in the hotel/casa particular, because it’s done and ready to eat when you wake up and you don’t have to venture into the streets to find places to eat a healthy/filling/hearty breakfast. Cuba isn’t the easiest for finding good and healthy food in general. Most local breakfast spots are simply bread and cheese, and maybe ham. And they’re hard to spot unless you’re luckily situated. Plus this way you’re further complying with Support with the Cuban People license.

15. DINNER IN CUBA

For dinner at more famous spots, make reservations ahead of time. Dinner is a 1-2+ hour affair. Ordering food, waiting for it to be served, eating it, and waiting for your check is not a quick thing in Cuba, unless you’re eating from a street stall. And sometimes they run out of items and have to send people out to get them. To be safe, allocate at least two hours to eating a sit down dinner.

 

16. Cuba Can Be Expensive

Cuba is not the cheapest destination for tourists: The prices are incredibly inflated relative to the local costs and average wages, and especially when compared to what you get for the same prices in other “developing” nations nearby/around the globe. The prices for food and drinks are comparable to what you pay in many U.S. towns. Of course it’s not the $100 restaurant bill you get in Manhattan, but it’s not the same type of costs you’d have in the surrounding countries. It’s important to be aware of this when planning how much cash to bring.

17. Internet Cards in Cuba

Buy internet cards at the hotels or the public wifi parks from someone who sells it for $2-3/card. Or you can go to the Etecsa (government phone stores) and buy them for $1.50, but the wait on line will be long. Remember to ask “ultimo?” to see who is last before you in the messy lines. The best way? Ask your Airbnb host to get them for you and you pay them an extra percentage for their time procuring these for you.

HELP & ASSISTANCE AVAILABLE IN CUBA

If you run out of cash while you are staying in Cuba or you have found that your cards don’t work, Asistur will take care of your financial emergency. They will provide money in exchange for cash deposited from a relative or friend abroad. They charge around 10% for these requested amounts plus 17.00 CUC to cover banking costs. The steps in arranging this are too complex to explain here as different countries have different rules. (This is the Cuban organization that also gives you insurance.)

Phone them on (53 7) 861 8920, visit their offices or send an email (if you must) to: asistenciafinanciera@asistur.cu

23. Things in Cuba Change Rapidly

24. Read Up on Cuba Before You Go!

IMPORTING READINGS ABOUT CUBA TRAVEL & LIFE

CUBA TRAVEL:

CUBAN LIFE:

25. There Are So Many Wonderful Places to Visit in Cuba

26. solo traveling cuba, top places to visit in Cuba,

27. Food in Cuba

28. Travel adapter for Cuba, how to get around Cuba, cost of travel in cuba,

29 .best time to visit cuba,

30. visa

31. Cuban Embargo

31. Politics in Cuba

Do Cubans like Fidel Castro?

Some really do. Some really don’t. The biggest difference between the two of these groups are that the former can freely express their opinion while the latter cannot without risking their government jobs among other things.

Is there freedom of speech?

Technically, yes. Technically, no. Some Cuban students were given a survey on their thoughts about the revolution and relations with the U.S. by her university. Two of these students personally disclosed their disdain for these questions because they said that they could never be honest or they’d risk losing certain “favors” such as getting a job after graduating from their college. So they answered what they knew would keep them in the good graces of their superiors: anti-US sentiment and pro-revolutionary comments.

Do Cubans like politics?

The younger generation generally does not. And many have expressed feeling tired and underwhelmed by the questions foreigners keep asking them. There are two speculative reasons for why they don’t like to talk about politics:

  1. They’re tired of their entire Cuban existence being politicized.
  2. They feel there’s nothing they can effectively do to bring about change/progress in a deeply communist society so why bother. (aka they’ve given up)
  3. They don’t agree with the politics but they don’t feel safe expressing their concerns.
  4. It’s way too complex a topic for a simple response to almost any question in under 5 minutes.
  5. They really are politically apathetic like many people in many other countries.

 

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3 thoughts on “31 Things You Should Know Before Traveling 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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