Traveling to Cuba as an American may seem very complicated and intimidating. It is actually a lot easier than I expected having done some research ahead of time and talking to friends that have traveled there in the past year. After traveling there for 9 days, I have compiled some practical Cuba Travel Tips and resources so that you are thoroughly prepared! It’s a beautiful country with so much to see, do and experience. Not being properly prepared with enough cash and some extra planning could cost you a lot more agony, time and annoyance than necessary.
Cuba Travel Tips
Trust those that have Traveled to Cuba, not what the Media tells you.
The American Government and US Embassy website seems to do a good job in scaring their citizens in visiting Cuba using the word “illegal” UNLESS traveling under these “12 Permitted Categories”. Since September 2017, “People to People” is no longer allowed, so check off “Support for the Cuban People“.
The number 1 advice I give you is to talk to those that have actually traveled to the destination you are going to, instead of hearing the negative news or the heresays the media and others like to tell you. This goes for Cuba, the Middle-East or anywhere else in the world. If you met 10 people who have been to the destination you are going to telling you that it’s a safe or easy place to travel through, I would trust them over the other 10 who have never been.
2015: President Obama Lifts the Embargo on Trade & Travels to Cuba
The US enforced an embargo on imports and relations with Cuba starting in 1958. 50 years later, in April 2014, talks of re-establishing a relationship with the Cuban Government began. By May 2015, President Obama met with Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother), which was the first meeting between the 2 country’s leader in over five decades. Since the meeting, Obama has been responsible for easing the embargo and allowing Americans to visit. As a result, cruise-ships and Airlines began non-stop flight services between Cuba and America. American Tourists were then permitted to visit as long as they were going under 1 of the 12 permitted categories. This has been a win-win for the Cuban people. Families have been able to reunite. Also a win for Americans to be able to visit a country they know so little about while bridging new friendships.
Since trump came into office, he has threatened to tighten sanctions between US and Cuba and the media has often misinterpreted it with some saying the policies gone in effect, and others stating it hasn’t yet. As of now, traveling to Cuba is still the same as it has been for the past 2 years with non-stop flights and painless Visas to acquire.
Cubans Welcome Americans with Open Arms
Reality is that tourists (especially Europeans, Canadians, South Americans) have been traveling to Cuba for decades. Some brave Americans have as well, as long as they traveled through an airport outside of the US. The Cuban Government has always welcomed tourists in. If they saw an American passport prior to 2015, they simply didn’t stamp it. As much restrictions as America has had with their citizens traveling to Cuba, once one steps foot onto their land, they are free to do anything they want. The Cuban government could care less. Mainly all they care for is to make more money from tourists and to have a good time while doing so. This is still the case today, as people ask whether or not they need set Tour Packages from US Operators, the answer is no. It’s a ton of money and you won’t experience the real Cuba.
Preparing for Your Trip to Cuba:
You do not need to book an expensive tour package that will break your bank. Below, I will offer some practical tips on organizing your trip to Cuba:
Step 1: Book Your Flight to Havana
- Airlines that Fly Non-Stop from US to Havana: Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United
- From: Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Orlando, New York, and Tampa
LAX to HAV is only a 4.5 hour flight which is even less time than a flight from LAX to JFK!
Once you find a flight you wish to take, go to the actual airline website to see if it’s available for the same price. If so, then book it through there so you have more control over your flight and am able to put in your frequent flier miles.
Step 2: Obtain a Visa
Purchase at Your Departure Gate
Depending on the airline you take, there are different procedures to obtain a Visa. The safest route is to purchase ahead of time through CubaTravelServices.com for $85 per Visa. As of now, you can still purchase the Visa at your gate of departure. Here are some samples of pricing per airline:
- If flying Southwest, the visa is the cheapest for $50 at the gate
- Alaska is the most expensive for $100 at the gate (the other airlines range somewhere in between)
- American Airlines charges $85 while booking your flight, but will ship to your home prior
When I asked Cuba Travel Services, the guy said that some of the airlines have fronted part of the visa cost for their customers. In our case, Alaska Airlines had the cheapest flight, so that extra 35-$50 was not a big deal.
Purchase Your Visa Ahead of Time
If you are flying Alaska Airlines, I recommend you buy your Visa ahead of time.
Order Online: The Visa costs $85 per person (versus $100 at the gate), with a $15 shipping fee (in 5-7 business days), so you might as well get it ahead of time. If you do it on an overnight rush, then it’s $40, in which case, I suggest you just buy it at the gate.
Purchase in Person: Cuba Travel Services has an office in the city of Cypress (north Orange County) near Long Beach. If you happen to be in the area, you can go in to purchase the Visas which is valid for a year (open at 9am, last appointment at 4:30pm).
The Visa is a blank form that you fill out once you’re on the flight. That is what I did for 7 of my friends and it was completely painless and easy which took less than 10 minutes in & out of the office.
To go this route, I called their office (or chat with them through their website) to book an appointment. Then they emailed me a 2-page Travel Affidavit Form to bring to the appointment. On there, I filled out each of my friend’s legal name (as shown on their Passport) and had them each fill their signature. On the form, we checked the “People to People” category. At the office, I simply swiped my Credit Card (yay $640 worth of airline points!) and had them venmo me. (No need for anyone’s passport)
- Tip: when Venmo’ing, do not mention “Cuba” as they will flag your account and hold until review.
The 12 Categories of Authorized Travel to Cuba:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities or “People to People”
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions.
*Most people check off #5. Educational Activities or “People to People” as most travelers go to learn about Cuban culture, to engage in the people, to learn about their history and tradition. Another option is “Support of the Cuban people” which is more charitable based.
Step 3: Book your Accommodation
I usually only book the first 1-2 nights stay of wherever I am traveling to as I like the flexible to come and go as I please. Due to the limited access in Wifi for both the visitors and citizens of Cuba, it is crucial to book your accommodation ahead of time. In the case of wanting to stay an extra night in the town you are already in, that is totally doable. If the host doesn’t have an extra room, they always have relatives or neighbors they can refer you to then.
As American Tourists, you are technically not allowed to stay in any ‘Government-owned’ Hotels or dine at their restaurants. Regardless, the best Cuban experience is to stay at people’s homes called “Casa Particular” which you can find via Airbnb. When booking on any accommodation website, I always recommend booking a place with more than 10 – 4-star reviews or higher (out of 5 stars).
- The average rooms cost $25-40 to rent in moderate conditions that include: 1 – 2 double beds, warm shower, working toilet, air conditioning box and small fridge.
- You could spend more for remodeled/modern apartments in Havana.
Benefits of Sleeping in a Casa Particular VS Hotel:
- You truly engage with the Cuban People. You will be able to ask any questions in their home, learn about the history of Cuba through their experience (and their parent’s generation) in the past century and beyond. Soak in their perspective on whether or not they supported Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and whether they have enjoyed the influx of Americans visiting.
- They learn about you, American culture, our country which they have limited resources of. Believe it or not, we asked close to a dozen people and no one knew who Desi Arnaz or “I Love Lucy” was! Almost all of them will ask upon hearing that you are an American, “What the hell is going on with your country and trump?” It’s really a light-hearted way to engage in a fun conversation which they think is hilarious (most Cubans love Obama).
- Many Casa Particulars will offer Bed & Breakfast options (some included, others for $5) which is almost always a huge spread of fruits, eggs, bacons, sausages, bread, butter, juices, coffee and tea. If you’re lucky, some will even offer home-cooked dinner meals which has been the tastiest meals in Cuba. In Viñales, at our host (and now Grandmother) Pupi’s home, we had Lobster “Langostino” one night and pan-fried Fish “Pescado” the following night for $12 each meal. It was needless to say, delisioso!!
- The homes we stayed in had small refrigerators equipped in our rooms filled with water, beer, juices (for reasonable prices) as well as kitchen for us to use which helps you save some money.
- You truly support the family you are staying with financially, and the cultural exchange is priceless. It’s truly the best experience.
Highly Recommended Casa Particulars:
“Villa Pupi y Emilio’s casa” $19/night – https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15560057
Boca de Camarioca (Centrally located between Matanzas/Veradero):
“Hostal Lourdes Leo” $25/night – https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/14285056
For the best Walking Tour of Havana, contact our buddy Kiki the friendly, fun Tour Guide, firstname.lastname@example.org / +5353717501 (WhatsApp). Arrangements can be made for him to guide you through the whole country.
Bring Enough Cash for your Whole Trip!!!
I don’t like carrying a lot of cash in general. When I travel, I typically start with $300 USD and exchange as I go but rely mostly on ATMs as they have had the best exchange rates. You have to always carry both options though as sometimes ATMs don’t work or have limited amounts of money you can pull out. (This was the case in Senegal where they only let us pull out $40 at a time and banks were taking 2-3 hours wait time to exchange.)
You Cannot Use the ATM or Credit Cards as Americans
The American government has restricted all access to pull cash from the ATM or Credit Card use in Cuba. So bring more than enough cash for your whole trip. As I talked to friends that have gone, they all said they used on average $75-100 per day which includes their homestay, food, transportation, alcohol and every little thing. Most people going to Cuba will want to buy Cigars which you should set completely aside money for.
Cuba is a developing country and the citizens earn among the lowest wages in the world at an average of $25/month. However, the country is not as cheap as you would think to travel through (like Mexico or Thailand). I found myself spending as much money as I would in Europe, with transportation being the most costly. We also splurged a few nights at nicer restaurants. Some of us also tipped more generously at times to help the local people.
To save money, getting around with Shared Taxi’s and Public Busses is doable but will take a lot more time.
Examples of Daily Cost / How to Budget:
$40 per night average (or split according to how many people sharing the room)
Breakfast: $5 (or save money by buying Eggs, Fruits from the grocery store and eating at home)
Lunch & Dinner: Meals can be as cheap as $3 for a Cubano Sandwich (the best was at Fabrica Club in Havana) or $50 a meal (including alcohol) at the most high-end restaurants in Havana (La Guarida rooftop restaurant is worth going). I would budget $20-30 a day for food.
Alcohol: Beers and Cuban Rum drinks cost $2 average in the bars, but they add up if you consume a lot. We were with a party group so this easily added up to $20 a day per person. To save money, I would advise to pre-drink before going out, and buying a Liter bottle of Havana Club rum for $6-8 to put in your purse at all times. The lovely thing about Cuba and much of the world outside the US, is that you can drink on the streets and whether technically legal or not, in car rides too. People are up to party any time of the day with Reggae-tone Music always blasting. Sharing your booze is also a great way to engage new conversations and friends. I have been guilty of this practically everywhere I travel.
Bottled Water: Always drink Bottled Water, which will cost no more than $2 per day for a liter. In most restaurants, they use water that has been boiled or purified, as well as the ice so you should be safe. But if you are paranoid, then just bring your own water bottle (they rarely care).
What to Pack for Cuba
- Bug Spray: There are mosquitos and bugs, especially during warmer days. There have been reported cases of Zika, although no reason to worry unless you are trying to get pregnant within 6 months (seriously, it’s not a big deal).
- First Aid Kit / Medicine: Like Traveling anywhere else, best to pack Pepto Bismol, Anti-Acid stomach medicine, Ibuprofen, Z-pack or Antibiotics in case you get a virus and some Bandages. If all hell breaks lose, Cuba does have an amazing Healthcare System and will treat you at a very low cost.
- Sunblock: The sun is HOT and you should always wear SPF on your face and body!
- Hot Sauce: Many people who have traveled to Cuba feel that their food tends to be more bland. They seem to use just oil, a little salt and pepper in most dishes. So I advise you to bring some of your own spices, sauces or in my case, HOT SAUCE! Bring packets from fast food restaurants or a small bottle to carry with you at all times. It could potentially be a lifesaver.
- On a Side Note: I also packed Cup Noodles. This is clearly optional, but I am addicted to Noodles and need them like an Anemic person needs Iron, or a hungover person needs Agua. It’s also a good mid-day or late-night snack to have at home for some comfort food.
- No need for International Chargers as they have the same plug as America.
- If traveling April to November, bring a light raincoat or umbrella as it’s Tropical and during rainy season.
The weather is usually hot and humid and the Cuban people are very liberal and casual, so really, anything goes. Bring hiking or running shoes for the outdoor activities (horseback riding, bicycling, etc).
For Women: Local ladies dress in short shorts/skirts and bikini’s on the beaches. With that being said, the men tend to be machismo and some chauvinistic. Females may get some cat-calls while on the street. Just something to keep in mind when deciding outfit choices and consequences. I brought only a pair of wedges to wear on some nights although sandals are perfectly fine.
For Men: You could get away with wearing anything. Pack a decent evening outfit for a night out to town in Havana as they do have some nice clubs and lounges. It also looks great for the photos to dress in All White Linen and Straw Hats!
Donate Clothes & Practical Items
If you have un-used/un-wanted clothing, school supplies, electronics, or any practical items to donate, bring it and donate it to your hosts at the Casa particular. They will truly appreciate it. (Our host Pupi cried when she saw the 3 bags of clothing we brought for her which would be passed down to her children and grandchildren) A little goes a long way.
Once You Arrive..
- Exchange money as soon as possible. I would advise to exchange outside of the airport as the rates would be highest. The rate for exchange from USD to CUC (Cuban Peso) is generally 1:1. However, the USD is taxed with 10-12%, so you end up getting 88 cents to 1 CUC. Exchanging to Canadian Dollars (CAD) or EUROs ahead of time (go to your Bank or Exchange company) with a good exchange rate may end up saving you a couple of bucks. Do the math before to see what is most worth it for you. Once you arrive at your Airbnb, ask your host where is the best place to exchange. They may potentially have a friend you can exchange for a better rate.
- Purchase WIFI cards. Using internet in Cuba is different than anywhere else. It’s not just about finding a ‘Wifi Spot’. You need to purchase these Internet Cards at $1.50 per card for 1 hour use. So I suggest just buying 10 at a time. Finding the hot spots aren’t always easy but the locals will know where. The most common spots are certain areas of public parks.
Many people traveling to Cuba want to buy Cigars as souvenirs as it’s part of the experience. You may likely pick up smoking cigars as well while there.
Tip: Dip the tip side you are smoking in Honey, it makes it even more tastier!
Where to buy Cigars is a Debatable
- Some will say the best is to buy from the government-owned shops. The brand names: Cohiba and Romeo & Juliet will cost on average $9 a cigar or $150 a box.
- We bought some from the Family-Owned Tobacco farms in Viñales (Juan Luis y Luis) and loved those even more. Those will cost about $60 for a 25 pack.
Annoyances & Dangers
Cuba is generally a very safe country to travel through for both men, women and solo travelers. There are virtually no gun or knife violence. Hurting tourists result in major jail time and fines. Plus, they really do love tourists! That being said, there are some scams to be aware of:
- Always negotiate your Taxi Rides. Get an idea what it should cost from your Airbnb host in the area you are in.
- There are men who may approach you and tell you that there is a “Cigar Festival” they want to take you to. If you agree, they may take you to an alley or a friend’s house and either sell fake crappy cigars or ask you to give them money. While it may seem threatening at the time, they will very unlikely hurt you. So either run, or give them a few dollars.
- When shopping outside of stores, prices can always be negotiated. So start lower at 50% of said price.
- Be smart and don’t try to buy drugs in Cuba, save it for another country like Colombia. But, many people do go to Cuba for the nightlife so there could be the impulsive inclination to accept these offers. Many locals on the streets will sell fake Cocaine (baking soda or cheap crack type stuff) and extort you for a lot of money. So just don’t do it. Plus, drugs are bad for you remember!?
- Some women will get cat-calls but it’s usually non-threatening and not too aggressive. It as not as common as other Latin-American countries though thankfully.
Overall, enjoy your travels to Cuba! Engage with as many locals as possible and ask them about their lifestyle. They are a hospitable, warm group of people who despite the corrupt regime they’ve lived in, generally have a positive attitude towards life. They are family-oriented and always down to have a good time. Best of all, there are always music blasting wherever you go!