Cuba is on the cusp of some huge changes due to recent improved relations with the United States, and has quickly popped up on everybody’s 2017 travel list. It won’t be long before scores of tourists shift Cuba’s culture and way of life, so start planning your trip as soon as possible! Here’s a list of tips and tricks to check out before your upcoming trip to the beautiful island.
All visitors to Cuba must get a Cuban visa or tourist card before leaving your home country. If you’re American you know it’s become relatively easy to travel to Cuba thanks to President Obama. Most US airlines sell the Visas through a travel agency right next to their check in counter. Expect to pay $50 plus whatever the travel agencies fees are. Additionally you will need to pick from this White House Cuba Face Sheet the reason why you are going and show a valid passport. The process is relatively simple and pain free!
In this day and age most of us are used to putting as much as we can on our credit cards when we travel and taking small amounts of cash out throughout the trip. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Cuba. American credit and debit cards are not accepted – at all. Before you go you will need to create a budget and stick to it on your trip. Take a look at how much things cost in Cuba and decide how much to bring. Then, before you leave the country you will withdrawal all the money you are bringing with you on your trip.
3. MONEY EXCHANGE
Cuban banks accept US dollars to convert into CUP (the Cuban Peso, the National Currency or in Spanish Moneda Nacional) or CUC (convertible peso, sometimes referred to as the dollar), however they charge a HEFTY penalty (10-15%) on top of the exchange rate compared to Euros or other currency. So, if you are withdrawing all your money before hand I’d recommend switching your American dollars for Euros or Pounds at the same time. You can do this at a currency exchange or your home airport, but your bank will give the best rate. Here is a step-by-step guide for converting money through your bank before you leave.
4. NATIONAL CURRENCY
To make this even more complicated Cuba has two different forms of money. The CUC (Cuban convertible peso or ‘Cuban dollar’) is attached to USD (basically a 1 to 1 exchange rate) and is what tourists must use. Hotels, restaurants, tourist shops and street food will all take the CUC.
1 CUP (Cuban national peso) is worth around 24 CUP and is the National money that locals use. If you see a price that looks crazy high (aka a pineapple for 12) it is in CUC. Some street vendors will let you buy stuff in CUC but they will give you change in CUP. The two look very similar so always make sure you are receiving the correct type of change – crime and scams are low in Cuba but it does happen.
All this talk about money and carrying large sums of money in your luggage might have you freaked. But guess what, Cuba is safe! Violent crime is basically non-existent especially against tourists. There are reports of pickpocketing and snatch and grab but those are low as well. Overall petty crime in Cuba is lower than all big cities in Europe and most Latin American cities. Of course be careful to not leave your purse/camera/wallet unattended but for the most part if you are present and aware of your surroundings you will feel safe in Cuba. This also makes it a great solo female travel spot!
Internet in Cuba is government run. The only places it is available is in nice hotels and restaurants. To access it you will have to buy Internet cards. Each one is about 2 CUC and will give you one hour of access. I had mixed results. Sometimes the Internet was lightening fast other times it barely worked. Texting, Email, Facebook and Instagram worked fine but Snapchat is completely disabled in the country.
My suggestion is to enjoy being off grid!
Spanish is of course the primary language in Cuba and you may go days without meeting anyone who knows any English. But don’t worry, Cubans are very friendly and patient so it is okay if the only thing you know is “gracias” (aka thank you)! I suggest downloading the offline Spanish Google translate and using that to get around.
8. SMALL GIFTS
Bring candy, aspirin packets, small toothpastes and things you can give or leave for locals. Some things are very hard to find in Cuba and while many Cubans offer help with no expectation of money a little gift is often greatly appreciated. Do be careful to not pass out things too brazenly though; some cops may not like it.
Food, in Havana especially, is changing and developing in recent years. This country is more than just rice and beans! Paladars (locally run restaurants) are all over the country and are much better than their government run equivalent. Here are some of my favorite Cuba restaurant spots but research for yourself before you go. There are so many great places to eat in Cuba and you do not want to miss out!
10. TAXI METERS
All taxis have meters but they are never turned on for foreigners. Negotiate all fares for regular taxis, bici-cabs, coco-cabs (small tut tut looking cabs) and vintage car rides before leaving. Get a good idea of how much things cost before you leave so you don’t get overcharged.
11. LOWER YOUR STANDARDS
Hotels are outdated and expensive and I highly suggest casa particulars (Cubas version of AirBnB) over hotels. We heard reports from many people that their nice hotel, which had a beautiful lobby and dining room, had rooms that were old, dirty and just plain overpriced.
Don’t be surprised if your group tour has a small hiccup, you are traveling in a lesser-developed country where changes are common! Our bus broke down while going up a steep hill but luckily we were only delayed for 30 minutes. Roll with the punches and don’t get upset. Sometimes that is the nature of travel.
12. GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path. Like I said before, Cuba is very safe and walking around a REAL Cuban neighborhood is both an eye-opening and enlightening experience. You will see kids playing in the streets, groups of men working on vintage cars, local bakeries selling bread for 4 cents a loaf and street vendors selling delicious looking fresh fruit. This is why you came to Cuba so embrace it!
13. GET OUT OF HAVANA
Of course you should see Havana while visiting Cuba but there is so much more to this amazing country! Head to Vinales and visit one of the many organic farms. You can learn all about tobacco while there and even roll your own cigar! Or visit Varadero and enjoy time on the perfect beach relaxing in the sun! Or you can visit Trinidad a whole city that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The possibilities are endless – if you only see Havana you are missing out.
Have you been to Cuba? Please share your experience in the comments below! Read next > Step Back in Time to the 1950s in Havana, Cuba!