Planning travel to the Caribbean island nation of Cuba is very doable, despite the travel restrictions instituted by the Trump administration (see highlights of my trip here). Just make sure you pay attention to the new rules and book accordingly so that you are not denied a visa. The logistics to legally travel to Cuba are as follows:
Before You Travel to Cuba
When booking flights to Cuba you need to enter your reason for why you want to visit Cuba. As per new guidelines, you will not be able to state people-to-people as your reason for travel to Cuba if you are going solo or planning on your own. Rather, under “people-to-people”, you must now be a part of a licensed group tour.
Per the article, those who have already booked their flights prior to this announcement should be exempt from this particular restriction. However, I would double-check with online resources when planning your trip to Cuba and maybe even call your airline to ensure everything is as it should be.
If wanting to travel solo, or without a tour group, you should still be able to do so under the “support the Cuban people category”. See below for the other 11 categories under which you can claim travel to Cuba.
When traveling with tour companies, they should provide you a tourist visa, or tourist card, ahead of time as a part of your package. If not, then most airlines will have you purchase it at the check-in counter on the day of departure. The cost of a tourist card is 50 dollars. Make sure you arrive at your gate on time (no lollygagging with the shopping or booze), because you will have to fill out the tourist card with all your information matching your travel documents exactly. You will present this to Cuban officials when you land.
Cash and Currency
Many credit card companies do NOT offer services in Cuba. Thus, when planning your travel to Cuba, you must figure out alternate methods of payment to cover your expenses, namely cash.
The dilemma in Cuba is that to exchange dollars you will lose out in two ways. 1. The exchange rate 2. The 10% fee you have to pay for the exchange. United States currency is the only one for which they charge a fee. You can bypass this charge by converting your dollars to Euros BEFORE you leave, then converting the Euros to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)—your currency in Cuba.
My friend and I did the calculations for converting ~$1000, and by taking Euros you overall will only save 30-40 dollars on your transaction compared to just converting the dollars and paying the fee. For the sake of convenience then, we just took the dollars and skipped the Euro business.
Do not confuse CUC currency with actual Cuban pesos (CUP). The exchange rate here is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The locals primarily use pesos and some restaurants will show costs in both currencies. As a tourist, you will deal in CUC.
Also, as an FYI, exchange rates are tightly regulated there; you will get the same rate at the airport as at an exchange bank in the city.
Where to Stay
My friend and I stayed in Old Havana part of Havana, Cuba in a Casa Particular. The entire city is broken up into different areas, Old Havana (furthest east), then Centro, then Vedado and then Miramar (closest to the airport). Old Havana is your historic center and has the most to do. The other areas get progressively nicer and wealthier, however, are also more residential. Havana is spread out, but getting from one end to the other isn’t too terrible. We had dinner reservations in Miramar one night and a taxi from our hostel in Old Havana took about 20 minutes.
I’m all about the location when I travel abroad because otherwise paying for transportation can really add up. When planning your travel to Cuba, definitely take into account all that you want to do-especially if you won’t be using a tour company. I found Old Havana to be relatively safe (assuming you take all normal safety precautions).
When In Cuba
After breezing through immigration and customs, head outside to exchange your money and grab a taxi (from airport to Old Havana area is about 25-30 CUC)
Make sure to tell all your friends and family that you’ll be gone, and where, as gaining internet access in Cuba, and contacting them from there, can be extremely difficult. For one, you need to purchase an internet card when you arrive (your hotel may have this for you, or you have to find a local shop that sells it). The card contains a username and password (make sure the password is covered! you will need to scratch and reveal what it is). Once you connect to a public wifi zone, you must enter the username and password to logon. Your time on the internet will be limited to the time on your card.
My internet card never worked. So be prepared for that possibility.
Making Local Phone Calls
If using a landline to make a phone call (we booked our driver for Varadaro this way), then it’s important to note, all cell numbers start with “5” and all landline numbers start with “7”. When dialing, however, for the cell phones, you must dial “05” then the rest of the number, otherwise it won’t go through. For landlines, dialing 7 is enough.
If you’re with a tour company, your transportation should be provided for you for most days and all your touring. However, if you do get scheduled downtime and are wandering around on your own, then be sure to bargain for your ride.
Many bici taxi drivers (basically a Cuban rickshaw) and taxi drivers will charge you, as a Cuban tourist, more than double what they would charge a local, so NEVER accept the first amount they throw out at you. After dark, the rules do change, however, and prices do go up. It will be harder to bargain for a lower price, so be prepared to pay more.
Do not drink the tap water. Purchase bottled water from your restaurants when you go out to eat.
You do not need a converter or plug adapter when you travel to Cuba. The voltage they have and their sockets will accept all your plugin devices, no problem.
My trip was in November, and the weather was actually pretty perfect with temperatures in the 80’s during the day. However, the sun there can get intense, even during the winter months. Pack some sunscreen and apply daily.
Some Things to Do and Watch For When You’re There
A popular spot to visit when traveling to Cuba is to go to Varadero Beach. If you’re traveling solo or with a friend (so not with a tour company), then you can rent a car and driver to take you or take a taxi. The beaches are gorgeous white sand beaches and are a great break from city life in Havana. Plus, there’s great scenery and photo-ops on the way there.
Unique to Cuba Travel
The Cuban cigars. The colonial architecture and Unesco world heritage sites. The old cars. Cuban music and art. Cuban cuisine. All things related to Hemingway, including his home and where he used to go out!
Hope these tips help you when planning your travel to Cuba!