By: Fiona Moriarty, Hipmunk
While adventurous travelers are urged to visit Cuba before authenticity goes the way of a Starbucks on every corner, travelers should take a little extra time preparing, as heading to the island still isn't that easy. Whether planning to spend time relaxing on sandy beaches or exploring on a bike, the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero are a great options for those just seeking some R&R. Just note the following before booking your trip:
1. Prep for the Sky
Direct flights from the U.S. are still scarce and expensive, but that's bound to change. Make sure to purchase traveler's insurance when purchasing tickets -- it is required to enter Cuba, and customs will likely do an insurance inspection upon arrival in Havana. Regardless of the route take to get there, get to the airport at least three hours before departure time, as check-in procedures are bound to take longer than usual.
2. Go off the grid
Most hotels will have Internet cards for sale, and Wi-Fi in their lobbies, but with no real infrastructure, access is always spotty. To avoid frustrations, book any tours or activities, before arrival. Download local maps or purchase paper ones, and print out all travel documents that may be needed while abroad.
3. Get around
Vintage cars converted into taxis are everywhere in Havana, and as glamorous as that may seem, it is important to note that they are not retrofitted. Beware that most cars, both government and privately owned, will have no seat belts, no air-conditioning, and no meters, even though they are supposedly mandatory.
4. Get rid of the Benjamins
Cuba has two currencies, the CUC (Cuban Dollar) and the CUP (Cuban National Peso.) Tourists should exchange their cash into CUCs, as non-Cubans are not supposed to be in possession of CUPs.
There are very few ATMs around, but if if withdrawing cash is a must, the best bet is to do so at the Havana airport upon arrival.
Exchange rates are horrible for American dollars, and much better for Euros and Pounds--consider exchanging dollars into Euros before heading to Havana, and then exchange them into CUCs once in Cuba.
This may change in the near future, but as of now, it is nearly impossible to use credit cards to pay for anything in Cuba. In any case, make sure to inform the bank and credit card companies about any travel.
5. Try the Cubano
There is still a heavy embargo on food, so meals may not be as spectacular as expected. As a rule, "paladares" or privately owned restaurants will always be much better than government-run eateries. When in doubt, stick with local fruit, coffee with milk or "cafe con leche" and a Cubano sandwich, known in Cuba as a "jamon con queso."
6. Pack it light
Small doorways and cobblestone streets are not conducive to carrying a lot of luggage. With 24.1 billion bags being mishandled by airlines each year, there is an advantage to packing all the essentials in a carry-on. Even bare necessities can be hard to track down in Havana, so try to anticipate any needs. Forgetting a toothbrush, means it may be days before finding one for purchase.
7. Learn a lesson
A Spanish phrase here and there will go a long way with the locals. Most people will want to chat but very little English is spoken outside of the resorts. Any effort to speak the language will tend to be appreciated. For those looking to enjoy some salsa dancing, take a couple classes before embarking on the trip. Lessons will only better the odds for joining in on the fun on the dance floor!