A prep list for your travel based on a recent visit.
Havana, Cuba - A small island only 100 miles from Florida where many US residents wonder what’s it’s like, also a bucket list destination for many. Cuba is a hot travel destination for 2017, especially since President Barack Obama lifted the embargo in 2016. For almost 50 years, travel to Cuba from the US has been off limits.
With travel being open, many Americans fear travel will be restricted again and are flocking to the ‘Miami like island’.
Thinking of traveling to Cuba? Hold up, wait a minute, it’s not as simple as you think.
While photos float online of the colorful buildings, classic cars and beautiful scenery, there are some things you should know before you book your trip. I recently visited Cuba and fell in love with the island.
Think Miami without ‘Miami’ if that makes sense.
Since Cuba has been off limits with the US for travel and trade, the island lacks many familiar American ‘luxuries’.
If you use your cell phone and internet all day, you probably won’t survive unless you plan on spending a pretty penny to stay connected.
Long story short, Cuba is behind the times, you definitely need to be a person who can quickly embrace other cultures and live without technology for a few days.
EVERYTHING in Cuba is old, if you’ve ever been searching for an old boom box or record player, you just may luck up and find one. Few places are renovated and/or under construction, think of this as a time travel trip.
Below are my recommendations and tips for your bucket list travel to Cuba.
Yes, You Need A Valid Passport & Visa – Before you book your trip, you will need to be sure you can obtain a visa for travel. Traveling from the US, you will need to fall into 1 of 12 categories for travel. Refer to the US State Dept. for updated travel restrictions and categories https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html
If you do not have a passport, you can obtain information at your local post office.
Once you recognize your reason for travel, Visas can be purchased in advanced and received by mail or purchased in the Miami Airport if your flight has a connection before the final destination.
**NOTE, you cannot board your last flight connecting to Cuba without a VISA and boarding pass stamped saying ‘Cuba Ready’ **
(We set a price monitor for 3 weeks on google flights and prices fluctuated from $250 - $400 over the short period of time, leaving from DFW)
Cuban Health Insurance – Required to enter into Cuba, some airlines such as American Airlines include this in the cost of your flight. If health insurance is not included, the cost is $25 (as of May 2017) and the airline will provide you details on how to purchase.
Where Will I Stay?
Hotel Vs. AirBNB
The dreaded task when booking any trip - The good thing about traveling to Cuba, there aren’t many hotels to choose from, so booking a room will be less frustrating. Many residents are now renting out entire homes or rooms on Air B N B, and the prices are cheaper than a stay at a typical US hotel.
If booking an Airbnb, please note if the host will be at the residence with you, many ‘casas’ offer a homecooked breakfast of $5 CUC, meaning the host or cleaning person will cook breakfast for you all for a minimum charge. Our Airbnb included daily cleaning services includes in our booking price as well as fresh fruit basket.
What you should know if booking a hotel; these are older hotels, some are in the process of undergoing renovation. We noticed many signs for new construction so by mid-2018 – 2019 newer hotels will be on the rise in Havana.
You should be aware of accepted currency before traveling to any country. In Cuba, there are two currencies, CUP & CUC. CUP is a local currency for residents and is said for 25 CUP to = $1 USD. CUC or the Cuban Convertible Peso is the currency you want to be sure you are getting when exchanging money and after making purchases, 1 CUC is said to equal 1 USD.
The US Dollar is NOT accepted as a form of currency in Cuba. So what does that mean for you? Euros & Canadian dollars are accepted in some places, my suggestion is to exchange your US money over to Euros or Canadian dollars BEFORE leaving the US (the choice is yours, depending on the exchange rate) many choose one over the other claiming to get a better rate, but please be aware, exchange rates change daily.
I took $400 to Cuba and exchanged $200 to Canadian Dollars and $200 to Euros to test everyone’s theory.
My friend exchanged $400 to Canadian Dollars and my sister exchanged $400 to Euros.
Upon entering Cuba, we were able to exchange our money to Cuban pesos (CUC) at the airport.
I received exactly $ 332 CUC, my sister and friend receive around the same amount of CUC.
Many say the US dollar is 1 to 1 with CUC, which is not true, if you wait to exchange your US dollars in Cuba to CUC you will be taxed almost 15% of your money.
Although we exchanged our money to other currencies, we still essentially lost money. When exchanging money, you pay a commission fee to exchange which can run 8-$10 per transaction in the US, then you will be charged another commission fee or exchange fee in Cuba when exchanging to CUC.
Please know some Spanish before descending upon the friendly island. While some Cubans are bilingual, this isn’t true for everyone, practice your Spanish before going, pick up a travel dictionary and use google translate on your phone. While I know some basics of Spanish, (more fluent in French & English) I was dumfounded when some of our taxi drivers were asking us questions in Spanish (one step at a time, we had to pull out the dictionary)
Getting Around Cuba
A taxi from the airport to La Habana or Old Havana area will run between $20-$30 CUC each way (depending on how many people)
There are two taxis in Cuba, the standard yellow cab which is cheaper, #BallinOnABudget friendly.
Then you have the classic cars, which some are taxis (look for the taxi sticker in the window)
A ride in the cool, sleek looking old ride will run you $20-30 CUC each way in the city compared to paying $10 CUC in a yellow cab.
For the experience, I would recommend taking a classic car (drop top) ride along the Malecón, then yellow cab for any other taxi rides.
The rides in the classic car will add up!!
Although Cuba is fairly safe, filled with friendly people, you can walk along the Malecón, through neighborhoods and much of the city to have better view than being in a stuffy cab, taking pictures out of the window.
There are double decker buses offering hop on hop off for $10 CUC. One bus stops at 27 points throughout La Habana & Old Havana, with start time of 9am and ending at 6pm.
I would recommend the bus as an inexpensive way to see the city and have reliable transportation for the rest of the day.
If you are use to eating at popular US fast food restaurants, you will not find those in Cuba. Be ready to eat traditional Cuban food, (although some places offer French fries and pizza, the food has a Cuban flare), due to the trade restrictions, Cuba does not have traditional american restaurants or snacks.
We enjoyed ‘moro moro’ which is pretty much red beans and rice. You will find many restaurants offering a frozen lemonade often referred to as ‘limonada’ we enjoyed the limonadas which somehow tasted better than the mojitos .. go figure.
I would suggest packing snacks, protein bars, trail mix, etc. to help you survive your trip as these items are far and few In between in Cuba. If you are lucky enough to find American snacks, they will cost you almost double to triple what you would pay in the US.
DO NOT drink the water in Cuba, be sure to bring or purchase bottle water on arrival. Imported brands such as Aqua Pana & San Pellegrino were spotted in many restaurants for $2-3 CUC for a 1 liter bottle. Which in my opinion is cheaper than purchasing at a US restaurant, most US restaurants charge 4-6 USD or sparkling water and in a small bottle.
Medicine Bag - Be sure to pack a medicine bag. I typically have one ready for all international travel
Clorox/Lysol wipes, mosquito repellent, beano, Imodium, pepto bismol, Tylenol, Band-Aids, Neosporin, Benadryl, sunscreen, etc.
You never know how your body will react to food in another country or bug bites, etc. Stay prepared as many of these products, if found, can cost you almost triple the price.
We also packed 1 roll of toilet paper each (sounds weird huh) many places in Cuba lack toilet paper, so be sure to carry some wipes or tissue while out. We also found there are places that will charge you to use their restroom.
On my trip, we did not make it to Varadaro beach (supposedly the best beach in Cuba), mainly because the fees we were quoted to get there. Varadaro beach is 2 hours from Havana and many taxis will take you for $100 CUC each way.
You want to be cognizant of the money you are spending and be sure you will have enough to at least get you back to the airport as US credit & debit cards are not accepted in Cuba.
One thing we were unaware of while in Cuba is the tour buses which will take you to closer beaches for a cheaper price, I would recommend booking through a hotel (Hotel Presidente is one hotel we booked a local day tour with, but were still unaware of the beach option)
- Cuba does not have 4g, some carriers will allow roaming in Cuba but at $2.50 per minute and you must be sure to communicate with your carrier for most services to work in Cuba
Internet in Cuba is interesting, visitors and residents must purchase ‘internet like calling cards’ with scratch of access codes to get online! Cards can be purchased at most shops and hotels for anywhere from 1.50 CUC to 3 CUC for 1 hour of online access.
I would suggest purchasing 1 card per day as I did to check in with family and check email.
An inexpensive way to speak with family if you use google voice/google hangout or Facebook to make phone calls which can be done over Wi-Fi.
Things You may want to do in Cuba
- Go to the Beach (Varadero is a popular beach but it’s 2 hours away from Havana)
- Visit the Hemingway House (Ernest Hemingway used to reside in Cuba, his home is now an attraction)
- Buy Cuban Cigars (The limit is now up to $500 in Cuban cigars and alcohol to bring back to the us)
- Sigh see (Havana is full is of Spanish style building and homes, a photographer’s dream)
- Visit a cigar factory or tobacco farm (Cuba is known for the cigars and special rolling technique)
- Embrace the culture
- Visit A museum
- Go Salsa Dancing (We went to Club 1830) for 5 CUC, Fabrica De Arte is highly recommended but was closed upon our visit for renovation.
- Enjoy Mojitos (which can be found for 1 CUC)
While I can go on and on my travels to Cuba, the four day trip is entirely too much to write about in this blog post.
Cuba was amazing and I will be going back ! If you are thinking of traveling to Cuba, I would say go before its modernized, you want to experience Cuba the way it is now.
Do your research before traveling as well find others who have traveled, ask questions. Don’t ever book a trip before knowing the facts of travel to the country or book from someones photos. You don’t want to end up in a place you know nothing about. You also want to research the cost of the trip in total including, flight, hotel, visa, etc to be sure you stay within budget.
If you still have questions, feel free to post comments to the blog. Photos from the trip can be viewed on Facebook.
Remember sharing is caring, please share to your social media or travel group for anyone who may be interested in going to Cuba.