In my world of planning off the beaten path adventures, it feels like every other person I talk to is in a mad frenzy to get to Cuba; the elusive, time-warped island, before it morphs into little Miami. To get the inside scoop, I recently dragged my main guinea pig (my husband) on a fact finding trip through Cuba, and here’s what you absolutely must know as an American traveling to Cuba:
A plane ticket isn’t enough, you still need a visa
The easiest way to travel to Cuba independently as an American today is under the auspices of Educational, People-to-People travel, which is one of the 12 categories of travel now permitted. To do this, you just need to purchase a plane ticket and an entrance visa to Cuba. The visas cost about $50 per person, and some airlines partner with companies who send the visa to your home prior to your departure (for example Spirit Airlines with Airline Brokers) while others just have you purchase the visa at the airport gate prior to departure from the US (like Delta airlines). The easiest way to take care of this is to call your airline after you have purchased your ticket and see what their particular setup is. It’s a shockingly easy process that takes little to no time at all.
Bring a wad of cash, seriously
Though stepping foot on Cuban soil is entirely legal, using your credit or debit card there is a different story, for now at least. Obama made it legal for American banks to operate in Cuba, but so far not many have jumped on the opportunity. This means you cannot use your debit card to get cash, and forget paying for the restaurant check with your credit card. So what I’m saying is you need to travel to Cuba with cash stuffed into your undies. Converting American dollars to the local currency (the one foreigners are allowed to use, CUC) comes with a penalty of 10%. You can bypass this by bringing Canadian dollars or Euros, but chances are you’re going to lose money on that conversion too, so when we did the math it made more sense to bring good ol’ green backs.
Cuba isn’t cheap
We often think poor country = a cheap country, but a visit to Cuba will surely shatter this myth for you. Though the average Cuban earns just $25 a month, prices for nearly everything you do as a visitor- from your dinner check to the gas for your rental car and even your tour guide, will cost just about as much as it does at home, if not more. Because of the limitations of accessing additional cash as an American, make sure to do some budgeting before your trip to make sure you don’t run out of money, because there’s no bigger buzzkill than having your family Western Union you money through the US Embassy in Havana (speaking from experience).
Forget hotels, instead stay with a local
Most hotels in Cuba are lousy and over-priced. They are run by the government, so they are prime examples of double pricing and over-charging foreigners, and many are in dire need of renovations. Instead, opt to stay at a casa particular (ie the original airbnb)- these are accommodations in the homes of locals and are an affordable way to get the ultimate like a local experience. They usually share an entrance with the owner of the home but include a private room and bathroom. Most hosts will also cook dinner for you (for extra $, of course), and you can always expect an incredible breakfast spread for about 5 CUC ($6).
Think outside of Havana
I’ve noticed that a lot of Americans traveling to Cuba today are treating it as a weekend destination; likely because of its close proximity to home, we think we can just hop over for a day or two, wander around Havana, fly home and post the best Instagram photos ever from our visit to Cuba. Actually, Cuba is huge (it’s even bigger than Iceland!) and it surely deserves all the vacation time you can muster. Definitely consider adding places like Vinales, Trinidad, Baracoa, Cayo Coco, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba to your trip plan.
Take packing seriously
If you’re a traveler who has been around the block a few times, you know not to really sweat it if you forget to pack deodorant or shampoo; in fact, it’s kind of fun to buy random toiletries in local convenience stores. Well that’s not really the case with Cuba. The thing is, stores in the sense that we’re used to here in the US don’t necessarily exist there. There are definitely stores to buy things- but sometimes, the shelves are completely empty, sometimes, rum and champagne are all they have in stock and other times there are just rows and rows of vegetable oil. So make a packing list of your travel essentials and check it twice; and of course, don’t forget to bring the toilet paper. Trust me.
No internet access; plan ahead
This may be a hard one to accept- Cuba is incredibly behind as far as internet connectivity is concerned and though it’s definitely not impossible to get online, access points are limited to certain hotels and town squares, and once you get there, you then have to identify the local internet scratch-card “dealer”. At home, we’re spoiled with the ability to wing-it 24/7 because a world of information is always at our fingertips. For your trip to Cuba, you’ll have to plan ahead, save the places you want to visit, and maybe even print out your confirmations.