If Cuba has been calling to you but the travel restriction held you back, read on to find out how to travel to Cuba as a US citizen. The logistics and uncertainty of Cuba travel was actually a big part of the draw for me. I read that you can’t visit from the US and you need to go through Mexico. I read the airport is a complete nightmare. I even read men aren’t supposed to wear shorts. None of these turned out to be true. Don’t worry, there are enough challenges to keep it interesting. This isn’t a trip to Hawaii, embrace the adventure and you won’t regret it. I will separate the fact from fiction and break down what you need to know before you go.
Getting Your Visa
Visiting Cuba as a tourist is not allowed for US citizens, but it does not mean that you cannot visit. I took a direct flight (1.5hrs) from Orlando FL (MCO) to Havana (HAV) on JetBlue. I selected my reason for visiting (below) when booking and paid $50 for my visa at the airport JetBlue check-in counter. Simple as that! The process may change or differ with other airports / airlines, so confirm with the airline if not clear.
Selecting your reason for travel begins when you book your flight. Unless you clearly fall into one of the other categories, select Support for the Cuban People , and be consistent whenever your reason is requested. This category is the most flexible and allows you to travel independent of an organized tour. There are requirements for using this category, and a hefty fine if you visit as a tourist, so be smart. While you will likely never be asked to prove you met the requirements, it’s not worth the risk. I paid $100 for a service that provided documentation showing compliance with the requirements. It turns out the value of this service extended well beyond providing proof as they assisted in building a custom itinerary, providing restaurant, tour, and accommodation recommendations as well as booking transportation and tours.
Build Your Itinerary for Supporting the Cuban People
You could build your own itinerary to prove your compliance with the Support for the Cuban People requirement, but I recommend using ViaHero to ensure you are covered. You work with a local person (a Hero who you select- Yilliam was fantastic!) to customize an itinerary with your preferences.
The comprehensive itinerary is viewable offline, via an app or pdf, and your Hero is available if any questions arise both before and during your trip. You should save this itinerary and all receipts for 5 years after your trip.
The category definition is fairly loose, but basically the activities you partake in should help the Cuban people rather than the government. This includes staying at an AirBnB or casa particular, eating at local restaurants, or taking a tour conducted by a local. The government hotels and restaurants are very pricey and sterile in any case, so this is the best way to experience Cuba.
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Support the Cuban People Examples
My support for the Cuban people included my AirBnB in Old Havana, my local driver / tour guide, and purchases from local farmers.
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What to Know Before You Go
Now that your visa is taken care of, let’s tackle money, safety, transportation, accommodations, internet and even toilets!
US credit / debit / ATM cards won’t work in Cuba.
There are two currencies in Cuba, but you will likely only use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) which is pretty much 1:1 with USD…no mental math required!
There is an extra 10% service fee to exchange USD for CUC. To avoid, I got euros in the US and exchanged in Cuba (you cannot get CUC in US).
You can exchange $400 at airport in a confusing machine (above) which scans your passport. My AirBnB hosts offered to exchange at current rate with me, which I took advantage of for remainder of trip.
Plan your budget, bring extra $, but don’t convert too much, as you can’t bring CUC back. (I spent my remainder on cigars at the airport duty free shop).
Tipping: 10% is customary (for good service); it may be included in bill but not typically.
I felt very safe, particularly given that the US State Dept ranks Cuba as higher risk (Just dropped to Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution, in August 2018).
There is a strong police / military presence and severe ramifications for crimes against tourists which seems to be respected. The police seem to be a benefit to travelers rather than a risk.
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid walking down dark alleys at night; try and cut through where the next cross street is lit, stay alert, and walk down the middle of street (main streets such as Obispo in Old Havana are safer). There are bicycle taxis, which may be a good option, especially if you’ve had too many mojitos!
This is a location I would consider getting travel insurance as you would likely need an air evacuation to a U.S. hospital for any serious medical needs.
You really do get to drive around in vintage vehicles. In fact, they charge the same as regular taxis.
You will need to negotiate to get the best price, but I didn’t have any extreme prices quoted. You will quickly get a feel, but a 15-20min ride should be ~$10, but they may ask for $15. The airport to Old Havana is ~$25. I found a driver I really liked and he took me to the airport for $20.
To go 2.5hrs to Viñales, you can pay $100 for your own taxi, which is good if there are a few of you. As I was solo, I took a taxi collectivo which is a shared ride for $25pp. There were two other passengers on my way there and only me on my way back (still just paid $25). You do run the risk of a full car and getting stuck in the back middle.
There are no seatbelts, but besides some torrential rains on a winding road back from Vinales, the driving / roads felt safe.
I didn’t deal with trying to take a bus. I observed very large lines, especially for buses to the beach.
This is my view from my balcony at my AirBnB in Old Havana. You can see the capitol at the end of my street which was a great landmark to find my way home!
Old Havana is the place to stay and great for walking, people watching, and living localexperience. A nice, centrally located place is ~$50nt. Don’t expect luxury, but expect warm friendly hosts who will take care of you and make you feel at home.
In Viñales, my casa particular (homestay) was $25nt for a large clean room in private residence with a wonderful family. I booked via AirBnB (as you can pay with a credit card in advance) but it is very easy to find one when you are there as they are in abundance and clearly marked.
Internet / Voice
Cuba is known to have poor internet. I went in with low expectations, but had confirmed Verizon cellular coverage prior to my departure. I had voice service the entire trip and often 3G data. Make sure to understand your data plan. Even if you think you will have coverage, it is still wise to download offline maps.
You can get a wifi card at an ETECSA office or hotel. Rate is ~$2/hr. It’s not a SIM, it’s a physical card with codes to access the limited wifi networks.Just find an open wifi hotspots. Many restaurants and accommodations advertise hotspots. This does not mean it’s free, you still must use the card codes (you will be prompted).
It seems a silly thing to mention, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t share an example of my, “it’s not Hawaii” comment. I probably mention it because I have a problem with paying to use a toilet especially at a place I’m eating.
A public toilet will typically have an attendant out from with a basket. They’ll have a 1 CUC coin in the basket as a lure, but you shouldn’t pay that much. Keep your small coins as it should only cost $.10 – .20 and you’ll have to fight to get change.
The attendant will give you a couple squares of TP, you will likely not have a door on your stall or a toilet seat. You also cannot flush your TP, but must put in a little garbage can next to the toilet. The odds of having the trifecta of a sink (with running water), soap, and paper towels is slim as well.
Bring your own TP, seat covers, and antibacterial…a door and toilet seat if you have room!
If there was good internet, I’d make a Find a Good Toilet app and be rich!
- Power: This was never an issue. I didn’t need any adaptors. I’d still bring a phone charger and headlamp.
- A/C: My places had fans and wall mounted a/c units, but I make this a criteria in AirBnB.
- Language: English wasn’t prevalent but you could get by. If you don’t speak Spanish, learn basic phrases, have an offline translator app, and make English an AirBnB host criteria.
- Clothing: No unique considerations; just dress as weather and activities dictate.
- Water / Ice: I only used bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth. I did drink mojitos and daiquiris at a variety of places without issue.
- Food: I didn’t eat street food, but ate at many places where a meal was only a few dollars, and never got sick. Unfortunately, I found the food quite disappointing, with my $30 meal being the worst. I did my normal method of eating where others are eating and it didn’t work out, so would suggest doing a bit of research.
- Politics: You will have a much more enriching experience if you understand Cuba’s history and politics. There are a couple great documentaries on Netflix, Cuba and the Cameraman and The Cuba Libre Story. I suggest not sharing any opinions on the Castro’s, but listen respectfully to their views if they share. Treat any negative views as confidential as there can be ramifications.
- Cigars: Ideally, buy your cigars in Viñales from a local tobacco producer. They keep 10% of their best tobacco and hand-roll every cigar. Do not buy cigars from people on the street, it’s illegal and the quality will not be good. The airport and cigar factories are other good options. Interestingly, in Havana, most locals smoke cigarettes as they are much cheaper.
Don’t let the toilets and food scare you off! Visit Cuba before it is Americanized. You’re analytical travelers, embrace the logistics and challenges! Please leave a comment if I left anything out or if you had a different experience.
Related Post: Go to Cuba Now!
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