What You Need to Know When Traveling to Cuba from the U.S.

My wife and I recently traveled to Cuba, which proved to be a terrific (but hot and humid) experience. As U.S. citizens, however, planning the trip proved to be more frustrating and confusing than traveling anywhere else in the world, largely because U.S. Customs dictates that while you can now travel to the communist country, you aren’t technically allowed to go there as a tourist.

Given the amount of confusion we had, I figured it was best to put to paper what we discovered (and also learned through our friends who went to Cuba a couple months before we did) so that you don’t have to experience the same uncertainty.

First, two things you should know:

  1. The “12 designations” mandated by U.S. Customs is largely bullshit
  2. You should just book your trip like you would any other and don’t worry about the little details that really don’t matter

The confusion on the U.S. Customs mandate

U.S. citizens are required to travel to Cuba for one of 12 authorized reasons ranging from professional research and journalism to religious activities and public performances. When booking your flight and in a few other places, you’ll be required to indicate which of these 12 reasons you’re traveling to Cuba for.

None of these 12 reasons include “tourism,” because tourism technically isn’t allowed.

Don’t let this deter you. It’s bullshit. Bullshit.

A few notes:

  • Select your reason as “Educational activities.” You’ll be learning about Cuban culture, won’t you?
  • No one cares. The Cuban government certainly doesn’t care (they want tourists). The U.S. government doesn’t care (Border Patrol didn’t ask us, or our friends on a separate trip, why we were there). No one cares.
  • You don’t need to a detailed itinerary to prove it. Again, no one cares.

So don’t let the 12 reasons deter you. Just select “Educational activities” as your reason and proceed with planning your trip just like any other–book your flights, book your hotel room, and figure out transportation.

Easy peasy.

How safe is Cuba?

If there’s one thing you don’t need to be worried about in Cuba, it’s not feeling safe. I’ve traveled all of the world and have rarely felt more safe than in Cuba, at all times of day and night.

Like anywhere, don’t be stupid, but the Cuban people are notoriously friendly and the country has very, very low levels of crime.

So how do you book Cuban hotels?

Book hotels just like you would anywhere else in the world: online with a credit card. Unlike most, however, you will have to pay in advance (the benefit being you don’t have to bring cash to cover the cost).

Common travel sites such as Travelocity or Booking.com are fairly sparse on their Cuban selections, however; instead, you’ll have to rely on Google and some somewhat shitty local websites to make your decision. Not a big deal.

Don’t expect the best hotels in the world, however.
From what I’ve heard, the quality of hotels in Cuba are universally lower than in other parts of the world (a four-star hotel in Cuba is definitely not a four-star hotel in the U.S.). We only stayed at one, an all-inclusive beach resort (most outside Havana appear to be all inclusive, so I can only base my comments on my own experience and opinions from friends, but to be frank, don’t expect a whole lot.

The hotel we stayed at (Hotel Ancon in Trinidad) was perfectly fine, with clean rooms (the most important thing you should look for) and a beautiful beach, but the buffet food was subpar and service lacking. Online, it shows as a four star hotel.

In Havana, there are certainly some beautiful boutique hotels.

Don’t stay at hotels. Use Airbnb instead.

If you’re not going to Cuba to just hang out on the beach and eat shitty food, the way to go is undeniably Airbnb. Casa particulares (rooms or entire apartments/houses rented out by locals) have long been considered the real way to stay in Cuba, and Airbnb has recently made it possible to find the very best, reserve them in advance and pay online.

We stayed at two Airbnb’s, one in Cienfuegos and one in Havana, and both were excellent and cheap. The owners/managers were friendly and helpful, and best of all for $5 per person they’ll make you a delicious, homemade breakfast.

Neither my wife and I are big into socializing, but we simply looked for well reviewed places that guaranteed a full apartment to ourselves. If we were to come back to Cuba, we would use airbnb exclusively.

Traveling to Cuba

Getting a visa
You need a visa to visit Cuba, but getting one is easy. You can buy one while checking into your flight in the U.S. for $50.

I ended up buying visas for my wife and I in advance–because I didn’t know any better–through a service called Cuba Visa Services, but frankly it’s a rip-off: you pay significantly more just to have them send you a tiny piece of paper that you have to fill in yourself (name, passport number, etc.). Other than not having to deal with one extra step at the airport, there is no value in getting your visa in advance.

Checking in
If you travel internationally a lot, you know the airlines usually say get to the airport three hours in advance, and you know that that is almost always unnecessary.

When flying to Cuba, however, I would allow a little more time than usual. Not only can you not check in online, but you have to check in via a separate line that is dedicated to Cuban travel. Compounding matters, when we got to the airport there was a long line of Cubans (or Cuban-Americans), all of whom were checking multiple bags, boxes and even large-screen TVs. In short, at least if you’re flying from Florida, allow more time because the gate agents have a lot on their plates.

Traveling between cities

Given that it was my first time in Cuba, I opted to book private taxis in advance for long distance journeys between cities. Likely the cost was inflated by 20% or more, but I view it as a convenience fee.

We used a service called TaxiVinales.com, the only private car service we could find (and which was recommended by friends). Their rates are published online, and while the necessary email communication could use some ironing out, it proved to be a reliable service. You pay 10% or so online and the rest in cash to the driver, who may drive an actual taxi or private car (air conditioning is guaranteed, but seat belt is not).

If we were to do it again, we would probably use TaxiVinales to get us from the airport to our first hotel, but from there on out rely on the hotel or house owner to secure transportation for the rest of the trip. We probably could have gotten a better price for the same service.

Yes, you have to carry cash.

This will likely change soon, but your U.S. credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba, which means you have to carry enough cash for your entire trip (and yes, you can watch longingly as European and even Canadian travelers use the sparse ATMs).

If you’re like me, you’re used to paying with credit cards and getting cash at ATMs no matter what country you’re in, so carrying around a ton of cash in a poor country that has been “off limits” for decades is a bit disconcerting.

The good news: Cuba is so safe you can literally walk around with hundreds of dollars and not for a second will you feel unsafe. Of course, just like anywhere, don’t flaunt your cash, and just because Cuba has little crime doesn’t mean it has no crime – including pickpockets. Still, I felt more cash safe than I do even in Europe.

Consider using Canadian dollars instead.
Technically, one CUC equals $1 USD, which makes understanding prices very simple. However there is a 10% surcharge for converting USD to CUC.

One way to get around this is to withdraw Canadian dollars or Euros from your local U.S. bank (not all do this of course).  It still costs you – I believe our bank charged 0.70%.

You do the math and decide whether it’s worth the hassle.

How much cash should you bring?

Given that you have to bring all your money with you, budgeting is another challenge. We tend to be middle of the road travelers – we tend to stay in budget accommodations, avoid fancy restaurants and do few to any excursions, but also operate on something significantly higher than a backpacker’s budget.

We were in Cuba for seven days, six nights and spent just about $700 USD, not counting lodging to flights, which was paid for in advance. However, our first two days were spent at an all inclusive hotel, so we purchased almost no food or alcohol during that time. Realistically, an average of $75/person/day is a good number to shoot for if you align to our travel styles.

A breakdown:

  • Breakfast: $5 per person (this seems to be the universal price for amazing, homemade meals in the casa particulares)
  • Lunch: $10 per person (though it can range from $5 to $15)
  • Dinner: $15 per person ($10 to $20)
  • Drinks: $2 on average for most alcoholic drinks (cerveza and mojitos) with prices being a little higher in Havana.
  • Museums: $1 per person, though it varies (and in Havana, prices are higher)
  • In-city taxis: varies of course, but taxis are pretty cheap and most cities are walkable.
  • Bottled water: $1 per bottle (expect to drink up to 4 a day)

The long distance taxis are where a good chunk of our cash went: $70 from Santa Clara to Trinidad, $40 from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, and $100 from Cienfuegos to Havana. The taxi from Havana to the airport cost $25.

More about the cost of meals

The cost of food is a bit confusing. For a relatively poor country where many things are dirt cheap, restaurants are often priced comparably to those in the U.S., though even then it’s unpredictable.

One night we sat down for a dinner at what appeared to be a restaurant off the beaten path (usually indicating you’ll get a good deal) that set us back $40, including a drink or two (alcoholic drinks are generally cheap, $2 to $3). The next night, we had a four course meal plus more drinks at a restaurant clearly designed for tourists that cost us only $18, total.

In general, lunches will be around $10 per person and dinners $15, but it varies place by place (see the budgeting section for more detail). Breakfasts at the casas particulares are a reliable $5.

Other random things to know

English proficiency
Outside Havana, very few people we encountered spoke fluent English, or even passable English. Inside Havana, where there are notably more tourists, getting around without any Spanish ability is easier.

Internet and cell phones
No where we stayed offered internet and while there are some Internet cafes, expect to be disconnected during your stay in Cuba. You can get cell service but it’s extremely expensive to make a call.  Data was not available through AT&T and even if it was, you wouldn’t want to use it. It’s not that bad!

Getting around (use a map app)
With no internet or data access for U.S. citizens, and a lot of confusing street signs and meandering roads, I recommend you either download an offline version of Cuba through either Google Maps or the app Maps.Me, which was recommended by a friend. GPS still works so you can always see where you are, and through Maps.Me many tourist destinations are already highlighted.

Toilet paper and el baño
Bring extra toilet paper with you. The hotels and Airbnb’s each provide a single roll, but don’t appear to understand the concept of having a spare roll lying around. Nor will they refill it for you if you’re running low.

Cuba also carries on the awful tradition found in many parts of the world (a tradition that Americans will rightfully never understand) of requiring you to pay for public bathroom usage, often with sparingly little toilet paper. Not a big deal for guys, but for the ladies, it’s a bigger problem.

Of course, you can also slip into one of the upscale hotels to use the bathroom (I imagine this is one instance where it helps to be pasty white and look like a tourist).

What was my itinerary?

Finally, just to give you a sense of what we did:

  • Flew from Ft. Lauterdale to Santa Clara, in the middle of Cuba, on a JetBlue flight
  • Had a taxi drive us two hours to Hotel Ancon in Trinidad, an old colonial town on the southern coast. Hotel Ancon is 20 minutes outside of town on a beautiful, white beach.
  • Had a taxi drive us 1.5 hours to Cienfuegos, also on the southern coast. We stayed at a great Airbnb.
  • We then took a car three hours west to Havana, where we stayed at a great Airbnb in Habana Viejo (Old Havana), probably the best part of town to stay as a tourist.

Hitting three cities in seven days was just about right, though if I were to do it over again I’d spend at least one more day in Havana to be able to explore other parts of the city.

The most popular place for tourists is Veradero, a beach resort area on the northern coast a few hours from Havana; from what I hear, it’s overly touristy and presents very little of true Cuba, but also boasts some beautiful beaches.

I hope this helps!

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