(This Cuba Travel Tips Blog Post was last updated in February 2017.)
Right now is an exciting time for travel in Cuba. But before you get on the flight to the island nation, there is a lot of planning that needs to be done and many logistics to understand even for seasoned travelers. You’ll find that traveling to Cuba is just a little different than any traveling to anywhere else in the world. There are many idiosyncrasies, customs and regulations you should be aware of before you go.
In our first post about the country, we discussed 21 Misconceptions & Curiosities to Understand About Cuba. We’ve now developed this series of Cuba travel tips that we hope will help in actually planning your trip to this fascinating country.
Table of Contents:
For Americans Traveling to Cuba: Everything You Need to Know
As of March 16, 2016, it became easier than ever for US citizens to travel to this once forbidden country. The latest ease in restrictions has now finally given Americans access to travel to Cuba independently. There is a 90 mile stretch of Caribbean Sea separating the US and Cuba. Although the ocean there is typically a sparkling blue, when trying to understand the ever-changing US-Cuba travel regulations, those waters can become quite murky. We’ll attempt to clear things up for you.
So What Exactly Does this Latest Ease in Travel Restrictions Mean?
Americans can now travel to Cuba for people-to-people educational travel, which is defined by the US Treasury Department below:
Individuals will be authorized to travel to Cuba for individual people-to-people educational travel, provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
So what exactly does that mean?
Travel to Cuba is now covered by a general license instead of the requirement of a specific license. While tourism is still technically banned in Cuba, it is nearly unenforceable to stop you from vacationing there. You can now travel to Cuba on your own without having to pre-obtain a specific license that falls within one of the twelve official categories. Now you can just go, so long as you abide by the somewhat vague qualifications outlined by the US government.
The reason for your visit should be within one of the following categories. But there is no government agency that is checking to determine if you qualify. Now, you decide for yourself if you meet one of the qualifications for a general license. Support for the Cuban people (people-to-people) is the most general category and one of which just about everyone can now self-qualify for. Nonetheless, here’s a listing of all the categories:
- family visits;
- official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- journalistic activity;
- professional research and professional meetings;
- educational activities;
- religious activities;
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- support for the Cuban people (people-to-people)
- humanitarian projects;
- activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and
- certain authorized export transactions.
The lifted travel restrictions are loosely defined, although they do ask that you retain records of “authorized travel activities” for up to five years. When you book your flight, you’ll likely have to tick a box to certify that you meet the travel criteria, but that’s about it.
To legally travel in Cuba as an American, the majority of your trip should not be for touristic purposes. However this is pursuant to US law, not Cuba law. And it is highly doubtful that US government officials are going to be policing the beaches of Cuba looking for US citizens who are splashing in the waves and sipping on daiquiris. So while such activity is technically illegal by the US government, it seems unenforceable. Still, we’d suggest traveling to Cuba to immerse yourself and experiencing the beautiful unique culture, which seems to fall in line with the US travel allowance. Yet, we wouldn’t hesitate to take a tour or have a drink on the beach even though that is technically prohibited. (This is just our two-cents and we’re not condoning breaking US law).
Still, if you want to be extra careful, go ahead and keep record of museum visits and other cultural happenings. And maybe consider not filling your Instagram feed entirely of you relaxing on the beach sipping mojitos. It won’t be too difficult to abide by the latter precaution, given the current Internet situation in Cuba.
See more on the recent announcement on treasury.gov here. And for comprehensive information take a look at the US Treasury Department’s updated PDF containing a FAQ on Travel to Cuba.
How to Travel from US to Cuba
So now that you know that you can travel to Cuba, the question becomes how to get to Cuba. Currently there are three major options. We’ll also discuss a few additional options that are currently not possible or not neccesary.
- People-to-People Tours to Cuba
- Commercial Flights from US to Cuba
- Cruises to Cuba
Ferry to Cuba – Not Yet The Trampoline Method to Cuba – Not Necessary Charter Flight – Expensive & Not Necessary
1) People to People Tours to Cuba
In the recent past, tours that met the government’s strict requirements were one of the few legal ways Americans could “tour” Cuba. While there are now methods of traveling to Cuba independently, people-to-people organized tours can be a great legal way to visit the island nation. These journeys contain agendas that meet the government’s criteria and have even received official approval from the U.S. Department of the Treasury/OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control).
In the past, you would need to take a tour that organizes everything for you including flights and all the paperwork previously involved. These tours were quite expensive and the tours themselves would often be fairly restrictive in order to meet the one of the prior qualifications. Hence tours would center around educational visit, humanitarian missions, research, etc. But now most all tours meet the people-to-people requirement (ask the operator to confirm). Often, you now book airfare on your own and join the tour in Cuba.
If you’re not accustomed to independent travel in other countries, want to have a well-rounded trip that is completely planned out for you, and want to immerse yourself into the Cuban culture, these cultural tours can be great options to consider. Two tour companies that have some interesting itineraries which meets the people to people requirement, have good prices, and boast a constant track record of positive reviews from satisfied customers are: GAdventures and Intrepid Travel. Itineraries start at about $1,000 for a weeklong trip (plus airfare). The links below will take you to each operator’s Cuba page where you can view all their tours, dates, prices, and availability.
2) Commercial Flights from the US to Cuba Are Here!
In February 2016, a new aviation deal was worked out by the US and Cuba for commercial flights to resume between the two countries. There will now be the possibility of up to 110 daily flights from the US to Cuba. 20 of these daily flights will be directly to Havana, while the other 90 flights will be divided up between Cuba’s nine other international airports.
Soon after this announcement, US-based airlines have submitted proposals to apply for their desired routes. Those were approved and commercial flights from US to Cuba began with a JetBlue flight on August 30, 2016. The chart below shows a summary of where the US to Cuba flight routes that were proposed, most of which were passed and this chart still holds (mostly) true now. A few flights have been cut and a few new cities have been added.
If you happen to live in Florida, you’ve got lots of options! And there are some very competitive airfares with fantastic prices. You can typically find fares from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa for less than $150 roundtrip, plus Cuba visa fee and baggage fees (more on that later). Spirit, JetBlue, and Frontier offers the lowest fares. When comparing prices across these budget airlines to Cuba, be sure to take baggage fees into consideration. For example, Spirit charges an extra $30 each checked bag, each way, on most of its routes to Cuba. Despite the baggage fees, these are still some great fares.
We’ve found the best fares to Cuba by searching Skyscanner.
3) Travel to Cuba by Cruise Ship
On May 1, 2016, the Fathom Adonia made history by becoming the first cruise ship to sail from the US to Cuba since the ease in travel restrictions. This paved the way for many other ships to ply the Florida straights and sail from the US to Cuba. We were invited to check out the Fathom Adonia the week prior to its historic sailing. We enjoyed the ship very much (you can read the review here) and their Cuba itinerary is very unique in the fact that is stops at three different Cuba ports during the weeklong sailing. But unfortunately the Fathom brand will be discontinued in June 2017 and the Adonia will be transferred back to the P&O line, with no Cuba sailings on the horizon.
Yet the Adonia will continue to sail to Cuba nearly every week until the final Fathom Adonia Cruise to Cuba on May 28, 2017. Prices start at $1,799 for their Cuba itinerary that has stops in Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba. You can find more information on their website here.
But a more economical way to get a smaller taste of Cuba on this same ship, is to take Fathom’s new “Cultures of the Caribbean” itinerary that spends one full day in Santiago de Cuba and then a few days in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, where you have an opportunity to immerse yourself by participating in their impact activities within the local community. This week long cruise is now being offered for a complete steal of less than $400!
For a while, the Fathom Adonia was the only ship sailing from US to Cuba. But now other cruises have added Havana to their itineraries. It is expected that even more cruises may further join this trend. At the last time this post was updated (Feb 2017), here are the four cruise ships that are sailing from the US to Cuba in 2017 that are reasonably priced:
- Royal Caribbean Empress of the Sea: With sail dates from April to November 2017, the Empress of the Sea is going on a 5-night itinerary from the port of Tampa that includes a day in Havana. The itinerary also includes Key West, Cozumel, and a day at sea. Prices start at $600, plus port fees & gratuities.
- Carnival Paradise: From June to October 2017 the Carnival Paradise is doing 4-night and 5-night Cuba itineraries, also departing from the Port of Tampa. What makes this an appealing option is the fact that it is an overnight stop in Havana (departing at 6:00 am the next day) giving you the opportunity to experience the nightlife. The 5-day itinerary also includes Cozumel. Prices start around $440, plus port fees & gratuities.
- Norwegian Sky: NCL will be doing 5 trial runs in May 2017 from Miami to Cuba using the Sky. Passengers on these voyages will not only get an overnight, but nearly two full days in Havana, as it docks at 8:00 am on a Tuesday and departs at 2:00 pm on a Wednesday. The ship continues onward to it’s private island, Grand Stirrup Cay, Thursday. The Norwegian Sky is unique in that it also includes all alcoholic beverages during the sailing and while on Grand Stirrup. Prices start around $660, plus port fees & gratuities.
- Oceania Insignia: In November & December 2017 the posh 5.5-star Insignia will have a Cuba-intensive itinerary that encircles the island stopping at Havana (overnight, two-days), Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba along the way. For such a luxurious ship, the $999 starting price is a steal.
There are a few other cruise ships that are more on the ultra-luxury spectrum (Oceania, Regent, Azamara, Viking) that are beginning to introduce Havana as a single port call during larger itineraries. But these are infrequent sailings and prices tend to be out-of-reach to most ($5,000-$10,000+). Hence, we won’t cover those in more detail and instead recommend the cruises listed above.
We typically book cruises using Priceline Cruises, because they tend to offer the best rates, you can complete your transaction online, and they offer a $50 hotel voucher to their repeat cruise customers. Also note that cruise prices to tend to fluctuate greatly based on demand and recency, so the prices we’ve listed above may have gone up or down since last updating this post. Search Priceline Cruises here to get up-to-date pricing on the ships listed above.
4) Ferries to Cuba
There have been proposals submitted for ferries from Florida to Cuba. But currently (as of Feb 2017) no ferry to Cuba is currently operating. There have been talks of ferries from Miami and Key West to Havana, but neither have come to fruition (yet). If and when a ferry to Cuba begin, we’ll be sure to update this post. Heck, we would strongly consider being on the first ferry from Florida to Cuba, to test it out ourselves and let you know how it is. Stay tuned. Until that happens, a cruise is the only way to travel to Cuba on a boat.
5) The Trampoline Method to Cuba – Not Necessary Anymore
The trampoline method has been a tried and true way for Americans to get to Cuba over the past several decades. Basically, this involves transiting through another country like Canada or Mexico, using at a metaphorical “trampoline” to jump off of into Cuba. It’s been illegal in many cases (by the US, not Cuba) yet many Americans have successfully used this approach for years.
Now you can legally use this method to travel to Cuba. But it is absolutely an unnecessary step to take now that there are commercial flights from the US to Cuba. With direct flights from the US to Cuba not only being more cost-effective, but convenient, the only reason to use the trampoline method now would be if you wanted to combine a Cuba vacation with somewhere like Mexico.
6) Charter Flights to Cuba – Not Necessary Anymore
Before commercial airlines began operating from the US to Cuba, there were a number of charter flights you could book to Cuba. Obviously this is no longer needed.
Despite their lack of purpose, these operations are still running. Why? They can help arrange a very expensive private charter flight to Cuba. Or they can help put together entire Cuba vacation packages, including hotels, etc.
If commercial flights to Cuba ever become banned again, I’m sure their services will be much more useful. Until then, it doesn’t make much sense to book with the charter airlines since they are simply using the same commercial flights you now have access to booking on your own. Yet, if you want to look into these companies, here’s the four of the more common agencies:
What You Need to Enter Cuba
There are three major requirements you need to have to enter Cuba:
- A valid passport
- A tourist card (AKA tourist visa or Cuba visa)
- Non-US based medical insurance
How To Get a Cuba Visa (Tourist Card)
Although you no longer need to obtain a special license to enter Cuba, you still need to have a Cuba Tourist Card which is also sometimes called a Cuba Visa. This isn’t unique to Americans either. Anyone visiting Cuba must obtain the Cuba visa. This Cuba visa will allow you to stay for 30 days in Cuba.
Luckily Cuba visas are easy to obtain. If booking a tour or a cruise, they are typically included in the price (or added to your price) but be sure to confirm this with the tour or cruise operator. The company you book with should obtain the tourist card for you or refer you to where you can get one. For airlines, your process of where to get a Cuba visa depends where you’re flying from and depends on the particular airline.
For those flying from outside of the US to Cuba, simply buy your Cuba Visa (Tourist Card) directly from the airline on your day of departure. It will cost the equivalent of about $20. When flying from Mexico, we were charged in pesos an amount that came out to $18.57 USD per person.
How To Get a Cuba Visa in the US
If you are traveling to Cuba on a commercial flight from the US, the method of how to get a Cuba visa will vary by the airline. Inquire specifically with the airline you’re flying with to get up-to-date information directly from the airline. Some airlines will sell you a Cuba visa at the airport for $50. For example, JetBlue takes that approach as stated in their Cuba FAQs (but confirm with directly with JetBlue in case their policy has changed). If you are able to buy your Cuba visa directly from the airline on your day of departure, this will likely be the easiest and least expensive option.
Meanwhile with other airlines, you can NOT buy Cuba visas at the counter upon arrival. Instead, some airlines will refer you to an agency that processes Cuban visas in advance of your flight. There’s an added processing fee, of course. Typically this will all amount to about $85, but varies based on airline and agency. Examples include Spirit, who uses Airline Brokers Co. ($85), while Frontier (and other airlines) use Cuba Visa Services ($85).
Cuba Travel Tip: Be Extra Careful When Completing the Tourist Card
You cannot have any errors or typos when completing the tourist card. If you do, you’ll have to purchase another Cuba Tourist Card. So take your time to ensure you fill it out correctly.
It’s a very simple form to complete that only requires five pieces of information which are all translated in English: last name, first name, date of birth, passport number, and citizenship.
As is common in most countries outside of the US, dates are written day-month-year, rather than what you’re likely accustomed to month-day-year. Don’t screw that up. The rookie mistakes we made below cost us $40. (You’d think after traveling to 50 countries that we could properly complete a simple form. Yet mistakes still happen when you rush.)
Getting Your Passport Stamped When Entering Cuba
For decades, Cuba has welcomed Americans with open arms. It’s the US government that has restricted travel to the country. Therefore, when going through Cuba immigration, customs officials have typically not stamped US passports, so that Americans won’t get you in trouble with the US government. They have stamped the Cuban visa instead.
But given that Americans are now traveling to Cuba legally on commercial flights, Cuba immigration has, in fact, begun stamping US passports. If so, there should be nothing to worry about since you’ll be traveling there legally under the newly defined general license. In fact, if you don’t get your passport stamp but want the novelty of a Cuban stamp, just ask! It’s all okay now.
You Must Have Non-US-Based Medical Insurance to Enter Cuba
You are required by Cuba to have a travel medical insurance policy when visiting the country. US-based plans are not accepted and it is necessary that you obtain a separate travel policy.
Some airlines are including a $25 fee in fares that provide you with Cuba medical insurance. Check with your airline to see if this is included.
If not, many travel insurance policies also cover medical which meets Cuba’s requirement. During our trip to Cuba we checked many insurance providers and chose to use RoamRight, as they offered the best combination of pricing and coverage, and also meets the medical insurance requirement.
Even if the airline does include the Cuban-required medical insurance, we highly recommend using travel insurance during your trip for other reasons. Travel insurance will also have you covered in minor incidents like such as baggage delay and petty theft to major disasters like a hurricane (hurricane season is June-November for Cuba) or a car accident. Enter your travel dates here to get a quick quote.
Be sure to arrive to Cuba with your policy printed so that you can show it to custom officials who regularly check for this. If you forgot to get this policy, you may be able to purchase it from Asistur upon arrival for about $3 per day. But to avoid any issues, don’t rely on that.
Returning to the US from Cuba
Here’s a few Cuba travel tips for coming back to the USA.
You Don’t Need to Pay the Cuba Exit Tax
There was once a $25 CUC exit tax that you must have kept $25 CUC so that you could pay it at the airport when departing. Many guidebooks and blogs warn you to retain $25 to pay the Cuba exit tax, but those are out of date. As of May 1, 2015, you no longer have to pay this at the airport upon leaving. Instead the Cuba exit tax is included as part of your ticket price. See Cuban departure tax note on the Havana Airport site for more information.
Going Through Customs & Immigration When Returning from Cuba
When returning to the US, make sure to be truthful that you were in Cuba and you shouldn’t run into any problems. Yet if you were doing any vacation-like activities while in Cuba, you may want to consider keeping quiet about that if pressed by US customs officials. Again, we’re not condoning that you lie to immigration officers. Rather, if asked about the purpose of your trip, we suggest focusing on the cultural aspects you engaged in instead of that day you spent sunbathing on the beach.
Bringing Back Cuban Rum and Cigars into the US
You can legally bring $100 worth of Cuban rum (or other alcohol) and cigars from Cuba to the US. The $100 limit is a collective total between the rum and tobacco. So, for example, you can take with you $50 worth of Cuban rum and $50 worth of Cuban cigars.
Where to Stay in Cuba: Casa Particulares
Hotel rates in Cuba, particularly Havana, can be outrageously high. During our last Cuba trip, we were shocked to find rates in the $300-$500 range per night. Instead, we turned to casa particulares, as the way to go. They were fantastic.
What Are Casa Particulares?
Cuban residents can rent out an extra room in their home. They pay a monthly government tax and allow for regular government inspections to ensure the accommodation is up to par. We highly recommend staying at these “casas” not only because it’s economical but also to meet locals, put money directly in their hands, and simply to have a much more immersive experience in Cuba.
You feel like part of the family and get a beautiful glimpse into local life. Plus staying at a casa as opposed to a resort or hotel will also help to keep you legal as an American traveling to Cuba for people-to-people reasons.
How Much Do Casa Particulares Cost?
For a room at a casa particular during high season, expect to pay $25 per night per room (not per person) throughout Cuba and $35 for a central Havana location. You may pay $5 less than these prices if you come during low season. You may pay about $5 more per night if someone has referred you to the casa.
The rooms themselves can be pretty sparse and some casas were definitely better than others. Yet they were always clean & tidy. But it’s the people and the experience staying there (not the amenities) that really sets them apart from all other accomidation anywhere in the world. All of the casas we stayed at did have hot water showers, air-conditioner, and a private bathroom.
Personal refrigerators with minibars also come standard. Expect to pay $1 CUC for a small bottle of water and $2 CUC for a beer or soda. Casas will also cook for you and it is almost customary to eat breakfast there. Breakfasts are an additional $5 CUC per person, which usually consists of huge portions, heavy on fresh fruit, and of course, Cuban coffee.
Dinner is usually available at casas too. This ranges from $10-$15 CUC per person and you can count on a delicious, home-cooked, and very filling meal.
Book a Casa Particular in Advance or When You Arrive?
We strongly suggest that you at least book your first casa particular prior to arriving to Cuba. Most of the popular casa particulares book up well in advance, so don’t delay in making your arrangements if you have a special place in mind.
Once you get to Cuba, at each casa particular that you stay at, you can ask the person there to phone a subsequent casa in the destination that you’re traveling to next. Come prepared with your own listing or have them suggest a place for you. This method worked extraordinarily well for us. We often put the fate of our next casa in the hands of our current casa host. We were always very happy with their recommendation.
However, with the recent ease in travel restrictions to Cuba, we foresee a huge influx of visitors to the country, which we predict could cause vacancy problems. For this reason, we suggest considering booking all of your accommodation in advance. So how do you book a casa in advance? Read on.
How to Find and Book Casa Particulares
There are a number of different strategies you can use to find casa particulares and book them in advance. We break it down into four main ways:
- Research & Book Directly
- Use Online Booking Forms
- Book Online with a Deposit
- Book Entirely Online (Airbnb)
1) How to Book Casa Particulares Directly
The most basic is to do your own research to find casa listings using web searches and guidebooks. Usually email addresses and phone numbers are provided. Start the inquiry process early to make a reservation. No deposit or credit card information will be needed. Confirm your name and dates, then just be sure to show up.
Some common sources to find contact information for these casas are:
- Tripadvisor: search the B&B listings for you destination and you’ll find a wealth of casa listings, typically including phone number and email.
- Guidebooks: Cuba guidebooks list contact information for some great casa particulares. However, for highly recommended casas in popular guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, expect occupancy issues and potential price increases from what is listed. Hence, you may want to avoid.
- Casaparticular.com: a helpful directory of casa particulares with complete contact information.
- Cuba Junky: lists numerous casa particulares with contact information. Note: do NOT use the red search box on the top of the page. (That searches expensive hotels.) Instead, scroll down to the bottom to access the directories. Cuba Junky also has an app with these listings for $4.99.
2) Use Online Searches & Booking Forms
There are a number of casa particular online searches and directories that you can use to find casa particulares. However, the contact information is not disclosed. Instead, you complete a form on the website, which acts as a third party to reserve and book the casa on your behalf. No money is exchanged online and you pay the casa directly when you arrive.
Some of the most popular sites that operate in this way include:
3) Book Casa Particulares Online by Making a Deposit:
There are a few sites that you can book casas directly online. You’ll tend to pay a bit more for this convenience. Whether they call it a “deposit,” “booking fee,” or something else, each of these companies will take a cut to conduct the transaction. You’ll still pay the casa owner directly when you arrive.
Yet the ease and simplicity may be worth it. Additionally the search functionalities on these sites are nice, which can be very helpful to finding your perfect place.
- Hostelsclub: “Hostel” by name only, for Cuba this site offers tons of casas you can book online and some good search functionality too.
- Homestay.com is a common choice for finding casas particulars in Cuba.
- MyCasaParticular.com Lists many casas although booking fees here seem a little on the high side.
4) Book & Pay for Casas Online Using Airbnb
Airbnb: Works in Cuba just as it does everywhere else. It has great search functionality and reviews. You pay for the room on Airbnb and no money is exchanged with the casa host, aside from extras like breakfasts and drinks. The prices for casas on Airbnb are higher than booking directly, but again, you’re paying for convenience. Be sure to book as early as possible. Booking through Airbnb in Cuba is growing in popularity and most accommodation listed tends to sell out. Bonus: Get $20 off your first Airbnb booking by using this link.
Money in Cuba
There are lots of peculiarities to understand about the currency in Cuba. Being prepared and understanding how this all works may save you hundreds of dollars by the end of your trip.
Understand the Dual Currency and Know the Difference
Cuba operates on a strange dual currency system of CUCs and CUPs.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is used for most things considered “luxury” in Cuba such as restaurant meals, accommodation, booze, groceries in a store, or any sort of consumer product good that may have made its way to the isolated nation. CUCs are the currency you will primarily use when traveling to Cuba.
The National Peso (CUP), is primarily used by Cuban residents, as it is the currency of choice at local markets, street food stands, and other locally-oriented services. There’s not much you’ll need to buy in CUPs. But, if so, many places will accept the other currency, CUCs, and will gladly convert them for you.
The CUPs are worth 1/24 of a CUC, so don’t confuse the two. Always make sure you receive your change back in CUCs. It’s very easy to distinguish the two. CUCs have monuments depicted on them while CUPs have the faces of some of Cuba’s national heroes. You want the bills with the monuments, CUCs. Use this neumonic device to help you remember: It takes 24 men (CUPs) to build a monument (CUC).
Why You Should Change Dollars to Euros Before You Go
At the time of writing, Cuba is still enforcing a 10% tax on US dollars that are changed into CUCs. In March 2016, Cuba signaled that they will be doing away with this exchange tax, which is great news for American travelers. But as of our last update to this article (Feb 2017), the 10% tax on US dollars is still in place.
This means if you are changing $1,000 USD, you’ll be forfeiting $100 to the Cuban government to make this exchange. Instead convert your money to Euros or British Pounds before going to Cuba. Then once in Cuba, exchange that currency for CUCs. This Cuba travel tip saved us nearly $200 during our two-week trip around the island.
You Must Bring Cash, Not Plastic
American-based credit cards and ATM cards will not work on the island. So unless you have a foreign bank account, you must bring with you any and all the cash you anticipate spending. Even if you do have a non-US based bank account, it is still wise to bring cash. ATM machines are very far and few in Cuba. If you do find an ATM machine, it is not guaranteed that it will play nicely with your particular card. And credit cards are accepted virtually nowhere. This is a cash economy, so be prepared and bring lots of it to exchange.
Where and How to Exchange Money in Cuba
When exchanging money in Cuba, there are a few rules you need to follow. Be sure to bring your passport with you to the currency exchange place. If you don’t have this vital document, they will not complete your transaction.
If you are traveling as a couple or a group, only one person cago to the counter window. The bankers will not conduct the transaction with multiple people at the counter.
Cuba travel tip: Make sure the bank notes you are exchanging are in good shape. Any rips in the bills may cause it to be rejected. Use some scotch tape to repair it before attempting the exchange.
Know where to exchange your money. We suggest using the following three places:
1) Do Exchange Some Money at the Airport
When you get to the airport, we recommend exchanging about $100 USD. Consider exchanging more at the airport if arriving in the evening or on a Sunday when other exchange places may be closed. The exchange rates at the airport are a bit higher than in town but it’s not as bad as we’ve seen at other airport currency exchanges around the world.
Exchanging $100 USD will provide you with enough cash to take a taxi into the city and still have some spending money to get you going until you find a bank or Cadeca with lower rates than at the airport.
2) Exchange Money at Cadecas for the Greatest Convenience
These exchange places give you a much better rate than at the airport but not as good as exchanging directly at a bank. Still, they are definitely worth using due to convenience factors. Banks often have long lines and you may wait an hour to complete your transaction. Meanwhile Cadecas seem to be much better staffed, often enabling you to walk in and out without having to queue at all. Also, they have much longer hours. We found a Cadeca in Trinidad that was open until 9:00 pm. Unlike banks, Cadecas are even open on Sunday mornings.
3) Exchange Money at Cuban Banks for the Best Rates
This is where you’ll get your best exchange rate in Cuba. You’ll likely have to wait in a long line that begins outside and continues on inside. Go here if you have the time and you’re exchanging a larger sum of money. Hours are typically limited from 9:00-3:00, Monday to Friday.
How Much Money Should You Bring to Cuba?
It can be difficult to estimate how much money you’ll spend in Cuba, particularly so for your first trip. Since US credit cards and debit cards will not work there, it is absolutely critical that you bring enough cash to cover all of your expenses during the trip. If you run out of cash, you’ll be properly screwed.
Don’t let that happen. We recommend bringing at least 30% more than what you anticipate spending. This will provide you with a safety net should you encounter any unexpected expenses. Also it will allow you to simply enjoy yourself a little bit more without stressing about running out of money.
Exactly how much money you bring to Cuba will depend on a variety of factors relative to your personal travel style, what destinations in Cuba you’re traveling to, the types of restaurants you eat at, how much you drink, whether or not you take tours, how many destinations you’re traveling to, whether you’re planning to buy souvenirs, and whether or not you paid for your accommodation & transportation in advance.
Try to estimate and calculate those costs. Don’t forgot about little expenses too like beers, mojitos, bottled water, musician tips, wifi cards, coffees, etc. Those may seem like minor expenses but they all add up very quickly. Once you think that you have a decent estimate of your budget for Cuba, then tack on at least an extra 30% to give you a safety net. If in doubt, bring more cash. There’s no need to exchange it all and risk of theft is low.
Our experience how much money to bring to Cuba: We brought $75 per person per day and got by fine. We paid for nothing in advance, traveled frequently, dined out at mid-scale restaurants, drank often, stayed in basic casas, and went on many day-excursions including scuba dives. $75 per person, per day covered all of this. However, we did spend nearly almost every last cent. In retrospect we wished we had brought more so we weren’t cutting things down to the wire.
Sample Cuba Costs and Cuba Budget
Here are some actual costs we incurred while in Cuba to help you determine your budget for Cuba.
Cuba Budget: Accommodation Costs
- Private room w/ private bathroom in a casa particular nearly everywhere in Cuba: $25 per room (not per person)
- Private room w/ private bathroom in Old Havana $35
- Nicer upscale casa particular in historic mansion in Cienfuegos $40 (not worth it in our opinion)
Cuba Drink Costs
- 1.5 liter bottle of water: $0.70
- 12-oz bottle of water at casa particular: $1
- Coffee at a cafe: $1
- Beer in corner store: $1
- Beer in restaurant or casa particular: $2
- Common mojito deal at inexpensive Havana bar: 2-for-$3
- Mojito at nice bar or restaurant: $5
- 1 liter bottle of Havana Club light rum (3-year): $7
- 1 liter bottle of Havana Club dark rum (7-year): $17
Food & Restaurant Prices in Cuba
- Street food pizza: $0.25
- Churros from street vendor: $0.50
- Cuban sandwich at takeout restaurant: $1.50
- Big breakfast at your casa particular: $5 per person
- Ropa vieja at midscale restaurant: $7 + tip
- Roast pork at midscale restaurant: $8 + tip
- Lobster dinner at casa particular: $10
- Lobster dinners at midscale restaurant: $10-$12 + tip
Tour Travel Costs in Cuba
- Snorkeling excursion in Playa Larga: $10 person
- Scuba dive including guide, transport, & equipment: $25-per-dive
- 4-hour private horse tour in Vinales: $25 per person
- El Nicho hiking and waterfall day trip from Cienfuegos: $35 per person
Transportation Prices in Cuba
- One-way Viazul bus ticket from Cienfuegos to Trinidad: $7 per person
- Taxi from Playa Larga to Cienfuegos: $35 for taxi ($7 per person, shared with 5 people total)
- One way bus ride from Havana to Viñales: $14 per person
- Taxi from Vinales to Playa Larga: $35 per person
Miscellaneous Cuba Costs
- Tips to musicians at bars and restaurants: $0.25-$2.00
- Hand rolled cigars purchased at a tobacco farm: $3 per cigar
- Souvenirs: Nice wooden handcrafts varied $1-$10
Where to Stash All That Cash
It can be unnerving to be carrying a large sum of cash anywhere. So what do you do with it to ensure it stays safe? While flying to Cuba, we recommend that you keep these funds on your person in a secure and safe place that’s not going to fall out of a pocket.
Once in Cuba, we recommend keeping the bulk of your funds in your luggage at your casa particular, while retaining whatever spending money you’ll need for your daily outings. Theft does not seem to be much of an issue in Cuba. But just as in any large city in the world, there is a nominal risk of being pick-pocketed, so it is best to not keep large sums of cash on you while walking around the streets of Old Havana and other busy tourist destinations in Cuba.
Your money will be secure at your casa particular. Some casas have safes but most of the casas we stayed at did not. Yet, we always felt safe leaving our money there. Casas build their entire reputations on visitors like you and would never hinder that by succumbing to theft. Yet when dealing with large sums of money, it can be wise to take some extra cautions, just in case. As such, we recommend putting your money in your luggage that is secured with a luggage lock like this. This Cuba travel tip will give you a little piece of mind about your wad of cash, while you’re roaming around Cuba all day long.
Tips for Tipping in Cuba
Also be sure to budget for tipping as it is the cultural norm in Cuba. Be sure to tip waiters and bartenders at least 10%, and 15% for excellent service. Also keep small change on you to tip musicians who often play at Cuba’s bars and restaurants. Usually a basket will come by and you’ll be in an awkward situation if you only have a large bill. You should also tip metered taxi drivers. If you’ve negotiated a rate with an unmetered taxi, you don’t need to tip them, although it would still be appreciated. Wages are very low in Cuba and some people work in the tourism industry as a second means of income, so consider being generous when tipping in Cuba.
Packing for Cuba
Forgotten Items Can’t Be Replaced – Pack for Cuba Carefully
When packing for an ordinary trip to some location throughout the world, if you forget an item, you’ll just be able to go to a store and buy it. For example, if you forget to bring a toothbrush, often the hotel front desk can supply you with a new one. Meanwhile in Cuba, if you forget your toothbrush, you may go the remainder of your trip without brushing your teeth! Simple items like toothbrushes cannot be easily found and purchased in Cuba. Therefor it is extremely important that you pack carefully for your trip to ensure you don’t forget anything. Use a Cuba pack list like the one suggested below to ensure you remember to pack everything you need.
Pack Essentials in Your Carry-on Luggage
If you are traveling to Cuba with checked luggage, be sure to pack some essentials in your carryon bag (change of clothes, toothbrush/toothpaste, medicine, etc). If your baggage is lost or delayed, you’ll be very glad you have these items to at least get by for a few days.
Cuba Pack List
Tailor this Cuba Pack List for your own personal preferences to ensure you don’t forget anything. We’ve included links to Amazon so you can easily fill up a shopping cart and have a package of Cuba supplies show up to your door in a few days.
Toiletries to Pack for Cuba
- Soap – Most casa particulares DO supply soap, but bring 1 bar just in case.
- Shampoo & Conditioner – Most casa particulares do NOT supply hair products, so bring your own.
- Hand Sanatizer – Stay clean and germ-free. Consider bringing a few travel bottles of hand sanitizer.
- New Deodorant – You don’t want to arrive to Cuba and realize that your deodorant just ran out. Pack a fresh stick.
- Pain Reliever – If you indulge in too many mojitos, you’ll be glad you packed this for the morning after. Advil is our go-to. Here’s a convenient 10-count Advil travel pack.
- Pepto Bismo – Your stomach may need some time to adjust to Cuban cuisine so pack this pink liquid to help ease you through those days. Better yet, get the chewables rather than liquid to avoid a pink explosion in your luggage. Here’s a 12-count Pepto travel pack.
- Toilet Paper – It is standard for casa particulares to have toilet paper, but you may venture to public restrooms and other locations where the luxury of toilet paper is nonexistent. Pack a roll of TP and keep a small wad on you at all times.
- Medicine – Be sure you don’t forget any medications you require.
- Bandaids or First Aid Kit – Bandages are also in short supply here so bring your own in case you get a cut. Open wounds don’t always do well in tropical environments. At the very least bring a travel pack of bandaids. To be even more cautious or if you’re injury prone, consider bringing a compact first-aid kit. We’ve been traveling with a travel-sized first aid kit like this for the past two years.
- Baby wipes – These always seemed to come in handy in several situations. Pack some baby wipes.
- Insect repellent – Mosquitos can get thick in Cuba and now Zika is here too. So be sure and protect yourself. If you’ll be going in the water consider using natural insect repellent like this that won’t harm the fish. Otherwise, go with the heavy-duty repellent to keep those mosquitos away.
- Sunscreen – Cuba is hot and sunny. Consider SPF 30 or higher. This Banana Boat Sport sunscreen absorbs quickly and is water resistant.
Electronics to Pack for Cuba
- Camera – Cuba is a photographers dream. Pack your camera.
- Memory card – Get a big one. You’re going to take more pictures than you estimate. Snag at least a 32 GB, if not a 64 GB card, depending on your trip length.
- Mobile Phone – Although your phone won’t receive data, having a mobile phone in Cuba can still be useful if you have prepped it in advance with the many offline apps downloaded in advance. (More on that in the following section.)
- Phone & Camera chargers – Your electronics will be useless if they run out of battery, so don’t forget the chargers.
- USB Charger with Extra Outlets – Casa particulares were always short on power outlets. Since most of the devices you’ll be charging are USB-based, bringing a dual-USB power port like this will essentially transform a single power outlet into two so that you can charge your phone and camera at the same time.
- Backup battery – If your camera or phone drains easily, consider bringing a lightweight portable backup battery like this to charge your devices while you’re out and about.
- Flashlight – If visiting any rural destinations in Cuba, a flashlight is a must. But it’s also a good idea to pack one in the instance of any power outages. We love this small yet super powerful flashlight.
Cuba Pack List: Clothing
Cuba is a hot and humid climate so pack accordingly. Dress is casual in Cuba, so no need to bring anything too fancy. We recommend bringing dry-wicking everything to help keep you cool. How many changes of clothes you bring will depend on your length of trip and your individual travel style. Hence we’re not recommending a certain amount of clothing items in this Cuba pack list. Figure out what’s right for you.
Do know that laundry service in Cuba is inexpensive and is sometimes offered by your casa particular host. If not, they can always point you to someone who will be happy to launder your clothes. So no need to overpack.
- Dry-wicking t-shirts
- Bathing Suit
- Dry-wicking Underwear – For the fellas, I’m particularly a fan of this pair of Exofficio boxer briefs that are breathable, quick-dry, odor controlling, miracle underwear. Get a few of these for your Cuba trip.
- Long pants – Although it’s hot in Cuba, long pants will help keep the mosquitos away. Guys will also stand-out less since in the cities most men in Cuba wear long pants instead of shorts. These Columbia Adventure Pants are perfect.
- Long-sleeved shirt – In the winter months it regularly gets down into the 60’s (F) at night and sometimes cold fronts come through which take temperatures even lower. A long-sleeve shirt will also help keep away the mosquitos and sun rays.
- Flip-flops – a must in Cuba whether you’re going to the beach or not. Right now I’m completely in love with these rugged Columbia flip-flops that are ultra-comfy with cushoined soles, odor-free, and have awesome traction.
- Sneakers / Trainers – there are some decent day hikes in Cuba, so consider packing footwear for that.
Miscellaneous Items to Pack for a Cuba Trip
- Snacks – It’s very important to pack some snacks to keep hunger away during lengthy bus rides or big day trips. Don’t pack any fruits or meats, as it will get confiscated at customs.
- Quick drying towel – Most casa particulares do supply a towel but you’ll want to have your own for the beach or just in case your casa doesn’t have towels. We love these compact, microfiber, quick-drying travel towels.
- Mask & Snorkel – There are many reefs right off shore throughout Cuba, so if you’re heading to the beach consider packing a mask to observe the marine life below surface.
- Luggage Lock – While I wouldn’t deem it absolutely necessary, a small luggage lock like this will give you some piece of mind when leaving potentially thousands of dollars of cash in your casa particular.
- Guidebook – Take a paperback guidebook with you so that you can reference . We used and like Lonely Planet Cuba which was recently updated.
- Umbrella – You’ll find this useful even in the dry season. Many locals walk around with umbrellas to block the intense sun.
- Day Bag – Be sure to pack a small compressible day bag like this that you can then expand in Cuba and use it during day trips to carry your camera, bottled water, sunscreen, insect repellent, etc. You can also use it to carry back all the souvenirs you may buy while in Cuba.
- Ear plugs – If you’re a light sleeper, you may find Havana’s busy streets to be bothersome. If so, consider packing some earplugs to help ensure a good night’s rest.
- Gifts – Cuba is void of all the consumer goods that many of us take for granted. Consider bringing some gifts for your casa hosts, children, churches and other charitable organizations.
- Your craving or comfort item – I love hot sauce, brought a bottle with me to Cuba, and was happy I did. With a cuisine full of rice and beans, hot sauce is strangely absent from tables in Cuba. So we bring our own. But better yet, use this as a reminder for whatever novelty item YOU enjoy. Maybe you have a favorite brand of chewing gum or a drink mix you use regularly. Whatever your daily craving is, be sure to bring it. For me that’s hot sauce. What’s your craving? Pack it.
Essentials Not to Forget in Your Cuba Pack List
- Valid Passport
- Lots of cash – See money section for detailed explanation and how much to bring.
- Cuba Tourist Card
- Proof of Medical Insurance – Print this out before you leave. The medical portion of the insurance must be non-US based.
- Travel Insurance– You never know what kind of crazy situation you could get involved in while traveling to Cuba. From sickness & to flight delays, to evacuation from an impending hurricane, travel insurance will keep you safe and avoiding hefty costs in emergencies. We wouldn’t travel to Cuba without it. For Cuba we use and recommend RoamRight travel insurance.
For more packing tips and recommendations, check out our Ultimate Travel Packing Checklist.
How to Find & Access Wifi in Cuba
We had some ongoing projects in which we needed to access wifi fairly regularly in Cuba. While it was sometimes slow and we were occasionally in places where connecting was difficult, we ultimately managed to get online when needed. It just wasn’t always convenient. These Cuba travel tips will help you surf the net in Cuba too.
Using WiFi Internet in Cuba
Although Internet does exist in Cuba, it isn’t easy to access.
First, you must buy an Internet card, which will give you a code to access the wifi for one hour. So where can you buy a wifi card in Cuba? There are three options:
- Endeca (Cuba Phone Company)
- A Street Vendor
- A Hotel
1) Getting Cuba WiFi Card at Endeca
You can purchase a Cuba wifi card directly from the Cuba phone company which will secure the lowest price: $2. However, purchasing these cards directly is not without its challenges. Sometimes there are long lines. Often the Endeca is sold out of wifi cards. Additionally, Endecas are inconveniently located away from a wifi hotspot. Lastly Endecas are only open during normal business hours. With all of these hinderances, you may need to result to one of the other ways to get a wifi card in Cuba.
2) Buying a Cuba Wifi Card from a Street Vendor
There are unofficial people who sell Cuba wifi cards. If the Endeca is sold out, you can usually find a guy hustling these cards right outside the front door. You may also find these guys at hotspots themselves, saving you a trip from walking to the Endeca and waiting in line. You’ll pay a mark-up, of course, but it may be worth it. They may ask for $5 but you can usually talk them down to $3.
You may be concerned that you’re opening yourself up for being scammed by being sold a bad/fake/used Cuba wifi card. While this may be in the realm of possibility, we always received legit cards from these street hustlers. Ensure that the card is still sealed within the cellophane wrapper and has not been scratched off, revealing the code.
3) Purchasing Cuba Wifi from Hotels
Most of the major resorts and hotels in Cuba have a wifi hotspot in their lobby. Hence you can usually purchase a Cuba wifi card from the hotel. Just ask the front desk receptionist. Usually the wifi cards are sold at the front desk with no mark-up at all. Other times it may be a modest up-charge of $3 instead of $2. Yet the Saratoga Hotel in Havana charges an unreasonable $10 for their 1-hour Cuba wifi cards. Avoid.
Where to Find Wifi in Cuba
There are two main places to access wifi in Cuba:
- Public wifi hotspots in Cuba
1) Public Wifi Hotspots in Cuba
Public wifi hotspots can be found in nearly all Cuban cities and towns. It’s usually slow and sometimes can be difficult to connect. And you’ll need to have purchased a wifi card, of course. The hotspots are conveniently placed around town squares and popular thoroughfares. You’ll clearly identify where a wifi hotspot is because you’ll notice that everyone is using their phones or computers.
2) Hotel Wifi Hotspots in Cuba
Most big hotels and resorts can be a great option to get wifi in Cuba. At hotels, you get both wifi and a comfortable place to sit. Sometimes we had trouble connecting to the public wifi hotspots but the hotel wifi hotspots in Cuba always worked without any problems.
And don’t worry if you’re not staying at the hotel. Most don’t take any issue with you loitering in their lobby to use the wifi. All of the hotels have doormen. Just walk right in, give a smile and say “Buenos dias!” You’ll easily blend right in with the other tourists. Still, we’d recommend buying a drink from the hotel bar so that you make yourself an actual customer. And why not sip on a Cuban coffee or piña colada as you check your emails?
Save Your Wifi Minutes: Ensure You Completely Log Off
If you don’t use your full hour, be sure to log out. When you login, you should see a ticket that shows you your time online. On that page, there will be a logout option. Be sure to click through that log-off prompt to actually end your session and preserve your remaining minutes. If for some reason that screen goes away, try typing 126.96.36.199 in your browser address bar.
Mobile Phone Usage and Cuba Apps to Download
You will not have calling, text, or data service while in Cuba. Yet it is still very worthwhile to bring a mobile device with you. Just be sure to have your phone on airplane mode while in the country.
There are a few Cuba apps you need to download before arriving to the country that will help to enhance your experience there and make things easier.
Maps.me was the single most useful app we had while in Cuba. It’s a free app that will provide you with offline navigation in Cuba. We used it to get directions everywhere and it worked beautifully. We used maps.me in Cuba just as if you would use Google Maps back at home. Maps.me contained the locations for restaurants, bars, attractions, cadecas, banks, and virtually everything you could possibly be searching for. We couldn’t believe how up-to-date its listing were too.
We switched on the GPS function to our phone while leaving it in Airplane mode and found that the GPS worked in many places too.
There are a few offline map apps on the apps markets that are specific to Cuba. Many of them are even paid apps. We played around with a few of the Cuba map apps while on the island and found maps.me to be the best. And it’s free!
Important note: Don’t just download the app before you leave. You also must download the maps for Cuba in order for it to work there.
Links to download maps.me:
If you’re not fluent in Spanish, this app is a must. Many people working within the travel and hospitality industries do speak some English, but most others do not. This app can be a lifesaver to quickly look-up how to ask a question or simply to translate and unknown item from a menu. The translations aren’t always perfect but this free little app can regularly act as a key to communication in this Spanish speaking country.
Important note: Don’t just download the app. You must also download the Spanish-English translation pack.
Download the app here:
If you haven’t pre-booked your accommodation throughout Cuba, you may want to consider downloading this Cuba app. It contains a directory of casa particulars locations and information that you will be able to access while in Cuba. When you’re in Cuba, you can call the places to inquire about availability or simply show up.
I’m slightly hesitant to recommend this Cuba app because although we downloaded it, we never really used it much. The app costs $5 to download and does contain casa listings. Yet if you do some research on casas before departing and save that info somewhere, you’ll essentially have the same info this directory app provides. Furthermore, each of the casas we stayed at always had recommendations for places to stay in the next location we were going to, which defied a need for the Cuba Junky app. Still, the modest $5 investment may be worthwhile to have as reference if arriving somewhere without a place to stay.
Travel Guide Cuba Apps
While in Cuba, it can be helpful to have a travel guide to access right in your pocket. There are a few travel guide Cuba apps to do exactly that. They provide restaurant listings, museums, bars, hours of operations, maps, and an assortment of other information you can have at your fingertips.
Consider downloading these free Cuba app travel guides:
- Cuba Travel, Cuba Guide (iPhone)
- Cuba Travel Guide featuring Havana, Varadero, and More! (iPhone)
- Cuba Travel Guide by Triposo (Android)
- Cuba and Havana Guide (Android)
Transportation in Cuba
There are lots of ways to get around Cuba including rental car, very slow trains, a network of buses, and long-distance taxis. For our travel routes and budget, it made the most sense to use a combination of buses and long-distance taxis. The following Cuba travel tips dish out our bus & taxi knowledge in Cuba.
The main bus company in Cuba is Viazul, which offers many daily routes all around the island country. They are modern buses with cold A/C. Visit viazul.com to see current routes, timetables, and even to book your tickets online in advance.
If you have determined your exact itinerary, we recommend booking your bus tickets in advance online. Popular routes do regularly sell out, which will likely become an increasingly regular occurrence as Americans begin to visit Cuba.
Additionally, we found the Viazul ticket offices to have long queues, with wait times around one hour. So you may wait in line for an hour only to discover that your desired ticket is sold out. Book your bus ticket online in advance so that you secure your ticket.
New Cubanacan Bus Routes
A relatively new alternative to Viazul is the Cubanacan buses. The routes are more limited but we preferred the Cubanacan buses to Viazul. They are newer and nicer buses. Your ride even includes a “tour guide” who provides a little bit of background info on the places you’re traveling to. Also, these Cubanacan buses depart from much more centrally located places in Old Havana, rather than the Viazul station which is further afield. If you’re staying in Old Havana, this Cuba travel trip will save you from having to catch a taxi to the bus station.
Check www.viajescubanacan.cu for route information.
Unfortunately you cannot book tickets in advance online. Instead visit a Cubanacan agency or a Cubanacan desk located within many hotels. These bus tickets often sell out in advance too, so be sure to book them as early as possible once you arrive in Cuba.
Consider Using Long Distance Classic Car Taxis
Buses don’t always run the route that you may be looking for, may not be at an ideal time, or may be sold out. If this is the case, know that you have the option of a long-distance taxi.
It can be quite an experience cruising around the Cuban countryside in an old classic car. But while this sounds fun, conditions aren’t always the greatest. Don’t expect air condition and you may be packed four-people to a seat. Despite some discomfort, it’s still a great way to get around Cuba and we recommend it.
You can find these taxis near the bus stations and they aren’t shy about making their presence known. If getting a private ride, expect to pay a bit. But share the trip with other travelers and it can sometimes be the same price (or cheaper) as the bus.
Eating & Drinking Cuba Travel Tips
Make Restaurant Reservations on Day 1 in Havana
Many of the top restaurants in Havana are booked for several days in advance. So if you’re staying in Havana for a few days and have a list of restaurants that you want to try, then be sure to scout them out on your first day in Havana and make reservations.
Also beware that some of the most popular restaurants in Havana attract solicitors who try to steer you into different restaurants. Don’t waiver. The good restaurants are popular for a reason.
Take Note of Restaurant Pricing
Restaurant pricing ranged quite considerably, particularly in Havana. It seemed that some restaurants were charging an exorbitant amount just because they could get a way with it. Beware, as higher prices don’t necessarily mean higher quality.
Always go to a restaurant on your own and don’t ever let anyone else bring you to a restaurant. This is an important Cuba travel tip to remember because if someone does bring you to a restaurant, you’ll be given a higher-priced menu. The person who brought you will be paid a commission that is passed on to you.
Ask to see a menu before ordering. Even if you’re just going to the bar to order a drink, ask the prices first. Otherwise, they may charge you whatever they want. Most places throughout Cuba are honest with their pricing but it never feels good to be overcharged, so just be careful.
The Cuban Dishes You Need to Try
The national dish in Cuba is Ropa Vieja. The spicy shredded beef literally translates to “old clothes,” but this tender and flavorful meat tastes nothing like its namesake suggests. This is a must-try dish for any visit to Cuba.
But don’t stop with the national dish. Another Cuban speciality is the roast pork which is another quintessential dish you should try at least once while in Cuba.
It’s not all pork & beef though. What we would recommend even more so than those two famous dishes is the local seafood that you can find throughout the island. For us, this is where Cuba cuisine really shines. The fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster are all excellent. They’re often seasoned with garlic, onion, or citrus. Other times it’s flavored with a sauce based in tomato, onion, and peppers. Whatever the preparation is, this mouthwatering and succulent Cuban seafood is always served up in huge portions, continually of great value, and never disappoints. Don’t miss out on the seafood while in Cuba.
Skip the Cuban Sandwich
While Cuban sandwiches are available in Cuba, they aren’t ubiquitous nor did we find them to be very good. The Cuban sandwich has been popularized and perfected in the States to a point that you’ll likely be disappointed with the actual Cuban rendition of the namesake sandwich. Our recommendation is to take a pass on the Cuban sandwich and go seek out some delicious local seafood instead.
Pack Snacks from Home
Bring some granola bars, nuts, snack mix, crackers, or whatever you enjoy. During long bus rides or day trips you may find yourself with an empty stomach and nothing to eat. You won’t find any 7-11’s to pop into to get a bag of Lay’s. So bring some snacks with you to hold you over until meal time.
Know Cuba’s National Drinks and Drink Them All!
This may be one of my favorite Cuba travel tips. 😉 Cuba has many delicious national drinks that you absolutely must try while your there, which all contain Cuba’s renown rum. If you think that you already know what a mojito or a piña colada tastes like, think again. You need to try them in Cuba. The four most common national drinks in Cuba are as follows.
- Daiquiri – This isn’t the strawberry kind. Expect a delicious frozen lime daiquiri, although other versions do exist.
- Mojito – This signature Cuban drink includes muddled mint, sugar, rum, sparkling water, limes, lime juice, topped with sparkling water and sometimes finished with a few dashes of bitters.
- Cuba Libre – What you may know as a simple “rum & coke” with a squeeze of lime somehow tastes of perfection when in Cuba.
- Piña Colada – Don’t leave Cuba without sipping on this traditional cocktail made from fresh pineapple juice, coconut milk, blended ice, a floater of dark rum, and a dash of cinnamon.
Stock Up on Water
You’ll likely get sick from drinking the tap water in Cuba. You must drink bottled water but unfortunately it’s not always easy to come by. Most Cubans boil their tap water so that it becomes drinkable for them. Meanwhile visitors rely on bottled water. But bottled water isn’t always widely sold throughout Cuba. In some locations we’d go past multiple places to buy rum or beer but would walk around forever on an endless search for water.
Meanwhile it gets very hot in Cuba. So if you don’t plan accordingly, you may find yourself getting very dehydrated. The casa particular you’re staying at will usually have a mini bar full of bottled water. Expect to pay $1 CUC for a 12-oz bottle. In restaurants and other tourist hotspots, expect to pay even more.
While the $1 CUC bottles may not seem like much, you may easily drink ten of those during an active or hot day. This adds up very quickly and will contribute to blowing through your budget. Instead purchase 1.5 liter bottles at $0.70 CUC, available in most stores, when you can find them. This Cuba travel tip could save a thirsty couple $50-$100 over the course of a two week trip.
Other Helpful Cuba Travel Tips
The following suggestions are an assortment of other Cuba travel tips that we hope you may find helpful during your journey to the island country.
When to Go to Cuba
Now. With the recent ease in travel restrictions, expect an influx of people traveling to Cuba. This will also likely bring about changes to the country as the nation itself is really beginning to evolve. We recommend going now to experience as much of Cuba’s gritty charm and beautiful culture as possible before it changes too much.
High Season vs Low Season in Cuba
High Season in Cuba runs from about November until Easter holidays and Spring breaks, which usually lasts until March. The weather is often beautiful during this time which makes it a great November-March great months to visit. There is little rain and you can expect temperatures to hover from the mid-60’s at night and warm up to the low 80’s during the day.
Yet this lovely weather makes November to March a popular time to visit Cuba so you will experience greater crowds and fewer availability during this timeframe. During our December visit buses were regularly selling out, long lines were a regular occurrence, and casa particularles in certain locations were booking up although it seemed that we were always able to find somewhere to stay.
Accommodation prices are higher during high season. Expect to pay about $5 more per night at a casa particular.
Beginning in May and running through October, it gets much hotter in Cuba and rains much more frequently. Daily high temperatures will typically reach 90 and expect at least a scattered thunderstorm almost every day.
These summer and Fall months are also hurricane season which could greatly disrupt travel plans. Be sure to have travel insurance that includes trip cancelation for natural disasters if booking a trip to Cuba during hurricane season. We use RoamRight.
Go Slow and Plan Extra Time
Like many Caribbean nations, the pace in Cuba moves on “island time.” But Cuba really takes it to an extreme. Everything in Cuba seems to take much longer than anticipated. There are queues for just about everything. Simple tasks like buying bottled water, booking a tour, or getting a wifi card may each take an hour to complete.
Don’t let this be a burden though. Instead, go with the flow. Don’t plan a packed itinerary in each place you visit. You probably won’t end up with enough time to do everything. Or you’ll end up overextending yourself trying to rush around to do it all, hampering your overall enjoyment. This simple Cuba travel tip is important to remember while over there.
Finding Tourism Information in Cuba
Without regular and easy wifi access, it’s important to do your research before you get to Cuba. Once you’re there, you won’t be able to look-up “things to do Vinales” and “best restaurants in Havana.” Be sure to do this before you depart.
Also, once you’re in Cuba and want to Google some travel information but can’t, don’t hesitate to go to seek out one of Cuba’s tourism info offices. We found the representatives at Infotur, Havanatur, and Cubatur to all be very helpful and spoke good English. They can answer all of your travel-related questions and book tours for you too.
Also bring a guidebook with you. We recommend the recently updated Lonely Planet Cuba, available in both paperback and Kindle.
Have a Great Trip to Cuba!
We hope these Cuba travel tips are helpful to planning your own trip to this fascinating country. Do you have any other questions about Cuba? Drop us a line in the comments and we’ll try our best to answer. We also are planning to write some more travel guides related to this fascinating country including what we think is the perfect Cuba itinerary.
Until then, have a great trip to Cuba!
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