Traveling to Cuba is a bit of a mystery for most, but it’s time to take the mystery out of it and enjoy this beautiful country and its vibrant culture!
While citizens from other countries have been able to enjoy Cuba for many years, the tense political relations between the US and Cuba made it difficult for American’s to visit this island nation. However, former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro began what has been infamously deemed the Cuban Thaw.
Now that Americans can travel to Cuba, along with citizens from most other countries, it’s time to pack your bags and head to this tropical paradise! But don’t leave just yet, because traveling to Cuba isn’t as easy as traveling to other countries. For that reason we have compiled an extensive list of Cuba travel tips which you need to keep in mind if you’re planning to visit the country.
Cuba Travel Tips: Before You Leave
1. Best time to visit Cuba
As Cuba is located in the Caribbean, weather can have a huge impact on your trip. November to March is slightly cooler and drier (when most people travel), May to June is the wet season (humidity is quite high) and July to November is hurricane season. Choose wisely! You could also plan your trip around a unique festival in Cuba such as New Years.
2. Buying plane tickets
For American travelers, recent political events mean that Havana is the only airport which US airlines can fly to starting on December 10th, 2019. This is sure to have an impact on flight availability and prices. For finding the best prices on flights to Havana, we recommend using Skyscanner.com. Keep in mind you may have to call the airline as many airlines don’t allow you book trips to Cuba via the internet.
3. Cuba Tourist Card / Cuban Visas
The vast majority of nationalities require a Cuban Tourist Card to enter into Cuba. Different from a Cuban visa which is required for just a few African and Middle Eastern countries, the Cuban Tourist Card is essential for entering the country.
You can request your card online from sites such as Cuba Visa Services (best option for pink cards for those traveling from the US) and Easy Tourist Card (best option for green cards for those traveling to Cuba from anywhere except the US).
Many airlines also allow you to purchase the card right at the gate, but be sure and contact your airline to double check that this is a service they provide. Lines can also be long at the airport, so keep that in mind if you choose this option.
4. Medical Insurance
When traveling to Cuba you must have travel medical insurance or else you won’t be allowed to enter the country. At customs they will do random spot checks, and if you can’t provide proof of travel medical insurance for Cuba you will have to buy it there which will most likely be more expensive than if you found it on your own accord. Some airlines have health insurance built into the cost of their flights to Cuba, but be sure and confirm this with your airline before traveling.
5. Book housing in advance
You have two primary options of housing in Cuba: hotels and casas particulares (private homes). Hotels such as the Blau Varadero Hotel or Hotel Blau Arenal Habana Beach are two great options for enjoying the beauty of Cuba while relaxing in a comfortable and controlled environment.
Casas particulares in Cuba are also a great option as they may be cheaper and also allow you to experience the authentic side of the country. Similar to a bed-and-breakfast, you can usually find options for $20-$30 a night, and that may also include breakfast and dinner!
6. Book tours in Cuba beforehand
There are two primary reasons for this: (1) the internet can be hard to come by and (2) tours usually sell out. To ensure you get to do everything you want while in Cuba, we highly advise booking your tours well in advance.
Where do we even start?! Cuba is certainly a unique destination when it comes to money.
- Understanding the Cuban currency
Cuba has two official currencies, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is designed for tourists, and is aligned with the USD 1:1. The CUP, which is designed for the locals, currently exchanges at 1:25.
- Bring cash to Cuba…lots of it
You’ll want to bring plenty of cash, especially if you’re American, as the vast majority of US credit and debit cards are not currently accepted in Cuba due to the current political climate. Don’t get caught without a source of money!
If possible, bring Euros (€) or GBP (£) as they get the best exchange rates. With USD ($) you’ll have to pay an extra 13% fee on top of the exchange/bank fees.
- Where to exchange money
You can’t get Cuban currency in advance, so you will have to exchange your money once there. You can do so at banks, hotels and government currency exchange houses (CADECA). CADECA offices are generally the most trustworthy and secure places to exchange your money.
Important: You cannot use CUC at the Cuban airports, so be sure to change your money back before you leave as lines at the CADECA offices in the airports are generally very long.
- Always carry cash on you
This should be no surprise to you at this point, but you should always have cash on you. However, don’t bring all your cash with you. Take what you think you will need for the day (plus a little more) and leave the rest at your hotel or casa particular just in case anything should happen.
8. Downloadable Maps
Yes, bartering in Cuba exists! The main areas to barter are markets which generally sell things designed for tourists. Items which may interest the locals are pens, tinned tuna, bathroom amenities such as soap and American clothing brands. It’s a fun way to interact with the locals while at the same time giving them something they truly want and can use.
10. Photocopies of all documents
You should do this whenever you travel, but especially in Cuba due to the lack of internet. These documents include passports, plane tickets, booking confirmation for hotels and tours, and in the case of Cuba, your travel medical insurance.
11. Learn some basic Spanish
This will not only help you get around, but also shows that you respect Cubans and their culture. All you need are some basic travel phrases to get around. We also advise downloading a language app to use offline such as Google Translate in case of emergencies. Be aware that few locals know English so it is wise of you to be prepared.
12. Cuba packing list
If possible, we highly advise traveling with cabin luggage only. This way you don’t have to worry about lost or damaged luggage, or hauling it through the tiny doorways of Cuban buildings. If you’ll be staying at a casa particular, we recommend packing items such as sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner and bug spray. These items can either be hard to find or very expensive outside of the all-inclusive resorts.
13. Packing – What not to bring
Beyond the basics of things you can’t bring (i.e. guns, drugs, knives, etc), Cuba has several unique restrictions with regards to what can and cannot enter the country. First and foremost, literature which is critical of the government will not be allowed into Cuba. Technology items such as walkie talkies, satellite phones, handheld GPS devices and drones will also be confiscated. Another important item not to bring with you is adult material such as pornography.
14. Electrical outlets / converters
The vast majority of Cuba electrical outlets are Type A and Type B, the same type as in America. At some hotels and resorts you may find Type C sockets which are common in Europe, but don’t count on it. If you’re coming from Europe or elsewhere which uses different power outlets, buy a plug adaptor.
15. Take note of hospitals and embassies in the area
Take note of the following just in case you may find yourself in an emergency:
- Police Department: 106
- Fire Department: 105
- US Embassy in Cuba (Havana): +53 7 839 4100 (dial 1 to speak with an operator if it’s after-hours)
- Canadian Embassy in Cuba (Havana): +53 7 204 2516
- Hospitals in Cuba for Expats and Tourists
Cuba Travel Tips: Once You Are There
16. Cuban Airports
From your departing destination, whether it be the United States or elsewhere, give yourself plenty of time. Cuba isn’t like many other travel destinations, and that means things may just take longer. We advise arriving roughly three hours before your departure time.
Now, the airports in Cuba are a whole different beast. You should without a doubt arrive three hours before your flight, if not earlier. The easiest way to get to the airport in Cuba is via taxi, so make sure you either arrange it beforehand or give yourself enough “wiggle room” in case things don’t go according to plan. With regards to changing money back, we advise doing it before you get to the airport, but if you have to do it at the airport be ready for long lines.
17. Tipping in Cuba
The tipping culture in Cuba is very important, and you should be ready to leave tips in places such as hotels, restaurants, museums, tours and shops. Tipping is not only a big part of many employees income in the service industry, but also shows your gratitude for the work they do. Below are some pointers for tipping:
- Hotel Maids: 1 CUC/night
- Hotel Bellboys: 1 CUC at check-in and check-out
- Bartenders / Waiters (Waitresses): 10% minimum
- Tour Guides: 1 – 5 CUC depending on the service
- Taxi Drivers (state run): 1 – 3 CUC
- Stores: round up to the nearest dollar
- Street Artists: 0.5 – 2 CUC
**Important: Always be sure and carry small bills/change on you as asking to break larger bills is complicated and can be awkward.
18. Eating Out
If you won’t be staying in an all-inclusive resort or if you won’t be eating at your casa particular, you have two options of dining: private restaurants (paladars) or state-run restaurants. Food from the state-run establishments tends to be a bit more bland, so we highly recommend eating at paladars. This is a great way to give back to the locals and try authentic Cuban food with a bit more taste.
**Important: We advise staying away from street vendors. Hygiene and food contamination is much more prevalent with street vendors, and while the food may appear delicious and cheap, we’d rather you be safe than sorry.
19. Drinking Water
Plain and simple, only drink bottled water! Drinking water in Cuba from the tap is not safe.
There are a variety of options for transportation in Cuba, and your choice will most likely depend on budget and/or the distance you’re traveling.
- Bus – The island is fairly well connected via the Viazul buses. Be sure and buy your tickets online well in advance as they sell out quickly. Print your ticket and show up at least 30 minutes before your departure time to check-in.
- Taxis – You’ll find state-run taxis (you’ll know because they have a meter) and private taxis (here you can arrange the price beforehand).
- Shared Taxis – Usually found waiting by bus stations to pick up those passengers who don’t have a ticket. Great option and usually cheaper and faster.
- Hiring a car and driver – It’s technically illegal for Americans to rent cars (since they are state-run outfits), so renting a car with a driver is a great option. It can actually come out cheaper than renting a car, and you’ll have a driver who knows the roads.
- Vintage Taxis – These taxis have select routes and are more for sightseeing during a short period of time (an hour for example) versus daily transport.
- Walking – Cities like Havana are very walkable, and for that reason we advise you download a map offline so you can get around by foot.
Be ready for a technology detox while in Cuba! Quality, widely-available internet is not something you’ll find unless you’re at a luxury resort or hotel. Otherwise, you’ll need to find an internet hotspot in Cuba which have been installed by the local telecommunications company (ETECSA).
In order to use the internet in Cuba in the public wifi zones you’ll need to buy a NAUTA card from the ETECSA offices. Be prepared for long lines at the offices, and also be sure and bring your passport as they’ll need it when you purchase the card. Currently, 1 hour of internet costs 1 CUC, so you may want to buy several cards at a time. You can also buy cards on the black market from people around the public hotspot zones, but be prepared to pay an inflated price.
The wifi in Cuba has limited bandwidth so you’ll really only be able to check emails, other messaging apps and perform basic web searches.
22. Is Cuba safe?
Cuba is a very safe country, and violent crimes are very rare. However, do be aware of petty crimes such as theft and pickpocketing, while scams in Cuba are also very prevalent. Here are a few basic tips for your trip:
- Money belts are a great defense against pickpocketing
- Stay away from poorer neighborhoods
- Be humble and keep your jewelry and nice phones at home
- Stay away from political debates/conversations
- Simply use common sense
We recommend hiring reputable tour guides in Cuba from reputable tour companies rather than from people on the street who claim they are guides. It may cost you more, but you know you’ll be receiving what you paid for. And as already mentioned, we highly advise booking tours before you leave due to the poor internet quality and the fact that they can sell out quickly.
24. Toilet paper
Finding toilet paper in public bathrooms is hard to come by, so it’s always advisable to carry some toilet paper or tissues on you just in case.
25. Cuban cigars
Most people hear Cuba and think of cigars. Two pointers for you when it comes to indulging in these famous delicacies: (1) buy from official shops as street vendors may be selling “fake” cigars and (2) you can only take 50 cigars with you when you leave.
Be sure and keep topics such as the government, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro out of conversations. It can either escalate to a dangerous point, make people uncomfortable or even be reported to police.
27. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Cuba most likely is quite different from your home country, so just be ready for it. Here are a few things you may find and should just let slide:
- Long lines
- Availability of the entire menu at restaurants
- High-quality service
- Catcalling women
28. Customs – choose the right category
For Americans, travelling to Cuba is new to the general populous. However, the government has told us that we can only travel to the island nation under 11 circumstances. Also referred to as a “General License,” these are the 11 categories you can choose upon returning to the US:
- Family Visits
- Journalistic Activity
- Professional Research and Meetings
- Religious Activities
- Public Performances, Clinics, Workshops, Exhibitions, Athletic and Other Competitions
- Support for the Cuban People
- Humanitarian Projects
- Activities of Private Foundations or Research or Educational Institutes
- Official Business of the U.S. Government, Foreign Governments and Certain Intergovernmental Organizations
- Exportation, Importation or Transmission of Information
- Authorized Export Transactions
The most likely category which will suit your trip is “Support for the Cuban People.” This includes things like staying in casas particulares, engaging with local businesses, eating at local restaurants (paladares) and avoiding transactions at military-owned businesses.
29. More specific tips for Americans traveling to Cuba
- Don’t spend money at these Cuban establishments as they are under the control of, or acting on the behalf of, the Cuban military
- Keep records of your purchases just in case you are asked for them upon re-entry to the US
Well there you have it, our 29 top travel tips for Cuba! While this list could easily reach 50+ travel tips if we were to dig into the tiny details, we feel these are the most important points that you’ll need for your next vacation to Cuba.
Oh wait, we forgot one…30. Have a great time and enjoy the culture and people! That’s the reason we travel, so don’t let this go to the wayside even though you may encounter things different from other trips you’ve been on. ¡Que tengas un buen viaje!