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How To Travel To Cuba (An American's Guide)

· Travel Tips

Yes, you can still travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen, so if you haven't had the opportunity to see this beautiful and self-sustainable country, I suggest you push aside any doubt or fear and book your flights.

CATEGORIES OF TRAVEL

To travel into Cuba, you will need to select from one of the 12 categories for your travel:

  1. Family Visits
  2. Official Business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic Activity
  4. Professional research and professional meetings
  5. Educational activities
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
  12. Certain authorized export transactions

The easiest category for the average traveler to choose is #8, Support for the Cuban people. A simple way to define this category is this: the money you choose to spend or gifts you bring into the country is supporting the people of Cuba.

FLIGHTS/VISAS

There are a handful of US Airlines that fly into and out of Cuba, we used Delta on our trip to Havana from LAX with a layover in Atlanta. So when you book your flights, your airline will give you instructions on how to obtain and pay for a tourist visa before arriving in Cuba.

Since we had a layover in Atlanta, we obtained our visa at the Delta check-in counter. The visa fee was $50 per person and it was as simple as filling out your personal info and choosing one of the categories from above. Delta agents are extremely helpful in case you have any questions.

Once you've checked in and have your visa, you then have to go to your gate and show the gate agent your visa and there is another form you have to fill out for them to stamp, this form you must keep with you at all times. They will also stamp your boarding pass to show you've completed all documents so that you may receive any type of medical services while in Cuba in the event you need it.

MONEY

This is an important subject that every American should be prepared for. Your U.S. credit cards and debit cards will NOT work at ANY banks, its ATM's or at any retail or restaurant merchants! Please do not try because it simply will not work.

Your Cuba travel will be mostly cash-based. I say mostly because there are a couple of things you can do to avoid paying only cash, which will be discussed later.

Before your trip, plan a budget. Figure out how much you want to spend each day. If you've never had to budget for a trip, now's a good time to learn! While Cuba is fairly cheap, as a foreign traveler in a country that doesn't have a variety of resources, what you will need may cost you more than you think. So make sure you do some research and plan ahead.

Once you have a budget in mind, order some Euros from your bank to take with you. The reasoning is that while you can still exchange US dollars to Cuban currency, you shouldn't because not only will they charge you the standard 3% exchange fee, they are also required to charge you an additional 10% to take your US dollars! Talk about a punch in the gut for being an American, right?

With that said, you will get a better exchange when you take the Euros you ordered from your bank to Cuba. We failed on this part and took Mexican pesos with us because we didn't have time to order Euros, which is still better than losing that extra 10% using US dollars.

There are two types of Cuban currency, the pesos (CUP) and convertible pesos (CUC). CUP is what the Cuban citizens use and the CUC is what foreigners should use. While both currencies look very similar, they are not worth the same, 1 CUP does not equal the value of 1 CUC! So when you are paying for items at the store or restaurants, make sure you are getting back your change in the correct currency. For the most part, I have not heard of anyone having been scammed this way but that's not to say it has not or will not happen. To be safe, always try to pay using the exact amount.

As of the date of this post, the conversion rate is $1 US Dollar to 1 CUC.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Earlier, I mentioned how you can avoid paying cash for certain things. Booking your accommodations ahead of time is one of them. Using sites like Airbnb which is extremely popular now in Cuba will be a savior to help you budget better. Accommodations in Cuba are extremely cheap right now due to the decline in tourism in recent years. And this has nothing to do with the safety of the country, and more so with the lack of knowledge about traveling to Cuba. So by booking through Airbnb, you can plan and read the reviews so that you can safely and comfortably pre-pay and book the right accommodations to suit your needs. Just make sure that you look for places that provide air conditioning because it is a tropical island so it's very warm and humid.

We were fortunate to have stayed at wonderful casa's as they call them, with incredibly knowledgable hosts who spoke English who were able to provide helpful information during our stay in both Trinidad and Havana.

Just keep in mind that because the internet isn't readily available to the hosts 24/7, communication can be delayed so if you have any questions, ask ahead of time.

TOURS

Traveling to Cuba is fun and exciting but exploring it without a local guide can be a bit stressful. So we recommend booking an organized tour in advance. Once again, Airbnb can be your go-to site to pre-pay and book your tours, called Airbnb Experiences. While we didn't do this for our time in Trinidad, we did pre-book an all-day tour from Havana to Vinales for $95 per person which includes transportation, lunch and an English speaking guide. We had an amazing time on this tour and highly recommend it!

There are lots of Experiences to choose from through Airbnb, so I suggest reading through the reviews so you can better select the ones you want.

When in Havana, I highly recommend a day tour to Vinales which is about a 2-hour car ride each way. There are places to stay if you choose to do a longer stay there but a day tour is sufficient as well.

TRANSPORTATION

If you plan on staying in Havana throughout your entire trip, then riding the bus or booking day trips using Airbnb Experiences would be the best way to get around. But if you want to explore outside of Havana, as we did going to Trinidad, then the fastest way to get out of town would be to hire a private driver/taxi or shared ride in a private car. While buses are available, if you are crunch on time, then hiring a private car/taxi is best due to the inconsistency of the bus schedule and the amount of time it would take for the bus ride.

When you arrive at Havana airport, you will be approached by numerous taxi drivers. There is a set fee that taxi drivers are allowed to charge visitors to and from the airport into Havana, which is about $25-30 per person each way and this fee is pretty consistent across the board, so don't be disappointed if you attempt to negotiate for a lower fee and fail. Remember that you are here to Support the Cuban people, so don't stress about it and pay the normal rate. If you are lucky and have a great host who can help arrange a ride back to the airport, they may be able to get a better rate for you.

If you are going straight from Havana airport to, for example, Trinidad as we did, then you will have to arrange for a private driver in advance because it is a 4 hour drive each way. We arrived around 1 PM and had arranged for a driver to pick us up at 2 PM, in case of delays. When we arrived, our driver was there holding a sign with our name so it was a pretty stressless process.

We arrange for our driver through this website. Unfortunately, they don't accept payment online so we had to pay them in cash.

You can also do a shared ride which is cheaper but also more cramped especially if you have luggage. We did this on the way back to Havana from Trinidad. It did save us a lot but it also wasn't the most comfortable ride especially when there was no AC and we were literally cramped in a little sedan.

I would say hiring a taxi driver was by far our biggest expense while in Cuba but everything else was pretty cheap and affordable.

FOOD

We were in Trinidad for 3 full days out of the week in Cuba and I would say the food and drinks were slightly more than what we paid in Havana. Trinidad is a smaller town that is very popular with tourists so knowing the demand, most of the merchants know they can charge a bit more. We were fortunate that our Airbnb host provided free breakfast every morning and during our full-day horse riding tour, we ate at a local farm which was extremely cheap by our standards. We also ate at a more expensive restaurant where the dishes were about $10 a plate.

In Havana, there were a lot more options for food. Some were sit down restaurants and some are just street vendors or hole in the wall (literally) establishments. Our Airbnb host recommended a fantastic hole in the wall restaurants that was about a 2 block walk from our place. There are no signs or a name to this restaurant, it was just a counter where you can order the food, and a couple of tables to sit at. Only the locals know this place exists! Each plate of food costs about $5 each and includes meat, rice, and plantains. There was a variety of meats to choose from. We enjoyed this place so much that we ate here 80% of the time we were in Havana!

If you enjoy going to bars, the drinks are fairly cheap. The cheapest drinks are anything that contains rum, naturally because they produce their own rum so it's easily available. I don't think I've drunk so much pina colada and mojitos as much as I did while in Cuba!

Be aware that grocery stores, convenience stores are hard to come by. So cooking your own food is nearly impossible, so the best thing to do is eat out. Fast food restaurants are non-existent!

If at any time you see something you may want later, buy it right away because you never know when you will see it again. Cuba is self-sustained with only things they can produce so for everything else, it's very scarce.

SIGHTSEEING

You can easily walk around Trinidad or Havana by yourself without a tour guide but having a local take you around is definitely the best way to see the cities and learn about the culture.

LOCAL TIPS

We always ask our Airbnb hosts for food recommendations, local bars for cheap drinks and must-see places because they can give you the best tips and recommendations that are not full of tourists.

LANGUAGE

If you don't speak Spanish, don't worry, most Cubans in the tourist industry speak English and it's not hard to get around not knowing the language. Besides, Cubans speak rather fast and seem to have a little bit of a different dialect than other Spanish speaking countries so it's already hard to understand them!

WIFI

They're nonexistent at private Airbnbs, they may have them at hotels (which you shouldn't be staying at because remember, you're Supporting the Local People, not their government). To get access to Wifi, you have to buy special internet cards which are sold at specific locations. Each card costs $1 each and is good for 1 hour. You have to go to a public Wifi park to use them, and you can usually tell where those parks are because you will see a ton of people sitting around on their phones. If you don't need to use the internet for the entire 1 hour, you can pause it and use it later.

For the entire week, we were in Cuba, I only used the internet for a total of 3 hours! It was a refreshing way to digital detox!

CIGARS

Yes, you can buy them for personal use. You are allowed to bring up to 200 per person (it's what was told to us by US customs officer). We only brought back 24 to give away as gifts. The best and cheapest way to buy Cuban cigars is at the cigar farms in Vinales, this is why doing a trip there is important if you want to bring back some cigars. Otherwise, if you are buying them at the cigar shops in the city, you will pay a hell of a lot more! We looked up the price of the cigars we purchased online and they were being sold for $30 each, while we only paid $50 total for all 24!

SOUVENIRS

Look for small shops or street vendors for souvenirs. They are pretty cheap and will sometimes negotiate the price if you buy a little more. But because magnet, keychains, shot glasses...etc are already cheap, support the shop owners and don't worry about having to pay $5 for 5 magnets.

PHOTOGRAPHY/VIDEOGRAPHY

The Cuban people are extremely nice and if they see you take photos or recording, they almost always want to jump in and smile or dance for you! So don't be shy about bringing your camera out! Just don't bring your drone with you! It's absolutely not allowed in Cuba!

Cuba is a beautiful place with extremely friendly people. Most of the citizens have never been outside of their country but they are the most welcoming people I know. They love to sing, dance and will talk to you to learn more about you and your country. We never felt unsafe even walking in from the bars to our Airbnb in the middle of the night.

When planned right, you will have an amazing trip!

Are you planning a trip? Or have you been to Cuba already and have some tips you'd like to share? Comment below!

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