Travel To Cuba

Cuba Travel Tips: The Ultimate First-Timers’ Guide

Travel To Cuba

20 Essential Cuba Travel Tips You Need Before You Travel to Cuba

Cuba has been an increasingly popular destination for world travelers over the last couple of years. But people from the United States were not allowed to travel to Cuba for over half a century. This was due to a trade embargo, including travel bans, that the US government placed on Cuba.

Before that, Cuba was a major tourism hot spot. In the early 1900s, Cuba hosted more tourists than any other Caribbean nation, particularly during the prohibition era. By the early 1950s, Havana had become known as the “Latin Las Vegas.” But the political turmoil of the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro effectively shut down Cuba for US travelers.

A few years ago, when Barack Obama was president, things began to change. US citizens still didn’t have the absolute freedom to visit Cuba like they would France or Mexico, but visiting our close Caribbean neighbor became relatively easy during the latter stages of the Obama presidency and then reverted to a more difficult process for Americans under the Trump administration. However, Americans are still allowed to travel to Cuba if they follow the current rules, and it’s definitely a trip worth taking.

The capital city is steeped in history and rich Cuban culture. The music is remarkably lively, practically demanding you to dance. The rum is delicious, and the cigars are world-renowned. Many people don’t realize that the country also has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven biosphere reserves, and over 250 protected areas.

But travel to Cuba is probably not like any other place you have been. So before you pack your bags, here are some essential tips for preparing for, and making the most of, your awesome Cuba adventure.

Travel To Cuba

Necessary Documents for Travel to Cuba

1. Visitors from all but 18 countries must have a Cuban tourist card in order to enter the country unless you were born in Cuba, and in that case, an entirely different visa is required. International Expeditions, as an official sponsoring organization, can issue your regular Cuban tourist card/visa or it may be obtained through the airline that you fly and delivered at the gateway city on the day of your flight. Remember that you can’t enter Cuba without a tourist card, nor can you leave without presenting it. A lost card will take at least a day to replace, so keep yours in a safe place!

2. In addition to a tourist card (required by Cuban authorities), U.S. citizens must also travel under an OFAC general license category that fits your authorized purpose for travel to Cuba. The reason for your Cuba trip has to fall into one of 12 specific categories, such as humanitarian projects, educational activities, or family visits.  International Expeditions, as your Sponsoring Organization, will issue your Letter of Authorization in the proper category of license so that your travel is legal under OFAC regulations.

3. Unfortunately, independent people-to-people travel is no longer an option from the United States. Also, the “People-to-people” category of license that travelers once used to visit on their own is no longer allowed for individuals and no longer practical for groups.

4. Fortunately, International Expeditions offers legal travel to Cuba under a different license category and provides all the documentation necessary for your trip.  The “Support for the Cuban People” category allows individual travel and group travel. Cuba can still be a challenging place for travelers, so having professionals handle the logistics can make your Cuba travel go much more smoothly.

5. Medical insurance under the Cuban Health System is another requirement for visiting Cuba, but this is automatically included in your airline ticket. US travel insurance policies are also valid there but it does not replace the requirement to be covered under the Cuban insurance system.

6. Cuba is a year-round destination but among the best times to go to Cuba is during the dry season, which lasts from mid-October and November to April and May. Late July to October is hurricane season in the Caribbean and it can be particularly hot and humid. August to early October is not the best time to visit Cuba.

Travel To Cuba

7. The logistics of getting to Cuba from the United States can be more perplexing than other destinations. Airlines only started to offer direct flights from the US in 2016. And even now, there are more restrictions being imposed on the commercial carriers from the US in that now they are only allowed to fly to Havana and not to other cities in Cuba. Some travelers choose to find flights through Canada or Mexico to different cities in Cuba.

8. Your US credit cards won’t function in Cuba, so you must plan on taking cash. Familiar product brands won’t be available either. Consequently, travelers should plan ahead to avoid uncomfortable situations.

9. Once you arrive in-country, getting around Cuba is reasonably easy, but now that gasoline is no longer available from Venezuela, the prices are quite high. Taxis are available, but prices should be negotiated firmly before you take off. Within Havana and other major Cuban cities, walking is usually a fine option. Of course, for those who travel with International Expeditions as your Sponsoring Organization, transportation will be organized for you and keep you in compliance with US regulations.

10. Havana is an absolute must-see, but there’s much more to the country than its capital. Viñales, one of Cuba’s UNESCO Sites, is renowned for the natural beauty of the mountains, as well as exploring caves and touring tobacco plantations. Cienfuegos and Trinidad offer great glimpses at Cuban history. In short, Cuba’s more remote areas also warrant exploration.

Money in Cuba

11. Unlike most countries, Cuba travel requires that visitors come with cash. No establishments deal with US credit cards and travelers checks will work either. ATMs aren’t available in Cuba (not that US debit cards would work in them anyway). So traveling in Cuba with International Expeditions eliminates most of your cash needs because most things can be prepaid and will make your travel easier.

12. Note also that there is a 10% fee for changing US dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos. Cuban money can’t be acquired outside the country, so getting pesos generally involves exchanging money at a CADECA (a.k.a. Casa de Cambio) or a bank. CADECAs are conveniently located and easier to deal with than banks, so it really isn’t a big issue.

13. Cuba has two currencies: The National Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is valued one-to-one with the US dollar, while CUPs are worth pennies. CUCs are used for just about everything, particularly with regards to Cuban tourism. CUPs are common for bus rides and vegetable markets, but CUCs can be used for these things as well. They are easy to differentiate between because CUPs have people on them, whereas CUCs have monuments.

Travel To Cuba

14. In general, Cuba is a safe place in terms of dangerous crimes. But petty theft and scams can exist here as in any country, especially in tourism hotspots. One of the most common scams is to give change in national pesos instead of convertible pesos. This is unlikely to cause any significant loss, but it’s grating nonetheless. Another scam is for someone to sit down to chat and share privileged information about a party or event, all the while racking up a bill he or she will ask the tourist to pay. In other words, you should expect a request for money in exchange for the inside info.

15. Tipping is definitely customary in Cuba. Even locals who are typically considered wealthy and white-collar, such as lawyers and doctors, become tour guides and waiters on the side in order to supplement their state salaries. Tips, which are typically one CUC, are expected not just by waiters but also hotel cleaners, bellhops, parking attendants, toilet attendants, guides, and taxi drivers. It’s good form to carry a collection of singles around. Taxis without a meter are usually privately owned and, thus, their drivers do not expect a tip. Similarly, hosts/owners at casa particulares (private resident hotels) don’t expect tips, either.

16. Cuba is many wonderful things, but technologically advanced is not one of them. In terms of the Internet, it’s wisest to plan for a complete hiatus from it. It does exist in Cuba, but generally, the connections are poor, access is limited, and speeds extremely slow. WiFi hotspots have been introduced in Havana and other cities, but they require WiFi cards, which cost about $2.50 for an hour of unreliable (but reliably slow) service. Checking email every so often is possible, but trying for more than that can be really frustrating.

17. Your cell phone will work in Cuba but check with your carrier about their plan to make sure you have it. It is very expensive to call from Cuba to the US but not expensive to receive a call from the US, so plan ahead with friends and family. Better, just enjoy Cuba without technology—but note you can have it if you want it and are patient.  Generally, IE travelers are provided with a Cuban cell phone during your time there and all our guides have them so that makes staying in touch with home easy.

18. While rum and cigars are widely available in Cuba, snacks (other than fruit) often aren’t. Most resources go to making sure people have enough to eat, so granola bars and similar things that many of us eat for between-meal sustenance might not be available. If those are important to you in preventing episodes of hungry behavior, be sure to pack enough for the entire trip. Also, it’s important to take plenty of safe drinking water (or a filtered bottle) with you during the day, because that isn’t always available either.

19. When you pack for Cuba, aside from clothing that’s comfortable in hot weather, it’s useful to bring some other stuff. It’s a good idea to have a sweater or light jacket for cool, breezy evenings. Pants are sometimes more appropriate than shorts, and may be required for visiting certain Cuban attractions. If you plan on experiencing the Havana nightlife, a reasonably fancy outfit will help keep you looking less out of place among the locals. You’ll also want to have any kind of must-have cosmetics or toiletries packed as well. Cuba will probably have some version of what you need, but not necessarily the best version.

20. Americans are now allowed to bring Cuban products home, which would have incurred a huge fine not so long ago. That said, the limit for each Cuban traveler is $400 worth of goods, only $100 of which can be cigars and alcohol. In other words, a genuine box of Cuban cigars is probably still out of reach for a souvenir, but a few for later is perfectly possible. Cuban art is another great souvenir with which to fulfill this allotment.

Travel To Cuba

Final Thoughts on Cuban Travel

Due to its decades of relative isolation, Cuba has remained uniquely a world of its own. With its colonial architecture and classic cars, the country often feels charmingly trapped in time, but at other times feels desperate for modern renovations. Though new policies are in place and changes seem to be just around the corner, the country still seems special in this way,

With these 20 tips and a great Sponsoring Organization to keep you legal and to help iron out the rough spots of Cuban tourism, anyone can find their flip-flops scuffling along a cobblestone street in Havana, their toes tickled by the rippling Caribbean current, and their boots crunching along the trails in Viñales. Visitors have an incredible opportunity to interact with Cuban locals and see real communities, getting to know the rich culture in a much deeper and more experiential way.

Whatever obstacles may still remain, Cuba is still a viable destination for US travelers, and this moment is possibly the most exciting time to visit the island. For now, Cuba’s music is still uniquely it's own, as is its art, dance, markets, cafes, and cigar factories. Who knows how much longer that will be the case?

It’s not often these days that we get a chance to visit a beautiful country and meet wonderful people at a very specific moment in time when they are distinctly different from everything, everyone, and everywhere else. People often compare a trip to Cuba to stepping back in time. But Cuba is rapidly opening up to the world. Now, we have a chance to see it before the world changes the country forever. –Jonathon Engels

BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an ex-pat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.