With the reformation of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the Caribbean island will quickly become a hot travel destination. While other nationalities have been traveling to the country for years, advice about traveling to Cuba, especially on your own, is not easy to find. I hope that this post provides you with the basic information that you need to know before traveling to this beautiful country, particularly if you do not plan to go with an organized group or stay at a resort. In my next post, I will describe my actual experience in Cuba as well as include more photos of the places I visited.
How to Travel to Cuba as an American
At the time I went to Cuba, the US had not yet authorized travel to the island, so I entered Cuba via a Canadian flight. First, I purchased a flight from my US destination to Canada, and then purchased a separate ticket from Air Canada to Cuba. However, soon there will be much simpler and cheaper options.
Flights can be booked through various agencies here:
Ferry Service from Florida to Cuba: http://cubakat.com/
If you do not want to wait for more mainstream options to appear (I recommend going as soon as possible), the trip through Canada (or Mexico) is an easy option to consider.
Book flights from Canadian destinations to Cuba here: http://vacations.aircanada.com/
Book flights from Mexican destinations to Cuba here: http://aeromexico.com/en/travel-with-aeromexico/destinations/central-america/havana/?site=us
I did not need a visa – everyone is given a Cuban Tourist Card on the flight (the card costs $20-$25 but was included with my flight so do not lose it). The tourist card acts as your identification during your stay and must be kept on you at all times.
Cuban money can be confusing because there are actually two different currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Local Cuban Peso (CUP).
The convertible Peso (CUC) is the most common currency used by tourists and is used to pay for 99% of your purchases in Cuba. The CUC is aligned to the American dollar at the rate $1 = 1 CUC.
The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the currency used by local Cubans and can be used to pay at local Cantinas and other off the beaten path events. The CUC has a varying exchange rate like other currencies but usually $1 = 20-30 CUP. I recommend getting your hands on the CUP to buy food and drinks at local cantinas as the currency is extremely devalued compared to the dollar. You can get a coffee for 1 CUP which roughly translates to only 5 cents! Sandwiches and other quick snacks can be purchased for around 30-40 CUP, only $1-$2.
Check current exchange rates here:
Health Insurance is required for entry into Cuba – I purchased at the airport for $3/day after getting off plane and before entering country. I recommend this as it was much cheaper than purchasing online beforehand, but if you want to have it before you go, you can find a list of coverage options here:
I tend to stay away from hotels and resorts, preferring a more authentic experience. I recommend booking Casa Particulares which are basically cheap bed & breakfasts where you rent a room in a local’s house. They offer to cook you meals, give salsa lessons, and act as your guides to their city. I found the hosts who responded to my emails about their casas to be very helpful in providing me information about their city and Cuba in general.
Getting Around Cuba
I found the best and most economical way to get around Cuba was by bus ($10-$30 per trip). At first I was skeptical of the reliability and condition of the transportation, but the buses were always on time, air conditioned, and in very good condition. I was even able to purchase tickets easily beforehand from the US here:
Taxis are also very affordable for long distance travel compared to other countries – it’s not uncommon to take a 2-3 hour taxi ride, something you would never consider in another country. Car rental is an option, but Cuba has strict rules and regulations if you are involved in an accident – I recommend relying on others to drive you around.
Most budget travelers tend to stay away from restaurants for every meal, but I’m happy to say that dining out is an option for every meal in Cuba. Meals are extremely cheap and delicious, with entrees in respectable restaurants ranging from $5 to $10. You can also find cheaper food at local cantinas – pay with small denominations of the CUC and you will receive CUP in return. Because supermarkets are basically non-existent, eating at out at restaurants or at your Casa Particular are your go-to options for food.
Take advantage of the cheap and delicious cocktails (Cuba Libre, Mojito, etc) ranging from only $2-$4 and large shots of rum as low as $0.50. Beer is also a good option, usually costing around $2-$3. If you want an even cheaper option, purchase alcohol from a local shop, with 750mL bottles of Havana Club Rum costing as low as $5!
With cigars being one the most popular souvenirs purchased in Cuba, you will be given many opportunities to purchase them – some good and some bad. I recommend avoiding the offers you receive from locals on the street to buy discount cigars, as most of the time they are fake, with a little bit of tobacco rolled up in a dried banana leaf. Therefore, I suggest you only buy from a certified store or directly from the farmer.
While the store is an easier option, legitimate cigars will cost you between $15-$20 each. If you are traveling to Viñales, I recommend you take a trip to visit a local farmer and purchase directly from him. I was able to see the cigars being rolled, and then purchase them for only $3 each directly from the farm!
Visitors to Cuba can bring back $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 of cigars and alcohol combined.
Internet and Phone Access
Internet access is currently not allowed in private residences, so if you are staying at Casa Particular and not a resort, you will need to go to a local internet/phone cafe to purchase calling cards/internet access. Ask your Casa Host / local guide to direct you to the nearest internet cafe if this is the case.
Here is information on which American cell phone carriers will work in Cuba:
Check back for my next post of photos and stories to describe my experience in Cuba!