Cuba Travel Guide: Before You Go
*Disclaimer* This is a long post..but it has a ton of good info that will help you out with planning your trip to Cuba.
Or, you can just click the button below and let me plan your Cuba trip for you :-)
Okay here we go!
When we scored our Southwest Companion Pass (which I talk all about in this post) at the beginning of the year, the very first flight I booked was to Havana. When President Obama eased the travel restrictions to Cuba a couple of years ago, I decided that I should place Cuba on my list of places to visit..if for no other reason than simply the fact that it was allowed now. At the time of writing this post, our current President has begun to initiate policies that will make it difficult (although not impossible) for Americans to travel to Cuba again.
*insert huge eye roll*
Americans will no longer be able to travel to Cuba without a specific license from the U.S. Government--issued for the following reasons: family visits, official government business, journalistic activity, professional research or meetings, educational activity, religious activity, public performances or athletic competitions, humanitarian projects that support the Cuban people--(you can find out more about these licenses here) or unless you are apart of an organized people-to people group, which involves signing up with an organized tour through a school, artist commune, or volunteer project.
Basically, you won't be able to just book a flight and Airbnb or hotel, and then make your own travel plans anymore. Which is a huge bummer, because we truly enjoyed the freedom of planning our own days in Cuba.
Once the new policies are in place, you'll only be able to visit Cuba with an educational travel group or through Cruise lines like Carnival.
The good news is that if you've already booked your trip, you're good to go! There hasn't been a date released for when these policies will take place...so enjoy while you can! If you haven't booked your ticket yet, you need to book it NOW. Like right NOW! As long as you've made a travel-related purchase before the policies go into effect, you'll still be able to travel to Cuba on your own. Y
Since our trip was a short one (taking advantage of the holiday weekend), and because we're on a budget, we decided to dedicate all of our time to staying in Havana, with plans to explore other regions like Varadero, Trinidad, and Vinales on a separate trip.
It is important to know that Cuba isn't the type of trip that you can just book the tickets, show up and then go with whatever the flow is. Well you could...but I guarantee you, it won't be ideal. Save that for an all-inclusive. Traveling to Cuba does require that you do your homework, plan ahead and prepare accordingly. So I've compiled a few tips that helped me prepare for our most recent trip to Cuba below:
Getting There- There are many airlines that have daily routes to Cuba from the U.S. We flew Southwest, of course, from Dallas and had a layover in Fort Lauderdale. In addition to your passport, you will also need a Visa and Cuban health insurance to enter Cuba. Luckily, the health insurance is included in the price of the flight with Southwest. Once we purchased our flight, Southwest sent us a link to purchase our Cuban visa, which we did seamlessly for $50 a piece. Once the visa is purchased, you'll pick it up at the designated counter at the airport.
Where To Stay- There are a number of hotels in Havana, but depending on when you go, they can get a bit expensive. We chose to stay in an Airbnb or "casa particular" as it's referred to in Cuba. Securing lodging early is key to having a great choice of casas to stay in. I waited until about 1 month before our trip to book lodging, and with our travel dates being during a holiday weekend, there wasn't much to choose from in popular areas like Old Havana and Vedado. We ended up in Centro Havana, which is undoubtedly the grittier part of the city. Our AirBnb, however, was spotless, comfy, and at $40/night, plenty of bang for our buck. Centro Havana is right in between Old Havana and Vedado so we were never more than a 5 minute ride away from each area. We were able to easily walk to Old Havana...but it was scorching hot most days. So, we relied on bicitaxis (bicycle taxis) as our main mode of transportation around the city.
I will admit, when our taxi pulled up to the street our casa was on, I had some concerns. The neighborhood appeared to be a bit more gritty than I thought. So much so that I started to tell Marcus to have the cab driver bring us to the nearest hotel and we'd just pay extra. City workers were working on the plumbing on our street, so cars weren't even able to drive through. Our driver let us out on the next street over and we walked, with our suitcases in tow, to find our apartment. Once we were settled in, my concerns seemed to fade, and throughout the trip, I never felt unsafe. People are usually outside all during the day and into the late night in Havana. But everyone seemed to keep to themselves and weren't particularly worried about what we were doing.
Currency- Currency is a bit more tricky and a pain to deal with when traveling to Cuba. Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists and the other for Cuban nationals. I won't even get into the differences between the two because it can get fairly confusing. You'll only need the tourist currency so that's what I''ll focus on. American debit and credit cards are not accepted so you'll need to make sure to withdraw enough cash for your entire trip. Then, you'll need to exchange your money to the Cuban Tourist currency (CUC), which can only be done once you arrive in Cuba. We chose to exchange money at the airport as soon as we arrived...which was a pain. The line was ridiculously long and there was no air in the airport. We quickly made friends in the line and passed the time by playing a (loud) game of Heads Up. :-) You can also exchange money at various places throughout the city, but we didn't want to be burdened with that, so we opted to wait.
On top of the 3% currency exchange fee, Cuba also charges a 10% penalty when exchanging USD dollars to CUC. (I told you this was a pain). Knowing that, we exchanged our money to Euros before heading to the airport, and then exchanged the Euros to CUC once we arrived in Cuba. It's worth doing this if you plan to exchange a large amount of money. Otherwise, just prepare in advance for that 13% difference.
Packing- Marcus and I typically pack very light and this trip was no exception. There were a few things that I don't normally take on trips that I was VERY glad to have in Cuba. The first was toilet paper. Toilet paper is a hot commodity in Cuba and unless you're staying in a hotel, it may not flow as freely as it does here in America. I brought an extra roll of toilet paper and it came in handy when our Airbnb host only brought us one roll at a time. Second, was snacks! There really aren't any convenient stores selling snacks and things for those down times at your Airbnb. I packed turkey jerky, granola bars and fruit snacks and they were life savers after a night out or when we were just hanging out in our apartment.
Navigating the City- Since you won't have the option to Google Maps your way around the city, it's super helpful to:
1) speak a little Spanish. You don't have to be fluent but most locals speak very little English. Marcus' street Spanish combined with my proper Spanish allowed us to do pretty well when communicating with local people. Aside from that, I think learning a few words or phrases in the native language of the country you're visiting shows a great deal of respect and appreciation. :-)
2) Have screenshots of your lodging and other places you'll be visiting. I screenshot a lot anyway before I travel and put them all in a dedicated album..because I like to be prepared. This was so necessary in Cuba, because like I mentioned, you won't be able to pull up google maps or Yelp once you land.
3) Download a map or app that can be used offline. I downloaded the Cuba Travel Guide by Triposo app this was a HUGE help during our trip! It has an offline map that functions like google maps where you can pinpoint restaurants and attractions and then navigate your way to those destinations. It also has a phrasebook so you can look up commonly used phrases while traveling.
I know this was a lot of info, but I guarantee these tips will help make your trip to Cuba a little smoother. I'll be writing another post soon about all the things we did and experienced on our trip.
If you're interested in heading to Cuba solo, with your bae, or a group of your friends, Jaunts and Gems can plan a seamless Cuba experience for you! Click below to get started :-)