I just returned from an extended weekend trip in Cuba, and I must say that it was quite the experience!! JetBlue had just started servicing flights from Orlando and Miami, and $114 was just too good to pass up. Besides, Cuba was one of many destinations on my bucket list. Because I did not want to encounter any mishaps, I conducted hella research in advance that helped prepare me for my trip. Now, US citizens are NOT allowed to visit Cuba for tourism purposes. The nature of one’s travel must meet the conditions of one of 12 categories of travel. More information on these categories can be found here. I selected “education/people-to-people.” You will NOT be questioned about your selection; HOWEVER, the government has up to a 5-year time frame to inquire about your trip.
Now that you have selected a category that closely relates to your reason for traveling to Cuba, you still aren’t quite ready to set foot in Cuba. Acquiring a Cuban visa and health insurance should be next on your list, but this isn’t difficult to obtain. If you fly JetBlue, the health insurance is included in the price of your flight. Check with your airline to obtain more information on health insurance. The Cuban visa can be purchased at the JetBlue check-in counter for $50. If your airline doesn’t offer this service or charges more than $85, you can obtain your visa from Cuba Travel Services for $85. Now, you’re ready for takeoff. Below you will find tips that will make your life there much easier.
- Take all of the cash you need with you because you will be unable to use ATMs or credit cards when you arrive. You can do this one of two ways. You can exchange USD for Euros about a week before you head to cuba, and then exchange Euros for CUC once you arrive at the airport in Cuba. Though your dollar depreciates when you exchange USD for Euros, you’ll get the majority of it back because 1 Euro = 1.05 CUC. The other option is to wait until you arrive in Cuba to exchange USD for CUC. However, 1 USD = 0.87 CUC. If you choose the latter route and you’re staying at an airbnb property, ask the host if they’ll exchange with you. Their exchange rate should be 1 USD = 0.90 CUC.
- There are two different currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. The CUC is the Convertible Cuban Peso and is used by tourists. The CUP is the Cuban Peso and is used by locals. 1 CUC = 25 CUP. It is easy to differentiate between the two because monuments and statues decorate the front of the CUC, while faces are plastered on the front of the CUP.
- Bring toilet tissue, wipes, and hand sanitizer with you. I try to avoid using public restrooms at all times, but when nature calls… You can purchase a travel-size pack of wipes from Walmart for $1.49, if not less. When I used the restroom at a restaurant on the beach, the toilet did not have a lid and there was a lady outside of the restroom handing you tissue in exchange for a tip. Go to the restroom fully equipped!!
- Access to wifi is limited. In order to connect with the rest of the world, you have to purchase a wifi card and visit a place where wifi is offered, i.e. business centers and wifi parks. I went to the wifi park and purchased a card from the plug for 3 CUC for 1 hour. The next day, I visited the business center to connect to the wifi. There, I paid 1.50 CUC for 1 hour. I had the option to purchase a 1-hour card or 5-hour card; I chose the latter. We visited the wifi park the next day, and a guy attempted to charge my friends 4 CUC for a 1-hour card. Don’t get hustled!
- Depending upon where you stay, a taxi ride should cost you no more than 5-10 CUC. I stayed in La Playa, which was about 15 minutes away from Old Havana, and a taxi ride cost us 20 CUC. A taxi ride from the airport will cost about 25-30 CUC, and drivers accept USD. If you choose to pay in USD, the price will be around $35. ALWAYS inquire about the cost before you get in the car.
- A lot of people are interested in visiting the beach city of Veradero, but this is a 3-hour ride…tres horas!! We instead visited Santa Maria beach, which was only about 40 minutes away and it was just as nice.
- You can’t visit Havana under the “education/people to people” category and not take tours. I scheduled our tours with Tour Havana with Roly and have no regrets. Roly and his staff were very accommodating and available to answer questions at all times. My group toured Old Havana (1-hour tour in classic car and 2-hour walking tour) and Vinales. The Old Havana tour was $35, but it was well worth it. The tour guide made sure we got our money’s worth. The price of the Vinales tour depends upon which package you choose – basic or full-service. The basic tour only includes the trip there and the guide. The full-service tour includes the guide, a tour of the cigar farms, a visit to a farmer’s house, the caves and boat ride, horseback riding, and lunch. We opted for the full-service package not only because it was only a few dollars more, but also because we wanted to experience the full extent of Vinales. Now, you can take a bus to Vinales for about 10-15 CUC but it won’t include the activities, and you may find yourself hitching a ride back because the buses aren’t always reliable. Note: Vinales is a day trip and is two hours away.
- Pack a carry-on. Luckily for me, it only took about 30 minutes to retrieve my checked bag, but I know of people who waited hours in baggage claim!! Don’t be like them!! Pack smart. Lol.
- Be mindful of what you eat. A few people who accompanied me to Cuba got sick…diarrhea, nausea, you name it. Some said it was the water, others said it was the beef. My advice: stay clear of both.
I hope this is a good start, but I know I may have missed something. What tips do you have for first-timers traveling to Cuba?