Planning my trip to Cuba was a little frustrating because there were so many conflicting tips out there and travel regulations kept changing and it’s only going to be five days and what if I run out of money and maybe I should’ve gone to a travel agency and aahhhh!! Laws for travel to Cuba change so frequently that information I found in articles published even just a month or two prior were already outdated. Well screw me. I would’ve backed out if my ticket wasn’t nonrefundable. Speaking of which, let’s start there.
We booked our flight to Cuba through Aeromexico. We had a short layover in Mexico City going to Cuba and two stops in Cancun and Guadalajara coming back (there weren’t any nonstop flights when we booked). We booked two months in advance because we wanted to avoid a price spike since December is Cuba’s high season. Being the masochist that I am, I decided to check ticket prices again two weeks before our trip and lo and behold, they had direct flights that were over $100 cheaper than the ones I got. Mistake numero uno.
Book a direct flight if you can. Layovers in Mexico are a bitch. Each time we got off the plane, we had to get our bags from baggage claim, re-check them in and find our new gate. All within an hour.
Also remember that you also have to fill out an immigration form and go through immigration in any country you stop in on your way to Cuba, and then again in Cuba.
What are the “12 categories of authorized travel?”
It’s technically still illegal to travel to Cuba solely for tourist activities and you can technically only travel to Cuba for one of 12 reasons (all listed here). I traveled for “people-to-people educational travel” because it’s the most vague and the easiest to qualify for. From what I understand, however, the government is pretty lenient about traveling to Cuba and there are no government agencies keeping tabs on what activities U.S. citizens partake in. I do recommend saving receipts and records for all your activities for a few years just in case.
Short answer: no, you don’t need to apply for an actual license. All you have to do is check the box for one of the 12 categories (I think it pops up when you book your flight) and that’s literally it. Just click “educational activities” and don’t overthink it.
What are the entry requirements for traveling to Cuba?
Travel insurance from a CUBAN insurance company. There are US insurance companies who offer coverage in Cuba but Cuba does not accept them yet (although idk if this has changed). We got ours through Asistur SA. US citizens are required to purchase top tier coverage but it was still only about $4-5 a day (ours was about $7 a day because we needed coverage for high risk activities like hiking and scuba diving). We found useful information and purchased our insurance through this website.
A visa. There weren’t any nonstop flights to Cuba when we booked, so we purchased our visa during our layover in Mexico City. As for direct flights from the US to Cuba, I can’t say what the protocol is and I’ve read conflicting statements so it’s best to ask airlines or travel agencies directly. But no matter where you purchase it, it only costs around $20. Oh and be VERY careful when filling out your visa card. The service representative said that if you make any mistakes or cross anything out, you have to purchase another one.
Planning and booking activities
This section is more of a “head’s up” than an answer.
We booked rooms through AirBnb, and scuba diving and a tour of Havana with a companies we found on Tripadvisor. I consulted Tripadvisor religiously while planning our trip. Tourism in Cuba is growing steadily but slowly, so there are only a handful of companies in Cuba that are reputable and established. Anyone else is just a wing and a prayer. Browse through the Tripadvisor forums and entertain yourselves with horror stories of scam companies, fake cigars and a humorous encounter with hitch-hiker who finished off a cooler full of beer and peed back into the cans without the driver knowing. Wait what?
Internet is pretty expensive for Cuban citizens (more on that later), so Cuban websites are pretty archaic. Internet hotspots are common, but they don’t exist in every household. There aren’t many companies that offer instant-booking. Most companies operate on the system of “to book, email us and we’ll email you back.” Response times from everyone I contacted there were surprisingly fast, but most of the responses I got were “We’re sorry, but we’ve already been booked for that day.” Booking shouldn’t be much of a problem though unless you plan on traveling during high season, like I did.
So even though I was able to book a room on AirBnb, I got a message from the host saying the room had been booked, he just wasn’t able to update that information in time. He offered me a room in his cousin’s hostal just down the street and lured me in with the promise of a homemade lobster dinner. Sold. Looking back now, it could have been a ploy to send some business to his other family members but he was soo helpful with everything that we didn’t give it too much thought. When I told him we had no luck of finding a tour (we only had one day in Trinidad so we wanted to make the most of it), he called up a few friends and organized one for us. He even organized for a taxi to take us from the airport to Trinidad (a five hour drive).
If anyone is looking for a place to stay in Trinidad, I HIGHLY recommend staying at “El Ceremista.”
What’s the currency like? And is Cuba expensive?
For the sake of transparency, and to save my fingers from having to retype this information again, I’ll just lay it all out there because I appreciate when other people do it for me.
So how much did the trip cost? Before Cuba, Aaron and I spent about $100 each on AirBnbs for all four nights (1 night in a private room in Trinidad, 3 nights in an apartment in Havana) and travel insurance. I brought $1200 with me in cash, so about $1300 not including the plane ticket. But we went scuba diving and went a little crazy with the rum and cigars so you could probably get a way with much much less (I’ve seen a few people on Tripadvisor who spent a week in Cuba on a budget of $800).
Bringing money: You do not have access to American credit or debit cards in Cuba. I think it might be different for cards from other countries but there aren’t many places that accept cards anyway. So yes, you have to carry all of your money in cash. And if you run out? You’re SOL. A useful tip: if you are running low on money, save at least 30-50 CUC for the taxi ride to the airport (we were staying in Havana and our trip was 30 CUC).
Currency: Cuba uses two currencies. CUP is the local currency that the locals use but there’s no reason to really use it so don’t worry about it. CUC (pronounced kook) is the currency for foreigners but virtually everyone caters to tourists now so most prices are listed in CUC.
****Important to note: when I was doing research for this trip, many places said the exchange rate between USD and CUC was 1 to 1 but when we exchanged our money in Cuba, we only got around .86 CUC for 1 USD (so your $1000 is now just $860). It caught us off guard because we were calculating the cost of everything in Cuba as if our currency was worth the same as theirs, but since it wasn’t, everything was marginally more expensive.
I also recommend exchanging currency before landing. Mistake numero dos. When we arrived in Cuba, the line for currency exchange was excruciatingly long. This goes for layovers too, though. If you’re stopping in Mexico before Cuba, you’ll need Mexican pesos to purchase the visa and food. You could use a card but depending on whether your card charges for foreign transactions or not, itmight be cheaper to exchange cash.
Food: In Havana you can expect the food to cost pretty much the same as in the US. Except lobster was really cheap. I’m talking as low as $7 cheap. And boooooy do I love lobster.
Transportation: Transportation isn’t too bad if you’re traveling within the city. Five bucks here, 10 bucks there. After you get a feel for how much things cost you can negotiate the cost down but some drivers insist on using the meter. Beware of those little open tennis-ball-looking trikes though. I really wanted to ride in one but he kept the meter on and I felt like it was more expensive than a regular taxi because it’s so much slower. But at least the breeze was lovely!
Lodging: We rented through AirBnb and it was pretty cheap. We found a beautiful apartment in Havana for only $30 a night. Plus Linda told me that if I booked through a friend’s code, I get $30 off the overall price.
Alright so finding internet wasn’t as tripadvisor made it seem. Our guide in Trinidad, Junior, said he walked to the main plaza to access it. Even in Havana, we still had to walk around to find a spot as there was none in our building.
- Buy an internet card. Each card costs 2-3 CUC and gives you one hour of internet. Honestly we just kept asking around until we found someone who was selling them.
- Walk to an internet hotspot. For us, the closest one was at a hotel just around the corner and we also used it at a cafe.
- Connect to the internet using the password on the internet card.
Rum and Cigars
Rum was so cheap. 7-8 CUC for a 700mL bottle. Cigars on the other hand, not so much.
We weren’t sure what the guidelines were so we just limited ourselves to 2L worth of rum and kept our cigar count under 50.
Side note: when we got back to SFO and went through immigration, the guy said wasn’t as up-to-date on traveling to Cuba. He didn’t even know it was legal to fly to Cuba directly from the US. So when he asked “You didn’t bring any cigars back, did you?” I said no and they just let it be.
What was the language barrier like?
I only got as far as Spanish 1 but I speak basic Spanish with my coworkers pretty regularly so I got around alright. I’m not gonna lie though, it was pretty hard to understand certain people because some people’s accents were more aggressive than others. To be honest, it wasn’t always easy finding people who could speak English but the odds were much higher in the city.