Cuba Cuba Cuba Cuba. It’s everywhere right now. Instagram. Facebook. Travel programs. With all the hype going around I get asked almost weekly about how I visited and how much money I spent while there.
Ever since the ease on travel restrictions to Cuba for Americans, it has become an increasingly popular place to visit. And while most of the information needed to visit can be found online, it changes quickly and there are many different opinions. To save myself from answering the same questions over and over, and to give my up-to-date advice as of my trip in January 2017, here’s most everything I think you need to know for how to travel to Cuba.
How to travel to Cuba, the basics:
Research which airline you want to fly and their individual visa process
Overall, the easiest way to get to Cuba for Americans is through Mexico. This is because of the visa process and the ease at which it’s done. As we were already in Mexico, this was particularly easy. We flew from Cancun with a local budget airline, Interjet, which offers a Cuban visa on arrival for $20. We showed up to the check-in gate at the airport and before we got to a counter a man wrote out our visa card, took US $20 and gave us a receipt. Easy peasy. If you can find a cheap flight to Cancun from your home city, then I’d recommend this.
For all other people flying to Cuba, it is essential that you check the visa policies with the airline you are flying. Not every airline allows a visa on arrival! Also, each airline may charge a different fee for a visa.
For example, Southwest charges a special $50 Cuban visa which you must purchase in advance and then can pick up at the airport.
Other airlines, such as Frontier, charge $50 plus a $35 processing fee for their visa. These are not available for pick up and must be shipped to you, sometimes for a standard 5-7 business day fee. To get it expedited, it is an extra $40.
If you arrive at the airport without the needed visa and your airline doesn’t allow you to purchase it on arrival, you will most likely be out of luck.
2. Attest you are visiting for the following reasons:
> Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
> Journalistic activities
> Professional research or meetings
> Educational activities and exchanges
> Religious activities
> Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic/other competitions and exhibitions
> Humanitarian projects
> Support for the Cuban people
> Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
> Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information material
> Certain authorized export transactions
This is all a lot less intimidating than it looks. Most people will choose ‘support of the Cuba people’, but it doesn’t really matter which you choose. You may have to sign a document attesting to this later, but it’s really just for bureaucratic reasons as tourism specifically isn’t technically legal in Cuba. You may also be requested to give your daily itinerary with details of where you stayed and what you did. This can happen upon arrival or even up to 5 years after leaving.
3. Have proof of Cuba approved medical insurance.
Most visas or airline tickets include the cost of insurance in them. Make sure yours does too!
Where to stay during your trip to Cuba
Cuba is unique to many other places in which you can’t just rock up and stay anywhere you’d like. The government heavily monitors accommodation for travelers and it is illegal to stay other places, even if you know a local. So unless you are planning on staying in resorts or state-run hotels (please don’t) then you’ll be staying in “casa particulates.”
Casa particulates are basically like bed & breakfasts and range in privacy and size. Overall, they are of pretty high quality and cleanliness. We stayed in a nice one bedroom apartment in Havana with our own kitchen and living room across the hall from the owners. In other places, we stayed in spare rooms in medium to large houses of Cuban families. Most all offered breakfast and only some offered dinner.
Many people use websites like Casaparticular.com to book their accommodation in advance. There are a handful of these websites showing all your options in different cities. Instead, I personally recommend Airbnb. It was super easy, I could instantly book, and more importantly, I could pay for it in advance conserving my much needed cash upon arrival.
Also, if it’s possible, I recommend reserving all your accommodation in advance. If you are not sure of your itinerary, reserve the first few and then you can find the following places while there. Most casa owners are more than happy to direct you to people they know in other cities. Regardless, it’s important to note that getting online and booking something while in the country will be a big hassle, so this is why I preferred to do it before we left.
Once you’ve made your reservations, make sure you save all the details, addresses and phone numbers offline. Once you land there is no easy wifi to help get you to get where you are going.
Where to go in Cuba
We spent a few nights in Havana, a few in Trinidad and one in Cienfuegos. I enjoyed each city, and they were all very different from one another. If I had more time I would have also loved to visit Viñales.
To plan your trip, I recommend using Pinterest. There are dozens and dozens of travel blog articles online, all of which are extremely helpful for planning your itinerary.
For a handful of helpful articles about Cuba I gathered from around the web, check out my Pinterest board here.
Where to eat in Cuba
In my opinion, eating in reliable restaurants in Cuba can be hard. Even with some prior planning, we had some amazing meals, but some horrible ones too. It was also very difficult to be sure of the cleanliness in which the food was being prepared. I have a pretty strong stomach and I still got sick for a couple of days. My boyfriend was also horribly ill for most of the trip. On the other hand, another friend with us was completely fine. We all ate at the same places each night.
When booking your casa particulars, check to see if they offer dinner. If so, eating in someone’s home will offer you the best quality food and you usually can’t go wrong.
Here are three restaurants I 100% recommend:
- Trinidad: La Botija. There’s usually a wait out the door, but with the quality of food and live music, it is well worth it.
- Cienfuegos: Doña Nora. While some reviews online claim to not have had an outstanding experience, I found the rabbit here at Doña Nora to be my favorite meal during my entire visit to Cuba.
- Havana: La Guarida. I unfortunately never got to eat here as we couldn’t get a reservation, but I wanted to go very badly. Try and call a few days ahead!
How we got around Cuba
Since I was traveling in a group of four, we took taxis during our entire stay. It was usually only about $10 each more than taking the bus. It was also far easier to figure out.
A four-hour taxi from Havana to Trinidad cost us $140 total, which we obviously split four ways. There are a few other ways to get around, but make sure you do your research online before arriving.
Money Matters in Cuba
If you’re an American traveling to Cuba it is imperative that you bring enough cash with you to exchange at the airport. Your debit card won’t work and there will be little-to-no possible ways to get around running out of money. Also, it is very helpful if you bring cash in Mexican pesos or Euros instead of U.S. dollars as the dollar is subject to a 10% charge upon exchange. We had both Mexican pesos and Euros and exchanged them in the airport in Havana right upon exiting.
Overall, in about 6 full days I spent around $500, not including flights. My boyfriend and I both came with about that much and basically spent every peso. We ate a huge breakfast at our casa particular for about $5 per day, usually skipped lunch and then had a full dinner each night. The reason for skipping lunch was 1. the lack of lunch options and 2. I was usually still pretty full from breakfast. Often times I’d keep some fruit or bread from breakfast to have as an emergency snack later.
During the day we mostly walked around, explored and/or went to the beach, etc. All these activities cost next to nothing, so this was pretty economical. There were a few “splurge” type moments, but besides that, we mostly just paid for the accommodation and transportation all without feeling like we were penny pinching. At night we would go for a nice dinner, have some fancy drinks, watch some live music and walked around.
It is also important to research Cuban currency before arrival. It can be confusing since there is a tourist currency and a local currency. Make sure you are aware of the exchange rate and the differences between them before getting there.
Here are some typical costs:
- Nightly accommodation: $15-40 per person depending on the city, location and size. I was always splitting with at least my boyfriend, but a few times we had a 2 bedroom room for 4 of us and this was very cheap, as little as $35 for the entire room. Check Airbnb for more accurate current costs.
- Mojitos: $2-4
- Water: $1/bottle. Cut costs (and plastic) by bringing a water filter and reuse able water bottle!
- Breakfast in a casa particular: $4-5
- A sit-down dinner at a (hopefully) reputable restaurant: $15-20
- A wifi card to use in the public square: $5/hour
- Taxi from Havana to Trinidad: $140
- Taxi to and from Trinidad to Topes de Collantes, plus the waiting time (half day): $70
As you can see, these prices aren’t typically reflective of what you’d imagine Cuba to cost. Still, it is very important to remember that you are visiting a place where the locals can make as little as $20 a month. Cubans don’t typically have a disposable income and don’t have the luxury to travel. Keep it in mind and appreciate the fact you are able to visit for leisure, regardless of the cost.
While some prices may seem hight, if you’re not doing organized tours and mostly just sight seeing during the day, it can be a pretty economical place to travel to.
Additionally, don’t forget to tip! I can’t say it enough. This is the one way you can make sure your money gets into the hands of locals. Above all things, don’t skimp on this. The locals were very appreciative of every time we tipped and I had no problem spending more to help out local individuals.
What to expect & how to know if it’s for you
Cuba is a complex place, difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs. It’s beautiful and interesting, but also frustrating and confusing. I could go on and on about my thoughts on the place. And while most images you’ll see on Facebook show a beautiful and untouched destination full of rewarding experiences, many travelers I’ve talked to have returned having felt otherwise. Everyone who visits has a different experience, some fascinating, some infuriating.
I repeat, not everyone enjoys visiting Cuba.
Regardless, the most important expectation to have when visiting Cuba is a realistic one. It’s not going to be necessarily easy, the food isn’t always going to be good and it’s not always going to make sense. Understand that this country may be completely different from anywhere you’ve ever been, even if you’ve traveled a fair amount. Also, don’t expect to be the only tourist. Cuba is overflowing with tourism, and it’s not a new phenomenon either. Before Americans could legally visit, everyone else in the world still was.
I had no expectations of Cuba before arriving. In fact, I was hesitant go, afraid it was over-hyped and far from the authentic Cuba of the past. Luckily instead, I was pleasantly surprised. I found it fascinating, intriguing and it reignited my interest in off-the-beaten track travel.
(Regardless, after one week I was pretty tired, felt ill and was ready for a bit of a break.)
So, do you want an easy, relaxing vacation with reliable WiFi, 100% sanitary and always amazing food, frequent English spoken and opulent hotel rooms? Cuba is NOT for you.
Do you want to be challenged and learn something new? Are you ready for an adventure and can overlook some of the downfalls of traveling to a developing socialist country? Yes, Cuba could be for you.
Now you know how to travel to Cuba, now do more research!
With Wifi being available but inconvenient and expensive, it is imperative that you prepare yourself before you go. Bring a guidebook or make sure you’ve read up on the social/political situation before arrival. Have an idea of what you want to see and where you want to go. Write done important information.
Personally, I highly recommend downloading the Cuba app by Triposo for your phone. It gives tons of information which is all available to save offline, and also lists tons of recommended bars and restaurants.
Being prepared also means coming with as many items as you can to make your time there easier. Food poisoning is a very possible outcome even if you’re only visiting for a short time. I really wish we would have come with more medicine as 3 of the 4 of us suffered different levels of food-borne illnesses. I would also recommend bringing granola bars or small snacks to have to eat when you aren’t able to find a snack or reliable lunch. There is no such thing as ‘convenience’ in Cuba, and this goes for many products. You can’t just stop at the next street corner and find a stocked grocery store to fulfill your needs. Rum and cigars are a plenty, but a nice healthy snack may be no where to be found.
Remember all those hotel toiletries that you haven’t been using? While walking through poor neighborhoods, we noticed that many Cubans would love to have them. Many small children and mothers asked us for small bars of soap and/or pens, two things we thought to be very random.
Overall, if you’re prepared and arrive with the right planning and mindset, you can have a life-changing time in Cuba. It is definitely a country I will never forget.
// S A V E M E F O R L A T E R // P I N M E //