Visiting Cuba is an experience like no other, and I recommend it to anyone. It is a gorgeous island, with even more beautiful people, a thriving nightlife, and a rich culture and history to learn from.
Cuba is very different from any other place you’ll ever visit, so there are many things you probably will not anticipate. Here are the top 10 tips I learned from my experience traveling to Cuba, I hope you find them helpful!
1. Getting your visa: check with your airline
By now you probably know that to visit Cuba, you’ll need a visa covered under one of the 12 accepted categories. Your visa process may vary depending on what airline you’re flying with, and what license category you are traveling under. Most people visiting Cuba for tourism/leisure select the “Educational exchanges - people to people” category; this is what my friends and I did, and we did not have any problems. If your travel purpose falls under a different category, make sure you allow ample time to fulfill your requirements, as most other categories will require extra steps and documentation.
For my departure flight, I chose JetBlue, which sent me an email explaining everything I needed to know, and an online affidavit to be filled out prior to departure. My friends flew with Delta and filled out their affidavits at the airport prior to purchasing their visas. Your visa will be available for pickup at the airport, where you will pay $50. Keep in mind, the check-in desk for flights to Cuba is separate from the general check-in area. Cuban health insurance is also required, but it is usually included with the purchase of your plane ticket. The main takeaway here is, carefully read the email sent to you by your airline, and even call them to be sure that you are all set, and that your ticket includes health insurance.
Additional Tip! Consider booking your departure and return flight separately as one-way flights. I saved about $80 on my flight by booking my departure flight with JetBlue, and my return flight with Delta. This will not cause you any issues with your visa - as long as you have your return flight booked before you leave to Cuba.
2. Know the difference between CUC and CUP
There are two legal currencies in Cuba, which may be a little intimidating if you’re a first time visitor. However, it’s really simple as long as you understand the difference in their value and appearance. The CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso is mainly used by tourists, while the CUP or Cuban Peso is mainly used by Cubans. The CUC is equivalent to the US Dollar, but it’s worth 26 times the amount of 1 CUP (1 CUC = $1, while 1 CUP = $0.26). CUP are only useful for small purchases like street food.
Being able to tell the two currencies apart is super important to avoid being scammed. If you don’t pay attention, a vendor may give you change in CUP, instead of CUC. Suppose you are paying for a meal that cost 10 CUC with a 20; they may give you back a 10 CUP bill, which is equal to about .38 CUC or 38 cents in USD. I wasn’t aware of this and somehow ended up with a 10 CUP bill which wasn’t accepted.
Here’s how to tell them apart:
CUC have monuments on them, look newer, and say “Pesos Convertibles”
CUP have faces of Cuban heroes, sometimes look old and worn, and say “Republica De Cuba” in large letters on the back of the bill - right across the top
3. Cash is king - how to exchange your $
Debit and Credit cards are rarely accepted in Cuba, so do not rely on them - at all. I am not suggesting that you leave your card at home; you should bring at least one card with you to pay for your visa and baggage fees at the airport, as well as any other travel expenses you may have on your way to and from Cuba. Bring enough cash with you to last your entire trip and some extra for emergencies - which you should keep separate from the rest of your money. It is very easy to visit Cuba on a budget. I only spent about $200 in five days, however, keep in mind that I spent two of those days at an all-inclusive resort. Plan to spend about 20 - 40 CUC on food per day (depending on where you go), 5 - 10 CUC on drinks whenever you go out, and bring $100 - $200 for emergencies. As for transportation, souvenirs, and excursions, that all depends on where you want to travel to, how many people are with you who can split the transportation costs, and how many souvenirs you plan on purchasing.
As for exchanging money, there is a factor that you should be aware of: the USD is subject to a 10% penalty from the Cuban government, plus the 3% currency exchange fee. So even though 1 CUC = 1 Dollar, you receive 87 cents on the dollar. For every $100, you will get 87 CUC. There are several ways to go about exchanging your money:
Order Euros from your bank before traveling, which may come with a fee, but still a much more favorable one than exchanging to Euros somewhere else. Your Euros will only be subject to the 3% currency exchange fee in Cuba, and not the 10% penalty.
Exchange with a local, preferably your Airbnb host. A lot of Cuban locals are able to exchange your money to CUC, and usually give you back 90 cents on the dollar. Just make sure they don’t trick you and give you CUP.
Exchange your money at a Cadeca or Casa De Cambio (House of Exchange), which can be found all over the island. Avoid exchanging money at the airport which will result in a higher fee. If you must exchange at the airport, exchange only what you’ll need to get yourself to where you're staying.
4. Protect your belongings
As I waited at the baggage claim carousel at Havana’s airport, I noticed that a lot of bags were wrapped in plastic - most of them belonging to Cubans. I’d never seen this done before, but apparently it is to prevent theft, which is not unlikely at a Cuban airport. While this may not fully prevent your things from being stolen, it is a deterrent as it is more work to open the bag, and it would be obvious to you that your things were tampered with.
You can have your luggage wrapped at the airport for about $15 per bag. I believe the best precaution you can take, is to make sure you carry all of your valuables with you in your carry-on bag. Do not put anything in your checked bags that you are not prepared to lose, and put a TSA-approved lock on the bags as well. Thankfully, I did not have anything stolen despite not wrapping my bag, but my lock was missing when my bag arrived back in the U.S.
5. Spend most of your trip in Havana
Cuba is a beautiful island, with peaceful countryside views, and pristine white-sand beaches. However, if you want to learn about Cuba, its people, and its culture, Havana is the place to do so. Witnessing the effects of communism on the way of life is a worthy, and immersive cultural experience. Several locals said to me, “If you didn’t see Havana, you didn’t see Cuba”.
If it is your first time visiting the Caribbean, or like my friends and I - are in need of some beach time, go ahead and spend a few days at an all-inclusive resort in another part of the island. We spent two days in Varadero which was a great experience. I also recommend taking a day trip to Viñales, which from what my friends tell me, it is a magical place. Just keep in mind while planning your trip, that if you wish to see other parts of Cuba, you should book for a few extra days, that way you can have enough time to explore Havana. I recommend spending a minimum of 3 full days in the capital, and talk to people while you are there. Cuba isn’t just a place to go take cool pictures, it is a place to learn and see life from a different perspective.
6. Don't let locals take you into restaurants
Cuban people are so nice, and they radiate great energy. However, you must remember that you are in a communist country where necessity will lead the kindest person to exploit you for more money. Let me put you on to one of their (brilliant) hustles: locals get commission for taking you into restaurants. At first this sounds like a win-win situation: you get a restaurant recommendation, and they get to make some money. However, you get the short end of the stick. Many restaurants low-key have 3 menus: one for Cuban locals with low prices (usually in CUP), one with normal prices, and one with way higher prices. If you let a local physically take you into a restaurant, you will get the menu with the highest prices, and charged a 5% fee. and that is how your friendly local gets a commission. A part of me doesn't mind being scammed or milked for money in Cuba, because I know that they need it more than I do, but since I'm traveling on a budget, this is not convenient for me.
Remember, if a local insists on "showing" you where a restaurant is, thank them and tell them you'll go on your own at another time. Also, if the server tries to tell you that the price listed on the menu is not the actual price, and asks you to pay extra, refuse. This happened while I was grabbing “drunchies” with a local, and he warned me that this was a scam. I also had to pay an extra 15 CUC ($15) for a shitty pizza box in order to take it to go - also a swindle.
7. Lower your food expectations
An aspect of a communist or centrally planned economy is that the government decides what goods are produced, and in what quantities. As a result, restaurants have very limited resources with which to prepare your meal, therefore, the food won't always be great. Please don't be a dick if they don't have mayo for your burger, they tell you avocados are out of season, and they're out of the one beer they sell, or the Ropa Vieja disappoints you. The restaurant is not at fault for the economy they are forced to do business in. Be kind, be humble, and take what you can get. Embrace your Cuban experience even for its downsides - it’s a part of traveling, and it’s worth it.
Good news: There are some gems in Cuba that have excellent food! My friends and I fell in love with the food at a restaurant called, La Flor de Loto, located on Calle Salud 313, between Gervasio and Escobar - near El Barrio Chino. It’s a local favorite so the wait can be a bit long some nights, but the food is so worth it. It is super affordable, and the portions are huge. I recommend ordering a few plates and sharing them “family style” with your friends; you’ll spend less, waste less, and get to try a little of everything. Guys, I’m serious: do not leave Cuba without trying La Flor de Loto!
8. Get a chauffeur
Sounds expensive and difficult, right? Well, not necessarily. If you meet a taxi driver that you like, who is willing to take you anywhere you want, use his services for the rest of your stay. They may serve as a tour guide, and building a relationship with them may save you money. Getting different taxis every time can lead to different drivers trying to scam you for more money, and potential sketchy situations. A designated chauffeur can also serve as an excellent tour guide and even a friend.
We had Victor, a very friendly, trustworthy, punctual, and respectful local. He provided airport transportation, took my friends to Viñales (I arrived two days late), and drove us to and from our resort in Varadero, all for reasonable prices. Instead of trying your luck searching for a good chauffeur, I highly recommend using Victor. If you are traveling to Cuba and would like to use his services, contact me. He is very reliable, but keep in mind that he may not always be available as he may take nights off, or may be in another part of the island servicing other tourists. If you need a quick ride to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), where most of the nightlife is found, you can get a taxi for 10 - 15 CUC. It’s easy to spot taxis in Havana, even if some aren’t marked. If you’re outside Havana and staying at a hotel, just ask them to call one for you. Most taxis in Cuba are beautiful American cars from the 1950’s, so riding one will be a dope experience.
Additional Tip! Find out approximately how long it takes to get where you are going, and then negotiate the price of the cab ride before getting in. State-run taxis have meters, but you can still negotiate a flat fare.
9. Fend off diarrhea
Travelers’ diarrhea is very common no matter where you are traveling; Cuba is no exception. Although tap water is generally safe to drink in Cuba, avoid doing so and drink only bottled water. However, traveler’s diarrhea is more likely to be caused by food contamination. My friends and I got diarrhea right after arriving in the states, which for some of us still hasn’t gone away - a week later.
As a traveler, you don’t have control over how your food is prepared, but there are some things you can do to prevent getting sick. Eat meats and fish that are hot and thoroughly cooked, try to avoid buffets in which the food has been sitting out too long, and avoid ice cubes made with tap water - or don’t, because life is too short for warm mojitos, YOLO. I have read that taking Pepto Bismol everyday during your trip can be really effective in preventing travelers’ diarrhea, but keep in mind that taking too much can cause constipation. I personally travel with anti-diarrheal pills everywhere I go (except Cuba unfortunately), and they usually come in handy.
10. Bring these essentials:
My friends and I found that many of the public places we went to, did not have toilet paper. The first Airbnb we stayed at, also ran out of it. I'm not suggesting that toilet paper is hard to come by in Cuba, but from our perception, it was. Just to be safe, bring a roll of toilet paper with you, and a few portable tissue packets that can still get the job done while you're on-the-go. Pack baby wipes as well; you may need them, especially if you get diarrhea.
Make sure you pack sunblock with a high SPF! The weather was absolutely perfect when we were there; It was really sunny, and it didn’t feel too humid or too dry. However, the sun is INTENSE. We all got sunburns for not properly applying sunblock. I recently learned that a high SPF does not stop you from getting a tan, it just helps you stay in the sun longer without burning. I recommend SPF 50 or higher. Consider purchasing scalp sunscreen, which comes in a spray or leave-in conditioner. Upon returning, one of my friends and I realized our scalps were peeling - and we both have a full head of hair.
There you have it guys! Did you find these tips helpful? Have any questions for me? Drop them below or feel free to contact me.
I know many of you are traveling to Cuba this year; I am wishing you all an amazing experience! Let me know how it goes!