Cuba. Tell any American you’re going and your cool factor goes up by 63%. The island so long forbidden is instantly intriguing. When I started planning my May trip to Cuba I was surprised by all the rules, regulations and quirks that were involved with heading to the island. Here is a Cuba primer based on personal experience to tell you what you REALLY need to know before you go to Cuba.
Cuban Travel Card: You do not need anything besides a passport and a Cuban Travel Card to travel to Cuba. The card is purchased through the airline you buy your ticket from. It is pink NOT green, and will set you back anywhere from $50-$100 depending on your carrier. Buy the card online ahead of time, as the entire airport Cuba process is busy and a bit crazy. The last thing you want to do is add another thing to do the day of your flight. I flew American Airlines from Miami and easily purchased the card several weeks before the flight.
Flight to Cuba: While Cuba has opened up for Americans, you still need to declare to the airline which of the 12 reasons for approved travel is the reason you are going to Cuba. The most popular is “people-to-people exchange.” Go with it. The airline agent doesn’t care what you say; he simply has to check something. Also, you will not be able to check into your flight online so allow extra time-American suggested three additional hours, and if you don’t have priority status, I’d say that is fair. With status, I allowed 1.5 hours and had about 40 minutes to spare.
Luggage: Do NOT check a bag. Repeat, do NOT check luggage. Now this is sage advice when traveling most of the time, but alas I was on a three-week trip with a checked bag. The baggage claim area at the Cuba airport is chaos…non air-conditioned chaos. Bags came out literally one-by-one and it took over 1.5 hours to receive all of our bags. As a bonus, my bag had clearly been rifled through, though surprisingly nothing was missing. So another tip, if you must check your bag, make sure to lock it.
Lodging: Luxury hotels in Cuba will likely not meet the standard of U.S. travelers accustom to five star digs. Your best bet is to use Airbnb. After looking at several places and emailing hosts, I settled on a two-bedroom in the Verado neighborhood-about a 10-minute cab ride to Old Havana. Our host, Brenda and her parents, were lovely. They greeted us with a Cuba Libra when we arrived, gave us details on the apartment and even a driving tour of the neighborhood. The apartment had very modern furnishings and was up to American standards. The only downside was that the air conditioning was only in the bedrooms.
Money: Cuba is a cash society and American credit cards won’t work, so make sure you have plenty of cash-on-hand. Now here is where it gets tricky, Cuba has two currencies, the CUP, which is a locals currency and the CUC, which is the international currency. You need the CUC. Additionally, the U.S. dollar is penalized at exchange. While the two currencies are about even ($1 to 1 CUC) you’ll find at the exchange places you’ll be docked about 10% for changing dollars. One way around this is to bring Euros into the country instead. If you can change the money before leaving the States, it will save you time. Every exchange counter and bank I encountered had very long lines. While there are ATMs, drawing money from Cuba can cause some banks to flag your account and again, your American credit card likely won’t work. If you do change money, try to do it all at once to cut down on fees and wait times.
Internet: I read that having any access in Cuba would be unlikely, so I was pleasantly surprised when Brenda explained that the apartment had WiFi. But Cuba net is different. You have to buy an access card good for one hour of Internet. Welcome to 1995 😉 My favorite part of this was that during our driving tour of the neighborhood, Brenda highlighted the park on the street as the “place you go for Internet.”
Brenda: “That is where you buy the access card”
Brenda: You just walk in and you will be approached
My boyfriend and I were intrigued. So we walk in, look Internet deprived, and we’d be offered a card? It had the feel of an illicit drug deal. We cautiously took our first walk into the park and were immediately approached.
Guy: You need a card?
Us: Yes, 3 CUC?
Us: Hook us up, we need our fix!
Guided Tours: First things first, you do NOT need to be on escorted tours every second you are in Cuba. We met a family traveling together who didn’t know that and had booked a tour every moment and were regretting it. We did two tours while we were there and they both suffered from the same problem, the guide really didn’t speak English well enough to give any type of tour at all so our 1950s car tour was simply transport to different sites, but without any context of what we were seeing. Our guide on our day trip to the UNESCO Vinales Valley was a bit better, but it was still just very basic information, not the in-depth historical and cultural narrative you want and expect when you do a tour.
Language: Which brings me to how beneficial it will be if you know a bit of Spanish. If you have the time, take an intro course or use an app to learn some words and phrases. It won’t be enough for you to enjoy a guided tour fully, but it will make restaurants, hiring a cab and basic things easier. Or be lazy like I was and rely on your significant other who is fluent in the language 😉
Grocery Stores: If there is a real grocery store in Havana it is far away from the tourist areas. The closest store to our place sold big bags of dried pasta, but no sauce. Three types of cereal-all chocolate-but no milk. Costco-sized tins of olives, artichokes and tomatoes, but no fresh food at all. An entire wall was dedicated to Havana Gold Rum and wine #priorities. Needless to say my idea of cooking some meals in and saving money went out the window.
It’s Not Cheap: I think Americans have the perception that Cuba will be Southeast Asia cheap. It’s not. Expect things to cost about what the would in the States.
Calling Home: If you can figure out how to make a call to the U.S. from Cuba, you are far smarter than we are. I needed to make a call regarding our flight home, but was not able to dial out of Cuba on my U.S. phone or my boyfriend’s Swiss phone. We even Googled how to call the U.S., got several different answers (!), and tried them all to no avail. I imagine the work around to this is to use an app like What’s App, but it only works when the receiving party also uses the app.
If you’ve also been to Cuba, I’d love to hear your tips on visiting the island. Please comment!