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Travel Tips For Cuba: What You Need To Know

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My recent weekend in Cuba was absolutely amazing, and for those who plan on seeing the country for themselves, the following are some useful travel tips—mostly things I wish I’d known before I even left the U.S. Be sure not to miss my post on Who Can Go to Cuba?, and know that I’ll soon be publishing more travel info—your options for flying to Cuba, where to stay and what to do/see/eat once you’ve arrived, as well as hotel, flight and lounge reviews—so please stay tuned for more posts!

Yours truly checking in at Grand Cayman for my connecting flight—to Cuba!
Yours truly checking in at Grand Cayman for my connecting flight—to Cuba!

My travel companion to Cuba—TPG International Correspondent and close friend Lori Zaino—and I looked into flying direct to Havana, but as of our departure date last Thursday, major airlines and travel agencies authorized to arrange trips to Cuba hadn’t yet figured out how they were going to handle the new easement in travel restrictions. Undeterred, we quickly formulated a Plan B.

As I previously mentioned, we were able to book a one-way flight on American Airlines from Miami (MIA) to Grand Cayman (GCM), and then booked round-trip flights from GCM to/from HAV on Cayman Airways (and yes, I’m now a proud Sir Turtle Loyalty Club Member), followed by a one-way flight on Cayman Airways from GCM-MIA. When Havana finally gets regularly-scheduled commercial service from the U.S., it’ll make for a perfect 4,500 Avios one-way destination on American Airlines. Meanwhile, Cancun and Grand Cayman make easy connecting ports.

As you can see, there is a small piece of paper between my boarding pass and passport: my Cuban temporary $20 Visa slip
As you can see, there is a small piece of paper between my boarding pass and passport: my Cuban temporary $20 Visa slip

Getting a Visa

Once we got to GCM, we sailed through customs without any issues. The security workers seemed completely unfazed that we were continuing on to Cuba, and even told us we’d have a blast and gave us a few tips (e.g., don’t drink the tap water). We had to exit the security area in order to check in for our flight to HAV, a simple process that involved paying a $20 per person entry-visa fee. Once paid, we received our boarding passes and visas with a smile.

Once we boarded our flight to HAV, it was rather uneventful (I’ll soon share more details in a flight review) and it wasn’t long before we stepped off the plane—and into Cuba! Once we got over giggling about the Cuban customs form (which insists that you declare if you’re bringing porn or walkie-talkies into the country), we quickly and easily filled it out and brought it to the customs counter. The passport agents there were fairly friendly, and if you ask, they’ll stamp your visa instead of your actual passport. (Perhaps, though, they also stamp the visa even if you do stamp your passport—can any readers comment on this?)

Among the things you can't bring into Cuba: porn and walkie-talkies
Among the things you can’t bring into Cuba: porn and walkie-talkies

It also bears mentioning that upon re-entering the United States, neither Lori nor I were asked a single question about which countries we’d previously visited. If we had been asked, though, we would have truthfully responded that we had just been to Cuba. Luckily, we didn’t have to say anything, and our passports were stamped without any issues.

TPG reader Kat emailed us with an important tip: while in Cuba, you’re required to carry your paper entry visa with you at all times. We didn’t actually have any instance in which we needed to show our visas until we left Cuba, but I think it’s safe to say this is a great piece of advice—so thanks, Kat!

Also note you’ll have to pay an exit fee of either 25 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) or $29 US, so at the end of your trip, be sure you’ve either put aside some Cuban currency or American dollars.

Some Cuban Convertible Pesos CUC
Some Cuban Convertible Pesos CUC

Money Talks

And speaking of money: we had major doubts that we’d be able to use our credit cards in Cuba, so while still at MIA, we withdrew healthy amounts of cash. We’d soon find this was a solid decision.

There are two Cuban currencies—the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP)—and one CUC equals 24 CUP. According to our helpful tour guide, locals use the CUP much the way Americans use ration stamps, to buy allocated portions of food and supplies at specific places, while the CUC is valid at hotels, restaurants and other places that tourists may frequent. Basically, CUC is the recommended currency for visitors to Cuba, though you are welcome/able to exchange your cash for either one.

If you look at the exchange rate online, you’ll see that the Cuban Covertible Peso (CUC) and the U.S. dollar are 1:1. However, in 2004, Cuba’s Central Bank added a 10% penalty tax on the exchange of U.S. dollars for Convertible Pesos (this tax will not be applied to other currencies) and effectively banned the use of U.S. dollars. Therefore, I’d recommend that you bring euros, British pounds or Canadian dollars if possible, because when you change these currencies to CUC, you can avoid that 10% tax and get a much better exchange rate.

If you’re in doubt about whether to change your money at the airport or your hotel, pick the airport. At HAV, we were given 90 CUC per $100 US—and thought we could do better at our hotel. However, we didn’t realize that Cuban hotels charge a currency change fee of 3%, so our hotel only gave us 87.50 CUC per $100 US. We didn’t have an opportunity to change money at bank, and we’re still unclear as to whether or not banks also charge this 3% fee—can anyone shed some light on this?

The White House says that credits card usage will eventually be allowed in Cuba—but it isn't yet a reality.
The White House says that credits card usage will eventually be allowed in Cuba—but it isn’t yet a reality.

Credit Cards

Editorial note: On January 23, 2015, a few days after I published this post, MasterCard announced that it had been given the go-ahead from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to lift its block on U.S. bank-card transactions in Cuba—and will do so starting March 1, 2015. – The Points Guy

At a few places, we tried using some of my American credit cards, but to no avail. The restaurants we visited—both private and state-owned—told us told they don’t accept credit cards of any kind, regardless of the issuing country. It’s extremely important, then, to have local currency on you and enough cash to exchange.

In a future post, I’ll go into more in detail about where to stay, but if you’re able to book a hotel through an agency (we used A Nash Travel in Canada, which hooked me up with two $125-a-night rooms at Hotel Memories in Miramar, an upscale neighborhood of Havana). I was able to book through the travel agency with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, a purchase that should be classified as travel and earn me double Ultimate Rewards points.

However, due to our extremely last-minute booking, the Hotel Memories didn’t receive our payment right away and requested a hold on a credit card. They were unwilling to accept any of my American credit cards, so fortunately, Lori was able to offer her credit card from Spain—which worked. American credit cards may someday be usable in Cuba, but they aren’t now. Considering the country’s relatively ancient technology and general lack of Internet service, I doubt this will happen soon, but when it eventually does, it’s highly probable that credit cards will only be accepted at major hotels.

So here’s the take-away: Bring cash, and to get the best exchange rate, bring it in non-U.S. currencies. Don’t count on credit cards as a back-up, because even if you do have a non-U.S.-issued credit card, it’s unlikely to help you anywhere outside of your hotel.

And...we bought the hotel out of internet cards. #internetaddiciton
And…we bought the hotel out of internet cards. #internetaddiciton

WiFi

It’s extremely difficult to get working Internet in Havana. After discussing this issue with some locals, they explained that it’s pretty much illegal to get Internet service in your own home. Typically, only hotels and various businesses have Internet.

Our hotel charged the equivalent of $4.50 for a card that offers you one hour of Internet access, which you can use on only one device at a time. It was a huge hassle to actually connect to the web, but once there, access/download speeds were fairly quick. We were eager to share our adventures via social media updates, which meant that we were continually purchasing Internet cards throughout our hotel stay— until the hotel reception staff politely asked us to leave some for the other guests. Whoops—we almost used up all the Internet in Cuba!

The cell phone store, just down the street from our hotel
The cell phone store just down the street from our hotel

You also can’t get any Internet cell service or data roaming while in Cuba, so we attempted to buy SIM cards for potential use in our unlocked phones. However, while chatting with a salesperson at a cell phone store, we learned that you actually can’t have Internet data on your phone in Cuba—even with a Cuban SIM card. (You can connect if you have a smartphone and WiFi access, but this is an uncommon combination in Cuba.)

Our new Cuban SIM card, no data available here!
Our new Cuban SIM card—no data available here!

We ended up getting a SIM card so that we could make a few calls and send texts to friends who live in Havana, as well as call for taxis, etc. A SIM card valid for three days of calls and texts costs about 20 CUC.

If you plan on going to Havana, be prepared for an Internet detox—I actually rather enjoyed it!

Texas by way of Cuba, at the wheel of a pink 1957 Thunderbird
The locals we met in Cuba were happy to meet Americans

Language/People

Many TPG readers have responded positively to our Cuba trip, and I’m excited to be able to provide answers for some of the questions I’ve received.  To those who are appalled that Lori and I traveled to a country that’s ruled by a dictatorship, please know that I believe in the value of travel as a form of positive exchange between people, and I don’t think government should dictate where (and why) I choose to go. I may not agree with the politics of a country, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see that country for myself.

For both me and Lori, the highlight of the trip was having the opportunity to meet Cuban people, who showed us immense warmth and kindness. Though many folks we encountered spoke English, the fact that Lori and I are fluent in Spanish served as a huge plus, allowing us to connect more deeply with locals; if you’re planning on visiting Cuba, I would highly recommend working on your command of the language. We had the honor and pleasure of spending time with some lovely friends of friends who live in the city, who shared their personal stories, their take on their country’s history, and how they feel about their borders increasingly opening to the United States. Being able to speak Spanish with them allowed us immense insight into local life in Havana—and Cuba in general.

Please stay tuned this week for much more information about our Cuba trip—and please don’t hesitate to share any of your own tips in the comments below.

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