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10 Essential Things To Know Before Your First Trip To Cuba

July 09, 2016
16 min read
10 Essential Things To Know Before Your First Trip To Cuba
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Upon returning from her second three-week visit exploring Cuba, TPG Contributor Lori Zaino explains everything you need to know before heading there. All photos are by Darrel Hunter.

With a recent ease in travel restrictions to Cuba and exciting news that nonstop flights between the US and Cuba are officially launching this September, many Americans are planning to visit — you can even use AAdvantage miles to redeem award flights on American Airlines now, so no excuses. However, some things just aren't easy in Cuba and being aware of a few key things — like what to pack — could prove to be essential for a safe and successful trip. Here are 10 important things you should know before you go.

1. Who Can Go

The US government currently approves of US citizens traveling under one of 12 specific categories for a valid visit to Cuba. You won’t need to actually apply for a visa or license if you’re traveling for one of these 12 reasons, however, you must be able to offer proof that your trip actually fits into one of these categories if requested by the US government or a customs officer. It’s also recommended that you keep records and receipts of everything you did in Cuba for up to five years after you return. Detailed information that can help you self-categorize can be found here — you'll also be asked to specify your reason for going whenever you're booking flights or accommodations online.

Knowing the rules and regulations on who can go to Cuba is important.
It's important to know the rules and regulations for who can actually go to Cuba.

Just for reference, the 12 approved categories for US citizens traveling to Cuba are as follows:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities (ie. people-to-people tours)
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions.

2. Where to Stay

Right now, you can book vacation rentals through Airbnb using a US credit card, a great points-and-miles earning option if you're booking with a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which lets you earn 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide.

You can rent some incredible colonial houses on from the comfort of your own home, and get bonus points when using the right credit card.
You can use Airbnb to rent out an incredible colonial house in Cuba.

On the hotels front, Starwood is planning to open two Havana hotels in 2016 — you can even use Starpoints to book a stay at the Four Points by Sheraton Havana using rewards earned from your Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.

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It's important to note that if you're based in the US and prefer to prepay your hotel stay with your US credit card, you'll have to try booking your stay online through a Canadian or British travel agent, since US banks don't work in Cuba as of yet. Changing your IP address can also help with this process since many sites are blocked from booking Cuba travel from the US. Of course, calling these outside travel agencies and working with someone over the phone is another option. Whatever you do, be sure to pre-book all accommodations as places tend to fill up very quickly, especially with the recent surge of visitors to Cuba from the US.

3. What to Expect at Cuban Airports

Arriving in Cuban airports can be a harrowing experience, mainly because the facilities aren't quite what American travelers are used to. Most areas of the airport in Havana, for example, are not air conditioned, so be prepared for long, sweaty waits in line.

Upon landing, you'll immediately be directed to customs, where an immigration officer will most likely ask you a few questions and stamp your visa tourist card — it's unclear yet whether you'll be expected to pay $20-$25 in cash to obtain this or if it's going to be included in the price of new AA and Silver Airways flights to Cuba. If, for some reason, you don't want your passport to receive a stamp, let the customs staff member know.

Airports in Cuba may not have the most updated facilities.
Airports in Cuba may not have the most updated facilities in the world, but they get the job done.

The customs officer may also ask you to show proof of health insurance, since as of May 2010, Cuba requires all travelers to have this while in the country (although it's worth noting that US-based insurance plans wouldn’t provide coverage while I was in Cuba). That being said, during my last two trips to Cuba, I was not asked to show this at the airport.

You can buy health insurance ahead of time online to cover you during your trip to Cuba, or if you’re asked about it at the airport and you don’t have proof of a policy (via an insurance card or certificate), it’s possible to purchase a policy there through Asistur, a local insurance company — luckily, its policies typically start at just a few dollars per day. You may also be asked by the airline you're flying to show proof of your health insurance when you check in, but again, this wasn’t the case in my experience on either of my two trips.

Once you've cleared customs, it's time to head over and pick up your bags. It’s worth stating that you probably shouldn’t pack anything of value in your checked luggage — I’d advise this when traveling anywhere really, but it may carry extra weight in Cuba. Since certain items are almost impossible to obtain in Cuba, you don't want anything of value to end up being lost.

Be prepared to wait a while for your bags, too, as it sometimes can take up to an hour for them to come out — Cuban airports simply don't have enough baggage trains and trolleys to work with, especially when several flights come in at once.

4. How to Pay With Local Currency and Credit Cards

Cuba uses two currencies, Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuba Pesos (CUP or MN, for Moneda Nacional). CUC is the currency tourists will need to get while locals use Cuban Pesos. The easiest way to tell the difference? CUCs have monuments on them, while Cuban Pesos feature the faces of local heroes. That being said, it might be worth your while to keep a few dollars worth of Cuban Pesos on you just in case you plan on taking the local bus, or if you plan to buy water, fruit or ice cream on the street, especially in less-touristy areas.

Whereas Amex and Mastercard have both stated they are trying to have their cards function in Cuba, at the moment, no US-based credit or debit cards can be used there — this also includes using a debit card to take cash out of a Cuban ATM. However, if you have a credit card from another country, such as Canada or somewhere in Europe, it’s likely your card will work but be aware that there is a 3% charge if you're using ATMs in Cuba or making any payments. It's also worth noting that hotels are really the only places that will accept cards, so even if you do have a non-US credit card, there aren't many places to use it in the first place.

Paying my room service bill at the Hotel Nacional with a Spain-based credit card, one of the few times I was able to use a card!
Paying my room service bill at the Hotel Nacional with a Spain-based credit card, one of the few times I was actually able to use a card!

5. How to Exchange Money

The US dollar is currently at a 1:1 ratio with the CUC, however, Cuba charges a 10% tax when exchanging US dollars to CUCs, so you’ll end up losing out a bit. For this reason, it’s a better idea to change Canadian dollars, British pounds or euros if you happen to have any on hand. To give you a better idea of what to expect, the euro was changed at a rate of 1.07 CUC and the pound at a rate of 1.40 CUC during my most recent trip in May. Otherwise, plan on bringing enough US dollars to exchange and last you throughout your entire trip. While not ideal, it’s the situation at hand, so just take good care of your cash and be sure to guard it wisely.

Also, note that Cuba does not accept Australian Dollars (AUD) for exchange. Additionally, euros may be accepted at resorts in Varadero, Guardalavaca, Cayo Largo del Sur, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo.

On the left Cuban Pesos, and the right, CUC (Cuban Covertible Pesos).
On the left, Cuban Pesos. On the right, CUC (Cuban Covertible Pesos), which you'll be using as a tourist.

Money can be exchanged at the airport, but expect to encounter long lines — the same goes for exchanging money at the cruise terminals in Havana, Cienfuegos or Santiago de Cuba if you opt to visit Cuba that way.

You can also exchange money at a Cadeca (currency exchange house), which can usually be found inside your hotel — you’ll likely get a better rate at one of those than at the front desk. Once you have your CUCs, trade some back for a small quantity of Cuban Pesos to have on hand in case you're planning to visit less-touristy areas or buy snacks on the street.

Here are a few more tips for changing money:

  • Be sure to have crisp bills to exchange, with no rips or tears
  • Remember that you won't be able to exchange coins (i.e. a two-euro coin), just paper money
  • You can change money back at the airport if you don’t use it all — just be prepared for long lines
  • Always get a receipt when you change money to keep for your records just in case.

It's also a good idea to leave tips for guides, hotel porters and other service employees in US dollars, euros or CUC — but not in Cuban Pesos, which aren't worth as much.

6. How to Use the Internet

Most hotels provide internet at an additional rate, which can range from $2-$12 per hour. Sometimes you can pay to connect to one of two or three computers in a hotel business center, but typically, internet comes in the form of a prepaid card where you scratch off a code and connect with your own devices.

Internet cards in Cuba.
A look at some internet cards in Cuba.

As of right now, the Meliá Cohiba and the Saratoga Havana are the only two hotels in Havana that provide free internet to guests, and it's pretty slow. Technically, these are two of the most expensive hotels in the city, so perhaps free isn't the right word — included in the price is probably more accurate.

The most important things to remember when using internet cards are:

  • The internet isn’t super fast (i.e. binge watching your favorite shows on Netflix probably isn’t an option)
  • It's not super reliable and may go in and out even if you do pay for it
  • Sometimes the concierge desks (where you can buy them) are closed or run out of cards in the evenings and won’t have more until the next day
  • You can be verbally spanked for buying too many cards. A hotel clerk once told me if I kept buying them, there wouldn’t be enough for the other hotel guests — keep in mind I only bought six of them over the course of three days
  • Most cards are valid for an hour of internet service, so if you only use 30 minutes, you can disconnect and reconnect later to use your remaining time
  • You can also buy internet cards at ETESCA cell phone stores, but be prepared to speak Spanish and haggle a bit. Here, you can find cards valid for five hours — if you're lucky
  • The cards are also valid for use at several outdoor Wi-Fi points, like along La Rampa and at several parks and plazas throughout Havana.

7. How to Make Phone Calls and Send Text Messages

Since you won’t be able to get much roaming service in Cuba on your US cell phone (if you can manage to get it to work, it won't be cheap), you have a few other options. If you plan on being there for a while, you might consider renting a cell phone, but keep in mind that you won’t have any data with it, just access to calls and texts. Often times, Airbnb rentals will give you the option to use or rent a cell phone during your stay, or if you're lucky, they'll let you borrow one for free and you'll just have to pay for any minutes you use.

Lines outside Etesca, the cell phone and internet card store.
Lines outside ETECSA, the cell phone and internet card store.

Cubacel, operated by ETECSA, is the main phone company in Cuba — you can buy a SIM card from a local office to put inside an unlocked phone that operates on a 900 MHz frequency. However, this process isn’t easy, with long lines and very little English spoken, so it may be quite an endeavor to get yourself a card.

8. How to Not Get Cheated — In Taxis, Markets and Anywhere Else on the Island

Thanks to my light hair and eye color, I was always approached by locals in English and offered higher prices generally reserved for tourists. However, upon busting out some of my fluent Spanish, the vibe of the situation changed entirely and I was treated as much more of an equal — I was able to get lower prices and more insider info this way, so if you speak any Spanish at all, even just a little, try it out. It will get you much further and earn you major brownie points with the locals.

Once we realized taxi driver Ivan wasn't going to cheat us, we used him several times throughout the trip. For pickups or tours,call or email him.
Once we realized Havana-based taxi driver Ivan was a cool dude offering fair prices, we used him several times throughout my trip.

Bargaining is also a great tool. I asked my Airbnb host what types of prices were typical for different things so I could use that to my advantage if necessary. Try your hand at haggling if you want a fair price, even if you can't speak perfect Spanish.

For peace of mind, once you find a taxi driver you like (and who gave you a fair price), ask for his or her card or phone number and continue to use them for the remainder of your trip — you'll make a new friend and save some money in the meantime. Once we realized Havana-based taxi driver Ivan, pictured above, was a cool dude offering fair prices, we ended up using him several times for rides throughout my trip. For pickups or tours, here's how to reach him: +53 52900743.

Finally, it's always a good idea to carry some Cuban Pesos as backup as an easy way to avoid having to do unnecessary math. It will also prevent you from possibly getting cheated if prices in less-touristy areas are listed in this currency and you only have CUCs on you.

9. Important Health Tips

Cuba is a fairly safe place if you follow a few big rules: never drink the tap water and use caution when eating new foods. Before traveling, check with your doctor or visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website to see what vaccines you may need to get before you go.

Use caution when eating in Cuba and never drink the tap water.
Use caution whenever you're eating in Cuba and above all, never drink the tap water.

Be sure to use plenty of mosquito repellent as there have been several cases of the Zika virus in Cuba. Bring along any medicines you may need as well as personal hygiene products, as it's slightly more difficult and expensive to get simple things like pain relievers, tissues and feminine products here. If you do get sick, that health insurance policy I mentioned earlier could be useful.

10. What the US Allows You to Bring Back

Keep in mind that while there used to be limitations on what you could bring back from Cuba — formerly a total of $400 worth of souvenirs, with just $100 of that allowed for Cuban cigars, rum or other alcohol — as of October 2016, those have been lifted, so enjoy! A bottle of Santiago de Cuba rum will cost you about $7, but note that cigars can run much higher depending on brand and size.

Americans now face few limitations for bringing home Cuban cigars.
Americans now face few limitations for bringing home Cuban cigars.

Bottom Line

With a little planning and by following the tips mentioned in this article, you're bound to have a great trip! If you're interested in cruising to Cuba, like TPG Senior Editor Kaeli Conforti did earlier this year, read her review of the Fathom cruise or check out these posts from her time in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Have you recently been to Cuba? Any tips and tricks you might add?

Featured image by Darrel Hunter