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The number of American travelers visiting Cuba was up 15.2% year-over-year by the end of 2018. But just as things were starting to rebound, new sanctions from the Trump administration could derail future travel plans. If you’ve ever had a desire to visit this stuck-in-time island nation, now’s your chance.
With plenty of flights still operating and no shortage of casa particulares and Airbnbs, Cuba is a popular option for many travelers. The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly, loves traveling to Cuba. However, flying to Havana isn’t like any other weekend trip to the Caribbean. You’ll encounter cash-only limitations and spotty connectivity, for example. Before you book your first trip to Cuba, consider these common pitfalls travelers often make — and be sure to avoid them.
1. Checking a Bag
You landed at José Martí International Airport (HAV) in Havana, and now it’s time for vacation — almost. If you checked a bag, be prepared to wait at least another hour or two. At most airports, you can expect baggage carousals to be exclusive for each flight, for at least a period of time. That’s not the case at this airport. Multiple flights are routinely mixed together on the same baggage carousel with no order of which to speak. Because it’s such a frenzy, people often use baggage carts to block other people’s access to the carousel. Avoid this by packing light and only bringing a carry-on.
2. Not Having Cash
Cuba is a dual currency country, meaning both the peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC) are legal tender. If you are staying in Havana or common tourist areas, only having CUC is necessary. It’s roughly 1-for-1 against the US dollar.
The most convenient place to exchange money is at the airport, but cadecas (government exchange offices) and some hotels can exchange money as well. Banks are hard to find, and your American ATM card won’t work here. Since rates are set by the government, you won’t find better rates elsewhere. Always count your money before leaving the counter.
Ask for 10 CUC in coins. Restaurants and street merchants often lack the change to complete transactions, so if you need change in a hurry, street musicians eager for a tip will likely help.
3. Staying in Havana
Havana is great, but Cuba has so much to offer outside the city. A popular side trip is Viñales Valley, where beautiful views of tobacco farms and dramatic mogotes, or rock formations, await. (Organize a horseback tour through your hotel or Airbnb.) For a more traditional Caribbean beach backdrop, visit Playas del Este, about 30 minutes from Havana.
4. Skipping the Party
Sure, you can check out Casa de la Música for a traditional salsa experience, but there’s no Yelp in Cuba to help you find hot spots near you. Instead, ask your host where the locals go to party. But even with a planned destination, keep an open mind.
For instance, during a recent trip to Cuba, I was set on finding Casa de La Música. Unfortunately, I didn’t know there were two locations, and the downtown Havana spot was closed for renovations. The location in Miramar was open, but it was late and we didn’t want to jump in a cab. But around the Galiano street location, we heard blaring music from the rooftops, and we eventually found a hotel roof party with over 200 locals and a few lucky travelers. (I was even persuaded to join the onstage dance contest — and won.)
5. Taking the Wrong Cab
As a tourist, you probably won’t go unnoticed, and often, unlicensed taxi drivers will ask you if you need a ride. Avoid these drivers, and always look for official signage or identification on a car before getting in. As a rule of thumb, licensed taxi drivers will not leave their car.
When I was in Cuba last, a driver approached me and my travel companion as we were leaving a nightclub. We didn’t notice the lack of credentials in the window, and negotiated a fare. We arrived at our casa particular, but a police car was following behind. The driver left us in the car to talk to the police. A few minutes later, the officer asked if we knew the driver — we didn’t. He recorded our names in his notebook (very unnerving) but fortunately, let us go.
These unregistered private taxis are common in Havana. The easiest way to spot a licensed cab is to look for modern yellow cars like you would see in any city. It’s still common to negotiate your fare before you get in, but a meter will be available. The fares for these government-run turistaxis are reasonable, so looking for alternatives is not necessary.
If you’re up for an adventure, collectivos are shared taxis on popular one-way routes that offer the cheapest fares (under 1 CUC). But if you have a specific address in mind or don’t speak Spanish, avoid these, too.
Near Parque Central and on main streets such as Neptuno, look for classic (typically beat-up) American cars with taxi signs in the window. Wave your hand to signal to the driver, and tell them what cross street you want.
The shiny convertibles you see are a treat and not meant for simple transportation. You’ll see these American beauties parked near popular tourist sites and you can negotiate with the driver for a tour. Your host or hotel concierge can also schedule a drive in a classic muscle car.
6. Not Tipping
The typical Cuban lives off less than $25 a month. Cubans receive government housing, basic education and some food rations, but it’s hardly enough. Healthcare is not exactly free here as the black market is a necessity for some hygiene products and simple medicines. An extra CUC here goes a long way. Be sure to tip housekeepers and tour guides, and save extra change for musicians who may approach your table with a basket.
7. Expecting to Have Data and Wi-Fi
While strides have been made, Wi-Fi is still a challenge to find in 2019. Top hotels offer Wi-Fi for a fee for nonguests, but most Airbnbs and casa particulares do not. Even in restaurants where you see there is a signal, waiters will say it’s not available. In other words, come prepared with some pre-trip ideas and a guidebook, such as the most recent edition of Lonely Planet Cuba.
Similarly, though Cuba’s 3G network is strengthening, you shouldn’t expect your full array of roaming benefits on your Verizon, AT&T or Sprint phone. While texting and phone calls work fine on US-based cellular plans, data for internet browsing is essentially nonexistent. Even if it worked, US carriers don’t offer unlimited roaming plans here. Your best bet is to purchase a Cubacel SIM card at the airport to use with your American phone. It costs about 30 CUC and comes with a gigabyte of data. Also, as of April 2019, Google-Fi does not participate in Cuba.
8. Being Antisocial
The United States Office of Foreign Assets Control requires Americans visiting Cuba to declare the purpose of their trip. At this time, when people apply for tourist cards, most will opt for “Support of the Cuban People” out of the 12 categories. After your buy your plane ticket, the airline will explain the process and costs (upwards of $50). A simple way to adhere to this guideline is through Airbnb Experiences — and they are lot of fun. There are dozens to pick from at different price points, such as drum lessons and cooking classes.
Also, while staying in your Airbnb or casa particular, engage with hosts and housekeepers. Get to know them, even if you know limited Spanish. Ask about their families. What are their favorite spots to visit? They can also help you negotiate better rates for tours like classic car rides.
9. Setting Unrealistic Expectations
I met a couple that said they “hated” Havana from day one. They had been to St. Martin and other Caribbean islands and were expecting much the same. I suggested they would be more comfortable at a resort in Cayo Coca, Cuba instead of a week in Havana.
Behind that gorgeous 1950s facade, the infrastructure here is dire. Reports of buildings in Havana collapsing are not an exaggeration, so be careful. Shortages of food, supplies and power sometimes affect travelers, too. Tourists expecting posh accommodations, high-end boutiques and immaculately clean transportation should look elsewhere. However, if you enjoy meeting friendly people with a zest for life, love live music and want to unplug, Havana is a treat.
Featured photo by Augustin de Montesquiou/Unsplash.
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