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If you’re planning to take a truly memorable trip with your family, there may be no better destination than Cuba. The island nation in the Caribbean is one heck of a fun place for families with something for everyone: beaches, adventure tours and plenty of cultural experiences.
Our family planned a five-day trip to Cuba in less than 24 hours. Thankfully, my kids are homeschooled so that makes last-minute trips easier to plan.
Instead of throwing big birthday parties, we give the gift of travel and visit someplace new every year to celebrate. This year, I waited until the very last minute to plan this trip as I was hoping to find some really great airfare deals. As I was searching for flights, I stumbled across a United flight to Cuba for $320 per person and I purchased the tickets immediately to leave the very next day. (The award options on this flight were also great, but because we are saving miles for another upcoming trip, we decided to use cash this time.)
Visa Requirements for Traveling to Cuba
When you are applying for a visa to travel to Cuba, the very first thing that comes to mind is whether or not you are going to meet the requirements. Lucky for you, Americans do not need a full-fledged Cuban visa. What you do need is a temporary visa known as the Cuba Tourist Visa card, as well as your passport, an application form, your travel plan, a return ticket and travel health insurance. You can read more about obtaining a Cuba Tourist Visa card on the Cuban Embassy website.
If you are flying to Cuba or arriving by cruise ship, then the process is as simple as getting a Cuban Tourist Visa at the airport gate before boarding your flight or on the cruise ship before getting off at Havana (usually the first port of call on a Cuba cruise). The visa is valid only for single entry and for 180 days after the date of issuance. You are only given permission to stay for 30 days, but that can be extended for up to another 30 days once there.
If you purchase your Cuban Tourist Visa card through the airline or cruise line, insurance is included. Do note that all of this is subject to change, so check the current requirements when it comes time to book your trip.
Getting to Cuba
When President Obama was in office, he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba and, in the process, lifted some of the travel restrictions to the island. Once that happened, many US airlines, as well as cruise lines, launched routes there. However, since that time, many airlines have reduced or eliminated service to Cuba.
Cruising to Cuba: Options include Azamara Club Cruises, Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, MSC, Oceania, Regent Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea and Viking Ocean Cruises. Virgin Voyages will sail there beginning in 2020 (though no kids can sail with Virgin).
Flying to Cuba : The well-known airlines that offer flights to Cuba include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. If you’re considering flying United Airlines like we did, you can earn 40,000 MileagePlan miles with the United Explorer Card. (after you spend $2,000 in the first three months of opening the card.)
Pro Tip: When purchasing a plane ticket for Cuba, you’ll see a pop-up screen asking you to choose the reason for your visit — this is where you declare one of the 12 permitted categories of travel. Most travelers select, “Support for the Cuban people.” (If you choose this option, make sure to support local restaurants, businesses and/or stay with a Cuban family — and keep everything, including receipts, documented in travel itinerary record that you preserve for at least five years.)
How We Traveled to Cuba
We flew to Havana on United Airlines from Los Angeles with a layover in Houston. When we got to Houston, we were able to purchase a Cuban Tourist Visa card from the United Airlines counter. The price was $75 each ($50 for the card plus a $25 processing fee), which we paid in cash. The same price applies to both adults and kids.
Pro Tip: Each airline charges a different amount for a Cuban Tourist Visa, so make sure to call the airline you’re flying in advance to get the correct fee.
When to Travel to Cuba
Spring, which in Cuba is between March and mid-April, is one of the most pleasant times of the year weather-wise. This time of the year is pleasantly warm and sunny with no humidity or storms.
Before you travel to Cuba, and while in Cuba, make sure to keep an eye on the weather and watch for any related warnings. Eastern Cuba is prone to high heat, humidity and — at some times of the year — the threat of hurricanes.
Pro Tip: While Cuba has tourists almost year-round, the months of July and August are the hottest, the most humid and have a high chance of hurricanes.
Where to Stay in Cuba
Most people who travel to Cuba with kids head to the city of Havana or to Varadero, which is known for its beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts. But in order to get the full Cuban experience, staying in a “casa particular” (a house owned by a Cuban), is the best way to go. You can find plenty of these casas on Airbnb at all price ranges. Some casa particulars have pools, and some even include a housekeeper and chef.
We stayed in a casa particular in the middle of Old Havana and it was perfect for our family. It allowed us to be immersed in the culture and interact with locals on a daily basis.
If you choose to stay in a hotel instead, keep in mind that Americans are prohibited from staying in hotels owned and operated by the Cuban government. So when booking a hotel, check to make sure the hotel you want isn’t listed as restricted. An option in Miramar, which is in a section of Havana, is the Four Points by Sheraton Havana (Marriott Category 5, from 35,000 points per night). You can use your up to 35,000 free night anniversary certificate like the one card members receive with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card. If you need to bulk up your Marriott points, remember that Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to Marriott at a 1:1 ratio.
Things to Do in Cuba
There are so many things to do in Cuba. We only had five days there so we had to pick and choose what we wanted to do wisely. We booked all of our excursions through a local tour company that was recommended by a friend. I found this to be easier and less stressful given the fact that we booked our trip the day before we left home. Our tour guide gave us a list of things we could do and I was able to easily pick and choose. She also arranged for airport pickup and drop off, which was great. There are several tour companies online that you can use to book activities if you prefer to have someone do it for you.
If you prefer to book everything on your own, you can do so by reading tour company reviews online and recreating their tours yourself. Also, Cubans in our experience are very nice, friendly and great at offering recommendations, so if you can always ask around and someone may be happy to guide you.
Listed below are the things our family did in Cuba.
- Ride in a classic car: This is an absolute must! Cuba and classic cars go hand in hand. You just cannot skip this experience. The driver will take you around and show you the main sights. Most drivers speak some English and can answer any questions you have. We took an hourlong classic car ride around Havana. You can book this online at Cuba Classic Car Tours or through other tour agencies.
- Take a day trip to Viñales: Viñales is a two-hour drive from Havana. A day trip here will include a visit to a tobacco farm, horseback riding, ziplining and more.
- Head to the beach: If you can’t make to it to Varadero, which is one of the best beaches in Cuba, there are plenty of other beaches within a half-hour drive from Havana that are also very beautiful. You can easily book a ride here by grabbing a taxi or having a tour guide book it for you.
- Book a food tour: We found Cuban cuisine to be fantastic (though not everyone loves it quite as much), so if you want to experience it all with an experienced tour guide explaining each food item, then this is best way to go.
- Walk the streets of Old Havana: There is so much to see and learn just walking around neighborhoods in Old Havana. You’ll interact with locals and just get a feel for how they live. Our tour guide walked around with us on one of the days and explained the history of Cuba while we enjoyed seeing Calle Obispo, Plaza Vieja Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Francisco de Asís. On the other days of our trip, we walked around on our own.
- Take a salsa class: Cubans are well-known for salsa dancing, so what better place to take a class and learn the basics? Kids and adults alike will love dancing to the music and learning new steps.
- Play at a park: This was the highlight of our trip to Cuba. My kids really enjoyed playing with other kids at the park. Every evening, we walked to the park so that the kids could play together. If you walk around your casa in Cuba, or anywhere in old Havana, you’re guarantee to find areas with kids playing and benches where you can sit and rest.
- Visit the Museo de la Revolución: This museum was a great eye-opener into the history of Cuba and taught my family a lot about the revolution that we previously had no idea about.
Practical Tips for Traveling to Cuba
- Take enough cash: You can’t use American credits cards in Cuba, so make sure you have all the cash you will need. We ran out of cash because we underestimated how much we needed, so a family member had to send some to our tour guide for us through Western Union. Better to be safe than sorry; carry more cash not less.
- Exchange your money: In Cuba, the currency used by tourists is the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC). Make sure to exchange your money to CUC at a bank before your trip or at the airport. Consider taking Canadian dollars or euros as a backup because once you get to Cuba there is a 10% penalty for changing US dollars into local currency. However, if you have Canadian dollars or euros, there is no penalty when exchanged for CUC in Cuba.
- Travel with items your kids are familiar with: There are times when kids cannot sleep without their favorite toy, or favorite bottle or something similar, and if this is the case in your family, do not forget to pack the items your kids love. (Some of these things can be hard, if not almost impossible, to find once in Cuba.)
- Don’t expect to rely on internet: Internet in Cuba is a luxury. There are a few hotels that offer Wi-Fi access in their lobby as well as ETECSA Telecomunicaciones internet centers. You can also find hotspots in newer local parks around town. Some of those are also serviced by ETECSA so you’ll need to purchase a card from the company in advance of logging on. These parks are a bit hard to locate on your own, however all the locals know where they are. If you ask, someone will be able to guide you. Havana parks with known hotspots include Fe del Valle Park, Trillo Park, Karl Marx Park, Boulevard-San-Rafael, Angeles-Star Park, La Pera Park and Park of the Marrires Centro Habana. Access is spotty so be aware that you may not be able to connect from these locations at all times.
- Pack light: Most Cuban casas (houses) have no elevators, and lugging heavy luggage through small doors and up the stairs can be a hassle.
- Download an offline map: Before heading to Cuba, make sure to download offline maps. This will help you tremendously when it’s time to get around. Google Maps and Galileo Offline Maps are both great options.
- Remember, classic cars don’t have seat belts: If you decide to take a classic car ride, be aware that these vehicles generally don’t have seat belts or a place to secure your child’s car seat.
Our family has visited more than 25 countries and, to date, Cuba is at the very top of our list. There is so much to do and so much to see. Cubans are genuinely nice people and kids in Cuba seem to love spending time outdoors playing soccer, riding bikes and gladly sharing their toys with my kids. Cuban food is so yummy and affordable. Overall, our experience in Cuba was amazing, and we definitely plan to return.
Karen is a mom, wife and writer at The MOM Trotter where she inspires and encourages families to travel the world. She is also the founder of Black Kids Do Travel, which is an organization created to bring about diversity in travel and bridge the gap. On her blog, she writes about her mission to raise global citizens as well as tips on homeschooling, worldschooling and budget travel. You can follow along on Instagram and Facebook.
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