Cuba was a vacation unlike any other we’ve taken. It was a welcome difference from the trip to Mexico or 10-day European adventure. It was also extremely eye opening. If you’ve been wanting to go or are planning a trip, here’s what you need to know before you go.
Today’s post is going to focus on the things you need to know before going to Cuba. I’ll be sharing part 2 next week which focuses on what to eat, where to stay, and what to do while you’re in Cuba!
Quite a few airlines fly to Cuba now. We flew into Havana via Southwest and our friends used United. Every airline is different but note that they will ask you why you are going at some point of your trip (and you can’t say tourism). There are about 12 reasons you can choose. The most common one is Education so I’d recommend selecting that. Even the pilot on our plane came on the loud speaker and told us to all say Education.
Make sure your reason for travel is consistent between what you put on your visa and what you tell your airline. Depending on your airport, you may be able to get your visa at the airport the day of your flight. However, it’s usually only larger airports where that’s possible. We bought our visas online in advance and picked them up at the ticket counter in Ft. Lauderdale (which is where we had our layover). The visa is basically a piece of paper (shaped like a check) that you have to fill out yourself. Be careful not to mess up or you will have to buy another! There are only 4-5 things to write in (name, birthday, etc.) but you write them in twice. Other than that, this flight was no different than any other. Although, there were a lot more passengers in fedoras and all white ensembles on the plane…
Note that we traveled after Trump announced restrictions on traveling to Cuba so TBD when those changes will go into effect. At some point, you will only be able to travel via a tour group. Per that article, a process to fulfill that directive should be drafted soon and after that, it will “take as long as it takes” to implement it.
Arriving in Cuba.
You know you’re in Cuba immediately. The airport is relatively small and as soon as you hit the ground, you’re on “Cuba time”. Things move a little slower.
Customs will take a while especially if you’re one of the last ones off the plane. It took us an hour to get through in Havana. They take a picture of every individual coming into Cuba in addition to checking your passport and visa. They didn’t ask me anything but if they do ask you why you are traveling, don’t say tourism. When you are leaving Cuba, they will do the same thing. They take another picture to make sure every individual coming in is the same individual leaving.
All in all, it’s not an intimidating process.
As we were waiting in line, I didn’t see a single person that had any problems getting into Cuba (or leaving).
It takes a little time but as long as you fill out your paperwork correctly, you’re in.
Tip: make a note of what terminal you’re in. When you’re heading to the airport at the end of the trip, tell your taxi driver to take you to that terminal. There are 2 terminals at José Marti and they aren’t walkable. It cost us $10 CUC at the end of our trip to get to the other one because our taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong one.
Plan to use cash during your entire stay in Cuba. Nowhere we went took credit cards. I saw maybe one ATM during our trip so I would not count on finding one.
Go to your bank before you travel and take out the amount that you think you’ll need. We took out Canadian dollars because we had heard the exchange rate is more favorable. And it was. However, it wasn’t THAT much more beneficial so don’t sweat it if that’s not feasible for you. You can only get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) in Cuba. This is the currency you will want to use in Havana. I didn’t see the Cuban Peso (CUP) once as it’s just not as widely accepted.
Another thing to note about Cuba is that it’s not as “cheap” as everyone thinks. Especially in Havana. They’ve caught on to the fact that tourists are used to paying more and have upped their prices for the most part. Here are a few prices of things to help you plan how much you’d need:
- Airport to Havana: $30 CUC
- Old Havana to Hotel Nacional: $5 to $15 CUC (depending on time of day and the car). Note that you should feel free to negotiate price as people will definitely charge you more as an American.
- Old Havana to Fabrica del Arte: $15 CUC
- Cigars: $2 to $16 CUC (depending on the brand)
- Dinner entree with meat: $15 to $20 CUC
- Dinner entree without meat: $3 to $10 CUC
- Alcoholic beverages: $3 to $7 CUC
- Airport to Viñales: $90 CUC (you will likely be able to get a lower fare when you return to Havana)
I debated whether to expand on this subject but I felt that I should in order to be thorough. While it may appear that the Cuban people don’t have much, they have a very happy culture and are very welcoming of tourists. Several people approached us as we were walking around Havana to give us a mini tour of that specific area. They chatted lively, asked us questions, and wanted to make sure we saw the best of Cuba. One couple even directed us back to Old Havana when we started drifting south because “there’s nothing to see that way”.
Be aware there is still quite a bit of communist propaganda too. It’s not in your face but you will see billboards about Fidel Castro and if you talk to a local, they may mention him.
In my intro to this post, I mentioned this trip was very eye opening. I had heard everyone describe Havana as a “blast from the past” and it was. However, there was also extreme poverty in so many places. Buildings were crumbling and people’s homes were missing parts of walls or even a whole wall. We walked by a food stamp dispenser as one of our impromptu tour guides explained that food was rationed for the Cuban people. If they ran out of food, they had to go to another market to pay more and pay out of their own pocket. Most of the food is being rationed for tourists now which is having an adverse effect on the country’s residents.
Cuban Cigars and Rum.
Everyone’s favorite topic! Yes, you can bring both back, no problem. Rum wasn’t really a priority for us but cigars were a different story. We both had been asked by so many people to bring back cigars so there was a little added pressure! Neither Matt nor myself are cigar experts so we went to the shop at Hotel Nacional for recommendations. We wanted to make sure we were getting something we could vouch for. There are tons of people on the streets offering to sell us some but since we weren’t experts, this made more sense for us. Also, we were bringing most back as gifts for people that had asked so we needed to put a little extra thought into it.
Depending on the brand of cigar, you’ll pay anything from $2 CUC to $16 CUC. Montecristos are supposedly the best with Cohibas and Romeo & Juliets coming in right after. I found it interesting that when we asked for recommendations, the woman pulled from various brands and at various price points. She left us with a very well rounded selection. Could I tell you what that selection was? Nope. But then again, does it really matter? You’re in Cuba. Enjoy it.
Stay tuned for next week’s post on what to do once you get there! It will be up on Thursday!