Cuba 101: Things to know before you go

Cuba seems to have topped the destination bucket list and with fast changes between US and Cuban relations the island in the Caribbean is a hot spot for upcoming travel.  Here are my tips on things to know before you go, things I researched before I left and things that I wish I would have known before I landed in Havana.

Get all of the planning out of the way so you can enjoy your Cuban holiday!

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Currency in Cuba

The Plastics

So as an American citizen, you currently can not use your US debit or US based credit cards in any establishment or at any ATM once in the country.  Plan accordingly!  Even after my years of experience, I made a rookie mistake of rushing to the airport thinking I’d take out a bunch of cash before I left.  I forgot that many accounts have a max withdrawal per day so I started out my trip with far less than I originally budgeted.  Traveling from other than the US or have an international credit card?  As usual, make sure you check with your bank or credit company to inquire about international fees while abroad.  My credit union doesn’t charge a fee for ATM withdrawals so usually I arrive at a destination and then take out local currency directly without any transaction fees or currency exchange charges.

Things are changing quickly and as of June 2016 there is a Florida bank (Stonegate) that has opened business accounts between the two countries.  The Central Bank of Havana has allowed Stonegate Master Cards to be used at certain ATM’s only in Havana but this will likely expand at a later date.  Read more about the deal HERE

What to do for now?  Take as much cash with you that you’ll think you’ll need and then some.  While it’s not an expensive country, once you factor in activities, lodging, food and souvenirs it adds up quickly.  We rented a car which took up a large portion of the budget, so make sure you take all of these things into consideration.

 

CUC or Pesos?

To add to the monetary confusion, Cuba has 2 different currencies.  There is the Cuban Peso or CUP (pronounced coop) and also the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC (pronounced cook) and learning the difference will help you in the long run.  For the most part, the CUP is for the locals and the CUC is more of a traveler’s currency.  You’ll want to exchange your Euros or US dollars for CUC’s

Best trick for remembering which is which?  CUP has people on their notes and the CUC has monuments – its a quick way to see if you are getting the correct change back OR paying for something with the right currency.  The CUC is worth over 20x what the CUP is so it’s important to remember the difference!

Transportation

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You have a few options when traveling throughout Cuba, depending on how much time you have and your budget.  Most flights come into Havana so you could have that be your starting point or ending destination.  US flights have now begun to open up in the country and you can fly into other cities, mixing up your itinerary.  As an American we still have twelve categories to choose from as authorized travel, one being ‘people to people’ which is promoting cultural exchange & meaningful interactions.  This means that although we aren’t able to treat Cuba like a totally relaxing vacation, sitting on a beach drinking mojitos, we can still go, support the locals, learn about new cultures and enjoy our time on the island.  Make sure you look into the travel requirements for the US on reputable sites like our Embassy in Havana to keep up to date with all the rapid changes!

We rented a car in Havana the second day we arrived, head towards the eastern part of the country and then worked our way back to the capital.  Renting a car ahead of time may be helpful but it still may not make the process seamless.  There were several people who made online reservations ahead of time and showed up with no car set aside for them.  Have patience and be flexible!  It took us about half a day to find a place with a car, towards the end I was really starting to loose it as we drove from place to place, being lead on a little wild goose chase for a vehicle.  There are a few car companies you can do some research before you go; Havanautos or Rex are two companies with good reputations.

 

Accommodation

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Hotels

Hotels are mainly state run meaning the majority are owned and operated by the government.  Most seemed to be in need of massive updates and do not have the luxury amenities that a lot of US travelers are used to.  We had snacks and drinks in a few of the high end hotels throughout the country and I’d say they are more like fancier Holiday Inns than Four Seasons.  The government run hotels are more like motels, and although I didn’t stay in one, we viewed several along the way when purchasing tourists tickets and internet cards.

You can really tell the effects of the embargo in places like these, everything is outdated and seems to be stuck in time.  If you have the money, and hotel life is what you are looking for, Iberostar had some of the nicer hotels in the major cities.  Although we loved grabbing a drink at the bar and watching soccer, for an air conditioned break, it felt very void of authentic Cuba.  It could very easily be any random hotel located anywhere else, which in my opinion defeats the purpose of coming to such a culturally rich country.

Airbnb

This popular site has been available for bookings since the beginning of April however I had problems booking with the app while in Cuba.  I could access the site but it would not let me proceed to confirm and pay for my accommodation.  My advice would be if you are going to use this platform be sure to book everything in advance while in your home country.

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Casa Particulares

Now the best for last, Casa Particulares, or home stays.  This has been a thriving business for locals since the 90’s as a way to earn income.  For many people this is the main way they make a living for their family.  US hotel chains are now making their way into the country and my hope is that people will remember that the Casa Particulares are a comfortable, clean, cost alternative where you’ll get a richer experience and see true Cuban life for yourself.

As a note of caution when booking Airbnb or Casa Particulares ahead of time, because of the lack of internet availability there are often times that the rooms end up being double booked but anyone who has a Casa will find you a comparable replacement close to your original location for the same price.  For this reason, we decided to have an itinerary laid out but then find accommodation when we arrived on location.  You will be able to find something the day you arrive, no problem.  I’d highly recommend using the app Cuba Junky to find reviews on Casa Particulares.  It isn’t a free app but it was extremely helpful in finding friendly, affordable accommodation.  Our interaction with the locals, in typical neighborhoods & experiencing what day to day living is like was one of the best parts of our trip.

Technology

Technology in Cuba leaves much to be desired.  Be prepared for a “tech time out” while you are in Cuba, and for most people this is a welcomed break.  For those of us who work on the road it proved to be challenging.  The internet is highly regulated, meaning only a select few have access to the internet at home.  According to one of our hosts, you have to be “important or famous” to have direct internet but one day she expressed her hopes to have a computer at her house with wifi.  Several hotels may have computer access but don’t count on a quick connection.  My phone provider is Verizon and although I did have occasional coverage, currently there is no international plan for Cuba so you are charged per gig which adds up quickly!

Normally, my trick is to go to a local cell provider and pick up a SIM card but here that also proved difficult.  Lines for the cell phone store, like everything else, are long.  You can get a SIM card but it’s only for calls, not data so until the wifi situation changes drastically, plan on enjoying your time off the grid.  There are only two cell providers, both unsurprisingly are government owned.

You can purchase internet cards which are like little scratch off tickets… and when you log on and have a fast connection it sometimes feels like you’ve won the lottery.  The internet spots are usually the main square in the town or in several public parks.  It is easy to spot which public places have internet because you’ll see lots of people all sitting around on their phones.  Locals will sell you internet cards for a price hike but it saves you time having to wait in the long lines at the cell phone stores.  The other option is to find an internet cafe (which are usually crowded) OR we found the quickest way was to go into some of the nicer hotels & the bar often sold cards either without a charge or with a purchase.

Safety

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Even though there are pockets of the country that suffer from extreme poverty I never felt unsafe.  The Cuban people are so friendly and if you like getting to know new people, you’ll meet your fair share of friends.  Knowing Spanish is extremely helpful, as the more off the tourist track you get, the more people you will encounter who speak little to no English.  We had several Casa hosts that didn’t speak hardly any English & it was really nice to  be able to communicate with them, get to know them & their families in Spanish.  Much like other foreign countries, hotels & tour operators speak English but it’s helpful to learn some key phrases.

Cubans were some of the best hosts!  We had countless experiences meeting welcoming people and we left each interaction with smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts.

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Thanks so much to ViaHero who provided us with loads of helpful information and itinerary ideas prior to our trip!

 

2 Comments

  1. Reply
    EG III

    Great intro of what to expect for a first time traveler to Cuba. As stated during the Immersion Travel Summit, I’ll be heading there next month and I’m really looking forward to it!

    1. Reply
      Speck on the Globe Post author

      I’m happy this was useful for you, enjoy your trip!!

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