So, you want to go to Cuba. While it’s easier now, there’s still quite a bit to know before you head out. Jeremy and I just got back from the island and I thought that writing out what we learned along the way might prove helpful. I tried to make it as comprehensive as I could, so with that in mind, I’ve separated the info into 5 different sections for clarity.
BOOKING + BEFORE YOU GO
- When booking your flights, some sites will let you book a flight directly from the US and some won’t. (If you’re flying from Mexico or Canada, ignore this and have at it!) We used Kayak to book and flew American from Miami. There are flights from other cities, but the flight from Miami was super cheap, so it might be worth it to try and find a deal from your city to Miami, then fly from there.
- We used Airbnb to book a place to stay, using our US credit card. We looked into hotels, but wanted a more authentic experiece, so we chose Airbnb. We chatted with our host a bit beforehand to get an idea of exactly what was included in our room, and also asked her to arrange for an airport pickup for us so we wouldn’t have to worry with taxis at the crazy arrivals terminal.
- The internet in Cuba is spotty, slow, and not widely available. We chose to use this as an opportunity to disconnect, so we created a note on my phone with the names and addresses of the places we wanted to go in Havana, in case we needed to show a taxi driver or ask directions once we got there.
- If you use the Google Maps app, you can download and offline map of Havana before you go. That way you can star places you’d like to go, as well as use the GPS tracking when you get there, despite not having wifi access.
- Because US debit/credit cards do not work in Cuba, we ordered money in advance through our bank. Cuba uses two currencies, the CUP and the CUC. Locals use the CUP, and tourists use the CUC. The CUC is basically even to the dollar and is a closed currency (meaning not available outside Cuba, so can’t be ordered in at your bank), however, when exchanging US dollars to CUCs, there is a 10% fee. So, we ordered Euro and exchanged Euro over to CUC at the airport after we landed. Your local bank branch may have Euros on hand, but if not, they can tell you which location does, or order you some in.
- To legally visit Cuba as a US citizen, you still need to fit into one of the 12 categories, a list of which can be found here. When I booked the flights, they asked me to self identify which category we fit in (journalistic activity), and when I did self check-in at the airport, I was asked again to choose my category. However, not a single person at immigration in Cuba or in the US asked me about my visa status, going or coming home. I was expecting questions similar to when entering the U.K. (where are you staying, for how long, what are some of your plans, etc.), but NOTHING.
- When you get to the airport in the US, you’ll need to get a tourist visa. We checked in, went through security, then went to our gate. About an hour and a half before departure, a woman set up a booth for visa cards. We gave her our passports, paid the visa fee (how much the visa will cost you will depend on which airline you’re flying, as some of the visa fee may have already been bundled in), and she stamped our boarding pass with a “Cuba Ready” stamp. Then fill out your visa yourself, being very careful to not have any mistakes so you don’t need to buy another. When you get to Cuba, go to the immigration desk one by one, give them your passport and visa card. They’ll take your photo, and voila, you’re in Cuba!
- Don’t throw your visa away. You’ll need it to show it again when you go back through immigration leaving Cuba.
WHEN YOU GET THERE
- Like I said before, exchange your Euros into CUCs at the airport. If you do use US Dollars, be prepared to pay the 10% fee. The exchange desk is on the 2nd floor of the arrivals terminal at Havana airport. There are places to do this outside the airport in the center of Havana, but I found it so much easier to just get it over with. We budgeted about $100/day, and added in a bit extra for shopping. Remember you won’t be able to pop over to an ATM, so don’t be conservative with your amounts.
- Let go of your expecations. You’ve prepared for this trip, you’ve looked at photos on Instagram and Pinterest, you’ve looked into things to do. But the best thing I learned is that it might be best to just let go of all those expectations, and let Cuba be what it is. Read this post for more details on our time in Havana.
- Like I explained before, internet in Cuba is slow, spotty, and unreliable. I wouldn’t expect to get any work done if you were hoping to, as wifi really isn’t available at any Airbnbs or hotels either and if it is, you will still need an internet card to use it. Either do like we did and take it as a much needed break from US news and politics, or purchase the inexpensive internet cards at hotels across the city. The card will give you a username and password and 1 hour of internet access. Once you have the card, you can use public wifi.
- You’ll know when a place has wifi, because all you’ll see are people gathered with their little cards and their phones. Hotel lobbies will be full of people, and as wifi is available in a few public parks, you’ll know immediately when you’ve found a wifi park. This is a really good article about using the wifi in Cuba, and since we didn’t do it, they’ll know much better than we would.
- There is a place to buy wifi cards at the airport, after security, in the international terminal across from the bathroom. You can use this to access the airport’s wifi.
COMING BACK HOME
- We were told to arrive at the airport 3 hours early. We got there a touch earlier, and checked in fairly early so there were no lines, but things ran very smoothly. However, I think it’s one of those times we got lucky, and I would still say to arrive early. There are no self check in stands, so you’ll have to wait in line, and you’ll have to go back through passport control, so your quickness through the airport will depend on the others flying that day.
- Exchange your money back into whichever currency you brought in. A 10% fee will still be charged on US Dollars, so we changed our CUCs back into Euros. Do this before passport control. The food/drink shops after security will accept CUCs, US dollars, Euros, and British pounds.
- Now for the good news: You can bring back up to 50 cigars! No matter what the worth of each individual cigar or box, the limit is 50 per person. Meaning, Jeremy and I could have brought back 100 total. We brought back 2 boxes of cigars, and were never once questioned by anyone.
- There is some duty free shopping at the airport but it’s definitely not as comprehensive as the duty free shops you may be used to, so if you’ve got your eye on something particular, buy it in town. The store right after security is a good one to stop in, because they’ve got a variety of drinks and some good snacks, including American candy!
I had so many questions before I went to Cuba, and I did so much research, but I didn’t read much about actual first-hand experiences, it was mostly just a recap of the rules. So, I hope that if you want to go to Cuba or already have a trip planned, that this helps you out!
If there’s anything else you need/want to know, email me and I’ll try to help you!