Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba from the USA
Travel to Cuba has gotten getting easier and easier (well, for now), and Havana is becoming an incredibly popular destination for Americans. Cuba is an amazing place to visit but is still very much a third world country, and it has its quirks. It's important to know them ahead of time so you can minimize any potential stumbles along the way... so it's all smoooooth sailing.
There's a lot of talk about Cuban visas, and how difficult they are to obtain. The US government issues two types of licenses: specific and general. You'll probably need a general license, which isn't that hard to get - you don't need an OFAC letter, which is something you may have heard about. When you arrive at the airport to check in, you'll need to purchase a Cuban visa through your air carrier, which is usually about $50. You'll have to tell them that you fall into one of 11 (formerly 12 - the new administration has eliminated individual travel for the purpose of "education") categories. You'll probably have to lie, since "tourism" isn't an option... you'll have to sign an affidavit.
The alternative is to fly from Mexico. This is how everybody did it before the US relaxed on the rules, but now that it's tightening up again, it's an increasingly appealing option. If you’re going through Mexico, you can purchase a tarjeta de turista, or “tourist card”, directly at the Cancun or Mexico City airport. Your flight carrier will tell you where to go to obtain it. This is all you’ll need - it costs $20-25, and the immigration officer will stamp it upon arrival.
Cash is king in Cuba. No one takes credit cards, which means you'll have to come in with loads of cash to exchange to the local currency. In Cuba, there’s a dual currency system: one for Cubans called CUP, and one for tourists that’s pegged to the USD, called the peso convertibale, or CUC (pronounced “kook”). The CUP is about 1/25 a CUC. Both come in bill and coins form. CUP coins are always gold and CUC are silver - pay attention when you’re receiving change so you don’t get scammed. The CUC is used for pretty much everything except for museum entrance fees, local buses, and street food.
When arriving at the airport, you’ll need to do a currency exchange. The USD is charged a 10% penalty, so it’s best to bring euros or pounds to avoid the charge. The airport will give you the worst exchange rate - it’s better to exchange at Cuban banks or cadecas (currency exchange shops).
There will be a HUGE line at the airport to exchange currency - it's usually a one to two hour wait. If you know anyone who has been to Cuba recently and has enough left over to cover a taxi ride into town, ask them for it - you can exchange the rest of your bills while you're in town. Another pro tip is at the end of your trip, instead of converting your leftover cash back to USD, to save enough to cover a cab ride back into town, in case you ever decide to return to Cuba. (which you will! You'll be hooked on Cuba!)
I'd suggest bringing about $150/day, just to have a cushion - you don't have to exchange it all - PLUS the cost of the hotel or Airbnb that you booked - you'll note upon booking that you have to bring cash to pay for lodging in person.
Cell service is available bit spotty and horribly expensive - it’s also 3G. Wifi hotspots are available around town, but actually, they're not... don't count on the wifi, ever. To connect to a hot spot, you have to purchase a wifi card from an ETECSA shop. There’s one at the airport. The cards cost 2 CUC and they give you an hour of wifi - each comes with a unique login code that you'll enter when you get to a wifi hotspot (if the hotspot even works). Buy a bunch at a time, as the queues are ridiculous to purchase wifi.
Sometimes, you’ll run into kids selling “tarjetas de internet” near popular hot spots, for a slightly inflated price. If it’s a long wait to purchase it at the shop, it might be worth it to buy one from a kid. Casas pariculares do not have wifi… you can loiter in a hotel lobby to use it, and some hotels even sell internet cards - ask nicely!
Arrivals and departures are hectic. You’ll likely wait for your bags for a long time. On the day of departure, be sure to arrive early before your flight (like three hours beforehand), as the wait to check in and drop off luggage is long. It’s best to find a wifi hotspot beforehand and do an online check in, if possible. It could save hours of time! Also, if you're planning on buying rum, do it at the airport - there's a duty free, and you don't have to worry about checking it.
Taxis are plentiful, but be sure to arrange the price before you get in, and also make sure that the driver isn’t charging you per person. ALWAYS HAGGLE. Pay attention to how far you're going, and how much you're paying, and apply that standard throughout your stay. Getting from Habana Vieja to a neighboring area such as Chinatown shouldn't cost more than 7 CUC. A longer trip like Habana Vieja to Miramar or Vedado should cost 10 to 15 CUC. Know that the nicer and more colorful the car (especially a convertible), the more you're going to be charged. Drivers know what they have!
You can also hop in a shared cab, "un collectivo", for a reduced fare - it's Cuba’s uberpool! This is how the locals get around. Flag one down by yelling "collectivo"? If they say yes, get in and don’t bother asking the price - when they drop you off, hand them no more than 10 CUP. You might make some friends along the way!
What to bring
Mosquito repellent, sun cream, clothing suitable for hot hot hot weather, ample cosmetics (toothpaste, face wash, shampoo, lotion etc - you won’t find it here), mini first aid kit (bandaids, anti-acid, imodium, pain relievers), light jacket or sweater (can get chilly once the sun sets), sunglasses, umbrella, Spanish dictionary, map, phone charger, external charger, camera! AND A SENSE OF ADVENTURE!!!!
English is rarely spoken, so if you're not going with a guide or Spanish speaker, you might encounter difficulties. Download an offline Spanish dictionary app on your phone and learn some basic Spanish phrases - even a little knowledge of the language goes a long way. A good app to try is Jibbigo.
Apps to download
It’s SO important to download an offline map ahead of time so that you can see where you are even when you don’t have wifi. The best and most widely used map in Cuba is the app maps.me. Just be sure to download the specific maps for the cities you'll be visiting BEFORE you arrive in Cuba.
European and American plugs will work. UK will need an adaptor.
If you're a man, move onto the last section. GIRLS, this is something I feel the need to point out because nothing really could have prepared me for the way I'd be stared at and hassled. If you're walking down the street in a populated area like Habana Vieja, you will FEEL the eyes of men of...all... ages starting at you. They will make weird hissing and popping sounds with their mouths to get your attention and then give you creepy eyes. Ignore it, don't let it bother you. I never felt physically unsafe, but I did feel uncomfortable. Just a warning.
One Last Thing
Cuba is an amazing, magical place, but it certainly isn't for everyone. If you aren't going on an insanely expensive guided tour with everything arranged for you, as well as you plan... for lack of a better term... shit happens. And it will happen. You'll have an incredible, memorable trip, but not everything will go perfectly. Roll with the punches and just own it. That's the best advice I could give to anyone traveling to Cuba.