All of Your Questions About Travel to Cuba—Answered
Since restrictions have been lifted on travel to Cuba, U.S. citizens are setting their sights on this destination in record numbers. And while it’s true that it is no longer illegal to visit, there are still several regulations and logistics to be aware of before booking that coveted ticket. Those travelers who wish to explore Cuba on their own, rather than on a packaged tour, need to be especially well-informed. Look no further. Here is everything you need to know about independent (and legal!) travel in Cuba.
While it is now lawful for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, they are not permitted to visit for the purpose of tourism. You must fall into one of 12 approved categories for going—such as family visits, educational activities, journalism, and support for the Cuban people. The good news is that the categories are quite broad, and obtaining written permission in advance is no longer required. Rather, you must “self-certify” that you meet the proper criteria (by ticking a box when you book your trip). For a complete list of authorized activities, refer to the U.S. Department of the Treasury website.
Remember, it is the United States that placed the restrictions on travel, not Cuba. You will have no issues whatsoever entering the country. Cuban immigration officials will ask if you want your passport stamped when you arrive and again when you depart (since U.S. citizens have been going illegally for decades, they are accustomed to not stamping U.S. passports upon request). If you fall into one of the categories above, there is no reason to hide your visit to Cuba. Upon returning to the U.S., you would list Cuba on your immigration form along with any other countries you have visited. Be prepared to answer which of the 12 categories you fall into, though most people returning from Cuba are not questioned. You are also welcome to bring home Cuban rum and cigars (up to $100 worth, combined) to celebrate your successful return.
At one time, the only flights operating between the U.S. and Cuba were expensive charters. Recently, however, a few airlines have begun operating commercial flights from select U.S. cities directly to Havana. Several more are currently working on establishing routes between the U.S. and Cuba. From most places, though, you will still fly via a gateway such as Mexico or Canada (on two separately booked tickets). Skyscanner.com is a good resource for researching the best route from your city.
All visitors to Cuba require a visa, also referred to as a tourist card. If you are traveling via a popular gateway city (such as Mexico City or Cancún), it may be obtained at the airport prior to check-in and costs $25 cash. If you are traveling directly from the U.S., it must be arranged in advance via a travel agent or the Cuban embassy. The visa allows you to stay in Cuba for up to 30 days, and it is possible to extend the visa for another 30 days once you are in the country.
In addition to a visa, visitors to Cuba must also carry travel insurance for the duration of their visit. In practice, Cuba doesn’t check every single person who comes through the arrival gates. However, if you are caught without insurance, officials will force you to you buy a policy on the spot. In any case, it’s always a good idea to travel with insurance. Check out insuremytrip.com to compare plans and find the coverage that’s right for you.
Rumor has it U.S. bank and ATM cards are beginning to work in Cuba. In reality, however, you’ll find that they are still essentially of no use to you outside of major hotels (and often, not even inside). You’ll need to plan accordingly and carry enough cash for your entire visit. Ideally, bring that cash in a currency other than U.S. dollars (euros, pounds, and Canadian dollars are all good options), as they charge a 10% fee to exchange U.S. dollars.
There are, oddly, two different currencies in circulation in Cuba: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The former, also called moneda nacional, is used almost exclusively by locals. There are 25 CUPs to one CUC (in other words, one moneda nacional is equal to about 4 cents). Make sure when you’re given change that it’s in the correct currency!
The latter, generally referred to as a “cuc” (pronounced “kook”) is tied to the U.S. dollar with an exchange rate of one to one. Just about everything a tourist encounters in Cuba will be priced in CUCs. It’s useful to exchange a small amount of CUCs for CUPs when you arrive if you want to buy any cheap food on the street, etc. While they don’t officially offer this to tourists, your casa host may be willing to exchange some for you.
The government regulates Cubans’ access to the Internet, and there are very few places that offer Wi-Fi. Outside of major hotels, each town typically has one central place with a Wi-Fi signal (usually, the main/central plaza). In order to access it, you must first visit an ETECSA office (the country’s sole telecommunications provider) and purchase a Wi-Fi card. There, they will be able to tell you where it can be used. Bring your passport, as you are usually asked to show ID. And be prepared to wait in a very long line. The cards typically cost $2 for one hour and will have a scratch-off passcode to use with your Wi-Fi-enabled device. The same cards work all over the country, so feel free to buy a few at a time if they will let you.
Government-run hotels in Cuba tend to fall into one of two categories: expensive, luxurious lodging or Soviet-era concrete blocks that haven’t been maintained in years. Unless you are looking for the former, your best bet for an authentic Cuban experience is to stay in casa particulares—rooms for rent in people’s homes. Similar to a bed and breakfast, these accommodations allow you a peek into the local life and usually offer the opportunity for a home-cooked breakfast or dinner for a few extra bucks. Several of them may be found on sites such as Airbnb if you’d like to reserve one in advance. If you prefer to book on arrival, they are very easy to find. Each casa has a symbol hanging outside (that looks like a blue capital letter I) with the words arrendador divisa, identifying it as a casa particular.
Much like the hotel situation, most government-run restaurants leave much to be desired. For an authentic local meal, restaurants in people’s homes are also the way to go. Referred to as paladares, these eating establishments can be anything from a table and chairs in someone’s living room to a converted garage that resembles any other legitimate restaurant. The typical menu in Cuba consists of your choice of pork, chicken, or fish with rice, beans, and a simple salad.
The tourist bus network in Cuba is called Viazul, and it connects just about every destination of interest to visitors. The price works out to roughly $4 per hour of travel. They have a website where you can check schedules and fares, but you’ll have to purchase tickets in person. Likewise, the tourist agency Cubanacan covers all of the major routes. They depart from major hotels, and you can book a ticket with them whether you are a guest of the hotel or not. They tend to be slightly more expensive but save you a visit to the bus terminal. Unofficial taxis are also an option and tend to cost only a few dollars more than the bus/shuttle. Prices are typically per person rather than per ride, and they can usually be negotiated. Your casa owner is the best resource to link you with an affordable driver. Official tourist taxis on the street (typically the historic automobiles) will often be willing to take you to the next town as well, albeit at a highly inflated price.
It is very reasonable to travel in Cuba. A room in a casa particular runs about $25 to $35 per night. Breakfast usually costs $5, while lunch and dinner run $10 to $15. A beer will set you back about $2 and a cocktail $4. A ticket for an all-day hop-on/off tour bus, operating in most tourist towns, costs $5 to $10. A local taxi ride, depending on the distance, can be anywhere from $2 to $20. The average budget–mid-range traveler can expect to spend at least $60 per day in Cuba, based on double occupancy. For luxury hotels and higher-end restaurants, well, the sky is the limit.
Cuban people are some of the most kind, welcoming, and trustworthy folks you will encounter anywhere. Make an effort to learn a few Spanish phrases. Enjoy a meal with your casa particular host. Dance the night away with exuberant locals. Be as street-smart as you would anywhere else in the world, but don’t fear for your security. It’s a beautifully complex place that is well worth the work required to travel there—ideally before all of the things that make it so distinct are no longer.
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