Although travel to Cuba from the U.S. has been legal for several years now, most Americans are unsure about the requirements. Some even think they aren’t allowed to visit. And those who want to visit, typically find it tough to get information on Cuba travel since the Caribbean island is still an uncommon travel destination from the U.S. However, it really is much easier to visit Cuba from the U.S. than you’d expect, as long as you’re prepared.
Here are my tips and must-do tasks before you travel to Cuba from the U.S.
Secure a Visa
You are required to have a Visa to visit Cuba from the U.S., but the good news is that it’s very easy to get one. One option is to go online here and purchase it in advance. I bought mine about five days in advance and it arrived on time. Alternatively, you can get your Visa at the airport before you board. Both options are easy and stress-free.
Purchase travel insurance
Technically, travel insurance while traveling to Cuba from the U.S. is a requirement, but I’ll be honest and say that no one ever checked for mine or even asked for it. That being said, I would highly recommend getting travel insurance. Currently, no U.S. credit cards are accepted anywhere in Cuba. You should plan to arrive with all the money you think you’ll spend, plus enough for any emergencies. It is a good idea to have travel insurance as an extra safe-guard while you’re there.
Select an approved reason for visiting
At the airport, you’ll be asked for your reason for visiting Cuba, where you’ll need to select from a list of twelve approved reasons. A common option for leisure travels is the “Support of the Cuban People” option, which implies that you’ll be spending your money with Cuban locals in lieu of the Cuban government. You may have heard recently that travel to Cuba from the U.S. has been made more difficult by the U.S. government. Essentially what happened is that “Tourism” is no longer an approved option for U.S. travelers, but you’ll still have twelve other options to choose from. Here are the twelve approved reasons for visiting:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Decide what kind of accommodations you want to have in advance
There are three options for your accommodations in Cuba: Hotels, AirBnbs, and Casa Particulars. Each has it’s own perks:
- Hotels: In most cases, I would not recommend staying in a hotel. The exceptions are if you’re staying one of Havana’s luxury hotels, including Hotel Nacional and Hotel Saratoga, or maybe if you’re going for an all-inclusive trip in Veradero. I stayed in Hotel Nacional, one of the famous and historic hotels in Havana, for a part of my trip. It was a beautiful hotel right on the coast, but was far from Old Havana where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Hotel Saratoga has a better location, but lacks the same history.
- AirBnbs: AirBnbs are extremely affordable (I paid $17 per night for a great room in Viñales) and you have the luxury of seeing plenty of reviews before committing to a place. Your hosts will typically offer excursions and advice for what to do during your stay. They also set up transportation to and from the hotel for us. Another perk is that you can book with your credit card to help lighten the burden of the cash you’ll need to bring with you.
- Casa Particular: Casa Particulars are very similar to an AirBnb rental, but the difference is that you won’t reserve this in advance. The idea is that you basically just show up in Cuba and ask around for a room. If someone doesn’t have one available themselves, they’ll help you find one. This might seem unusual, but Cuban people are some of the nicest I’ve ever met and it seems to be a totally common way of doing things there.
Research destinations before you leave for your trip
There are several different regions and cities of interest in Cuba, so make sure to do some research before you go. Here are my thoughts on a few of the major places to visit, but be sure to read up on them elsewhere as well:
- Viñales: Viñales was our first stop on the trip and also my favorite of the two. This one is all about the outdoors. We spent one day riding bikes to go caving and get some spectacular views of the National Park. The second day we spent horseback riding, touring a tobacco plantation, and visiting a coffee farm.
- Havana: Havana is a vibrant city, full of wonderful people. I think you can really do everything you need to do here in a couple of days. We spent the first day touring the city by taxi (i.e., a gorgeous classic car), lounging at the pool, and out to dinner. The second day we walked around Old Havana and along the coast. We also went to another dinner, this time at the famed La Guardia (be sure to make reservations in advance).
- Veradero: Veradero is a beach resort town, filled with large, all-inclusive hotels. This city is aimed more for families and from what I’ve read, feels very “resort-y” so we skipped this stop. But, if you’re looking for a beach vacation, this might be for you.
- Trinidad: I was very sad to miss a visit to Trinidad, but we simply did not have enough time to stop here. Trinidad is known for it’s brightly colored buildings and lively nightlife — a great option for a trip without the kids.
Exchange your cash in advance
As I mentioned above, none of your U.S. credit cards will work in Cuba; that includes ATMs, banks, the airport, hotels, everywhere. You’ll need to bring enough for all your spending in cash. Additionally, USD is taxed an extra 10% to exchange so it’s best to bring Euros or another major currency. This was probably the worst part of the logistics for me because I hate to carry so much cash on hand, but there really is no way around it.
The good thing is that cost of living in Cuba is low so your dollars will get you further. Here are a few tips to help you plan out your spending:
- The currency in Cuba is called CUC (pronouced: kook) and 1CUC = 1USD. However, Cuba actually has two currencies. The other is the CUP (or Peso) and worth far less (25CUP = 1CUC). I didn’t run into CUPs at any point, but it’s important to be aware of it in case you do.
- Book your hotels or AirBnbs in advance if you want to carry less cash on hand.
- A very nice dinner ran us about $40 per person, including appetizers, main course, and two drinks. Cheaper dinners will run closer to $15 per person. Breakfasts cost around $4-5 per person.
- Bring extra cash for emergencies, but don’t convert it all at once. We converted two days’ worth of cash every time we needed it to avoid paying exchange rates unnecessarily.
Check your cell phone coverage
If you haven’t heard this already: WiFi is very difficult to come across in Cuba. Cell phone service, however, is just fine. Most service plans have modest rates for texting, very high prices for phone calls, and insanely expensive rates for data. Turn off your data service the entire time you’re in Cuba. I relied on text messages to communicate with anyone and only made a phone call once (when I got stuck in an elevator for a bit by myself!). For WiFi usage, check with your accommodations in advance about availability. We had WiFi access at both our AirBnb and hotel, though it was very spotty at the hotel.
Remember where you are traveling to
Since travel to Cuba from the U.S. is new, many Americans are excited to visit. But it’s important to be aware of the history here. Cuba is still very much a Communist country and things operate very differently than in the United States. You’ll hear a lot about Che Guevera, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban Revolution. I recommend asking a Cuban all about their history and culture to hear their unique perspective. You’ll likely learn a lot and if you pay close attention, you may hear a few facts that are inconsistent from what we learn in the U.S. — I found it absolutely fascinating.
Beyond that, you should also be aware that many Cubans working for the government only make around $20 to $40 a month. You’ll see people living in buildings that are structurally unsound and so on. So be aware and be courteous. Cuban people are fantastic, hospitable, and I truly felt very safe during my entire trip, even when my surroundings looked worse for wear.