There are misconceptions abound when it comes to Americans and traveling to Cuba. Six decades of restrictions have made the island seem like an exotic and mysterious locale, despite its location just off the Florida coast. With President Barack Obama lifting travel restrictions in 2014, individual travel to Cuba helped give Cuban tourism a boost. More recent changes in travel regulations have left travellers a bit baffled about how to travel to Cuba legally.
Let us clarify a few things. First of all, you can travel to Cuba. Although the individual “people to people” travel visa option has recently been eliminated, visitors can enter the country travelling with an American passport, provided you have an appropriate purpose. So, what is deemed appropriate––and how do you navigate how to travel to Cuba without violating the laws of the land? Read on for a few tips about visiting the vibrant nation of Cuba.
1. Pinpoint Your Reason for Travel to Cuba
In Cuba, tourism is alive and well, with many travellers from the United States and other countries visiting every year. First, going to Cuba means choosing the appropriate purpose for travel option when you fill out your visa application.
There are actually 12 categories for travel to choose from, so do your research. Technically, travel for the purpose of tourism is not allowed, however a broader category deemed “support for the Cuban people” can encompass aspects of most trips to Cuba––the key is to avoid spending money at any government-owned establishments.
Your trip may fall under one of the other categories as well, but be mindful that you cannot apply for a visa online. For more about visas and how to travel to Cuba, contact the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. directly.
2. Plan Your Itinerary
Since you are not visiting Cuba simply for tourism, your itinerary must be carefully planned, and you will need to document every moment of your trip. If you are traveling in ‘support for the Cuban people’ you must keep detailed records of your itinerary, including any receipts you accrued along the way. Instead of lounging on your beach chair, a salsa or cooking class would be better options. Also make sure you are interacting with locals on a daily basis as per visa requirements.
Many hotels and transit services in Cuba are run by the military, so supporting them in any way would violate visa conditions. You may need to plan your travel to Cuba while only spending money at establishments run by Cuban citizens. It’s tricky, but with a bit of advance planning, certainly doable.
3. Hit the History Books
Any trip to Cuba should include visiting the major hubs and small towns to learn about what true Cuban life is like. But before venturing into the streets of Havana, take some time in advance of your trip to learn about the rich history of Cuba. Tourism to the country at this time still gives visitors the opportunity to observe the most fascinating era of Cuban history.
The 1950s brought on a revolution with consequences that continue to live on in this former Spanish colony even now. Many visitors learn how to travel to Cuba while taking in major turning points in history that occurred less than a century ago. At this time, the notorious Fidel Castro successfully rebelled against the dictator Fulgencio Batista and left Cuba with some key adversaries––most notably among them, the United States.
Knowing a bit of the past will help explain the landscape. With few advertisements and billboards, old cars, dilapidated buildings and a slower pace of life, travellers must understand how to travel to Cuba with an open mind to help place in context the visible effects of the US trade embargo.
4. Inform Yourself About Currency
Do not go to Cuba without informing yourself about matters of currency. American citizens often travel with the luxury of using their bank card anywhere they go. In Cuba, tourism is a bit different for citizens of the United States. With no national banks, Cuba is a cash-only affair.
Your daily budget may vary, but it’s simple to get by on $90-100 USD per day. If you want to know how to travel to Cuba on the cheap, some travellers recommend switching currency to Canadian dollars first, however check with exchange rates at the time of your trip to see if this is worth your while; currency value is always in flux.
Speaking of currency in flux, be mindful that two currencies are used in Cuba: The Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is a more local currency, while CUC is mostly used in the tourism industry. Do some research to find out which currency is used where you plan to go. Tourist hotspots often use the CUC, while locales off the beaten path sometimes use the CUP.
5. Where to Stay
There is no doubt, Americans are sure to have a harder time figuring out how to travel to Cuba and stay within the embargo guidelines than travellers with passports from other countries. With that said, it’s certainly easier now to find accommodations that support locals than it was a decade ago.
To sample local life, plan to stay at casas particulares. In Cuba, tourism has gone online despite spotty Wifi, so you can now scan Airbnb ahead of time to find your chosen casa. Another way to find one is to walk around your neighborhood of choice and look for the signs, which resemble anchors. The casas can be basic, but pack a travel pillow for extra padding and you’ll be living life as a local in comfort.
Take a look at the cost breakdown of each accommodation option as you decide how to travel to Cuba on your budget. Here is a sample of what you might pay per night:
- Casas particulares: $25-$40
- Hotel (Mid-Range): $90-$150
- Resort/Luxury Hotel: $200 plus
- Airbnb: $20 plus
Depending on your travel style, it’s certainly possible to travel to Cuba on a tight budget if you stay in local haunts––and be sure to look into the differences between hotels and Airbnb. You can find out more about Cuba tourism and accommodations by calling the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. for some tips.
6. Don’t Expect the Luxuries of Home
In your home country, you are often afforded certain luxuries that just don’t exist in Cuba. One of those luxuries is widely available Wifi. As you research your itinerary, you will find that some accommodations have Wifi, but check in advance because there are many that don’t. Learn how to travel to Cuba as locals do. It’s much easier to disconnect for a while.
Other simple things you may want to keep on hand day-to-day may surprise you. Toilet paper is one thing you may want to keep with you on excursions, as it is not widely available. Drug stores and convenience stores are also hard to come by, so bringing your own bug spray, sunscreen and other over-the-counter medications is a must.
Drinking any kind of tap water in Cuba is a no-no! Use a bottle that has a filter or better yet, stick to bottled water and avoid ice that may have been made with tap water. Consult a travel doctor for specific recommendations on what other procedures to follow to avoid getting sick.
Finally, if you plan to venture outside of Havana, and you should, make sure you plan well in advance if you are thinking about renting a car. Daily rental prices are costly and car availability can be limited during peak season so this is one area to think about ahead of time.
7. Tip Generously and Leave the Extras
Experienced travellers to Cuba have given us some great tips on how to travel to Cuba using the appropriate tipping etiquette. Always tip generously as locals receive low pay (think in the range of $15-20 USD a month). Much of it goes toward necessities such as hospital or health care services. In Cuba, tourism allows local workers to get ahold of some of the luxuries they can’t find at home.
Think about all those little luxuries you brought with you. You might choose to leave them behind at the end of your excursion as a form of extra tip. All the extra toiletries, shampoos, lotions, and other things you take for granted––even that comfy sleep mask you used on the trip––will be treated as gold. Leaving these hard-to-find items behind is helpful to locals.
A gratuity of at least 10 percent is appropriate, and you should consider how to travel to Cuba while being a positive representative of your home country. Another rule of thumb: always keep change on hand for a tip, and make sure to tip as you go. It’s inadvisable, for example, to wait until the last day of your stay to tip your cleaner or host. A small amount every day shows your appreciation best.
8. What to Do
To round out your itinerary, we have a few ideas in store for you. Making sure you stay within the confines of your particular visa can be tricky, but here are a few great options for activities in support for the Cuban people. We can show you how to travel to Cuba in style. Get ready to hit the road, adventures await!
- Havana: Don’t skip out on the capital. Havana is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We recommend renting a vintage car for a historical tour of the city. Smoke a Cuban cigar, visit some of Hemingway’s favorite locales and after sundown, the vibrant Tropicana nightclub will come to life. For a view of the entire city, head to Morro Castle.
- Walk on the Beach: A walk on the beach is one of the simplest ways to enjoy Cuba. Varadero is our favorite, and it’s easy to find a place to stay nearby. Take a cultural tour on the beach for even more insight.
- Trinidad: This lovely colonial town is a must-see. The cobblestone-filled old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is a photogenic moment around each corner. Bonus: at night, the music scene is as colorful as the town itself.
- Topes National Park: For those looking for nature, Topes offers waterfalls and hiking galore. Located conveniently near Trinidad, make some time for fresh air. This park is well worth the visit and pretty easy to reach.
Of course, there is so much to see in Cuba, this is just the start of our list. Make sure you leave time to relax and enjoy a slower pace of life.
It’s hard to tell what the future holds for the political relationship between Cuba and the United States, but nevertheless, we think figuring out how to travel to Cuba is worth the effort. Recent Cuba tourism statistics show that although things have slowed down a little with imposed travel restrictions from the United States, 5 million visitors are expected to reach Cuba in 2018––up from the 4.7 million the year before.
Things are looking optimistic for this vibrant country. Despite the extra bit of planning required, American tourists can learn how to travel to Cuba fairly easily––and it’s certainly worth a visit, especially since the landscape could change drastically if restrictions are eased again in the future. If you think you may find yourself missing the luxuries of home when you’re in Cuba, browse Cabeau’s travel bundles to give yourself a little extra comfort on the island.