Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, has been on both of our lists since Obama and Raúl Castro shook hands in 2015. Even with the current administration’s reversal on policy, we were still eager to make our way to Havana together to experience the vivid colors and sounds of the city. Turns out six of our good friends shared our eagerness, and so we booked a trip to the island nation December 2018. Want to travel to Cuba yourself? Read below for our tips and tricks to get you there and back a total breeze!
PREPARATION is key to travel Smoothly
So what about all those travel restrictions – are they a concern? Not at all! All you need is a little prep and the correct tourist visa, and you’re set to go. Flying in and out of Havana turned out to be one of the smoothest customs experiences we have had traveling. Below you will find items on our checklist to obtain before you go.
Some U.S. airlines may give you problems purchasing your flight with a U.S. credit card (there is that whole US banking restriction still in place). We were able to find work around with trial and error:
International flights: Intejet’s website would not process our flight on the English version. To work around, change the language to Spanish, the website will then process your credit card in pesos.
Flights back to the U.S: Jetblue’s website would not accept our credit card despite us calling our bank, but American Airlines had similar times and they accepted our bank without issue (phew).
Airport Cab: Pro tip! Ask your AirBnb host or hotel to arrange for a shuttle or cab service from the airport. This will save you time trying to bargain for a cab.
Synonymous to a visa, you will need a tourist card to enter the country. These can be purchased online before your trip or at your departure airport. Make sure you purchase the correct card. You will need a pink tourist card ($100) if traveling from the US to Cuba. If you’re traveling from any other country to Cuba, a green tourist card ($25) is required.
Online purchase: We used Cuba Visas to purchase our green tourist cards (again, green = not flying from the US, we flew from Cancun).
Airport purchase: You can easily purchase either card from an airport. Two of our friends purchased the wrong cards prior to our trip, but they were able to purchase the correct cards while we waited to check our bags.
Select An authorized travel category
As a U.S. citizen, you must select one of the 12 categories of authorized travel issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Traveling under one of these conditions approves your trip, since traveling for only “tourist activities” is prohibited. There is no actual license granted, and works under an honor system. While we were prepared, neither the Cuban or U.S customs officers asked us for this information.
“Support for the Cuban people” – We chose to travel under this category as it best fit our group. This meant our itinerary was centered around activities that engaged and supported local society, and avoided all military owned businesses. We found it very easy to travel under this category and it helped further immerse us into the Cuban culture.
We stress that this is MOST important thing to plan and prepare for if you have an American bank account. U.S. banks are not accepted anywhere in Cuba – no credit, no access to your accounts. We recommend bringing at least $100 per day/person to ensure that you have enough to cover food and transportation. Come prepared with more than enough funds to have a no-regrets vacation!
CUCS not CUPs: Exchange your cash into the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), not CUPs, which is the local currency used by residents. This “tourist currency” is tied to the dollar, so 1 CUC is approx. equivalent to 1 USD. Additionally, CUCs are twenty-five times more valuable per face value.
Count your bills: Be sure to double check that all your bills have been changed properly to CUCs vs CUPs. We were given 1 incorrect bill during our exchange, which lost us a small amount of money.
Exchange money before arrival: USD will be charged and extra 10% exchange fee, so we changed our money into Pesos before coming to Havana. If you do not exchange your money at the airport, it may be hard to find another place with no lines. All banks had long queues. We had luck exchanging currencies at a hotel in Old Havana.
You are required to purchase travel insurance before arriving in Cuba. While the custom’s officer did not specifically ask us for proof, we wanted to be safe.
World Nomads – While there are many online travel insurance companies, we chose world nomads. They have the most reliable reviews, and their online portal is user-friendly and relatively inexpensive. After you purchase, make sure to print a copy of your insurance for your trip!
World Wide Web
Turns out it’s not world wide. Once you land in Cuba, you’ll be (mostly) disconnected from the outside world. WiFi is available through government terminals scattered throughout Havana, but they aren’t reliable or convenient. We found this as a positive – pesky little screens didn’t distract any of us during our travels, but you should prepare accordingly before you depart.
Maps.me app: Install on your phone and be sure to download the Cuban map data before you ditch the internet.
Pre-print: We recommend printing out your itinerary, copies of your passport, and travel insurance documentation.
Buddy system: When traveling in a group, make sure to set meeting points if you separate, this will make it easier to meet without cell service.
FLYING HOME (AND PASSING THROUGH CUSTOMS)
Another reason we hear some people are timid to venture to Cuba, is being able to get back home! We sailed through customs back in Miami, and to our pleasant surprise, the US border agents didn’t blink an eye when we said that we were traveling home from Cuba. You can bring home (a reasonable number of) world-famous Cuban cigars without declaring them. These made the perfect souvenirs to inspire our friends and family to take a trip!
That’s it! You’re ready to take off to Havana!
Wondering what to do in Cuba? Check out our guides help you Explore Havana or escape to the beautiful countryside of Vinyales valley. Whatever you decide, there is never a dull moment in this vibrant city.