Travelling to Cuba is both fascinating and frustrating. But with a bit of planning, much of the frustration can disappear. To help you on your way, here are 14 really useful Cuba travel tips.
Cuba is a fascinating travel destination. As one of the few remaining communist countries, it often seems stuck in time. Oldsmobiles and Corvettes from the 1960’s crawl through streets of colonial towns crumbling into dust. Horses and oxen pull farmers on homemade ploughs.
It’s a unique and interesting destination.
But Cuba can be both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. Much of what makes it so special is also what makes it so frustrating. With private businesses illegal until very recently, the Cuban state runs most of the hotels and car rental operators. They carry out this responsibility with the flair you’d expect from underfunded government institutions.
Trade embargoes that keep vintage cars on the roads also keep the shops bare and the restaurants in survival-only mode. Additionally, a myriad of rules and regulations make money, bank cards and the internet more difficult.
With that in mind, here are our 14 travel tips for Cuba to help you enjoy this fascinating place. Hopefully, without the frustration.
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1 / GET A CUBAN TOURIST CARD
Visitors spending up to two months in Cuba do not need a visa but almost all international travellers need a Cuba Tourist Card valid for up to 30 days of travel. This is a very important Cuba travel tip as you can’t get in the country without it!
If you book a package holiday they should organise this for you. Many flights also provide the service, but if not you will need to organise your own. You can apply using this online service. Cuba can be an officious country so make sure you fill it out carefully.
The rules for American citizens keep changing depending on the political climate. While President Obama relaxed the requirements for travel to Cuba, President Trump has tightened them right back up. On 06 Jun 2019, Trump banned cruise ships from docking in Cuba and scrapped the ‘people to people’ travel loophole that had allowed many Americans to travel to the island.
If you are American please check out the latest restrictions. Matt at Expert Vagabond has more information.
2 / GET TRAVEL AND MEDICAL INSURANCE AND PRINT IT OUT
It is compulsory to have medical insurance when travelling to Cuba. Random checks can occur at airports so make sure you bring a printed copy of your medical insurance details. Fortunately, healthcare is one of the areas Cuba excels at with medical training delivered to a very high standard. In fact, sending doctors to Latin American countries is one of Cuba’s biggest exports.
3 / SEARCH AROUND FOR CHEAP FLIGHTS
Cuba has 10 international airports but most international flights arrive into José Martí International Airport in Havana or Juan Gualberto Gómez International Airport in Varadero.
There are not many direct flights to Cuba so prices tend to be more expensive. If you have the time it pays to shop around, be flexible on dates and look for cheaper indirect routes. Google flights is our preferred way to search for flights with its nice interface that provides a snapshot of prices on the calendar before you select your dates.
Many airlines don’t allow you to book flights to Cuba online. So don’t be surprised if you get most of the way through the process then receive a message advising you to call the airline.
4 / BOOK ACCOMMODATION IN ADVANCE AT CASAS PARTICULARES
All the hotels in Cuba are majority owned by the state; a monopoly which delivers high prices. Some are set in beautiful locations but many are soulless concrete blocks with terrible service and even worse food.
So, a little Cuba travel tip that will greatly increase your enjoyment is to stay in ‘Casa Particulares’. Run by inventive locals, a Casa Particular is a small privately owned guesthouse. Often, it’s just a room in someone’s house. It’s a great way to get to know locals, enjoy their friendly hospitality and stay in much nicer digs. They usually provide you with a mini-bar and will offer to make you breakfast and dinner for a small charge.
You can book a Casa Particulares through AirBnb or via Booking.com selecting the “homestays” option under Property Type. There is a wide array of choices but we suggest you do a bit of digging around to find a host who speaks some English. They will be an invaluable resource during your stay and you’ll find they’ll take care of all travel arrangements for you. This is particularly helpful outside Havana where the more interesting activities are not covered in guidebooks.
We would also pay a bit extra for air-conditioning.
Unfortunately, due to government meddling and internet restrictions, you may find you are unable to book accommodation online in Cuba. So either book before you arrive in the country or use a VPN to get around the restrictions.
5 / PRE-BOOK YOUR TRANSPORT BEFORE YOU GO
If you are an independent traveller there are two main options for getting around Cuba. Option 1 is to hire your own car, option 2 is to use a mix of buses, colectivos and taxis.
The car rental companies that operate in Cuba are Cubacar, Rex, Havanautos and Via. As you might have guessed, being government run there’s very little price difference between each of them. Make sure you book well in advance.
The main tourist bus provider in Cuba is Viazul. They have an extensive and very convenient network across the Island but we do suggest you book in advance to save any anxiety.
You can read more about the different transport options and their quirks and frustrations in our getting around Cuba article.
6 / DOWNLOAD MAPS OFFLINE
Although 3G data is slowly being rolled out for locals in Cuba, there is currently none for tourists. So when you’re out and about, pounding the pavement through those iconic crumbling streets in Havana, you’ll need an option to navigate yourself.
So make sure you download offline maps onto your phone before you depart. This will save all the map information to your phone allowing you to find that restaurant you’re looking for or stagger to that rooftop bar in the old town of Havana.
Both google maps and maps.me offer the ability to download offline maps for the area you are travelling to. Alternatively, just head to our Cuba posts where we have created maps for you. Click on the star to save them to your device. Once you have the map on screen, head to settings > offline maps > custom maps to save the data to your phone.
7 / BRING PLENTY FOREIGN CURRENCY OR A NON-US BANK/DEBIT CARD
Currently nowhere in Cuba will accept cards issued by American banks. (Non-US issued credit cards with US guarantors such as Mastercard, Visa or American Express are accepted). So, if you only have an American bank card, you must bring enough cash for your entire trip. Furthermore, if you bring US$ (unlike other currencies) a compulsory 13% fee is charged when exchanged for Cuban Pesos.
Therefore, if you only have a US-issued bank card, bring EUR to Cuba if possible.
Additional, make sure you call your bank to let them know you’re off on a whirlwind trip to Cuba. There are three reasons for doing this.
Firstly, to confirm that your debit/credit card will actually work in Cuba. Secondly, to confirm the dates you will be away so they don’t cancel your credit/debit card due to suspicious activity. Thirdly, to make sure your daily withdrawal limit is sufficient. More about that in our next tip.
8 / CARRY LOTS OF CASH AND CHECK YOUR CHANGE
Cuba is a cash economy. Almost no restaurants, hotels, taxis or tour operators accept credit or debit cards. So it’s important to take out and hold a lot of cash.
It can be a pain getting CUC all the time, small towns won’t have ATMs and the banks / CADECAs have relaxed opening hours. So get a lot out early. It’s a safe country and you are unlikely to be separated illegally from your CUC as long as you take sensible precautions.
Havana international airport has 5 cash machines as you exit customs and another one on the floor above. There is also a couple of banks and a CADECA, for which you will probably be queueing for a while.
9 / DOWNLOAD SPANISH ON GOOGLE TRANSLATE
There is very little English spoken in Cuba. While this means that hosts will be very accommodating in working with you to splatter out some high school Spanish, it’s a good idea to have some backup.
We suggest downloading Spanish in Google Translate before you leave so you have it on hand while you’re in the country. Remember, most of the time you’ll be without Internet in Cuba, so you’ll want those Spanish words downloaded to your phone so you can roll off a “dos cervesas por favour” in case of an emergency!
To brush up on your Spanish before you go, there are plenty of gamified apps that can give you a little refresher. We like Memrise and Duolingo. If you want to pay for an online language tutorial, we recommend Babbel.
10 / TAKE ALL ESSENTIALS YOU MIGHT NEED, ESPECIALLY EARPLUGS
The shops in Cuba are universally dreadful. Trade embargoes have blocked many common brands and those that do make it through are very expensive. The result is a very narrow selection of practical products. So while it’s a good idea to pack light, you need to bring all the essentials you might need with you – toiletries, sunblock, insect repellent, camera cards etc – as finding these items will be nigh on impossible if you’re out of a major centre.
Food is no better. Stores sell bottled water, sometimes biscuits, the occasional packaged products and rum. Trying to put together something like a sandwich for lunch on the road will be a real struggle. So if there is something snack-related that you can’t live without, it’s best to bring it with you. If you need the occasional bite of chocolate, stuff some in your backpack. Fancy a cup of tea? Pack those tea bags.
A final Cuba travel tip. It is essential to bring earplugs. With the animated conversations of locals, street music playing into the wee hours, pigs oinking and roosters crowing all night, we’ve never been to a noisier country!
11 / GET A VPN IF YOU NEED TO ACCESS PAYMENT SITES ONLINE
A lot of people we met in Cuba were diligent about always using a VPN connection to get online. We didn’t feel the need to have a VPN for security purposes, but there are some good reasons to use one.
Firstly, online payments are not permitted in Cuba. So if you need to do anything online that involves transferring funds (paying for an Airbnb booking, accessing online banking) you’ll be out of luck. Secondly, as the USA has imposed sanctions on Cuba, some sites hosted in the States may not be accessed in Cuba.
So, while we think a VPN is not specifically necessary (although many people are concerned about online anonymity) if you think you’ll need to make financial transactions in Cuba, you’ll definitely need one. If you have some favourite US-hosted sites that you can’t live without, you’ll need a VPN for that as well.
12 / TIPPING IN CUBA REQUIRES CARRYING SMALL NOTES AND COINS
Tipping in Cuba is part of the culture. Sometimes service charge is added in restaurants in the cities, but if not then 10% gratuity is standard. This is a poor country and tips can go a long way to helping the people.
Having said that, the range of service quality is enormous. Some days the service was so bad we couldn’t bring ourselves to part any more money, other days we happily over-tipped. Hopefully, we averaged out about right.
The other good reason to carry small change is to gain access to that much-needed facility: toilets. Most public toilets have a cheery attendant sitting in the doorway with a small wicker basket collecting small change. It’s generally a very small fee, but you do need to make sure you have that on you.
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13 / STOCK UP ON INTERNET CARDS
If you’re researching Cuba travel tips, you’ve no doubt heard that internet access is not straightforward. The internet only recently came to Cuba and the government has a stranglehold on it.
ETECSA is the state-run monopoly providing the service. To access the internet, you need to buy ETECSA cards at their offices.
Once you have the card you need to head to a public wi-fi area (usually a park or square), a large hotel or the odd café. You then select the ETECSA network, scratch off the password on the ETECSA card and enter it into your device. The card will keep track of how long you are on the internet. It is time-dependent and not data-dependent. So quickly follow us on Instagram here, then log off.
ETECSA stores only open in the daytime and are mainly in the larger towns. So stock up with cards when you get the chance. For example, Playa Larga where we spent a few days, had no ETESCA outlet.
If you can’t find a store, ask around, someone might sell you a card.
14 / BOOK YOUR ACTIVITIES THROUGH YOUR CASA PARTICULAR HOST
We are the sort of travellers who like to research upfront and book things in advance. This is an efficiency thing more than a comfort thing. We try to avoid wasting time doing things like queuing or walking around looking for the right tour.
But government restrictions and a lack of internet in Cuba makes booking activities in advance tricky. This is where accommodation with a good host helps.
Lured by the benefits of a healthy private enterprise, a good Casa Particulares host will nurture a network of local providers. As soon as you check in they set about organising your stay; providing you with their own helpful Cuba travel tips. Want a horse ride? You got it. Bike rental for the day? No problem. Colectivo to your next destination? Done. Non-touristy food that’s actually tasty? Here’s our friend’s home restaurant.
There are many other benefits to using your host for booking activities. Firstly, you’re providing income directly to Cubans rather than to a poorly run government service. Secondly, you’re increasing your chances of getting a higher quality service. And finally, you’re saving yourself time in scouting out the best things to do.
So as soon as you arrive at your accommodation, sit down with the host and let them help you.
MORE CUBA READING
Cuba is a unique place. Years of Soviet-funded political ideology created a strong- if slightly confusing – sense of national identity. Soviet, American, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences fuse together to create a fascinating place to visit. Here is some more of our reading about this fascinating place.
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