How to Plan a Trip to Cuba

Two months ago I announced on my Instagram and Facebook pages that I would be visiting Cuba in May. I was surprised by the number of people who did not realize it is possible for U.S. citizens to travel there. In an effort to help those that want to visit the island I’ll be answering some of the most asked questions below.

All of this information was discovered during my preparation for this trip. Once I return I will be sharing more details, such as recommended restaurants, tour guides, and accommodations. If you’re only interested in learning about a particular category click the link below to skip to that section.

Travel Categories

Do not expect to go to Cuba for a lazy beach vacation. Although itineraries aren’t checked upon your return, they can be at any time in the future. If you’re looking for a Caribbean getaway where you can lounge without learning anything about the culture or history of the country, this is not the trip for you.

U.S. citizens are allowed to visit the island under 12 categories, as per the U.S. Embassy website:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government
  3. Foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  4. Journalistic activity
  5. Professional research and professional meetings
  6. Educational activities
  7. Religious activities
  8. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  9. Support for the Cuban people
  10. Humanitarian projects
  11. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  12. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials and certain authorized export transactions

Most people that visit the island fall under category 6, 8,  9, or 10. If you would like more detailed information on the categories you can visit the Treasury’s FAQ page here.

U.S. Airlines That Fly to Cuba

A plethora of U.S. airlines have direct flights to the island. These flights depart from hubs such as Newark (EWR), New York City (JFK), Ft. Lauderdale (FLL), Tampa (TPA), Miami (MIA), Atlanta (ATL), Charlotte (CLT), Houston (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), and other cities. A list of these airlines is below.

  • Delta (visa available for purchase {$50} and distributed to passengers prior to boarding their flight; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • Spirit (must apply and obtain visa in advance by calling 1-866-589-5516; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • United (visa {$50+$25 service charge} provided at airport in Houston, New York, and Newark; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • Alaska (visa must be obtained in advance through Cuba Travel Services or another agency ; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • JetBlue (visa can be purchased at the airport for $50; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • Frontier (visa must be obtained in advance from Cuba Visa Services for $85; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • American (visa must be obtained in advance through Cuba Travel Services {rep will call you after booking}; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)
  • Southwest (visa must be obtained in advance through Cuba Travel Services; $25 health insurance included in ticket cost)

The easiest way to find a flight is to search from the closest city to you, on the list above, to either Havana (HAV) or one of the other major Cuban airports on Google Flights. Once you find flights that work for your schedule you will be directed to the carrier’s site to book. When booking a ticket you must select which of the 12 categories your trip fits under. Be sure to check if your ticket includes the required health insurance.

*Pack a carry on, as it takes upwards of an hour upon arrival in Cuba to get your baggage if it is checked

Visa and Vaccinations

The visa process is fairly simple, but be sure to research the specifics for the airline you will be flying. When you arrive at the airport to depart for Cuba, depending on the carrier you’re flying, you will be directed on where to pay and pickup your visa. Confirm this information with the airline in advance, as it is subject to change at any time.

Information regarding recommended vaccinations can be found here.

Accommodations

Cuba does have resorts, however your best option is renting an Airbnb or a casa particular (private house). The resorts are not reasonably priced, in my opinion, for what you get. A vacation rental will allow your money to stretch further.

Book your accommodations well in advance, as space is limited. Cuba is not the place to book a flight to and just show up. Some advise booking where you’ll be staying before your flight. But this is only necessary if you purchase your plane tickets less than 3 months in advance or if you are traveling with a large group.

Be sure to bring a gift for your host if staying in a casa particular or non private Airbnb. After all, they are doing you the favor of allowing you to stay in their home. Some recommended items are Goya seasoning, toiletries such as body wash and lotion sets, or perfume/cologne.

There are things that are commonly found in the U.S. that are not as common in Cuba. It is advisable to pack toilet paper and hand sanitizer to carry with you at all time. Also purchase bottled water on arrival for drinking and brushing your teeth . Electrical sockets are designed to take either American plugs or European ones. If you’d like to be on the safe side, pack a European to U.S. outlet converter.

Money/Currency Exchange

**DO NOT PUT  CUBA IN YOUR PAYMENTS VIA VENMO OR PAYPAL** This will cause you payment to be scrutinized and held up for review.

Cuba has two active currencies: CUC (kook), Cuban convertible peso, which is pegged to the dollar and CUP (koop), Cuban peso. CUC is, for lack of a better description, tourist currency. While CUP, also known as moneda nacional, is the local currency.

As you can see below, the two currencies are valued differently. Be mindful of what currency you are given when receiving change. Failure to do so could result in you getting much less back than you are due.

The easiest way to distinguish the currencies is by the pictures on them. CUC mostly have pictures of monuments, while CUP have pictures of people. Think p for people. CUC also have “convertibles” written on them.

cup
CUC on top CUP on bottom

U.S. credit cards and debit cards do NOT work in Cuba. I cannot stress this fact enough. This means that you will have to carry cash and budget in advance.

The general guideline is 100€/day. This is if you have prepaid for your accommodations and tours. Be sure to include more if you plan to eat out often, generously tip your guides, and purchase a lot of souvenirs.

Note that I gave the budget in EUR not USD. This is because the exchange rate from EUR to CUC is much better than USD to CUC. U.S. dollars are charged a 10% fee plus the average 3% exchange fee that results in you getting less CUC. Order euros from your U.S. bank in advance and exchange them at the airport in Cuba upon arrival. If you’d like more information on currency conversion and rates click here.

WiFi

The WiFi in Cuba is limited and not easy to access. For some this is a plus as it forces you to unplug. However, if you’d like to access the internet in Cuba you will have to purchase a WiFi card. They run around $2-$5.

These cards allow you to connect to the internet for a limited amount of time from certain access points. Access points are easy to spot by the large number of people sitting by them on their phones.

Wifi Acess Spot.JPG
WiFi Access Point

A list of the 200 WiFi spots in Havana and other cities is available here. If you’re staying in a resort you may be able to access WiFi from the lobby and purchase an internet card there or login directly. A detailed article on accessing internet while in Cuba is available here.

Be sure to download an offline map of the cities you will be staying in through Google Maps (App Store|Google Play Store). Also, if you are not fluent in Spanish download the Spanish language to your phone in the Google Translate app (App Store|Google Play Store). Doing this in advance will save you time and help you avoid a headache.

 

Possible Activities

Transportation

The easiest way to get around Cuba is via taxi. Negotiate the price BEFORE getting into the vehicle. If someone in your group speaks Spanish, leave the negotiating to them. The average cost of a ride from the Havana airport to Central Havana is 25CUC.

If you plan to visit multiple cities during your trip arrange a car service in advance or book a seat on the Viazul bus. The benefit of staying in a casa or Airbnb, as previously recommended, is that you can use your host as a resource. Who better to get advice from than a resident?

Cuba Map.png

Summary

Cuba is a beautiful and unique country. Do not visit expecting a luxury retreat and be sure to have an open mind. Practicing Spanish in advance is advisable so that you can communicate with the people you meet and have a more fulfilling experience.

I can’t wait to report back on my trip once I return. I apologize in advance for flooding your timelines with pics #SorryNotSorry

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. I would definitely love to go back again! So beautiful!

    Like

  2. Ayanna says:

    I appreciate the wealth of valuable info that you shared. I am heading to Cuba in 1 month so your insights were timely and very helpful. Thank you so much!

    Like

    1. I’m glad you found the article helpful!

      Like

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