Tips for Traveling to (Havana) Cuba for the First Time

Tips and What you should know and expect in order to Travel to Havana, Cuba

Introduction

I recently planned my first trip to Havana, Cuba, and many things came up that I wished I had been more prepared for. If you are thinking about traveling to Cuba, or are already set and ready to go, my article offers a few words of wisdom in hopes that your trip goes as smoothly as possible.

Traveling never goes as expected—a delayed flight here, a lost bag there—things happen , and you can’t prepare for everything… You can however, prepare for some things. Hopefully, my experience in Havana can enlighten some unforeseen consequences of traveling to a country that is, for a lack of a better word, complicated. So here are my eight tips for traveling to Cuba.

Numero Uno. Cuban Tourist Card (Visa)

Chances are, you are a citizen of a country that needs a Cuban Tourist Card (Visa), which is valid for thirty days and may be extended while you are there. Unless you are of Cuban decent, or a Cuban citizen, Cuba requires this (pink) visa card to enter the country.

Most airlines provide you with the Visa when you check in for your flight. I travelled with Jet Blue to fly to Cuba and Jet Blue charges a $50 fee for the visa on top of the airfare cost.  Make sure to inquire about it with the airline before you go to the airpot, as you are required to have more than your airline ticket when arriving in Cuba. If you don’t wish to use your airline, or your airline does not provide it, you can also purchase your visa here

If you choose to purchase the visa in advance, hand the visa to the airline at check in. Don't forget to do this, as they will register the visa number with your airline ticket. It is proof that you have a roundtrip airfare for Cuban customs.

Numero Dos. Visa Purpose

Additionally, and not to be confused with the Cuban Tourist Card (Visa), you have to have a legitimate purpose for traveling to Cuba. There are different categories of Visas that enable you to travel to there. I can only speak for the category I travelled under, which is what most tourist select: Support the Cuban People.

There are other categories you can pick as well, such as emergency assistance or journalism, but if you are just going to explore Cuba, you will travel under Support the Cuban People.

Keep in mind that the reason these categories exist is that you must do more than simply travel to Cuba. Technically, simply traveling to Cuba as a tourist is not authorized. You must therefore take part in certain activities that fall under the accepted Support the Cuban People Visa.

You select this Visa when purchasing your airfare. The airline will ask you to select the category of Visa you are traveling under when booking your flights.

In order to comply with the Support the Cuban People Visa, you have to follow a few rules, the most important one being that you cannot stay in a military/government run hotel. It’s slightly contradictory, because most of Cuba is government run, but this step is rather easy to avoid. You can avoid hotels all together by staying in an Airbnb, or you can just avoid a hotel on the restricted list here. As a general note, the Hotel Nacional of Cuba, which is one of their landmark hotels, is not on the restricted list, which means you can stay there as a guest under the Support the Cuban People visa.

Aside from where you stay, the purpose of the Visa is to ensure you take part in activities that relate to the Cuban culture. You should take part in tours, and visit museums. You should eat at local restaurants and shop at local shops. Try and keep track of what you do, and keep receipts of the places you visit. 

It is also better to have an itinerary planned and a printed version of your hotel/airbnb reservations, so that if you are asked what you are going to do while passing customs, you can provide them with your plans.

Numero Tres. Travel Insurance

In order to enter the country, you need the Cuban Tourist card, the Support the Cuban People Visa (which you get with the airfare) and you need Medical Travel insurance. This, for most airlines, is also covered in the airfare. Your boarding pass will be proof of your insurance. Jet Blue for example, stamps your boarding pass with an approved medical insurance stamp. All you need to do is keep your boarding pass safe and with you while you are in Cuba. If anything unexpected happens on your trip, and you end up needed to go to a hospital, your boarding pass will be your insurance.

Make sure to double check with your airline that your ticket is your insurance. Keep in mind that your actual medical insurance card, from whatever country you are from, is useless there. 

If, for any reason, your airline does not provide you with this medical travel insurance, you can always purchase the Medical Travel insurance when you land in Havana. While passing customs, they will ask you for proof of medical insurance along with your visa, and if you don’t have it, they will show you where to buy it. It costs something like three to ten dollars a day. insurance.

Numero Cuatro. CASH

Few places take credit card, but absolutely none take American Credit or Debit Cards. The government has blocked the use of any American credit or debit card inside the country, which means that if you are out of cash, your only recourse is to have someone WesternUnion cash to you. So be prepared, and take as much cash as you can. That doesn’t mean you need to spend it all, but it is much better to be safe than sorry.

If you have an international card, that is not from a local US bank branch, then you can use that card to retrieve cash at ATMs or use it in places that accept cards. My advice would be to assume that most places do not take cards, and will not have ATMs, especially as you wonder outside of Havana.

When you arrive there, you will want to exchange your currency for Cuban Pesos or what they call CUC (pronounced K-OO-K). It is illegal to leave Cuba with their currency, which means you cannot prepare ahead of time and get CUC outside of Cuba. This also means that they are able to regulate their currency to whatever rate they want. Generally Speaking Cuba is expensive. The CUC is equal to the US dollar, which mean one ($1) US Dollar equals one (1) CUC. However, the exchange rate fluctuates between .85-.92. If the CUC is at .87, that means you need $1.13 US dollars for every CUC. Check to see the rate of the CUC before you leave, but it generally tends to be on par with the US dollar.

I wouldn’t recommend exchanging too much money at the airport. You may need to have some CUC handy in order to get a Taxi or a Driver from the airport, but chances are you will get a slightly better rate in the city, generally around .90 instead of .87.

I highly recommend keeping some dollars handy. For one, most places take US dollars anyway, they may apply the exchange rate when you pay, but at least you can still pay. Second, you don’t want to end up with excess CUC and have to exchange them back to your currency. You’ll end up losing money for no reason. How much money you want to exchange really depends on how long you are staying, what you plan on buying, and how open you are to finding a more favorable currency exchange location.

Lastly, I mostly tipped in US dollars, so make sure to bring some extra singles dollar bills.

The minimum wage in Cuba is about 20-25 dollars a month. They will take cash wherever they can find it, and even the smallest tip are appreciated, so Don't forget to Tip.

Numero Cinco. Transportation

Transportation is easy to come by in Cuba. You may already be aware that Cuba is famously known for its 1950’s beautiful old cars. Depending on how long you will be in Havana, I recommend negotiating with a driver to be your driver for the entire trip. That means that for a flat fee, you can ask them to pick you up or drop you off whenever and wherever you’d like.

You can wing it, but since Cuba’s internet can be hard to come by, I wouldn’t always rely on internet for transportation. However, Ubers [yes, Ubers] are available. You can buy internet cards at local shops to have Wifi on your phone.  

But two to three cabs in a day can quickly run a tab, and so you may want to consider having a secure means of transportation throughout your travels. You can probably find a driver and pay between 60-100 CUC a day, depending on how many people are on the trip.

Lastly, a trip to and from the Havana airport to Old Havana will generally cost you between 30-45 CUC.

Numero Seis. General Expectations

Cuba is an incredible country. It has an incredible history that is very much visually present within Havana. However, its history hasn’t always finished with happy endings. For one, I must warn all the fancy travelers out there, that there is almost nothing fancy in or about Cuba. You will find the most amazing culture and the streets full of life and kind spirited people, but you will have a hard time finding luxury services, food, or accommodations. 

Second, if you wish to dine in the nicer restaurants, you may need to book those far in advance. Although the "fine dining" in Havana is limited (and sub-par), some places still book up quickly, and are worth going to for the views or the cultural experiences.

Lastly, and as previously mentioned, the internet is second-rate. I had a hard time downloading emails, even in the better areas. It may also be regulated, so some pages may be inaccessible. If you plan on doing work there, keep in mind that the internet may not work very well (or at all).

Numero Siete. Buying Cuban Art

Cuba is a Mecca for Art. There are two types of art you can buy; the tourist kind and the gallery kind.

If you purchase art from the streets, or local artists, that is bigger than your suitcase, you will be able to take the art back as a carry on and pay a small export fee to receive a stamp. The fee is generally 5-15 CUC.

If you buy art from a dealer or an art gallery, then you will need to get all the paperwork stamped and approved by the gallery. Please discuss this with the gallery you plan on purchasing art from. The forms are generally yellow and Pink and provide you with the paperwork to show at the airport and customs.

Numero Ocho. A Few Things to Do

Fusterladia in an amazing place to visit. Although it’s slightly outside of Havana, it is free (with donation accepted).

Take a tour of old Havana, and learn about the history behind all the ruins and colonial buildings.

Cuba is known for its art, and music, so check out some of the museums (including the museum of modern art), or have a drink at Fabirca del Arte, which is a modern art gallery that turns into a night club in the evening.

LaGuarida and its rooftop bar is an great dinner location to lounge and enjoy some views.

Hit the beach on a hotter day and soak up some sun.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Talia TouboulExplorer

We will either find a road, or make one