This Is What You Should Know Before You Go to Cuba

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Restored diplomatic relations and relaxed travel restrictions mean that it’s now considerably easier to visit Cuba. But what does that mean exactly, and what should you expect once you get there? Here’s what you need to know about traveling to and staying in Cuba.

Getting There

  • In January, the United States reached an agreement to resume commercial air service to Cuba, which means you will eventually be able to book a flight to Havana or other destinations within Cuba, just as you would any other flight. The Department of Transportation is expected to award flight routes, up to 110 round-trip flights daily, to U.S. carriers as early as this summer.
  • Until then, your options are to charter a flight or, a more consistent and possibly more affordable option, book a flight to Mexico and then another flight from there to Cuba. You’ll need a visa to enter Cuba, which is easy to obtain at the Cubana kiosk in the Cancún airport and costs about $25 USD.
  • In order to legally visit Cuba, you’ll need to make sure your trip falls under one of the 12 approved reasons for travel.
  1. Family visits
  2. Humanitarian projects
  3. Official government business
  4. Journalistic activity
  5. Professional research
  6. Educational activities
  7. People to people travel
  8. Religious activities
  9. Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
  10. Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services, and remittance forwarding services
  11. Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
  12. Exportation, importation, or informational transmission
  • It is still not legal to travel to Cuba solely for tourism, although the “people to people” travel category is accepted as valid for most travelers. Immigration in Cuba will stamp your travel visa instead of your passport, hopefully reducing any questioning that you may encounter on reentering the U.S.
(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Staying There

  • There are a number of hotels and resorts in Cuba, ranging in price and comfort. Hotel Nacional, Melia Cohiba, Hotel Saratoga, and Hotel Florida are reputed for their quality and service. Note, however, that with the influx of tourism, hotel accommodations fill up about two months in advance — so be sure to book early.
  • The most popular and authentic places to stay are casas particulares, private homes with rentable rooms. You can arrange these in advance on AirBnB, but there are so many available that you may also chose to wait until you get there and explore the neighborhoods a little bit.
  • Casas particulares, or casas for short, are marked by a blue insignia on the door. Just knock and ask if there are rooms available; if there aren’t, more often than not, the owner will escort you to a neighboring casa that does have availability.
  • Staying in a casa is a great way to meet other travelers, spend time with locals, and be immersed into the culture. They are also more affordable than hotels.
(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Money & Tipping

  • There are two types of currency accepted in Cuba: the convertible peso (CUC) and the moneda nacional (MN or CUP). As a tourist, you’ll need to convert to the CUC, as it is widely accepted by businesses, hotels, and taxis.
  • There are currency exchanges (CADECA) at the Havana airport and throughout the city of Havana, and they all have the same exchange rate so you don’t have to shop around. Large hotels will also be able to provide currency exchange, but they are known to have the worst rates.
  • If you are converting U.S. dollars, you’ll be charged a 10 percent fee. A good way to avoid the fee is to convert to either euros or Canadian dollars before you leave. And make sure to have your passport with you when exchanging!
  • Even though crime is generally low in Cuba, don’t carry all of your cash on you while out and about. Ask for a lock box at your hotel or casa.
  • ATMs and credit cards do not work for U.S. banks in Cuba, so be sure to take all of the money you think you’ll need, plus a little more just to be safe.
  • Tipping is not mandatory or even customary, but leaving 10 to 15 percent is greatly appreciated because the wages are notoriously low.

Getting Around

  • Taxis are easily accessible and widely available, even at night. They are considered safe and the main mode of transportation for tourists. Whether from the airport to your accommodations, or between cities in Cuba, a taxi is the most reliable option. If you need one at an odd hour, like 4 a.m. to the airport, your host or hotel desk can set it up for you.
  • Buses run from Havana to other cities like Varadero, Santiago, and Trinidad, but the schedules tend to be haphazard, so it is common for tourists to share taxis when traveling to cities outside of Havana. Drivers will typically charge per person. A four-person taxi from Havana to Varadero (a beach town two hours from Havana), for example, will cost $20 CUC per person.
  • In Havana, the best way to get a lay of the land is on foot. I suggest walking from the neighborhood of Vedado, where most of the hotels are located, to Havana Viejo (about 40 minutes) to get a real feel for the city.
(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Dining Out

  • There are two types of restaurants in Cuba: state-run and privately owned. The private restaurants, called paladares, are often run out of family homes and are relatively new, with most being established within the past couple of years — since the Cuban government began allowing more privatization of businesses.
  • Paladares typically offer a wider range of options, more creative dishes, and better service than the state-owned restaurants. The atmosphere tends to be more authentic as well; many are set on the breezy balconies of ornate Cuban mansions.
  • Breakfast and dinner are the main meals in Cuba; many places either shut down mid-day or have a very limited menu.
  • When it comes to budget, you can find meals at price points ranging from $5 to $25 CUC.
  • Most hotels or casas will have an option to include breakfast for around $5 pesos a day, and they can also help with dinner reservations — a good idea during the busy season.
  • Most restaurants have a vast menu with 20 or more items listed, but most of the time what is actually available is limited. It’s a good tactic to ask what they do have when you’re handed the menu.
  • As in most Latino countries, the service in Cuba is very slow; try not to show up for dinner starving, and when you’re ready for the bill, be sure to ask for it. It’s considered rude for the wait staff to assume that you’re finished if you’re not.
(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Dress Code & Toiletries

  • Pretty much anything goes in Cuba, but the brighter and tighter, the better. The style, like the attitude, is outgoing and fun.
  • The weather can go from hot and humid during the day, to chilly at night, so pack breathable fabrics, a hat, sunglasses, and a light jacket or sweatshirt.
  • Bring comfortable sneakers; you’ll be doing a lot of walking and sightseeing. A pair of sandals is a good idea in case you go to the beach.
  • Don’t worry about high-heeled shoes; they will be difficult to walk in with the cobblestone streets, and most places are very casual anyway.
  • Soap, shampoo, and toilet paper are hot commodities in Cuba and nowhere nearly as accessible as we are accustomed to in the U.S.
  • It’s a good idea to keep toilet paper or tissues in your bag, along with hand sanitizer, as many public restrooms do not have toilet paper or soap.
  • If you’re staying in a casa, it’s a nice gesture to bring extra travel-sized toiletries to leave with your host for their future guests.

Internet Access

  • It’s safe to assume that the Internet will not be available during your stay. Some high-end hotels have WiFi , but the connection is often temperamental at best.
  • Internet cards are available in hourly increments at some hotel desks and corner stores, kind of like a calling card for WiFi. Buy a card in the morning, as only a certain number are available per day and they sell out by evening. Then you’ll need to go to an “Internet hot spot” and connect using your phone or device. You’ll know where the hot spots are by the crowds of young people standing around looking at their phones.
  • My suggestion: Skip the hassle of trying to connect and write down all the information that you might need before your trip.
(Image credit: Megan Fawn-Schlow)

Language & Etiquette

  • The Cubano culture is incredibly polite. Use please and thank you, always extend a greeting when entering a room, make eye contact, and smile. These little things go a long way — especially if there is a language barrier.
  • If you speak Spanish, err on the side of the polite and formal forms of words instead of the more familiar.
  • Haitian, French, and traditional Spaniard Spanish influence the Cuban dialect, which can be difficult to understand because of the tendency to make certain letters silent and to use metaphorical phrases and localisms.
  • On the plus side, Cuban Spanish is spoken more slowly. Carry a pocket dictionary and don’t be afraid to ask for something to be repeated or for help understanding.
  • Most Cubans speak a little bit of English, but try to brush up on some basic Spanish phrases before you go.

Useful Phrases

  • Baro, chavito, fula: Money
  • Dale: Let’s go
  • Qué bolá: What’s up?
  • Cuanto cuesta? How much is it?
  • Entiende? Do you understand?
  • Tortilla: Omelet
  • La cuenta, por favor: The check, please
  • Qué tienes? What do you have?
  • Dime: Tell me (customary way to answer the phone)

A final note

In general, Cubans have a real love for life. They are outgoing and celebratory — being shy or subtle doesn’t have much of a place here — and also happy to see tourists in their country. Locals will often offer to show you around or walk with you to a recommended restaurant; if you get lucky, you just might be invited to a party or restaurant that is way off of the beaten path. Just know that they expect at least a couple of pesos for their hospitality — but it really is a small price to pay for some real authenticity.