Travel to Cuba presents its own set of unique circumstances. And preparing for the trip can be a little overwhelming for the American traveler. Our trip to the island is coming up in a few short weeks. I’ve scoured the Internet and grilled past visitors for research into the best tips for our trip to Havana and Veradero, Cuba. Here are the absolute must-dos all Americans that travel to Cuba should consider:
Tip 1: Take plenty of cash
Plan to spend approximately $100/day. Cuba has two forms of currency. The Cuban peso, CUP, is the national currency used by the Cuban people, and the convertible peso, the CUC, is the currency used by tourists. We’ll be using the CUC, which is about 25:1 more valuable than the CUP. But to make things a little more confusing, there’s a 10% penalty when converting US dollars to Cuban CUC, plus a 3% currency exchange fee. Some say it’s better to convert US dollars to euros or Canadian dollars, which don’t get penalized when converted to the Cuban CUC. Others say it’s not worth the hassle of double conversion.
A great Cuba tip for the American traveler, Lonely Planet forum commenter, cheersterry, summed it up easily by putting it this way: $100 USD equals 87 CUC—always. So the only calculation you have to do is to call up your US bank and ask how many euros or Canadian dollars you can buy with $100 USD. Then, go to Banco Metropolitano to see what the current exchange rate is for that currency.
Tip 2: Book your B&B or hotel ahead of time
I had no problem booking our casa particular through airbnb.com. Obviously, we’re not staying a hotel, but at someone’s house. Airbnb offers places as cheap as $25/night to rent out a room and private bathroom in a casa particular, or a bed & breakfast. We booked an entire house for $57/night in Old Havana. I was able to book using my American credit card. Cuba does have hotels, but because they have limited Internet capabilities, it’s difficult to find a hotel website, and booking them requires you go through a third party, like a travel agent in Canada or the Cuban travel site cuba-junky.com.
Note that the hotels are usually a lot more expensive than a casa particular and don’t offer as much value in terms of hospitality. Plus, you don’t have to be a guest at a hotel to use their amenities. You can just walk into a hotel and ask to use the pool. Head up, and dive in!
Before you travel to Cuba, print out your booking confirmation and your airbnb address. Like any Latin American country, you can’t rely on street signs, so it’s beneficial to have some point of reference for your cab driver. Better yet, have your host arrange a cab service to pick you up from the airport.
Tip 3: Bring something to support Cuban people
You’re supporting the Cuban people by staying at their house, but it’s always a nice gesture and a good idea in terms of legal purposes to bring something extra to help support their bed & breakfast business. Think towels, bed sheets or miniature bars of soap.
Tip 4: Pack lightly
I’ve read – and heard – that things don’t run as smoothly at Cuban airports as they do anywhere else. Security lines are extremely long and baggage claim at a Cuban airport can take forever. Literally, it can take hours to receive your luggage. I typically never check a bag, but this is a good time to really heed my own advice.
In addition, if you’re staying at a B&B, it will more than likely be an apartment. That means stairs. Most of the apartments I’ve run across on the airbnb website are located on the second, third or fourth floors. I certainly don’t want to worry about another bag of luggage with non-essential items to lug up three or so flights of stairs. So instead of bringing walking shoes, beach flip flops, cute sandals and going-out shoes, I’ll bring one or two pairs that do it all.
Tip 5: Print out a map of the city before you travel to Cuba
Due to the fact that you won’t have Internet access, it might be a good idea to print a map of the city ahead of time. Again, since street signs are almost non-existent, make sure your map includes points of interest, as that’s likely what you’ll be directed by.
Tip 6: Create a loose itinerary
Better yet, buy a Lonely Planet: Cuba book. It’s like going back to the olden days. Typically, on any trip, we’re usually able to look up museums, entrance fees and hours of operation on our phones. Without the handy Internet, we’re not able to whip out our phones to plan on-the-fly. It’s a good idea to list the places you’d like to see and make a one- or two-sentence note for yourself on why you want to see it, and loosely plan out your days ahead of time.
Lonely Planet books are also a good resource because they usually list phone numbers, open hours, entrance fees and helpful tips for anything from bars and restaurants to beaches, museums and churches.
Tip 7: Pack your patience
Beyond the long waits at the airport, things move a little more slowly in most Latin American countries. Cuba is no exception. Be prepared to wait in line wherever you go. Be prepared to wait your turn. Be prepared for your taxi to break down. Be prepared for things to open late.
In America, we’re always on the go. We expect things to be at our disposal and for things to run as they should—seamlessly. And when they don’t, we’re terribly inconvenienced, oblivious to the opportunities that might present themselves in patience.
So be prepared to go where only a few have gone before you. Take it all in, be patient and observe. As you wait for your meal, get up and dance to the live salsa band playing nearby. Embrace the culture and let yourself truly experience the magic. With these helpful tips, any American traveler can prepare themselves for a rewarding experience in Cuba.