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August 15, 2017
Ever since I went to Cuba, I’ve received tons of emails, Instagram messages, comments, and more about my experience getting there and everything I needed to do. I’m so excited to finally share what you need to know about traveling to Cuba. Hopefully things don’t change again!
This was the top question. As of the publishing of this post, tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel. Those categories are:
- family visits
- official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- journalistic activity
- professional research and professional meetings
- educational activities
- religious activities
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- support for the Cuban people
- humanitarian projects
- activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- certain authorized export transactions
Individuals seeking to travel to Cuba are not required to obtain licenses if their travel is covered by a general license. If travel is not covered by a general license, you must seek OFAC (the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control) authorization in the form of a specific license. When I bought my flight on delta.com, it asked me which category my travel fell under for a general license. I chose journalistic activity since I’m a blogger and planned to write about my trip. This was the one and only mention of my reason for travel. It was never asked of me or brought up again. At all. At any point.
The general license visa can be purchased at the boarding gate for $50. You can do it ahead of time if you want, but I don’t really know why you would. They give you a little piece of paper where you write down your name, birthday, passport number, and nationality. You have to write it twice; it’s a perforated form. You give the first one to passport control when you enter Cuba and then the second one when you leave.
2. Non-US medical insurance
Cuba requires visitors to have non-U.S. medical insurance, which can normally be purchased at the airport upon arrival to Cuba. This was included in my plane ticket purchase, so I didn’t need to do anything else. My boarding pass served as proof of insurance, so I made sure to keep it. No one ever asked me to prove that I had non-U.S. medical insurance.
3. Speaking of medical insurance, don’t drink the water. You will get sick and your trip will be ruined.
The currency used in Cuba is the CUC. There is also another local currency, but I never came across it during my time in Cuba. The exchange rate for CUC to USD is 1:1, but there is an extra 10% fee for all currency exchanges to and from USD. And you can’t get CUC until you get to Cuba (it’s also illegal to bring it out of the country). So the way to get around this extra fee is to change your dollars to euros before you leave, and then change your euros to CUC in Cuba.
Despite what I read, I did not have any issues at banks. It didn’t take that long when there was a line and sometimes there was no line at all. Everyone says to bring more money than you think you need, but I disagree. I spent about $400 in 5 days (not counting my accommodations) for the whole trip. My estimate would have been $500, but I brought almost double that because of what I had read. I got tons of rum, did some shopping, ate, drank (a lot.), got 13 internet cards, and basically just spent money freely. Stuff in Cuba is cheap if you go to the right places. Just avoid any restaurants where they’re speaking English trying to get you to come in and you won’t spend much. We had a good mix of local spots and touristy spots and still spent way less than expected. Now I have 300 euros waiting for me to spend the next time I’m in Europe. Totally should have gotten less.
5. Getting Around
Like any city, Havana has plenty of taxis. But there are a few different options. The most famous option, of course, is the classic car. These cars offer 30-minute tours for $50, or you can have them take you wherever. These cars were all parked together and one man would be in charge of several cars, so you can pick which color you want. I’m not certain, but this seemed government-run to me. Just something to keep in mind if you’re being particular about where you’re spending your money. I paid them 5CUC to let me sit in it and take a picture. They didn’t charge me, but I tipped them.
There were two occasions when we took a classic car as a taxi, but they weren’t the ones you see in the pictures. These were beat up, definitely in need of a paint job and probably more work under the hood. I think these were cars owned by locals trying to make an extra buck. Not sure how true that is, but that’s the feeling I got. They were also the cheapest taxis we took.
There are also yellow taxis that are actually new cars. Come to think of it, the yellow taxis are the only new cars I saw in Cuba. These have to be government-run, right? I took one of these to the beach and they didn’t charge me an outrageous amount. It’s a safe choice when there’s nothing else around.
The last option is the local taxi. These are unmarked cars that are SHITTY. Excuse the language, but I don’t know how they’re still running. In fact, one night that we took one, the hood had to be opened and something had to be tinkered with before it would start. These were honestly my favorite rides though, because it felt like authentic Cuba. Plus I knew my money was going straight to the driver.
There are also buses and little tuk tuks. Oh and horse-drawn carriages. I didn’t take any of these, so I can’t really comment on them personally. I’ve heard the buses are super cheap, but I did notice that they are extremely crowded. Like shoulder to shoulder. I’m good.
6. The Internet
The internet is Cuba straight up sucks. And what’s worse, there’s about a 99% chance that your cell phone won’t work either. I have an international plan and it would have been like $2/mb of data if I used it in Cuba. No thanks. I’ve heard from other travelers that even though they were supposed to be covered in Cuba, they still didn’t get any reception. Being in Cuba is like going back in time in so many ways, but mostly that you have no cell phones and no internet. It’s kind of refreshing. Unless you’re a blogger.
In order to connect to the internet, you have to buy internet cards. They can be bought at the store for 2CUC, or from local Cubans for 3CUC. Our Airbnb host had them and it was much more convenient to just get them from him, plus he was super nice and I was happy to give him some extra money. The internet card is a little piece of paper that has a long and annoying username and password; it’s just a bunch of random numbers. You have to put this in every time you connect. I never figured out how to disconnect and stop the time usage, so I wasted a lot of time on each card. It takes about 5-10 minutes to upload one 15-second video to Instagram stories. I personally used 10 internet cards (my bf used the others) the whole time and I feel like I was barely able to do anything. It’s useful for maps and looking up what to do, but I wouldn’t plan on using it for much more than that.
We were lucky enough to have internet in our Airbnb, but that is very rare (we still had to use the cards to connect). Most people can only connect to the internet by going to public parks that have hot spots run by the government. If you see a bunch of people sitting down on their phones, you’ve found a hot spot.
7. Bring your necessities
Shopping in Cuba is extremely limited. You should bring everything you’ll need for the entire trip. Do not plan on getting anything there. I made that mistake with sunscreen and tmi, but tampons. I would also suggest bringing snacks. The only food we could eat was what we got at the restaurants, and no restaurants offered to go. So if you get hungry after 10pm, you’re SOL. There are street vendors that sell fruits, but they close up shop before dusk and we didn’t see any snacks or food in any stores we went to.
You should also bring lots of tissue. Toilet paper is not in every bathroom. Thank god I learned that lesson already and never travel without tissue. You might also consider bringing an umbrella. A lot of people use them to shade themselves from the sun. That’s how hot it is down there. And there are not many places with a/c.
I speak Spanish, so I had a different view of this. I thought communication was easy, but I didn’t realize that I had to use Spanish most of the time. I’m not completely fluent, but I can manage and I got by fine. My boyfriend does not speak any Spanish and he thought communicating was extremely difficult. Thinking back, I guess there is a lot less English than in other countries I’ve been to. Most people in Cuba do not speak English. I’d say about 25% of the people we encountered spoke English.
The Spanish they speak in Cuba is very relaxed and informal. They shorten a lot of the words and phrases. For example, instead of saying “gracias,” you can just say “gra.” Instead of “buenos dias” or “buenas noches,” they just say “buenos.”
9. Culture and History
The culture in Cuba is so rich and vibrant. I have to admit, I love all latin culture, so I might be biased. But the energy of the city is undeniable. Cuba has been through a lot as a country. And the US has not always been a friend. So it’s important to remember that when visiting. My goal was to contribute to the people, not the government. I wanted to really learn about the culture and the best way to do that is to venture away from the tourist traps. We did stay in a touristy area, Habana Vieja, but did a lot of walking to explore during the days. The people we met were friendly, helpful, and always smiling. It felt very similar to Costa Rica.
I’ve said it before, but these people don’t have much. Their lives are completely different from what we’re used to in the United States. There are beautiful cars, pretty buildings, and good food, but make no mistake: the vast majority of the people in Cuba live in extreme poverty. There is no such thing as a modern convenience. But they make the most of what they do have, and I find that so incredibly admirable. It’s so easy to get caught up in our day to day life and first world problems, and I strive to be grateful for what I do have. Seeing the joy of those who have less than I do is so inspiring. It’s just proof that the best things in life can’t be bought.
I know I didn’t mention any recommendations on where to stay, where to eat, etc. in this post, but I promise, that’s coming!