Travel in Cuba: Everything You Need to Know
Updated on August 8th, 2018. According to my research, you can still easily travel to Cuba as an independent traveller. There are direct flights from many major U.S. cities.
Cuba evokes thoughts of mystery and misconceptions, but as of 2016 and the beginning of commercial flights from the U.S., it's now easier than ever to visit. In fact, I recommend taking a trip there within the next year because things are changing big time. In this post I'll go over everything you need to know before you go.
Can I travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen?
Yes! As long as you say you're going under one of the 12 OFAC reasons. Don't let this government regulation scare you -- all this involves is signing a 1-page document at check-in at the airport, where you have to select your reason for travel. Most people select "People to People" category, which states that they are in some way supporting the Cuban people. Let me stress that there is NO ONE checking up on this. The document is given to you by an airline employee at check-in, and they simply want you to sign it and be done. After signing the document, I never saw it again. Upon re-entry to the U.S., they didn't even ask where I had been. Immigration does not care.
As for entering Cuba, the Cuban people welcome tourists with open arms! They have no issue with U.S. tourists.
Do you need a visa to travel to Cuba?
Yes. You will need a Cuban tourist card. The easiest way to get this is to purchase it through the airline you're flying with. You can either do this in advance over the phone (I did this, highly recommended) or wait in a long, slow line at the airport before your flight. Note: different airline's charge different prices for the visa (mine was $50 on Delta, but on Spirit I heard people payed A LOT more), so keep this in mind when you're comparing flights to book!
Can foreigners living in the US on H1B or E3 visas travel to Cuba?
If you're not on a US working visa, you can skip this section.
As an E3 visa holder, I was worried about whether I would have issues re-entering the US on return (I was flying direct, Havana to JFK). Per the OFAC rules, the same laws that apply to US citizens apply to visa holders, and I was nervous about whether they would give me an extra hard time at immigration. Fast forward to re-entering the US at JFK: it was one of the easiest immigration experiences I have ever experienced! The officer didn't actually say anything to me or ask me any questions -- at all (it was actually a bit awkward). So basically, DON'T STRESS ABOUT IT!
Should I not get my passport stamped in Cuba?
Some other bloggers have suggested that you should not get your passport stamped in Cuba, thinking that this will get you in trouble once you're back in the US. I got mine stamped, and when I returned U.S. immigration did not bat an eyelid. They really don't give a rats ass about people travelling to Cuba anymore.
Is Cuba safe?
Absolutely. I was a solo-travelling girl, and I never had an issue. Probably the safest country I have ever travelled to, on par with Japan. The penalty for people who commit crime is extremely harsh (think 20+ years prison time), so crime is almost non-existent, especially towards tourists.
There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC (pronounced "kook") and CUP ("koop" or "pesos"). You'll need CUC most of the time, but try getting some CUP to use where possible. This will save you money, as things often cost less in CUP. You will also need CUP if you're going outside of the major tourist cities.
CUC is a currency strictly used by tourists. 1 CUC = 1 USD or 1 EURO. Honestly the idea of having a tourist currency is a bit of a scam where tourists end up being charged up to 10x more for the same item locals are purchasing in CUP. But hey, communism and such.
How much money will I need?
This will depend on how you plan to travel. As a solo traveller, I spent 800 CUC (approx. 800 Euros) for my two-week trip. That included all accommodation, food, tours, and transportation within Cuba. I stayed in casa particulares, and caught both collectivo taxis (shared cars) and buses (Viazul) between cities.
NOTE: If you are from the US you will need to bring all your money to Cuba in CASH, and exchange it for CUC on arrival. See below for more details.
The best way to exchange is from EURO to CUC. This can be done at the airport, but prepare yourself for up to 2 hours waiting in line, depending on when your flight gets in. You can also exchange at banks in the city center, but the line for this may be even worse.
If you exchange from US dollars to CUC be prepared to pay around 13% transaction fees (this only applies to the USD conversion). My advice if you're from the US: Get Euros before you leave (you can do this at most banks for an OK rate). Don't bother getting Euros at any US airport, you'll be hit with such a horrible exchange rate that it won't be worth it.
Tip: Ask for your CUC in denominations of 20 CUC bills or less. I was given lots of 50 CUC notes when I exchanged money and had a lot of trouble using them as Cubans don't like to accept large notes, and they often don't have change to give.
Can I use credit or debit cards in Cuba?
If you are from the US: no. They are supposed to be lifting this ban on US cards soon, but as of December 2016 I was still not able to use my US cards.
If you are from any other country: maybe. I met some people who successfully used their cards to withdraw money from ATMs, others who were unable to.
Using money: cash or card?
Cuba is a cash society. Forget about trying to use your credit card. Some non-US debit cards can be used to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Casa particulares: One of the best, most unique aspects of Cuba are its casa particulares. These are rooms for rent in people's houses, much like a B&B as many include breakfast or can provide it for a small fee. In high season (December-March), casas are pretty standard in price across the board: 20-25 CUC per night for a room for 2 people. Low season can see rates drop to 15 CUC per room per night. Make sure to check out my favourite casas in Havana, Trinidad, and Vinales!
Solo travel tip: Make friends in your collectivo (shared taxi) or on the bus and split a casa particular with your new friend! It may sound daunting staying with a stranger you just met, but the practice is actually very common among foreigners travelling in Cuba since there are no hostels. I did this a few times on my trip and those people are now good mates.
Airbnb: Airbnb has some fantastic options in Cuba, as is useful for booking accommodation in advance if you're short on time. The only downside is that this will be a lot more expensive than just showing up and getting accommodation when you arrive in a town (always my suggestion!). You can use my code for $40 off your next booking anywhere in the world.
Hotels: They exist, but from what I've seen they're overpriced and of fairly average quality. Save your money and stay in a casa particular.
Hostels: In Havana there are a few casa particulares that function like a hostel, renting bunk beds in a shared dorm. Expect to pay around 7 CUC per night for a bed (I don't have one to recommend because mine was INFESTED with roaches!). Outside of Havana, there aren't really hostels.
Booking casa particulares
I didn't book anything for my trip in advance, I just winged it and door knocked when I reached a town to find a casa particular. This was fine for most of my trip, as there is a surplus of casa particulares to stay at. The one exception to this rule is if you are travelling in the week between Christmas and New Years. This is the peak of high season, and I actually found it quite difficult to find a place to stay (in Trinidad I door knocked at 8 casas before I found a room).
If you're nervous about unplanned travel, I suggest using Airbnb to book a casa. As a user and host on Airbnb I can't recommend it enough, and Cuba now has a lot of casas listed. Use my code to get $35 off your first stay.
How do I know if a house is a casa particular?
Easy! All casas have a blue symbol to show that they rent rooms, like below. A red version of the symbol means they only rent rooms to local people -- don't even bother trying to ask for a room. Sometimes the word "disponible" will be advertized, and this means they have a room available (though often casas don't list this, and they still have rooms available).
I would always opt for a taxi collectivo over a bus, however, I've outlined all options below so you can compare. You can also find specific prices for travelling between cities in my posts on Havana, Trinidad, and Vinales.
Taxi collectivo: These are old cars used as share car service. Pros: faster than the Viazul bus. Cons: not very comfortable. Be prepared to feel the sweat of others packed into the same car; smell diesel fumes throughout your trip; be sitting on a less than cushy seat. Booking a taxi collectivo can be organized by your casa host, or you can head to the local bus station and negotiate one yourself (I recommend using your casa host, as they'll usually be able to get you a better price).
Bus: There are two main bus companies operating in Cuba -- Viazul and Cubanacan. Viazul can be booked in advance on their website, though if there's nothing available online don't fret, tickets can be purchased at the bus station. Cubanacan picks up and drops off from major hotels, and travels directly to your destination without stopping at other cities to pick up people. It can be booked at the Infotur desk at major hotels, or at the local travel center. For both buses, I advise purchasing bus tickets the day before to ensure you get a seat. Price: Cubanacan and Viazul are usually the same price; sometimes Cubanacan is a few CUC more than Viazul (totally worth it since Cubanacan is express).
Plane: I did not catch any flights while in Cuba, but if I was going East to Santiago de Cuba area I would highly recommend it. People don't realize that Cuba is actually a pretty big country (the largest in the Caribbean!). The bus ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba is around 16 hours -- you could save a lot of time by booking a flight. Flights can be booked at travel agencies in Cuba, or at the airport on the day of travel.
How do I get the mandatory health insurance required to enter Cuba?
If you're coming directly from the US, it's included in the price of your airplane ticket. Just make sure to keep your boarding pass for the duration of your trip, as this is proof of health insurance.
Is there internet in Cuba?
Yes, but don't plan on using it while you're there. In each city there are a few town squares that have WiFi available. To use it, you'll need to buy an internet card (2 CUC for 1 hour of internet) from the Telepunto office, which can have lines of 2+ hours. You can also buy them off illegal sellers in the squares (3-4 CUC). Once you actually login to the Wifi, internet is extremely spotty, constantly dropping out. And don't even think about uploading to Instagram.
Post updated on August 1, 2018.