While much of the world has been exploring Cuba for decades, for us Americans it’s only begun to open up over the past few years. A huge step was made last year when direct commercial flights began service between a variety of destinations and Cuba. And when you were no longer required to take group tours for the people-to-people educational option. This is all making it possible for many of us Americans to take our first trip to Cuba.
With this new opportunity comes a lot of questions about how to travel to Cuba and what it’s like once you get there. Especially, if it’s your first trip to Cuba. While future posts will talk more about my first trip to Cuba and what to do once you get there, I wanted to give you a quick guide to the basics when it comes to planning your first trip to Cuba.
My visit to Cuba was one of a kind. It was the chance to witness a country only 90 miles away from the board of my own but different in so many drastic ways. At the same time, realizing how small the world is and how similar people across this globe can be when we come from such different circumstances.
If you’ve been dreaming of going to Cuba, I’d highly recommend taking the trip now. While tourism in the country is increasing, from not just the U.S. but around the globe, it still hasn’t been taken over by Western influences.
Start looking into planning your own trip there and make sure to take into consideration my tips on Cuba below.
Note – This was written in March 2017. While I will do my best to keep this post updated it is possible that legal side of traveling to Cuba from the U.S. could change at any moment. Find up to date requirements from the State Department.
Getting To Cuba
Starting in the fall of 2016, both flights and cruise ships from the United States could travel to Cuba. While many Americans have been traveling to Cuba for decades, flying from places like Mexico or Canada, it is now as easy as flying to Puerto Rico.
Many U.S. airlines have begun flying direct from the South and East Coast. Southwest will soon be launching flights from Los Angeles as well. Airlines including Alaska, Frontier, Delta, Sprint, Southwest, United, American, and JetBlue are all now making frequent flights to the cities of Havana, Vedado, and Santa Clara.
On my recent trip, I flew Southwest from Fort Lauderdale. It was a quick and easy flight to Havana. I did this entirely on points and gift cards!
Visas to Cuba
As Americans, you still cannot travel to Cuba as a tourist. You must be traveling for one of 12 reasons that have been approved. The most common include educational purposes, visiting family, and journalistic purposes. While there are requirements attached to these purposes, in reality, you only have to state your reason.
Getting your visa is simple. You can do so either via your airline ahead of time (which often includes a convenience fee) or do so at the airport when you go to check into your flight. The visa to visit is $50.
In practice, it is no different than traveling to any other country that requires a visa of Americans.
Additionally, Cuba requires all travelers to have a special health care coverage when visiting. The good news is most U.S. airlines are providing it for their passengers. Double check that you’re covered but Southwest did for my recent trip.
On my trip in March 2017, I traveled for educational purposes. I purchased my visa at the desk across from the check in counter. When checking in, I was asked the purpose of my visit, while they handed me a list of valid reasons. Then in Cuba, they checked that I had a visa at customs when coming in and leaving. It was as simple as any other country I’ve visited in recent years.
Safety in Cuba
When I said I was traveling solo to Cuba. The most common response I received was – is it safe? Since it was my first trip to Cuba I did a lot of research on this ahead of time. And I’ll start with the fact that in seven days, I never once felt uncomfortable while traveling around the country.
Is much of the country in poverty? Yes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the places you visit are unsafe. Cuba has far less crime than much of Latin America and compared to most tourist destinations they have far fewer pickpockets and swindlers.
At the same time, you do need to be prepared for people trying to get a little more out of tourists. You’ll have someone on every corner asking if you want a taxi. Only take them when you want them, and be sure to agree on the price beforehand. You’ll also find people trying to help you book a tour or accommodation. If you need the help this can be great, but do know that you’ll be charged a little extra that serves as their commission.
For women, the Cubans are chatty people. Men will call out to you and also come up to talk. Some will want to sell you a tour or take you to a restaurant they get a commission from. Others will ask you if you want to spend the night dancing.
As much as they’ll talk to you, they won’t be aggressive. Just tell them you’re not interested, ignore them or tell them you’re meeting friends. Only once did I have a guy who took longer to get the point than normal. But he eventually did and was nothing more than annoying.
As an American, you’ll want to bring over enough cash to get you through your entire trip. Your credit card or debit card will not work in Cuba.
When it comes to money Cuba operates very differently from most countries. They have two separate currencies, one for tourists and one for locals. The money you’ll use is the Cuban Convertible Pesos. Its conversion rate is typically $1 USD to $1 CUC. When you’re traveling you’ll mostly hear them referred to as CUC, said like c-oo-ck.
You’ll want to make sure you get these returned whenever you are given change as the Cuban Pesos, the local currency, are only worth $25 to $1 USD.
The other thing about currency is that the American Dollar is penalized when you got to convert it. You’ll lose 10% from most places. With that, before you head to Cuba you’ll want to exchange your money into Canadian Dollars or Euros. I took Canadian and gained when I first converted and lost a little when I switched to CUC. The Euro is the opposite. You lose compared to the USD but then you’ll gain with the CUC.
Connectivity Around Cuba
If you’re looking for a place to get off the grid, Cuba is a great place to go. At the same time, it’s possible to stay rather connected while you’re there.
Most American phone services have started covering Cuba. With that, it’s extremely expensive to use your phone. For Verizon, when I went it was $2.99 a minute and $0.50 a text message. Compared to most countries where I can get covered for a month with limited usage for a total of $40.
I left my phone on airplane mode the entire trip but was happy to know I could make a call if it was needed.
When it comes to the Internet, unlike most places around the globe, there are very few places to connect. There aren’t even many Internet cafes. Instead, you have to go to designated hotels who allow public access to their lobbies or to special internet parks.
You also must purchase your Internet access. Different people charge different rates for an hour, but I purchased my card at Hotel Florida in Old Havana for an hour for $4.50. That was enough to get me through the week.
In Cuba, you will only be as disconnected if you want to be, but don’t plan on relying on having it. The Wi-Fi often goes out and will drop you off. Cuba is not the place to take a working vacation. Plus, that might not be the best way to experience your first trip to Cuba.
Accommodations Throughout Cuba
There are two main types of accommodations in Cuba: hotels and the casa particulars. The hotels are often in old historic building and offer a little luxury and could be easily referred to as “vintage”. Don’t expect a big luxurious bed. But you will have a TV in your room, a large bathroom with a toilet seat, and air conditioning.
A decent hotel in Cuba is not cheap. You’ll be lucky to find somewhere that meets a three star level for under $200 and often in the mid-$300. The more luxury you’re looking for the closer you’ll get to $500 a night.
On the other hand, the casa particulars are basically guesthouses. Where you have a room, normally with an attached bathroom, in a family home. They range drastically in amenities and services. You can find them from $15-50 a night. Or more if you get a full apartment. I averaged $32 a night when I visited. One of the great things is if you have a group most rooms sleep at least three people all for one rate.
On top of this, your host will likely be available to serve you meals, especially breakfast, at rates you can’t get elsewhere. Breakfast normally goes for $5 and will be more than you can eat yourself!
You can book the casa particulars once you arrive in Cuba. Walk down any street and you’ll see the blue and white signs designating them. You’ll also have “guides” willing to take you to one.
If you’re like me and would rather plan ahead, you can book a wide variety of casas on Airbnb. This is a great way to see the reviews past travelers have left, and make sure you’re booked in a place that makes you comfortable. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, you can use this link to get $20 off your first booking.
I had a chance to stay in both casas and hotels. Overall, with the bang for your buck you get from casas I think they are a better choice for the most part. Keep an eye out for an upcoming in-depth review.
Planning Your First Trip to Cuba
When you’re taking your first trip to Cuba you’ll find a balance between needing to plan out certain things in great detail to not being able to plan ahead much at all. When it comes to tours and such, it can be much easier to do so once you’re there since there is so little connectivity.
At the same time, you’ll want to be on top of the logistics that come with traveling to a country that the U.S is just beginning to develop diplomatic relations again.
There are a few important things you need to know before traveling to Cuba for the first time, but overall you’ll enjoy the opportunity to experience a country filled with beautiful sites, cultures, and people.