For me, visiting Cuba was a bit of a head scratcher—it was like no place I’ve ever been, and I’ve spent some quality time bee-bopping around the Caribbean islands. With the past history of US-Cuba relations, there are a handful of things to know before visiting Cuba, especially as an American (though much of the advice is also applicable to other nationalities.) I spent 3 days in Havana and it was like nothing else!
Note that this information is as of March 2019, and since this info changes on a daily basis, make sure to keep up with the news. Without further ado, enjoy these 15 Cuba travel tips and the top things to know before visiting Cuba.
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1 | Bring Cash
As everyone always says, cash is king, and that is true in Cuba. Credit and debit cards with American ties are not accepted, so you need to bring as much cash as you think you’d possibly need to cover your trip. And then add on a bit more to be on the safe side, because if you run out, you’re out of luck.
Also, if you’re eating at small, family-run establishments, they won’t accept credit cards anyway, no matter where your bank is located. To be safe, rely on cash.
2 | Euros & CAD > USD
Unfortunately for all you US travelers, do not bring USD! Upon landing in Cuba, your first stop should be a cadeca (casa de cambio) that you can use to exchange your money to Cuban pesos. As these lovely establishments, you will lose a 3% fee on all currency exchange (bleh), but on USD, they will take an ADDITIONAL 10% of the top. That means for every dollar you give them, you get back 87 cents (in reality less, because their rates are horrendous) of Cuban currency. This obviously sucks, but can be avoided if you bring Euros or Canadian dollars into the country (or any other currency convertible in Cuba.)
Note that Cuba does have ATMs, but like I noted above, if your debit card has American ties, you will not be able to withdraw money. I don’t know about you, but I definitely over budgeted my cash allowance –I wanted to be able to drink ALL the mojitos in Havana!
3 | Two Cuban Currencies
Next up is still the topic of money…because it truly is one of the most important things to know before you go to Cuba! Cuba has 2 currencies—the CUC for tourists, and the CUP for the Cuban people. The CUC is pegged 1:1 to the USD so 1 USD = 1 CUC. However, the CUP varies a bit; when I was there, it was ~24-25 CUP to a CUC, but seemed slightly different at each place.
Make sure to read whether prices are in CUCs or CUPs! If it says 50 CUP, you only need to hand over a couple CUC—do not let the conversions get you. If nothing else, the converting from USD to Euros to CUCs to CUPs was excellent for mental math gymnastics. I went home exhausted!
4 | Visa Requirements
Before going to Cuba, you’re going to need to figure out your Visa situation. I personally handled mine online in advance, thanks to booking through Southwest. This is one of the most important things to know before visiting Cuba!
For US citizens, you must fall under one of 12 categories: see the State Department for full details. The gist of it says you must have a reason to go to Cuba, which you then put on your Visa application. You can then pick your Visa up the morning of your flight. You must hold onto it to leave Cuba and make it through their departure process. We opted to go under “Support for the Cuban People.” They WILL ask you this at the airport. And good thing I was there to answer it since my boyfriend stood there like a deer in headlights. He’s never been one for pop quizzes!
Overall, it was not a painful process, but definitely something to be aware of before going to Cuba. An easy way to handle this is to travel with a tour group – they’ll generally help you out with the entire process and ensure you remain compliant with regulations.
5 | Health Insurance
Cuba also requires visitors to have health insurance. Some plane tickets from the US include health insurance, but make sure you investigate your own flight! If you forget, you can also buy it at the Cuban airport for a few dollars a day. When I went, the insurance check was nonexistent, but proceed at your own risk!
6 | Casa Particular vs. Hotels
Well, the list of places Americans CAN’T stay is exceptionally long, so we played it safe and went with a casa particular. This setup basically lets you stay with local Cubans, and there are some amazing options in the heart of Old Havana. You can book through Airbnb.
If you’re not from the USA, you have a whole host of hotel options, which offer additional services over a house. The super fancy hotels will have bars, gyms, spas, and the whole setup.
However, I cannot recommend the casas enough—upon arriving at ours, our host marked all of the best places to go on a map and gave us the inside scoop! Plus, they were so sweet, and had the best spot in the city! The photo below is me on the street of our Airbnb…can you believe those colors?! I’m only moderately obsessed with colorful houses, shhhh!
7 | Cubans are SO Friendly
Going along with my note above, we had a lot of really cool interactions with the Cuban people. They all seemed really excited that Americans were beginning to come down to explore their country (hello, tourist dollars!)
Our guide on the walking & mojito making tour was one of my faves –not only did he walk us through Old Havana and give us the history, but he gave us all sorts of details into life in Cuba. You can read more about that tour in my 3 day guide to Havana, Cuba. (He was also an excellent photographer for the afternoon–see photo evidence below!)
Of course, there will always be the odd experience out where you encounter some not-so-friendly Cubans, but I wanted to share my overall impression. Going in, I was unsure how they would feel about Americans given our past history, but they could not have been more welcoming.
8 | Safety in Havana
Similar to my note above, I wasn’t sure how safe I would feel in Cuba. As a tall blonde, I knew I would stand out like a sore thumb, but to my relief, I felt super safe, even at night. (It probably helped that I dragged along my 6’4”
bodyguard boyfriend with me.) We obviously took all the normal precautions, but in general, we felt very safe walking around Havana.
9 | Know Your Airport Terminal
So this was definitely a mistake we made…apparently Havana’s airport has multiple terminals. This was news to me. As we were departing, we pulled up to the terminal and confidently strode in to check in for our flight, only to find no Southwest check-in in sight. Fortunately, some very helpful information guys let us know we were in the completely wrong terminal.
Note that you CANNOT walk from one terminal to the next. This mistake meant we had to go out and find another cab to get us there. As an FYI, Southwest is in Terminal 2. Make sure to take note of your terminal when you land so you can avoid this oops moment. Good news was we got one last chance to ride in a cool old car!
10| Colectivo route
Continuing on the transportation theme, there are these taxi-type vehicles in Havana called colectivos. They’re shared taxis that follow a route, and you can hop in or out along the way. It’s way cheaper than calling a taxi yourself—the trick is knowing the colectivo routes in advance. The following site will give you a map of the route. You should be able to ride for just a few pesos.
11| Don’t Drink the Water
Next up on your list of top things to know before visiting Cuba, and I can’t emphasize this enough is… do NOT drink any water (except bottled, of course) in Cuba. Avoid anything washed in water and anything to do with water. Maybe to be safe, only drink rum…I’m only halfway kidding.
I even brushed my teeth with bottled water and still managed to get a nasty case of traveler’s stomach…not fun. So either be super careful with what you eat or just be prepared for the results.
12 | Brush up on Your Spanish Skills
If you don’t know any Spanish, you may be in a bit of trouble. Most people don’t speak English, though I’m hoping that will slowly begin to change as tourism to Cuba increases. My favorite was a restaurant that had no written menu, but they would tell it to you aloud in Spanish…I may have just waited until I recognized a few words and went with that option (PSA: pollo = chicken, and this is a safe bet.)
The good news is there’s a ton of translation apps that you can download that will work offline…make sure to download them in advance. They’re definitely a little iffy, but you can usually get the gist of it.
13 | Print in Advance
Internet in Havana is not widely available. There are hotspots, but to use one, you have to buy a card, type in some code, and then you have access to an hour of internet. I’m not that dependent on my Internet, so I opted to just prepare myself for the trip back in the good old USA where Internet is literally everywhere.
In that case, you’ll want to print everything possible in advance: directions, maps, reservations, bus schedules, colectivo routes, etc. that you may want to reference while you’re in Cuba.
14 | Book in Advance
On that same note, book everything in advance that you possibly can. It’s pretty easy to find local tour companies to work with, and you can book online in advance rather than trying to google everything once you land (this will not work).
15 | Download Offline Maps
My last tip on things you need to know before visiting Cuba is downloading offline maps…yup, this whole no Internet thing is rough. I personally love the maps.me app (it’s free!), and you can mark your destinations in advance. Before flying to Havana, I downloaded the Cuba map, and then marked our Airbnb plus any sites I wanted to see.
And there you have it, my top 15 things you need to know before visiting Cuba. Honestly, Cuba is like another world, so make sure you do the upfront leg work for this trip. Most of all, enjoy your trip to Cuba—it will certainly be memorable!