Just about a week ago, direct flights began between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba. Alaska Airlines now operates one flight each way, each day.
For those of you reading this outside of the US, this is incredibly exciting for us. As Americans, Cuba has been somewhat taboo and off limits for decades due to political tension.
Since Obama lifted the embargo last year, relations have seemingly improved. Now, Cuba is a top travel destination for 2017 for Americans.
Typically when you travel you can depend on things like WIFI, cell phone service, and many of the amenities we enjoy in the US. However, Cuba is a completely different ballgame. If we hadn’t done a bit of research before our trip, it’s safe to say we would have been shit out of luck.
Some of these tips are significantly more important than others, but all 10 will reduce your stress levels by a magnitude of 1000 or more when you travel to Cuba (whether you’re American or any other nationality).
Share this blog with your friends and family if they plan to visit Cuba. They’ll thank you for mitigating a massive headache.
When we first started planning for Cuba we called our banks and credit card concierge to add a travel notice for the period of time we would be in Cuba. We were quickly informed that neither credit cards nor ATM cards would work anywhere in the country.
Plan to use cash, and only cash.
Currency exchange in Cuba is imperative (reiterate point 1 above). To build on point 1, you won’t be able to pull Cuban Pesos or CUC (the tourist currency) out of ATMs. As such, you’ll need to have cash with you when you arrive in Cuba. Plan to have more than you anticipate, as many costs in Cuba exceeded our original budgeting expectations.
It is important to note that US dollars have a 10% commission when converting to CUC in Cuba. The rate that the government sets seems to be quite arbitrary, and ultimately converts US Dollars to CUC at a 1 to .873 ratio. This means that for every $1,000 we exchanged, we received only $873 CUC.
One “trick” that many travelers leverage is to buy Mexican Pesos (MXP) or Euro (EUR) before heading to Cuba to garner a better exchange rate. EUR was trading about even.
Also be cautious of the fact that many exchanges are closed on the weekend. We were almost unable to convert our last $300. Luckily we found a nice hotel that offered currency exchange services at the same rate mentioned above.
This one is pretty straight forward and is not uncommon if you’ve traveled to many Southeast Asian countries or other developing countries. Many public restrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap. Bring baby wipes and you’ll be covered for both.
Would you believe us if we told you that Cuba didn’t have internet until 8 months ago? Yes, the island that is less than 100 miles from Miami didn’t have internet until 8 months ago. This makes it much easier to both accept and understand that wireless internet is not prevalent throughout the country.
If you want to use WIFI, you’ll be able to. It just won’t be nearly as easy as it is here in the States. Etesca is the telecom company that runs telephone and internet service in Cuba. To get on WIFI you’ll need to find a place that sells the WIFI cards, purchase a WIFI card, find a WIFI location (many times you’ll find people selling the cards at these places…and they’re easy to spot because it will be a street corner full of people with their noses in their phones), and then connect. You’ll get an hour of low bandwidth connection for a few bucks.
Similar to many countries, you’ll find both legal and illegal taxis in Cuba. Considering the state of government regulation in Cuba, it isn’t surprising to find out that the official taxis have fixed prices and abide by strict guidelines.
There is also a bit of a middle-man taxi. These are called “collectivo” taxis and are exactly what they sound like….collective. They will typically be the older 1950s American cars that travelers want to ride in anyway. Generally assume that if you’re in a group of 2, you can expect 2 others to be joining you on your “collective” ride. Think of a much more a archaic Uber Pool.
Make note that transportation isn’t as cheap as one might think. Compared to many developing countries, we felt as if we paid 200-300% more for transportation. The prices were more in line with the United States than any other developing countries we have visited.
It’s always important to understand the laws (especially immigation laws) of each country you plan to visit. As an American, you’re required to purchase a visa to enter Cuba. We bought ours ahead of time for about $90, but you can also buy them at your port of exit (airport you leave the US from) for about $100. Depending on the airline, you might find them as cheap as $50.
Good news for Americans! One thing in Cuba is super easy….the electrical outlets are the same as here in the US. So you can be sure to have a full battery on that laptop and iPhone you’re not going to use.
Remember traveling in the 1990s? You know, maps, printed itineraries, cash, etc.? Plan to do all of this when in Cuba.
We generally don’t have issues with accessing the Airbnb app, emails, etc. in foreign countries. However, in Cuba you’ll want to have all of these details printed out before you arrive. Be sure you have address for your accommodation, notes, and maybe even a map.
Don’t barter. There’s no use. The entire country is state run and prices are fixed. Cabs are X amount. Goods are Y amount. Exchange rates for converting currency are Z amount. Accept it and don’t barter.
Crime statistics aren’t released by the Cuban government, but every report we got from locals indicated that crime rates are very low in Cuba. We are unable to legitimize the credibility of these assertions, but based on seeing about half of the country, we feel confident in agreeing.
Cuban people are INCREDIBLY friendly, caring, and helpful. Cubans also are inclined to cater to tourists, so helping you is going to be their #1 priority.
Before we left for Cuba, every person we mentioned the trip to made sure to tell us to, “Be safe,” as if that isn’t already a top priority when we travel. Most people seem to have an idea that Cuba is a dangerous place. Considering how little most people know about Cuba, this isn’t surprising. But we want to assure you that Cuba is indeed safe and is inhabited by some of the most genuinely fun people we have met on this globe.