Cuba. It’s one of those destinations that you’re always telling yourself ‘one day’. It’s on so many of our friends’ bucket lists yet very few of them seem to be close to getting there.
I’m not going to lie to you – Cuba is not an easy place to travel to. There’s a handful of countries where you can fly direct to Havana from, so the hurdles go up immediately. You can now fly to Havana direct from the States, but flights are hard to come by and will always be the most expensive option.
There are also quite a few rules about traveling to Cuba that put people off.
What’s more, information on Cuba seems to be a little light on the ground, and everything you see seems to conflict with what you’ve just read before.
But since our recent trip to Cuba, we’ve become one of its best promoters. It turns out that just like any other destination a little preparation is all you need to have the best time in this mysterious, beautiful country.
Below are our top tips for getting yourself ready for an unforgettable journey.
Content guide for this post on Cuba:
27 Things To Know Before You Go Visit Cuba
Money tips for Cuba
1. Take cash with you
Even though things with the States are settling down now, it’s a good idea to take some hard currency with you.
2. Take Euros or GBP Sterling – these get the best exchange rate.
3. Don’t take Aussie dollars, they don’t know what to do with them. Don’t take American dollars, the exchange rate will be terrible plus you have to pay an extra fee every time.
4. Cuba has two currencies:
CUC (Cuban convertible peso or ‘Cuban dollar’) aligned to USD which tourists must use, and CUP (Cuban national peso) worth around 1 CUC = 22 CUP.
NonCubans shouldn’t have any CUPs on them – though people do.
As Cuba/USA relations ease, the likelihood of the CUC disappearing and the CUP remaining is high. US dollars will also probably become more accepted too.
5. You will find dual pricing in most places and the CUP and CUC prices won’t match up. It’s important not to let this bother you!
6. Get a VISA card for Cuba
Due to it being an American company, MasterCard has never really worked in Cuba though with changes happening all the time, more and more American companies are working with Cuba now. VISA is usually ok. Usually!
7. Check to see if your bank has any American alliances. If it does, you might not be able to access your money regardless.
As US/Cuban relations improve, things will change.
8. Where to get money in Cuba
Try to get money out of the ATM upstairs on level 1 of Havana International Airport. Avoid using the bureau de change at the airport though. They’re known to give incorrect change and the rates aren’t as good.
Hotels and resorts usually have a bureau de change.
9. Every town will have two types of bank – Banco de Cuba, which are proper banks, or Cadeca, which is like a currency kiosk. The bank usually gives better rates.
10. Only one person at a time can be served in the bank. If you’re traveling with a friend or your partner, flip a coin to see who goes! Towns usually have ATMs too – though some smaller places like Viñales don’t.
11. Tell your bank you’re going to Cuba
It’s a good idea to do this every time you leave your country anyway, but when going to Cuba it’s even more important. International calls are expensive and internet access is very limited.
If your bank thinks your cards are being used without your consent, they will cancel them on your behalf and leave you stranded.
Documentation required for travel to Cuba
12. Travel Insurance for Cuba
You need to have travel insurance to enter Cuba. They do spot checks at Customs and if you can’t produce policy documentation, they make you buy insurance there.
The credit card we use to buy flights has nominal travel insurance included. It doesn’t cover everything though but we took the gamble. We weren’t checked going into Cuba.
13. Print out any travel documents before you leave for Cuba
Tech is really hard to come by in Cuba. If you need any travel documents while you’re in Cuba or for your next destination, print them before flying to Havana.
14. Visas for Cuba
Most countries require a visa called a Tourist Card to enter Cuba – here’s a site with a list of countries requiring visas. You can either buy yours through your local Cuban embassy or before checkin at a Cubana Air desk.
Your airline may include the visa on the price of your flight tickets – you’ll still need to collect the visa at the Cubana Air counter before you check in.
Packing and getting there
15. Travel as light as possible
If you can, go with cabin luggage only. We managed to and it was the best. We didn’t have to worry about losing our stuff or about it getting damaged.
We also saw other travelers struggling in and out of the tiny doorways of Cuban buildings and up tight staircases with their enormous bags, which looked like a nightmare.
16. Gifts and bartering in Cuba
There’s a lot of talk about having pens to give to people in place of money. There is a barter system in Cuba, but not for pens. Kids love to have pens but there won’t be a mad scramble if you produce a chewed up Biro.
We saw a man trade a bar of hotel soap for a cigar once, and there seems to be a shortage of tinned tuna in Cuba – it’s one of the most expensive things to eat there.
Otherwise, clothing with American brands on it is popular as is anything to do with baseball.
17. Flights to Cuba
Get to the airport three hours before takeoff both directions. Cubana Air likes its passengers checked in at least an hour earlier than any other airline. Planes are often overbooked, so it’s worth that extra hour for peace of mind.
18. Food in Cuba
Due to restrictions in trade, Cuban food isn’t the best – though it’s not the worst either. It’s usually just a bit bland.
Take a little salt with you or – as our friend did – take a bottle of sauce with you. He took some Sriracha, which was almost all gone after two weeks!
Technology in Cuba
19. Galileo Offline Maps
The internet hasn’t really taken off in Cuba yet, but you can still use your smartphone to get around.
Galileo Offline Maps allows you to use your phone’s GPS to show where in the world you are. You can even set Galileo to record your movements so you can see where you went!
You can also upload maps from elsewhere into Galileo (see my next point).
You need to download maps onto the app first before you get to Cuba and go offline. This is a paid app but worth every penny.
20. Cuba Junky
A brilliant blog, which tells you a lot about the country. This guy also has maps of Cuba with each Casa Particulare – a type of homestay popular with tourists in Cuba – noted on the map.
You can upload these maps onto Galileo (see my previous note) and use your GPS to navigate around. Visit Cuba Junky for details.
21. Havana Good Time
Havana Good Time is a good app-based guide to Havana that’s fairly current and will steer you clear of all the usual overtouristy spots.
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Research and preparation for Cuba travel
22. Best time of year to visit Cuba
As with any destination, there are good and better times of year to visit Cuba. Between mid November and March is the cooler dry season – this is usually a busier time of year due to the lower temperatures and humidity level.
Between May and June is the wet season when things get a bit sweaty in Cuba but things happen like the tobacco is harvested and carnivale, which are highlights of the Cuban calendar.
July to early November is hurricane season, when things can get a bit windy.
23. Book your first night’s accommodation in Cuba
It’s not a good idea to arrive in Cuba with no plan of where you want to sleep that night. Make sure your first night at least is covered.
24. Book tours for Cuba before you leave
As we’ve mentioned before, the internet is hard to come by in Cuba. Searching for tours and activities while you’re there will be difficult and costly.
We booked a small group tour with Cuban Adventures before we left and it proved to be the best decision.
25. Choose your tour based on itinerary
If you want to join a tour, think about how long you want to be traveling and where you want to go. Don’t worry too much about promised services or extras. Most tours use the same agency for the tour guides.
26. Learn as much Spanish as you can
Even simple words and sentences will go a long, long way in Cuba. People love to talk to you and if you know a little of their lingo, they’ll be even friendlier.
It also helps if you’re staying in casa particulars so you can speak to your generous hosts.
27. Take salsa lessons
Everyone in Cuba knows how to salsa. Even if you just learn the basic steps, you won’t feel left out stood at the edge of the dance floor while everyone else is enjoying themselves.
You can take lessons in Cuba while you’re there, but by then it might be too late.
The most important thing to remember to do while you’re in Cuba is to have fun.
Cuba is not a dangerous country, as many people think. Crime rates are not high. There is a lot of bureaucracy here though, which makes traveling hard.
Providing you use your common sense and behave with respect for the local culture, you’ll have the best time in Cuba.