Traveling around the world without a plan has always treated me well in the past but my latest trip to Cuba couldn’t have been done without some serious planning ahead. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were only restored as of July 2015 after 50 years of closed borders so needless to say, Americans traveling to Cuba need to do things a little differently when visiting Cuba. Luckily, I am going to show you everything you need to know to be fully prepared for your first trip. Here are 21 things every American should know before visiting Cuba.

1. Do I need a visa to visit Cuba?

Yes you do. Before 2015 if a US Citizen wanted to visit Cuba they needed to obtain a special travel license from the department of treasury through a very long and difficult application process. However since diplomatic relations have been restored you can now visit Cuba by simply obtaining a travel visa. The only catch is that your reason for traveling to Cuba must fall within one of twelve categories of travel activities that have been granted permanent pre-approved status. Visiting as a tourist isn’t technically allowed yet but I didn’t find this process to be strict. My advice is to check the journalism box and smile. They won’t give you any trouble.

Your purpose for traveling to Cuba must fall under one of these twelve categories

• Journalistic activities
• Professional research
• Educational activities by persons at academic institutions
• People-to-people travel
• Religious activities
• Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
• Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services and remittance forwarding services
• Activities of private foundations, research or educational institutes
• Exportation of certain Internet-based services
Thing to Know Before Visiting Cuba

2. How to Get a Visa to Travel to Cuba

If your flight leaves from the United States then your airline will help you obtain the travel visa. Every airline is different so make sure you check with your airline ahead of time because they won’t let you board the flight without it. You can receive your visa in the mail (it takes up to four weeks), or you can arrange to pick it up at the U.S. airport from which you’re departing.

If you fly from Mexico, Canada or the Bahamas then you can buy a visa at the airport the day of your flight without any hassle. I bought a visa in Cancun two hours before my flight to Havana and it cost $13 USD.

Your visa is valid for 30 days. Below are a few examples of the visa fees that airlines charge.

◦ Southwest: $50, purchased online and delivered at the gate
◦ JetBlue: $50, purchase at gate
◦ Delta: $50, purchase at gate or through mail
◦ United: $75 ($50 visa + $25 processing fee), purchase at gate.
◦ American: $85 ($50 visa + $35 processing fee), purchase online and sent via mail. AA will send instructions.
◦ Frontier: $110 ($50 visa + $35 processing fee + $25 mailing fee), purchase online and sent via mail. Frontier will send instructions.

3. Cash is More Than King

Your US credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba. This means you won’t be able to withdraw money from the ATM or pay with anything plastic. I highly recommend changing your US dollars into Euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican Pesos before departing. Currently there is a 10% tariff on top of the exchange rate for converting US dollars into Cuban Pesos. I carried extra dollars with me to use in case I ran out of the Cuban pesos that I converted from Mexican pesos. I budgeted about $75 a day and that was more than enough. If you’re not a budget traveler then I recommend setting aside at least $100 with some extra money on reserve.

4. How many Cigars and Rum Can I Bring Back from Cuba?

As of October 2016 the United States has removed import limits on Cuban tobacco and alcohol. This means that right now you can bring an unlimited amount of cigars and rum back with you but it must all be transported in your carry on luggage. There is no telling how long we’ll have this opportunity so bringing Cuban Cigars back to the US in 2017 is a no brainer. The only question is, how much can you pack in your bag?

bringing rum back from cuba

5. Download an Offline Map

Cuba isn’t quite set up for tourism yet so you won’t find beautifully colored tourist maps being handed out for free at the information booth. I see this as a good thing. Before you go, make sure you download an offline map of any areas of Cuba you think you might travel to. My favorite is MAPS.ME. I strongly recommend having an offline map, especially in Havana.

6. Finding Wifi in Cuba

Wifi is extremely limited in Cuba especially outside of Havana so take care of any online business beforehand such as printing documents and downloading or sending important messages. You’ll find wifi hot spots spread out over the city where you can wait in line to buy internet by the hour which can be used in a public park at dial up speeds. It cost 1.50 CUC per hour but be warned, the internet is extremely slow and it can be frustrating to constantly be logged out every two minutes. You can go to a high end hotel and pay $10 an hour for wifi that is faster but my recommendation – don’t bother using wifi unless absolutely necessary.

traveling to cuba in 2017

7. SIM Cards Work, Sort Of

Don’t expect to hop off the plane and be able to roam with your US cell phone plan. If your phone is unlocked you can buy a local SIM card that will allow you to call and text only! There is no such thing as data in Cuba. You’ll find them being sold near the touristy areas of Havana.

8. Exchanging Money in Cuba 

At the Havana airport you can exchange money directly out front of the airport on the street where all the taxis are waiting. The line is typically long but I suggest doing it here because the lines are even longer at the banks in the city. Money can also be exchanged at hotels and exchange houses which are pretty easy to find around town.

9. Two Currencies in Cuba?

Yes, you read that right, Cuba has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP) are both legal tender on the island even though neither is exchangeable in foreign markets. The CUC is very easy to convert because it matches the US dollar exactly 1:1. The CUP on the other hand converts at 26 CUP for every 1 USD.

You’ll only need CUP if you plan to eat at the super cheap spots where the locals eat. I ate breakfast every day for about 20 CUP which is less than one dollar but if your stomach isn’t strong I’d be cautious. I didn’t spend more than $15 worth of CUP for the week that I was there so I suggest starting with 10 CUP and see if you spend any at all. *Make sure you always ask which currency they are charging you because they refer to both as pesos and some will try to rip you off if they see an open window.

currency in cuba

10. Best Way to Get from Havana Airport to City Center

The best way to get from the Havana airport to your hotel or even the city center is by taxi. It cost $20 if you’re a good negotiator or $25-$30 if you’re not. If you’re traveling alone then you might have to split that cost all by yourself otherwise I recommend making friends on the plane or in the airport to share the ride.

how much is a taxi from havana airport

11. Do I Need Travel Insurance to Visit Cuba?

The fine print says yes but I wasn’t asked to show any proof of having travel insurance. It is wise to have incase of emergency but you can travel to Cuba without it if you want to save some extra pesos. Worst case scenario is you’ll have to buy their local health insurance at a rate of about $8 per day. It might not cover as much as World Nomads travel insurance but at least you won’t be denied entry into the country.

12. Booking a Place to Stay in Cuba

I recommend staying in a Casa Particular which is essentially the same thing as Airbnb. Locals open up their apartments or spare rooms to travelers. You’ll see the iconic blue anchor symbol on a sign above any house that is a Casa Particular. They do this to show their vacancy and the fact that they are a legal casa. So, if you’re feeling brave then you can just show up without a place pre booked until you stumble on to one of these places which can be found all over the city.

Or, you can book accommodation through Airbnb which is another great option. Make sure you book beforehand because it will be near impossible to try and load it on wifi once you arrive. Take screen shots and use your offline maps to navigate there. You can also find luxury hotels but what is the fun in that? I stayed at a rugged Casa Particular that I found on Airbnb and it cost only $8 a night. Prices range all over but I recommend looking between the $15-$40 range if you don’t want the nomadic $8/night vibe.

where to stay in Havana

13. Bottled Water Only

The tap water in Cuba is not safe to drink. Buy bottled water and avoid eating raw fruits or vegetables on the street unless it has a protective skin like a banana. If you eat at super cheap restaurants where the locals hang out then beware of what you order. My rule of thumb is to eat healthy at the nicer restaurants and fried foods that have been cooked at high temperatures at the cheap places. I refrain from ordering salad at cheap restaurants because they likely washed the lettuce in contaminated water, if at all. Those are for the locals stomachs only.

14. Best Time to Visit Cuba

That depends on your main reason for visiting. May and June are the wet seasons, but that’s when the tobacco harvest and carnival happen which are both Cuban highlights. July to November is hurricane season, so there’s a chance you’ll run into some stormy weather during those months. The busiest time to visit is from November to March when it is coolest and driest.

traveling to cuba

15. Is Couchsurfing in Cuba legal?

No, it is illegal to stay at anyones house for free in Cuba. Don’t do it, it’s not worth the risk.

16. Look to Eat at Paladares Particulares 

There are two types of restaurants in Cuba, the state run restaurants and the privates ones known as Paladares Particulares. They quality is better since they rely on repeat business whereas the state run restaurants don’t care about the profit since they are supported by the government. Pay attention to where the locals are eating or just ask the restaurant if they are a palador particular or not.

brewery in havana cuba

17. Travel by Bus

There is one bus company that transports travelers around Cuba, Viazul. If the bus is full then simply go there anyway and bargain with the dozens of taxi drivers waiting outside to compete with the bus business. I was able to share a taxi to Vinales which is 3 hours away and it only cost me 15 CUC. Did I mention that I was in a Chevy Belair? I recommend taking a taxi everywhere for an authentic experience.

18. Is Cuba Safe? 

Yes, Cuba is very safe but petty theft is a problem. Keep your eyes open and don’t let your guard down when it comes to getting scammed.

19. Speak the Language

I found the locals to be a lot friendlier when I defaulted to Spanish rather than English. Some locals know English but I found more people that didn’t. Learn a few basic words before arriving to get your started.

20. Should I Go to Cuba Now or Wait?

Get your butt to Cuba now before it’s too late! Tourism is quickly rising especially in Havana and you’ll want experience its authentic culture before it gets trampled. Not to mention, the Trump administration has a much tougher stand on restricting tourism so you never know how long the border will be open . My advice is to go now while you still can.

best time to visit Cuba

21. Finding Cheap Flights to Cuba from the US

Many search engines like Expedia or Orbitz don’t currently show flights to and from Cuba. You can find direct flights or ones with a stopover using my favorite website, Skyscanner. I’ve done a lot of research and they’re your best bet when it comes to finding the cheapest flights to Cuba. If you’re flying from Mexico then definitely check out the popular discount airline, Interjet. I was able to find a direct flight from Cancun to Havana for only $118. I flew back from Havana to New York (JFK) direct with Delta for only $128. You can find cheap flights to Cuba if you search using my one secret to find the cheapest flights in the world.

Now is the time to go, start planning your trip to Cuba for 2017!

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