Cuba has always been a place that has interested me – the classic cars and old architecture; it’s a beautiful country, filled with a rich culture. Also, the fact that it has always been harder for US citizens to visit made it more appealing to me. But over the last few years it has become easier for US citizens to get there under certain rules, which recently changed (November 2017) under the new Trump administration. However, it is still possible to legally travel to Cuba as an individual tourist under the category “Support For the Cuban People” (“People To People Educational” was removed from the list of categories).
Support For the Cuban People
Under “Support For the Cuban People” one can travel to Cuba as an individual (no tour group). There are a few stipulations under this category. You must have a “full-time schedule” of activities that enhance contact with Cuban people, show meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba, and intend to strengthen civil society in Cuba. If you stay away from military owned businesses, you should be OK. But some things you can do to support the Cuban people:
- Stay in a casa particular (“private house”) or use Airbnb. If you haven’t used Airbnb before feel free to use my referral code to get $40 off your first trip over $75.
- Eat at private restaurants
- Visit museums
- Go on some guided tours
- Take dance lessons
- Meet and interact with local business owners
- Engage in conversation with locals about Cuban society
If you stay away from military owned businesses, you should be OK. The US government has posted a list of restricted entities.
Getting to Cuba from the US
Several airlines fly direct to Cuba (US to Havana). Two things you need to enter Cuba are Cuban health insurance and a tourist visa. Some US carriers include health insurance in the price of the ticket. I flew on United and it was included. Check with your airline before purchasing. If your airline doesn’t provide, I was told you could buy it in the Havana airport when you arrive. You can must buy your tourist card at your departure gate before your flight to Cuba. For United it cost $75 ($50 for the card, $25 service charge) per person. You fill out both sides. Make sure you do it correctly or they’ll make you buy a new one. When you arrive in Cuba customs stamps the left side and when you leave they will stamp the right side. I’m not sure if they kept it or if I just lost it because I can’t seem to find it.
I did have a couple of interesting things happen to me when I arrived in Havana. First, this girl I met on my flight and I got approached by two airport officials while we were walking to the customs line. One started asking us questions and the other one was writing everything down. After several questions he finally explained that he was just training the lady writing down the answers. He was really nice the whole time, but it still made us a little nervous. Then once I got to the customs agent it took him way longer to process me than the previous person. Then he told me to go to another line. I thought his computer was broken, but then he quickly processed the girl behind me while I stood in another line. So needless to say that made me a little more nervous when I got to my second customs agent. But things ran more smoothly and I was easily out of the airport looking for a cab a couple of minutes later.
On my way back to the US, I had no issues with Cuban customs. When I arrived at Newark, NJ (EWR) no one there asked me any questions about Cuba. I do have global entry so I didn’t have to wait in line. I went straight to the global entry kiosk, got my declaration receipt, and handed it to the customs agent and walked on by – no questions asked.
So for me it was a pretty hassle free trip from the US to Cuba and back. Everyone that I have talked to that has been there has also had a similar experience. So if you’ve been wanting to go to Cuba, but are worried about it being too difficult or impossible to get to, I hope this post eases your concerns. Cuba is a beautiful country and the people are great. So don’t miss out on it.
US credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba. So bring cash with you. I suggest you exchange your US dollars (USD) to Euros before you travel to Cuba. When you exchange USD in Cuba, they will charge an extra 10%. When I exchanged my Euros for Cuban Convertibles (CUC), the exchange rate was pretty close to market value (~.03 less). If you don’t factor in the 10% charge, $1USD = 1 You can exchange your money at the airport, hotels, banks, and cadecas (Casas de Cambio SA).
As a tourist, you will get CUCs. The local currency is CUP (Cuban pesos). When I was there the conversion was about 1CUC to 24CUP. I ate a couple of places that had their prices in CUPs. They did convert my bill to CUCs and my meals were way cheaper than the places I ate where the prices were in CUCs, except this small pizza vendor that ripped me off (and possibly gave me food poisoning).
Bring as much cash, plus a little extra, of what you think you will need. Once you run out of cash, wiring money might be costly. I stayed only in Havana and I would say it’s pretty expensive there. I found prices comparable to US prices on most things. So be prepared. I can’t speak for outside of Havana though. Using Airbnb helped keep the amount of cash I needed to bring down. I booked my lodging, Salsa lesson, and bike tour through Airbnb.
Internet in Cuba is pretty terrible and expensive. In 2015, the Cuban government started opening up public WiFi hotspots. You can easily find these hotspots (usually parks) where locals are just gathered about on their cell phones. To gain access to internet there you will need to buy prepaid cards. You can buy them in some ETECSA kiosks. Just look for the long lines of Cubans. I wasn’t lucky enough to find a kiosk that had them for sale. I heard they sometimes run out. Wait times in the line can also be a couple of hours. The usual charge is 1.5CUC per hour. So if you’re lucky enough get to the front of the line of a kiosk that has some left, buy as many as you think you’ll need. You can also buy these cards at some hotels, but they will charge you more. 4.5CUC per hour. Some locals will also try to sell you extra cards they purchased. My Airbnb had WiFi. It wasn’t the greatest in terms of reliability. And he charged 2.5CUC per hour.
On the back of the card, the password has a scratch off thing. Once you find a WiFi park connect to the ETECSA network using the login/password. It will tell you have much time you have when you log in. You have 30 days after your first login to use the entire 1 hour. I suggest turning off WiFi once you’re done using it to make sure you’re not still using up minutes. You can use the account on multiple devices, just not at the same time.
With the lack of internet access, I would suggest downloading the app Maps.me. It works really well in Havana. It’s free. Just make sure you download the map of Cuba before you arrive in Cuba.
I hope you find this post really helpful. This trip to Cuba was very last minute. I only stayed 4 days and didn’t really plan anything. I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to visit other cities and towns outside of Havana. So I just stayed in Havana. Four days was definitely way too long for me in Havana. I would definitely go back with more of a plan and more time. I’d like to visit Vinales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. Right now flights are relatively cheap and the travel time there isn’t much, so a return trip is definitely doable for me. We’ll see.
**Disclaimer: Please check the US Department of State and US embassy sites before booking your flights as the rules/laws could always change from what I’ve written here.