When I heard they were opening the border so that I could finally fly into Cuba, I got my mom on board and we planned a trip. I had always wanted to go to Cuba, and it was never an option. It still wasn’t the easiest, which is why I have put together this post to help others travel as well! (On their own - there is always the cruise option if you wanted to do that)
How to Visit Cuba as an American:
1. Getting Your Cuban Visas
Cuba was just recently opened to travel for US citizens but you are still not able to just travel for tourism on your own. You can travel on a tour, booked in the US that takes you around Cuba. However, if you want to go by yourself, you have to have a reason listed in the 12 reasons the US government has designated for Cuba travel. To get your visa, you just apply and pay when you are at the airport or apply online beforehand, though you need to check with your airline to make sure that you do it correctly. We flew from Salt Lake with Jetblue and they have you buy the visa at the counter. It costs $50. For our travel reason we chose “Support for the Cuban people”.
2. Handling Money
We chose to fly into Havana and then from there travel to Trinidad for a few days. We landed in Havana and headed straight to get our money converted. You cannot use your credit cards in Cuba, if they are run by American banks, so you need to take all your money with you in cash. Also, they tax US dollars 10% so if you want to avoid that you can go to the bank and exchange your US dollars for Euros, which is what we did before we left. It may seem a little scary to take all the cash that you are going to need with you on your trip, but Cuba is very safe. We never once felt like we were in danger or anything like that. You can get your money exchanged, either at the airport when you arrive or at the Cadeca’s all over the cities. Just make sure that you have your passport with you when you go.
Another thing to know about the money here is that they have two separate forms of money. One, the CUC is about equal to a USD. The other, CUP is about 25 CUP for 1 USD. Every time that I went to exchange money, they gave me CUC. In Havana I never used the CUP, no one did as far as I saw. Once we got to Trinidad though, having CUP would have been very handy, but every time I paid someone, hoping for CUP change, they never gave it to me. They just gave me change in the CUC. It is all very confusing but I would just stick with the CUC and make sure that if people do give you change; they give you the correct change in the correct currency. I had absolutely no problems with that however.
3. All things food!
Don’t expect Americanized Cuban food, in Cuba. The flavorful Cuban cuisine that we expected was not what we ended up with. They eat a lot of chicken and fish, and rice and beans. They do not however, eat rice and beans nearly as much as the rest of central America that considers it to be a staple. They eat a lot of fresh fruit, especially for breakfast. We did homestays while we were there and in the mornings, people would cook you breakfast for 5CUC per person. They will generally prepare you coffee and juice, eggs, fruit, and bread and butter. It is a great offer for breakfast and I definitely recommend that you choose that option. Paladara’s are traditional Cuban restaurants, where you will find the locals eating; we tried to eat at those most of the time. In Trinidad we were able to eat at this rooftop restaurant with live music that was adorable. And in Havana out restaurant of choice was called El Biky. It had great pasta and perfectly cooked chicken. We were often able to find pizzas for 1CUC to 2CUC at the most.
4. Finding the Best Accommodation
For accommodation in Cuba the best option to go with is the Casa Particulars. I booked mine on Airbnb and if you choose that option, you can $40 free signing up here. We loved everywhere that we stayed. The families that hosted us were amazing. They were so informative and even though we had a huge language barrier, they were happy to chat and try to tell us everything that we should do and eat. I could not imagine staying in Cuba anywhere else, I have already began staying in touch with the people we stayed with and if I ever go back to Cuba, I know that I would be welcome to stay with them again. The houses were all very clean and they even came and cleaned our rooms like hotel service while we were out for the day. My favorite place that we stayed was in Trinidad, I had my own room with Aircon and a nice bathroom with a kitchen and outdoor patio as well. We got to eat our breakfast at the patio table outside and enjoy the outdoors and beautiful plants they had planted everywhere.
5. Getting Around
For transportation we mostly ended up taking taxi cabs of different variety everywhere. You can literally take a taxi anywhere; they have those amazing old cars, bikes with a little backseat for you. Then they have traditional yellow taxi cabs, those are the most expensive though. Always make sure before going anywhere that you know how much you are going to get charged because most of the time they do not turn on the meter for tourists. Some taxis did use the meter, but it was uncommon. Our original plan was to take the viazul bus to Trinidad but we didn’t book in advance so when we got to the bus station we found out that there was no available bus to take. If this happens to you, your options are to take a shared taxi or a private taxi. We ended up in a private taxi because the guy gave us about a $60 deal off and they would take us and return to bring us back to Havana; besides my parents were way more interested in a private air conditioned taxi for just us.
What did it cost?
I always keep track and document all the money spent while I am traveling and I decided to share that here with you, so you can have an idea of how much money you should bring, since you have to carry it all with you when you go. Cuba is more expensive, compared to the other Central American countries, so you need to keep that in mind. While the accommodation was fairly cheap and you can find cheap eats, things seem to add up quickly and we spent a lot more than I have in other surrounding countries.
The entire trip cost us $1,421.48.
This is pretty good considering there were 3 of us. So this is a budget for 3 people, it also includes the cigars that my parents bought. So all in all, one person in Cuba for one week may spend an average of about $67.69 a day. If you are able to ride the bus instead of taking a taxi in between cities you will save a lot of money, and if you avoid buying cigars and other things that we bought, you’ll be doing even better than that. We were able to fly round trip from Salt Lake to Havana for $400 per person, which was a really good deal as well. As long as you plan it right, and far enough in advance you can have a fairly cheap trip to Cuba!
I hope this helps with planning your trip to Cuba! I would love to hear about your experiences and what you were able to see and do while you were in Cuba. It is such a special country and I feel very blessed to have been able to go with my parents. Next time we will know what to do even better and other places that we can go as well! I am looking forward to being able to return to Cuba one day.