With the recent normalization of Cuban and American relations, Cuba has become a hot destination for Americans. There is limited information for first time visitors to Cuba easily available in one place. This is a list of basics that one should know when traveling to Cuba for the first time from the US.
As of the date of this post, President Trump has reversed President Obama’s normalization policy. However, the effect on tourism remains to be seen in the coming months.
Google Maps does not allow you to download an offline version for Cuba. However, there is a free app called “Maps.Me” that has detailed offline street maps. Since your location tracker does not need cellular data or Wi-Fi to work, you can use the offline map to gauge where you are at all times. The offline map also has all the popular restaurants pre-loaded and can be helpful when the taxi driver does not know certain addresses or tries to scam you.
Direct Flight and Visa
*This may change due to the new policies.
There are direct daily flights from United, Delta and Jet Blue to Havana. The process is very simple and you can book the flight at the airlines’ respective websites. After registering your information online, you will be asked to give a reason for your trip. You can check off either “educational purposes” or “support the Cuban people”. The visa process is straightforward.
For Jet Blue, you will check in at the baggage claim level at JFK Terminal 5 where there is a separate check-in room for Cuba. The visa can be purchased at check-in with the staff. After you have received your ticket and visa, you will go through normal airport security and off to your gate.
Customs and Other Entry Forms
Once you are in flight, an attendant will give you a white form to fill out your registration info and where you will be staying in Cuba. After you land and go through immigration where the officials will stamp your visa and passport, head to the security line. Ask for the blue customs form, which was located above the x-ray machine when I was there. Most people, including me, missed it and went through most of the exit procedures…only to be told to return through the mayhem for the blue custom form.
After security, you will walk toward a makeshift table set-up where you will hand the white form to the officials before you proceed to baggage claim. The baggage claim area is very small so try to stay alert to find your luggage. Next, head toward the customs line (declare or nothing to declare), hand in your blue form and exit into the arrival hall.
Exiting the Airport
You will be bombarded with people in all directions when you walk into the arrival hall. Keep walking out of the airport and locate the currency exchange booth to the right or left of the main doorway. Change just enough money to Cuban Convertible Currency (“CUC”) that you will need for a few days. You will be mobbed with taxi drivers asking if you need a ride. Make sure that the fee from the airport to Havana center is no more than 30 CUC.
Currency: CUC and CUP
Before you leave the US, change USD to Euros or Canadian Dollars at the currency exchange store. There is a 10% surcharge if you convert USD to CUC. The exchange rate is below:
Make sure you only change enough currency as needed because there is a 10% surcharge to change CUC back to Euros or any other foreign currencies. I did not realized this and lost 50 Euros between the surcharge and the conversion rate.
Cuba has two currencies, CUP and CUC. Memorize what CUC looks like because some people will give you change in CUP (worth 1/25 to CUC) and hope that you will not notice the scam.
Taxi and Traveling to Other Cities
There are a few different types of taxis such as classic cars for tourist, private cars and official government taxis, and all are negotiable for the most part in Havana. Rides around Havana should be no more than 10 CUC and should be negotiated beforehand. When I was in Havana, I took the classic cars, taxis and a private car. I prefer a private car since it has air conditioning and it was much safer and easier as a solo female traveler. Luis, my driver, picked me up at an agreed time throughout the day. This was especially helpful at night as some restaurants are not on the main road so that Luis had to walk me to the restaurant and pick me up when I was done.
There are also unregistered taxis for locals that pick up multiple passengers. Avoid those as the cars are much older and are basically saunas.
There are a few options to get to other cities such as Varadero, Trinidad and Vinales from Havana. If you have more than 3 people or value time, I highly suggest booking a taxi. If you have time and money is an issue, there are nice tourist buses that will pick you up at your current hotel and drop you off at your hotel in the new city. The problem is that it also picks and drops off everyone on the bus so a 2 hour taxi ride can become 4 hours on the bus. A taxi from Havana to Varadero costs approximately 100 CUC compare to 25 CUC per person for the bus. The hotel concierge can book the taxi for you or direct you to the appropriate place to buy a bus ticket.
There is limited Wi-Fi in Havana. Most international hotels will have Wi-Fi in their lobby. For guests at Iberostar Parque Central, a 1 hour Wi-Fi card is 2 CUC. For non-guests, it costs 4 CUC and comes with a free non-alcoholic drink. Connecting to Wi-Fi can be spotty and depends on where you are standing in the lobby. I find that selecting “forget network” on iPhone settings or rebooting the cell works most of the time.
Since there are only a few good restaurants in Havana, you must make a reservation at least a week before you get there or you won’t get in. The hotel concierge can book those reservations for you as well. At minimum, I would suggest booking all your reservations for lunch and dinner as soon as you arrive.
Cuban cigars can be purchased at most major hotels or at the Habano store behind the Capital. Avoid buying it from anywhere else as many people have been scammed. There is also a Habano duty-free store at the airport.
Cuban prices are surprisingly high. Meals even at “cheap” restaurants will have similar prices to NY. Give yourself a larger budget than what you think you will need for this trip.
Beware of Friendly Cubans
Unfortunately many “friendly” Cubans that approach tourists are likely trying to scam them. It happened to me at least twice on my trips but fortunately, I was aware of it. The classic scam is one in which you are brought to a café for a “free concert” only to be gouged for drinks in order to leave. Another common scam is to give you change in CUP, which is 1/25 in value to CUC. Observe and follow your instinct if the situation feels wrong. Beware of the scam that sells you cigars made of banana leaves and advertises it as authentic.
Don’t underestimate the heat and humidity. Pack two changes of clothes a day as you will sweat through the first set by 5pm.
Bring a Fan
If you can get your hand on a motorize pocket fan, bring it with you. There is very limited air conditioning around Cuba and even the AC at the hotels is generally weak.
I usually do not eat breakfast at the hotel, but in Cuba, there is not much of a choice. If your accommodation offers a breakfast option, I recommend opting for it.
Bring Sunscreen and Medicine
Bring sunscreen and medicine. They are hard to find and I did not see any store that sells them around Havana. The hotel has some of these items in limited quantity and they are much more expensive than in the US.
If possible, you should change all CUC back to Euros or Canadian Dollars at the hotel before going to the airport. The line at the airport is long and the rates are standardized anyway. You will be charged a 10% fee to convert CUC back to a foreign currency, so try not to have a large quantity of CUC left. All you need for the airport is just enough for the cab ride, tip and 15 CUC for water, coffee and trinkets at the gate. Foreign currencies are accepted in the departure terminal; however, your change is in CUC and there is no way to exchange it.
Head to the airport 3 hours before your departure time. The JetBlue line was very short so I ended up with 1.5 hours wait for the flight. However, there were giant lines for the other airlines. There is limited food and shopping at the airport besides a duty-free shop and a very unappetizing food kiosk and cafeteria. WiFi is available at the gates so keep those Wi-Fi cards handy. If you decide to buy gifts at duty-free, give yourself 30-45 minutes for the check-out line… because the staff works on Cuban time. You can get a variety of alcoholic beverages and cigars at the duty-free. I did not want to deal with the currency issues as Americans do not have access to credit cards in Cuba, so I purchased most of my gifts around Havana. I ended up buying a bottle of rum at duty-free to get rid of the remaining CUC and that took 40 minutes to just pay for it.
Check your departure gate as it changes all the time. My gate was B-12 when I checked in my luggage and that changed to B-8 once I passed through security. When I was supposed to board, the gate changed to B-7 making everyone scramble to a different gate. Expect Spirit Airlines type of cattle herding but worse for the boarding process.
Lastly, have fun! Cuba is a very interesting country and should be experienced at least once with an open heart.
Look out for our post on 5 Days in Cuba coming soon.