Traveling to Cuba was more than getting a bucket list item checked off. It was the closest thing I would get to being Marty McFly and traveling back in time. This was my first time visiting Cuba and it was fascinating with every turn because you just don’t see anything like it aesthetically anywhere else in the world. The cars, architecture, billboards, stops lights are all vintage from the 1960s as if the country literally said ok we’re good with everything we built at this point. That isn’t the truth but it adds layers to the exploring the country and especially the US-Cuban history and how it’s affected both countries. Keep in mind Cubans have a high literacy rate and highly educated so when you visit don’t think you’re visiting a country full of people who behind on the times.
I traveled to Cuba in March 2016 and since my return I have produced two episodes, “Havana, Cuba” and “Life outside of Havana”, post a ton a picture on my Instagram account and have answered a lot of questions regarding Cuba. In this post I will share first timer tips about traveling to Cuba, visas, currency conversion, where to stay, food, etc. If I miss a topic or you still have a questions, please leave a comment and I will do my best to reply with an answer to best of my knowledge.
Fathom Travel launched the first US to Cuba cruise ship service to the island in over 50 years. Click HERE for more info.
From United States:
You can travel to Cuba on commercial airlines. Jet Blue made history by offering the first US commercial flight in 50 years from New York and Tampa. American airlines offer flights from Miami, New York and Dallas. Delta offers flight from Atlanta and New York. United will start offering flight November 29, 2016 from Newark and Houston. Alaska, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit will also begin air service this year. Cuba Travel Services who has been in game for years providing charter flights and visa services (more on visa below) to travelers offers flights from Miami, New York, Tampa and LA. Cuba Travel Services is a good option because they can arrange your visa and flight. My camera man used Cuba Travel Services and paid $450 for his flight and visa flying out of Miami.
From International destinations
You can fly to Cuba from multiple countries: Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, Panama, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Canada, Aruba, Costa Rica to name a few. I flew Aeromexico from Cancun and my roundtrip ticket was $264. I purchased my ticket directly from their Aeromexico and went through the exact same steps I would with buying a ticket to any other destination.
During the process a screen pops up and asks if you’re traveling under the 12 categories assigned by OFAC Cuban Asset Control Regulatory. At first I was alarmed because I didn’t want to alarm “big brother” that I was traveling to Cuba but doing some research I felt as ease which leads me to next topic…VISAS
VISA: HOW TO LEGALY TRAVEL TO CUBA
In order for US citizens to travel to Cuba the purpose of your trip has to fall under the following 12 categories assigned by The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Cuban Assets Control Regulations:
- family visits
- official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- journalistic activity
- professional research and professional meetings
- educational activities
- religious activities
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- support for the Cuban people
- humanitarian projects
- activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- certain authorized export transactions
US airlines will only book your airline ticket and do not process visas. It is your responsibility to obtain a visa yourself. How do I do that? You ask well Cuba Travel Services has been contracted by Jet Blue and American airlines to process your visa. You can call or visit their website, if you call ask to speak to Monique. They charge $85 to process your visa and its takes 2-3 business days. You will also need to provide some type of supporting documents that apply to the category you’re traveling under. A People to People tour is the safest and costlier way to visit Cuba.
Since I flew Aeromexico my process was lot more simple. I filled out a Declaration to fly to Cuba form off their website and here is a link from Aeromexico with more detailed info for American travelers. I bought my visa from the customer service desk for $25 and handed the gate agent my Declaration to fly to Cuba form. They didn’t require any additional information or signed affidavit. Upon landing in Cuba and going through their immigration I wasn’t asked any investigative questions. The only thing they asked was if I wanted a Cuban stamp or not. I opted not to get a stamp just in case I missed a minor detail when I returned to the States. When I returned I didn’t have any issues and my entire experience was no different than any other international trip I’ve taken.
You need money when visiting Cuba and I know you’re trying to figure out the best option to get a bang for your bucks! I tell everyone to over budget, if you plan to spend $500/day bring $1000-1500 per day. You would be hard pressed to spend $1500 per day in Cuba but I don’t want you find yourself in my situation when I visited. U.S. issued bank cards don’t’ work in Cuba so you can’t access money from an ATM or use a credit card to purchase anything. My last few days I was in account mode trying to figure out how to stretch money until I boarded my plan back to Cancun. I missed out on so many opportunities to buy rum, cigars, art work or just give money away to people who were hustling on the streets.
Here are some money exchange options:
U.S. dollars – If you bring green backs you will be subject to a 13% penalty (10% penalty + 3% transaction fee). USD and CUC are pegged $1 to $1 so for example you exchange $100 USD you will get back $88 USD.
Euros – You can order Euros from you bank which I suggest you do 5-7 business day in advance if you go this route. At the time I’m writing this post the Euro is trading at $1 to €.88, the Euro is trading with the Cuban pesos €1 to $1.12 CUC. Let’s take $100 USD and exchange it twice to get to CUC. $100 to €88, €88 to $98 CUC. If this exchange rate is the same when you visit you would do better converting Euros.
Mexican Pesos – I flew from Cancun airport so I withdrew Mexican pesos from the ATM when I arrive to the airport. Let’s go through the conversion $1 to $18.34 Mexican Pesos, $18.34 Mexican Pesos to $1 CUC. If you fly through Mexico, you can get an equal conversion.
Once you exit baggage claim there is an exchange office where you can get Cuban Pesos.
Check Xe.com for updated exchange rates
- I recommend hiring a tour guide to show you around Cuba. It will allow you to spend more time enjoying the city instead of trying to navigate. I worked with Cuba Incentives and they arranged everything based on my interests.
- My tour guide handled
- Airport transfers
- Transfers across the island
- Lunch and dinner
- Cuba can be a challenging place to visit because it lacks certain infrastructure which at the same times makes it just as charming.
- You can always go independently but keep in mind that not many Cubans speak English. The island doesn’t have Wi-Fi available on cell phones so you can’t easily jump on Google for directions or ask Siri for help.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Once you exit the terminal you can easily hire a taxi to transfer you to your next destination.
You can’t visit Cuba without taking a spin in a classic car. American cars from the 50s and 60s are visible all over the island. A tour company can arrange your entire trip to be transported around or you can simply hire a taxi for a quick trip or daily excursion. However, if you plan on visiting cities outside of Havana I recommend hiring a modern vehicle to transfer. The classic cars aren’t able to get around as quick as a modern vehicle and it can increase your travel time.
I’ve heard many people tell me the food isn’t that good in Cuba prior to visiting. Once I arrived my taste buds had a contrary experience. I give credit to Cuba Incentives because they arranged a great lineup of places to dine.
Here is a list of the places I recommend to eat:
People is a series issue and I got it my last day in Cuba and I’ve had several friends get it too. My best advice is to try avoid drinking beverages with ice and avoid eating salads. My theory is their filtration system isn’t the best and consuming bad water can lead to food poisoning.
If you plan on booking a hotel I suggest making those plans at least three months in advance. Cuba is and will continue to receive a high influx of visitors with the ease of US-Cuban relationships. But the rest of the world has been traveling to Cuba for years however new hotels aren’t opening up every month.
The alternative to a hotel is staying in a Casa Particular which is Cuban home stay similar to an Airbnb. Cubans all over the island rent out rooms in their homes to supplement income. I stayed at several Casa Particulars and honestly it’s the only way to go. You can watch my Havana episode and see how much fun I enjoyed my stay.
Hostal Martha de Luz
Calle Luz No. 471 e/ Edido y Cuazao
Habana Vieja, La Habana, Cuba
Airbnb has been approved to book home stays on their website in Cuba. I’ve used Airbnb in other countries and recommend them as an options. You can use my referral code and received $25 off you first booking.
Referral code: www.airbnb.com/c/nfluellen
Once you land in Havana plan to be without Wi-Fi for the majority of your time in Cuba. However, you can visit most hotels and buy a $5 CUC Wi-Fi card which gives you a one-hour credit. The Wi-Fi connections I received were similar to 3G speeds. I was able to send message on iMessage and WhatsApp, check emails and post to social media platforms except Snapchat.
My advice is to detach and enjoy being disconnected from life back home. It really takes time away from your day to travel to a hot spot and sit online for one hour. Note: You don’t have to use the entire one hour in session.
Cuba is a poor country as a result I recommend tipping as much as possible. The Cuban Pesos CUC goes a long way for the citizens and it will benefit the people of Cuba.
Cubans are extremely hospitably gracious people, however some can be hustlers. If you want to take that icon photos with an older Afro-Cuban woman smoking a cigar, be prepared to tip. You might need directions and someone will offer help and literally walk with you to your destination.