So I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Cuba back in December 2016 with my boyfriend, and since I returned I’ve had a bunch of people ask me questions about how I went and tips for traveling there in general, given that it’s still such an elusive place. And after answering my friends, I thought “hey, I should totally write a blog post about all my tips for my Boujie followers!” Well….two months came and went in a snap and here I am. But more on procrastination another time. This isn’t that kind of article.
Without further ado, here are my 10 tips for traveling to the beautiful country of Cuba as a tourist. Oh and if you couldn’t already tell, I cannot recommend making the trip enough. It’s a country frozen in time – with a vibrant culture, friendly people, beautiful shores, and an innocence you just don’t see most places anymore. It’s truly a must-see destination.
1. If you’re a U.S. citizen, try to book from Canada instead.
Yes, yes…I know JetBlue and United offer direct flights from Ft. Lauderdale, NYC, Miami, and other major U.S. cities. But the American tourists we ran into there said that they had to explain to the American & Cuban governments that they were traveling with an educational or religious group, get insurance policies to cover their trip through the airline, and actually do something educational or religious on the trip to prove to the govn’t that they weren’t just visiting for pure tourism purposes. AKA – a lot of hassle if tourism is your main reason for going. We flew from Montreal (still using our American passports), and everything from immigration to customs was totally seamless, both coming and going. Literally, no one asked us anything extra, asked to open our bags or look at what we purchased…nothing. Each person’s experience might be different, but just do your research and weigh your options. I wouldn’t rule out traveling from Canada entirely just b/c flights are available from the U.S. now.
2. Airbnb is super popular in Havana. Just be sure to finalize all your details.
You’d be surprised at how many apartments/rooms are open for rent in Havana, and how many are listed on Airbnb as we speak. They are called “casa particular” by locals there, and are a very common method of lodging. But it is required by the govn’t that all hosts be present in the house when having guests…so unlike when booking an Airbnb in the States or in Europe, you probably won’t have the whole place to yourself.
Also, make sure you finalize all your booking details beforehand. Our hosts hit us with a bill for breakfast, water, and beer literally as we were about to walk out the door to leave, which caught us off guard b/c there was no signage anywhere in our room about pricing for these items and none on the reservation details either. It may seem like a nice gesture that your host is cooking you breakfast each morning, but it’s also probably not complimentary. 😦 Don’t hesitate to just ask them if there’s a fee.
3. Cash is truly king.
American credit cards still don’t work in Cuba. Bye bye AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire. You could use travelers’ checks but honestly, do people still do that? Keep it simple and bring cash. You can convert it at CADECAs or “casa de cambios”…there’s one at the airport in Havana and all throughout major cities and in hotel lobbies. A tip within a tip: don’t get confused, there are two currencies in Cuba: CUP & CUC. The one you’ll be using as a tourist is CUC (locals sometimes pronounce it as “coohk”). Multiple sources online and my own currency converter app says the CUC is 1-1 with the US Dollar, but it’s not. I don’t know why that’s a thing. You’ll get around 7-8 CUC per every $10, for example, depending on where the CADECA you go to is located.
4. Bring a Spanish/English dictionary if you’re not fluent in Spanish.
This ain’t Puerto Rico or Cancun, boo boos. I would say around 75% of the Cuban people speak only Spanish, which makes sense considering there has been no influx of American culture over the past 40 years. We had a Spanish/English pocket dictionary with us, and was it super touristy looking? Yes. Did we use it a lot? Yes. So just keep that in mind if you’re not fluent in their native language. On the plus side, it was great to actually have to use Spanish and practice a foreign language a little bit. So yay to that.
5. Yes, WiFi is rare.
Or should I say, it’s very limited. Legally, you can only purchase it from government-mandated places, mainly hotels. You purchase a wifi card from the hotel, scratch off the password code, and you’re good to go for one hour, in the lobby. You will lose service if you go up to your room or anywhere else outside of the designated lobby area. The purchasing desks for the cards do close around 7-8-9pm, so keep that in mind when planning your day. You can’t just stroll up to the front desk and buy wifi cards at any hour of the day or night.
I will add that in Havana at least, there are some people who sell wifi in parks or random areas and for like 3 CUCs – they input their own code and you get wifi for an hour, albeit illegally. I will admit we did have to do this one night, when we ran out of time to buy wifi cards and needed to get online (gotta do it for the ‘gram). But I would advise against this in general lol, or at the very least, ask someone legit to point you to the right place to get it illegally. Like your server in a restaurant or your Airbnb host.
6. Avoid Havana’s “unofficial” tour guides.
This probably happens in all the major cities in Cuba, not just Havana. But be careful for the people that suddenly walk up to you out of nowhere, start walking with you, and suggest places to go or destinations to check out. It sounds like a no-brainer, but trust me, they are very unassuming and before you know it you’re being lured into a restaurant to eat when you had no intention of eating there, and the “tour guide” who led you there gets a commission for bringing customers to this venue. Don’t get me wrong…the Cuban people are overall very nice and totally harmless, we felt safe the entire time we were there, but this fake tour-guide thing happened to us a few times while we were walking around, and they usually expect a tip for soliciting their suggestions and advice, even though it was actually totally unsolicited.
7. Expect people to refer you to specific places
Tip 6 & 7 go hand-in-hand with one another. You will have the unofficial tour guides leading you to restaurants or places you had no interest in going to, because they get a cut for bringing you there. But it can also happen with your taxi driver, lodging host, or anyone else for that matter. Unfortunately, the people are not very well off and are looking to make a buck in any way they can while not harming anyone. So it’s to be expected that they try to steer you away from the restaurant you researched and lead you to their amigo’s restaurant instead. It’s not a big deal, just be mindful of it and don’t be easily persuaded.
8. Don’t purchase cigars or rum off the street.
This is kind of a given but I’ll say it anyway. If anyone says they have rum or cigars off the street, don’t buy it!! These goods are controlled by the government and each package, bottle, or box has a special label identifying it. Don’t get lured into buying fake crap. And if you hear there’s a special cigar or rum sale taking place in town? Avoid that too. They may have legit products, but they are going to try and charge you crazy prices for it, and before you even agree to buying, they’ll seal the cigar box, make you feel like you’re now obligated to buy, anddd you just paid $350 for a box of cigars that in reality costs $75 max. Yikes. Buy from legitimate stores/people only.
9. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
This is a universal tourist tip, isn’t it? But really…the Cuban people are very open to negotiating and will work with you in basically every scenario. Taxis, souvenirs, you name it – it was very rare that I got turned away after pushing for a lower price than what was first offered. So just go for it. It’s boujie to bargain sometimes! Oh and always ask the taxis how much it is to go somewhere before saying the number you think or heard the fee should be. Let them give their price first and bargain down after that.
10. Be kind to the Cuban people.
In my years of traveling to many different destinations, I have to say that the Cubans were some of the nicest and most hospitable people I have ever come across. Like I said, they have this innocence about them, unfortunately because they’ve been withheld from so much and are kind of frozen in time. Not once did we encounter someone who wasn’t willing to help with directions, recommendations, sightseeing suggestions, and much more. So be nice and patient with the people there. They are just getting used to this wave of American tourism after decades of inactivity, and are probably a little overwhelmed in many ways.
Hope you guys enjoyed my 10 tips! If you have any specific questions, feel free to shoot me a note and I’ll get back to you. My “Cuba, Part Two” post will focus on where to go and what to do specifically while in Havana. I’ll be covering everything from restaurants to landmarks to hotels/bars, and will put up a bunch more pictures from my trip, so stay tuned!!