Yep, you can now travel to Cuba hassle free as an American. It’s about time! I jumped on the opportunity as fast as possible. Here are a few things I learned during my 10-day trip that will help you in planning your dream trip to Cuba.
Wi-Fi can only be purchased at the Etecsa store and can only be used in the designated Wi-Fi squares.
The cards vary from $1.50- $3.00 and each card is good for one hour. You’ll find the cards cheapest at the Etecsa store and on the higher end when you buy them off the street. My recommendation: purchase all of your cards in one stop. This will save you hours, yes hours, of waiting in line. I was able to purchase 6 Wi-Fi cards at one time; you might even be able to purchase more than that, just ask! When you’re heading to purchase them, make sure you have your ID- you don’t want to get all the way up to the counter after an 1 ½ of waiting in line just to be turned away for not having your ID.
Once you’ve got your card logging on is easy. Simply scratch off the username and password, connect to Etecsa on your phone, and Safari (or whatever internet you use) will pop up, put your information in and voila! You are online. Remember, the cards are good for one hour and if you don’t plan on using the full hour in one sitting be sure to log out or else it will just drain your hour even if you aren’t connected to the internet and you shut your Wi-Fi off. It might take a few tries to disconnect.
Don’t exchange money using U.S. currency.
U.S. currency is practically useless to Cuba. My recommendation, request Euros from your bank or exchange your US currency at the airport you are traveling out of before boarding your flight to Cuba. The exchange rate isn’t terrible but it will save you money!
Speaking of currency, bring enough for the entire trip.
Cuba is mainly cash only. This means most places do not take cards, definitely not US cards, and if you need to take out money expect a long wait at the ATM.
If you’re taking photos of or with the locals expect them to ask for money.
This is so common. Those iconic shots of the beautiful women with cigars and colorful clothing don’t come cheap people!
Oh, and when wandering the cities, you might come across a school, know that you will be requested to make a donation upon exiting.
Don’t drink the tap water.
Water is really cheap. No I mean really cheap! Don’t bother drinking the tap water. Head to the local grocery store and buy a couple of gallons. Brushing your teeth and showering with the local water is obviously fine I just don’t recommend consuming it, nor do the locals. The locals have adjusted to the tap water there and you don’t want to waste your time laid up with a stomach bug!
Food is cheap (and so is the alcohol).
REALLY CHEAP! Especially at the Cafeterias. A good rule of thumb, if the restaurant is empty don’t go in. Always read reviews and do your research before going to Cuba. There are a lot of really good restaurants, namely La Guarida and El Litoral in Havana, but there are also some really bad ones. Use your judgement and ask your host or hotel concierge for recommendations- they usually know the best spots.
Tip: You can score a fifth of rum for 2 CUC at the grocery store or one of the many liquor stores on the streets.
Expect to be cat called.
This happened daily. I couldn’t leave my casa for five minutes without being kissed at, hissed at, proposed to, receiving confessions of love or followed. And sometimes this happened all at once! HA! It is to be expected. Just brush it off, don’t engage and keep moving. If you begin to feel unsafe, which I never did, just remove yourself from the situation as fast as possible.
On that note, no I never felt unsafe once! Yes, the cat calling made me uncomfortable and got annoying, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Just like anywhere else in the world, don’t go where you’re not supposed to or where you don’t see other travelers and don’t go down streets at night that are not lit alone. I walked deep into the neighborhoods of Havana and felt completely safe the entire time.
Yes, this is a thing. The laid back lifestyle provides a slower day to day pace. Be prepared to wait for food, drinks, and in line. Meaning you’ll probably have to ask for the check once or twice when you’re finished eating.
Also of importance, the airport. With the influx of tourism from the US this has led to longer lines and more confusion at the airports. Unfortunately, for travelers, this means getting to the airport in Cuba about 5 hours before your flight. But really, this is a hit or miss. You might breeze through security or the lines might be out the door. Better early than late! In the Havana airport there is Wi-Fi but you can only purchase the half hour cards- make sure to purchase a few extra to waste some time while waiting for your flight home.
Always negotiate with the taxis.
Taxis are inexpensive but the drivers can often request a ridiculous price. Always be firm with your request and look the driver in the eye. If they won’t budge and the price is unreasonable, keep moving you’re bound to find another taxi for less.
Speaking of taxis, Collectivo Taxis.
These are shared taxis and are used for travel throughout the country, from one city to another. You will share the taxi with other travelers and sometimes even the locals. This is the cheapest and most efficient way of traveling throughout the country. You can travel by bus but this can tack on countless hours of travel time. A Collectivo from Trinidad to Havana is about 3½ to 4 hours and by bus it can take up to 7!
Types of Accommodation.
I stayed in casas during my trip. This accommodation is a lot like Airbnb but is very inexpensive. Often it is a family home that’s been opened up to host travelers. You get all of the basic amenities just as you would at an Airbnb. Some hosts will offer breakfast and dinner and chances are it is better than anything else you’ll find in town (unless of course you’re eating at one of the nicer restaurants) and it’s a home cooked meal! You can read casa reviews on TripAdvisor and they’re usually very accurate. Be sure to book one with AC! That Cuban heat is HOT.
Self-explanatory. But my vote is if you’re going with this type of accommodation go with a Casa.
The majority of the hotels haven’t been renovated and are often much more expensive than Casas. The only upside or difference really is the concierge, housekeeping, sometimes a Wi-Fi access point in common areas (like the lobby), and in hotel restaurants. You still don’t have free Wi-Fi because you’re staying in a hotel- all Wi-Fi is regulated and you still have to purchase the Etecsa cards.
Bring a comfortable pair of shoes.
If you’re anything like me, you like to hear, feel, and see the culture. And what better way to experience all of this than to walk the cities? Make sure your feet are comfortable as it’s easy to walk at least 5 miles a day! Especially in Havana.
There are two different currencies: CUC and CUP.
CUC: The Cuban convertible peso. This is what travelers use. Some places only accept CUPs, the local currency, but will still sometimes accept CUC. Just be aware of the currency as they can look similar in print ad you don’t want to get ripped off.
CUP: The Cuban peso. This is what the locals use, what they live off of. The CUC is worth 25x as much as the CUP.
Unless you want to take some cash home as a souvenir, try and use all of what you bring or exchange it back to your local currency once you get to the airport because you won’t be able to exchange it elsewhere once you’re stateside.
The bathroom situation.
You’ll quickly notice many public restrooms don’t have toilet seats or toilet paper. Toilet seats are a luxury here and are oftentimes too expensive to purchase. And always carry tissues with you as the restrooms usually don’t provide them or they cost money for a square!
Save a Google Map of Cuba offline.
Download the Google Map app and save the Cuba map offline. This will allow you to access it even if you are not connected to Wi-Fi. Trust me, you’ll want this so you know where you’re going! You can also save specific locations and addresses so if there is a site or a restaurant you want to go to you will know how to get there.
Traveling to Cuba as an American.
Yes. You can now travel freely with a US passport to Cuba. I flew JetBlue out of Fort Lauderdale for my trip. And guess what: it was just like any other trip I’ve ever taken!
You’ll need a valid US passport (obviously) and your Cuban visa which you will receive during the check-in process. Do not lose this as you will need it to EXIT the country after your trip.
There are a number of Visas you can choose from, People to People made the most sense for my trip so that is what I went with. The visas cost $50 and are good for the duration of your stay, up to 30 days.
When flying with JetBlue, you are allotted one free checked bag up to 50 pounds! Score. All other rules of air travel obviously apply. You will also need to fill out an affidavit which is sent to you in an email- super easy just don’t forget to fill it out before you leave. You’ll have Wi-Fi on the flight for about 20 minutes, if you’re flying out of Florida, but it is spotty so don’t rely on it.
If you have any questions, call your airline- they’re the experts!
I hope this helps to answer a few of your questions and ease any uneasy feelings you have about visiting Cuba! If you have another question, leave it in the comments section and I will answer them.
And to get you all excited, here is a Cuban playlist I curated featuring a bunch of songs I heard while I was there. Nothing makes you feel like your there more than a little local flavor! Happy listening.