So you’re headed to Cuba – a destination that’s on many a travel bucket list. An unforgettable experience awaits on this enchanting island, with its rich history, welcoming locals, and irresistible music. But many first-time visitors have questions about what to expect. Check out these Cuba travel tips to make your trip even more enjoyable.
- Brush up on your Spanish. Your trip to Cuba will be infinitely richer if you can communicate with the locals. Even knowing a few basic phrases will enhance your experience.
- Adjust your expectations. Cuba’s infrastructure is in need of improvement and it may come as a surprise to some first-time travelers. Internet is achingly slow (and sometimes nonexistent), and restaurant service can be spotty. Also, since hotel rating systems are subjective from one country to another, you will find that the star ratings are lower than U.S. and European standards. Remember that you’re there to experience the essence of real life in Cuba, not indulge in a luxury vacation.
- Bring enough cash. Cash is king in Cuba. If you’re traveling with an operator like Insight Cuba, your costs for accommodations, transportation, and most meals will be included for your trip, but you’ll still need spending money for souvenirs, snacks, and other extras. Since U.S. credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, make sure you bring at least $50–75 cash per day. If you have Euros or Canadian dollars, they’re cheaper to change into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) than U.S. dollars (expect to lose about 10% on every transaction with U.S. dollars).
- Keep in mind Cuba’s dual currency. Cuba’s dual currency causes confusion for visitors: There are Convertible Cuban pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos, referred to as moneda nacional (MN). Most transactions for tourists will be done in CUCs – restaurants, bars, taxis – but sometimes street food and items at local food markets can be paid for in MN.
- Bring necessary medications and toiletries. Pharmacies and convenience stores are limited, so make sure to bring in necessary toiletries, sunscreen, and medicines. Snacks like granola bars can also come in handy.
- Ask before taking photos. Cubans are famously friendly, warm, and welcoming. But travel etiquette maintains that visitors should ask permission, whenever possible, before taking a photo. Plus, to earn extra money, some locals charge a few pesos to pose!
- Read up ahead of time. To fully appreciate Cuba’s rich, complex history, recommended reading includes Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba (Christopher Baker); Trading With The Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba (Tom Miller); Dirty Havana Trilogy (Pedro Juan Gutierrez); Cuba Libre (Elmore Leonard); Fidel Castro: My Life (Ignacio Ramonet); and Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana (Marc Frank).
- Forget about cigars as a souvenir. U.S. travelers can bring back CDs, books, posters and artwork, but, alas, those coveted Cohibas and Montecristos, as well as rum, are not allowed.
- Leave your cell phone at home, unless it’s a smart phone. Although your phone won’t work in Cuba to make calls, it can connect to WIFI in the hotels. You can text, surf the web and get email. It’s also helpful if you get stuck in the Miami Airport.
- Pack a battery-operated alarm clock. Don’t expect the one in the hotel to always work, and in the case of a power outage – not uncommon in Cuba – you don’t want to miss daily activities or your flight.
Photo by Robin Thom