Cuba — Know before you go

by minhduyennn

For those of you who haven’t gone to Cuba yet (especially those from the US) and are itching to go, make sure to prepare a bit before you head out. No need to go batshit crazy and drive yourself/everyone else nuts with it — I don’t mean a 30 page paper — but a little bit of info in your repertoire goes a long way.

We returned from a weeklong trip not too long ago and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, but with perhaps a bit more prep prior, man friend wouldn’t have had to reluctantly endure some of my bitchiness (when it got that bad anyway).

The following are some helpful tips to save some time, money, and prevent (potential) undue stress.

  • Tourism is strictly prohibited — As of 1/26/17, this is still the case: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/cuba.html. BUT, if you can certify your trip under the designated 12 categories with the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), you’re legally able to go. The easiest route is the “people to people” category. We did the OFAC certification at the gate prior to boarding, along with the purchase of our visas. No further documentation necessary.
  • Check departure flight information (from Cuba), including exit terminal — most likely it’ll be terminal 3 (unofficially designated the “European Terminal”) though it recently began hosting flights in/out of the US. Reason for this is simple: lack of good internet access to check in online and to view flight info. Know before you go. Our host dropped us off at Terminal 2 and we were stuck trying to get a government owned taxi (more on this below) that cost us $10 cuc for a 5 minute ride to Terminal 3, which in essence, shouldn’t have cost more than approximately $1 cuc. Under the circumstances, we sucked it up because we had a flight to catch but I was livid. Man friend can attest to that. Funny thing was, he wasn’t even upset about the rip off until we found out the money previously allotted as our exit tax (read “exit tax” below) wasn’t necessary so there was extra to spend on duty free alcohol and with $10 cuc extra, we’d have bought the whole store. Damn.
  • Visa — must have before officially entering Cuba. Good news is, it’s easy to obtain prior to departure either online (valid 180 days from issue date and 30 days upon entering Cuba) or at the ticket counter prior to boarding your flight. Ours was $50 per passenger at the gate (we flew Delta) but I believe it is cheaper online. Additionally, I’ve heard you can purchase visas when you land in Cuba but we didn’t want to chance it though. The visa itself consists of two perforated slips, one of which they take upon arrival, and the other is returned to you for the duration of the trip. Do not lose it as you’ll need to present it upon exiting, thereby allowing you to leave (without hassle). https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/
  • Medical insurance — as required by the Cuban government. It was built into our Delta airfare. The red stamp that you’ll get on your boarding pass is proof of coverage. Do not lose it.
  • Exit tax of $25 cuc per passenger — no longer an issue as it is now built into your airfare (Delta at least so check your airline). We found this out at the airport during check in and suddenly we had $50 cucs to blow on dirt cheap duty free Havana Club. No, we’re not alcoholics… but let’s just say we’ve now got a sizable stash.
  • Two currencies: CUC (aka “kooks” aka rip off) vs CUP (aka moneda nacional aka MN aka “pesos”) — CUCs are cuban convertible pesos, which for US visitors with USD, would be at the exchange rate of 1:1, but minus 3% commission fee and 10% just-because-you’ve-got-USD-and-from-the-USA fee, that’s .87 to 1 cuc. No gracias, compadres. Lesson of the day: exchange USD to other currencies such as euros (EUR) or Canadian dollars (CAD). We found that we received the best rate with EUR instead of CAD. CUPs/pesos/MN are at the rate of 1 cuc to 25 cup and is the currency most locals use. For our entire week long trip, we exchanged only 18 cucs to cups with some change to spare. We used these at “street vendors” and local shops/restaurants aka “cafeterias.” Touristy places will not accept pesos. It’s easy to spot pesos since it appears as a larger number on menus (a burger shouldn’t cost 20–30 cuc). Only in Cuba can you obtain cuc and pesos, done at cadecas or a money exchange. Like everyone else, you’ll most likely want to exchange your money into cuban money when you land. There are two cadecas outside of Jose Marti Airport in Havana and the lines are horribly long. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary wait. I hope you saved some snacks. Your goal is to avoid cadecas as much as possible since the lines are long no matter when/where you go so do all your exchanging at the airport if you can. We went three times in 7 days. You’re let in one at a time and will have to present your passport if exchanging foreign money to cucs. No passport needed when exchanging cuc to pesos. Try doing both transactions at the same time. Be sure to ask for small bills ($50 is pushing it). A lot of businesses, especially taxis will say they do not have change and will end up giving you back less than expected. Don’t be fooled. Important: export of any Cuban money is illegal.
  • CASH IS KING — nowhere else is this truer (for me anyway). Cuba is primarily a cash country, especially for those coming from the US (our cards do not work with their machines yet and there’s no telling when that’ll happen). A friend from Seattle attempted withdrawing money from an ATM one night and failed miserably. Bring enough cash to last you. Seven days for the two of us, we brought $970 euros + $320 cad and returned home with $220 euros unspent. We spent fairly generously though. Airbnb ($246/7 nights) and flights ($204pp/rt) were paid in advance. Also, don’t forget to budget approximately $25 cuc for your taxi ride from the airport to where you’re staying (if in or near Old Havana) and another $25 for going to airport.
  • Casa Particulares — aka homestays.com or airbnbs. If you’re wondering, it is legal to book these places online. We booked our place through airbnb five weeks before our trip in mid Feb but had been looking online since we’d booked the flight in November 2016. I recommend booking early because most nicer places we found that were also closer to Old Havana had been booked two/three months out. Average prices per night should be $30–40. We lucked out where we stayed because the host family was simply amazing and so generous. Stay with them if you can: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15704968. They’ve got three bed three baths for rent in Centro Havana (approx. 1 mile from Old Havana). Carlos’ wife is an incredible cook! If you’re not into airbnb or unfamiliar with it, there are other sites to book from such as homestays.com or havanacasaparticular.com. We met two young women from Australia who thought it was a hassle to book from homestays.com because they only paid a deposit online and had to bring extra cash to pay the balance.
  • Taxis — there are technically two types: government ones and private ones, commonly known as collectivos. Government run taxis are easy to spot as most are yellow (think yellow taxis) and have the word taxi on it. They are metered (or should be) and the government gets a cut of the total fare, which is always in cucs. Avoid. Collectivos, on the other hand, are also easy to spot as most are the older vehicles we all drool over and want to ride in. Oftentimes, it’ll have 5+ passengers and then there’s the driver. Good thing most of these older vehicles are huge inside, otherwise, you’ll find yourself sitting on someone’s lap. Let’s hope they’re cute, right? You’re essentially hitchhiking when you’re hailing a collectivo, which is significantly cheaper with most fares charged in MN or cups. The more Spanish you know, the better your negotiation skills will be. We got ripped off more often than not since we knew nearly next to nothing in Spanish. Speaking of which…
  • LEARN SOME SPANISH — the consensus online was that Cubans do not generally speak English and from being there just a week, there’s quite a bit of accuracy to that. Only the husband in our host family knew English and surprisingly well too. The good news is, there are offline translators (try google), that you can download before going… just don’t rush and do it while on the runway about to take off like I did. I found it extremely useful but keep in mind that there may be errors (you know Google’s not perfect, right?). Triposo’s Cuba app also works offline, has a map with offline location services, and common phrases in Spanish/English. It was a lifesaver and got us around everywhere without having to carry a pocket dictionary or paper map.
  • Internet — what internet? Just kidding… sorta. There are wifi hotspots around Havana that are easy to spot. Remember pokemon go crowds at parks? It’s usually at a park/square with a large crowd, most of whom have their heads bent over looking at their phone screen or in some instances, even a laptop. People face time, play games, swip left/right on tinder (heard it’s not so great btw), etc. There’s usually a kiosk at these hotspots that sell internet cards by the hours for $1.50 cuc / hour. Spotty connection at best. I don’t recommend purchasing from any other sellers as you’ll likely be ripped off. Don’t forget to turn off wifi when you walk away from the hotspot, otherwise, you’ll lose time on the card.
  • Safety — Cuba’s actually quite safe though it may not seem that way. The government is always watching you… big brother anyone? In any case, it’s good news when you’re a tourist since someone’s watching out for you. Though parts of Havana looked sketchy, we felt safe wherever we went. Have common sense though as petty theft is present no matter where you go.

Will definitely update if anymore comes to mind. Hopefully it’s helpful. Enjoy the trip when you go and share pictures!

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