Photo courtesy of istock/frankix
So you want to go to Cuba, but you don't really want to go on one of those group tours. But going independently seems like a hassle, because you don't really understand the legality, and somebody told you something about two different currencies, and – does the internet work? It all just seems like kind of a pain.
An independent trip to Cuba can be an amazing experience. But it can also be an overwhelming one if you don't know what you're doing, which is why we wrote this handy guide to take all (or at least most) of the hassle out of traveling to Cuba.
Check the current legal situation. As of the date of publishing this article, independent travel to Cuba is still technically illegal unless you fit into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel. And not that we recommend doing anything illegal, but if you're set on doing it anyway, nobody is really going to check to make sure your trip was on the up and up.
And all signs point to Cuba travel being completely open in the very near future: Starwood just became the first U.S. hotel to operate in Cuba since 1959, U.S. airlines and even cruises have been permitted to take passengers to Cuba, and relations improve every day. So whether you want to go now or wait until it's fully legal, you'll want to follow these tips:
Bring more cash than you think you'll need. You might have heard that you can now get money out of ATMs in Havana. But unless you happen to do your banking at Florida-based Stonegate – the one bank to issue a card that actually works – you’re going to need to bring a lot of cash. Hell, even if you have a card from Stonegate you're still going to need a lot of cash.
Don't bring U.S. dollars. We cannot stress this enough. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a closed currency, so the only place you get it is in Cuba. But while it's directly tied to the U.S. dollar at a 1:1 ratio, you’ll suffer a 13% fee any time you try to change greenbacks.
Save your money by bringing euros, Canadian dollars, or – if you’re flying from Mexico – Mexican pesos. Think of it as getting a 13% discount on your trip.
Avoid the lines. Because nobody flies into Havana with CUCs on hand, there will be a massive line at the one exchange office right outside the airport. Unless you love standing in stagnant lines in oppressive heat right after getting off a plane, just skip the line and ask your taxi driver to stop at a bank on the way to the city.
On this same note, there are a limited number of banks in the city center, so exchanging money during the day can be a crowded, sweltering nightmare. But most cities have a least one or two hotels that will also change money, and there are usually no lines.
Carry both currencies. Yes, Cuba has two currencies. The one you'll be using the vast majority of the time is CUCs, but it's a good idea to get a few pesos – worth just over 4 cents – as well.
There are local restaurants, street pizza and ice cream stands, coffee vendors and an occasional share taxi that will charge you in pesos. Having pesos comes in handy for times when you can get a local ice cream for 12 cents instead of buying one at the tourist shop for $4.
Take long-distance taxis. The buses in Cuba are perfectly fine, but they have the same problems as buses in every other country: They have a concrete schedule, they make stops, and they usually have at least one crying baby and a guy who packs a fish lunch.
In Cuba, there are almost always long-distance taxis parked outside of the bus station, and they will take you straight to your destination for only a few bucks more than the bus. Most major hotels can also arrange a taxi for you so you can avoid the trip to the bus station.
Book separate flights. Or at least don't be afraid to search for them. You can finally find fights to Cuba through U.S.-based search engines, but there are still no direct commercial flights.
Starting in the fall, U.S. carriers will be able to fly to secondary cities in Cuba (though we're still waiting on direct Havana flights), but for now the cheapest and most efficient route is often to book two separate flights from your origin to Cancun, and Cancun to Cuba.
Book early. Cuba is bursting at the seams with tourists looking to “see Cuba before it changes” (too late). And there simply isn’t enough tourism infrastructure or accommodations to handle the number of visitors – particularly if you want to stay in casas particulares (Cuban homes converted into something resembling a B&B).
Because of this, you should book as far in advance as possible, as places book up months ahead of time. And you absolutely should stay at casas, as they offer a great cultural experience, your money goes to the locals, and the food (minus the breakfast) is infinitely better than at most hotels. At the very least, book your first night and a taxi from the airport online.
The same goes for renting a car. If you wait until you get to Cuba to rent, you’ll likely wind up spending way more money than if you reserve in advance.
Plan to be without internet. People often say they want to go to Cuba because it’s like going back in time. And while the country is in a perpetual state of change, there are many ways where it’s still decades behind – one of which is technology. Internet in Cuba has been continuously expanding in the past year, but it's still reminiscent of your dial-up AOL days.
According to the FCC, there are only 65 public Wi-Fi hotspots in the entire country, and about 50 major hotels that offer Wi-Fi. Using the internet is often a slow, painful process that requires buying cards that have a password good for one hour of internet credit.
Buy more internet cards than you think you'll need. At busy hotspots in major cities, you could end up spending half of your credits trying to log out and log back onto a finicky connection. As cards are only available in select locations, make sure you buy plenty of them when you first arrive to avoid returning to the one overcrowded store selling them. On that note...
Download good offline maps. Or preload Google maps (and take screen shots) when you do have internet. Even when you don’t have Wi-Fi, that little blue dot will work as long as you preload your maps. Another worthwhile app to get is Havana Good Time, which will help you find the latest hot spots and avoid the tourist traps.
Agree to your taxi prices ahead of time. Most taxi drivers will try to charge you several times the actual going rate. Do not let this bother you, but feel free to bargain and agree to the price beforehand so you don’t wind up in awkward situation at the end.
The same goes for just about everything else: Casas, classic cars, even restaurants, on occasion. Some restaurants will have two menus, one in Spanish and one in English. The menus will be identical, but the prices on the English menu will be two to three times the price. If you're not comfortable with this, make sure you clear it up before you order.
Watch for scammers
Be wary of couples. Cuba is one of the safest developing countries on earth, but there is some (very) petty crime, so just be aware. Scams often begin with a male and female couple who approach and speak good English. They’ll be great conversationalists and offer advice about their country.
But they will often wind up trying to take you to an expensive restaurant for a kickback or take you to a friend who “works at the cigar factory” to buy discount Cuban cigars, which are usually fake. We’re not suggesting blowing off any couple that approaches. They might make your trip magical. But proceed with caution.
Never buy Cuban cigars from the street. No matter how real they seem, those Cohibas or Romeo y Julietas you’re buying at a huge discount are probably at a huge discount for a reason – they're fake. If you really want the brand-name cigars, just pay the brand-name prices at the factory.
Otherwise, you’re probably better off buying your cigars in Viñales, where you can actually watch the farmer roll them. They might not be as famous, but they’re a fraction of the price and you’ll have a cool story to go along with your cool new cigars, which are now legal to bring home.