Tips for Traveling to Cuba
You’re dreaming of visiting Cuba.
Imagine it: there’s this vision of yourself in an old vintage car, a fedora hat titled across your head, a cigar dangling in one hand. Well, that’s exactly what life is like in the authentic Cuba. I just returned home from an all-girls trip, and I have so many positive things to say about the country. First off, Cuba is one of the safest, friendliest places I've ever visited. We explored Old Havana for three days, and then we went to Varadero for three more days to lay out on the beach.
DON'T MISS OUT AT THE END TO SEE MY TRAVEL FILM
Here are the top tips that I learned for traveling to Cuba:
Booking a place to stay was not easy. We used AirBnB because we weren’t allowed to book a hotel on our own without a travel agent, and forget getting suckered into some $5000 package they have. Here was the real issue with AirBnB in Cuba: they are still struggling to figure out a way to pay the hosts. One of the hosts we stayed with told us that she hasn't been paid by AirBnB in four months. It is something to do with the way the banks work in the country. We had no Wi-Fi, and our phone charges were $2 to $3 a minute. She wanted us to call AirBnB and figure it out, or we wouldn’t be allowed to stay. She did state the law doesn’t allow her to just throw us out on the street, but she insisted that we talk to them or find a hotel. After three hours on the phone with three of our girls, the people at AirBnB finally made some sort of arrangement with our hosts to allow us to stay there.
Basically, using AirBnB in Cuba is kind of up in the air right now, so be sure to call them first and ask them how they are handling Cuba. Apparently it’s only an issue for Cuba, because for decades American tourists weren’t even allowed in the country (at least from the US governments perspective!). Hopefully as the country opens up more and more to American businesses and tourists, it will become easier for AirBnB to operate in Cuba.
We did get lucky with our second Air B&B place, because the host uses her daughter who lives in Canada to make all the arrangements, including being paid through a Canadian bank.
As for the cost of a hotel, it’s about $180 per person per night if you wait until you get to the front desk to make a reservation. There are only four hotels in Old Havana, so there is no such thing as a small, cheaper hotel. If you ask around, someone might know someone that has a home for rent.
- Bring enough cash! There are no ATMs that accept US debit cards. You can bring US dollars and get them exchanged, but what we did was exchange our US dollars for Canadian dollars before we left, and then exchanged the Canadian dollars in Cuba. All the exchange rates and places are the same, whether that's at the airport or in town, but I would recommend doing it at the airport because a lot of markets and moneychangers in the city close close early, and you don't want to be stuck without enough cash.
- Cuba’s not cheap! In fact, most things were more expensive compared to traveling to Mexico or Thailand. I found that the average cost to have a dinner out was roughly around $15 - $20. Taxi services cost us on average $30 to drive 20 minutes away. Those vintage nice cars you see everywhere cost about $60 an hour to drive around in. Honestly, I was shocked—for such a poor country, the cost of visiting is jumping higher every month, because they are smart and know we will pay it!
Expect the cars to always break down. I cannot tell you how many stories we have about our cars breaking down, pretty much everywhere we went! We had a flat tire 5 minutes before arriving for our tour. Another time, a driver’s stick-shift literally came out in his hand when he tried to put his car in reverse! A different car broke down 4 times before the driver finally gave up and switched to his friend’s car.
The locals are not allowed to beg for money, or walk with tourist unless they are hired to do so. Our caretaker had to grab some ID proving she was on the job, just in case the police stopped her and questioned her because she was walking with us. Some locals will beg, but in a secret way. I had a lady ask me to buy her a month's worth of milk, which I happily did, but then she told me that she couldn’t be seen with me or else she would get in trouble. The locals will come up to you and just chat it up with no intention more than out of curiosity of where your from and what it's like outside of Cuba, since most aren't allowed to leave.
- If you're looking for a great place to go dancing, avoid Casa de la Musica. Haha, I bet you didn’t think I would say that, since that is the spot that everyone recommends! Nope, it’s a tourist trap, especially if you're young like us and want to go dancing. We were surprised when we arrived to find lots of tables and chairs flooding the dance floor, leaving absolutely no space to dance. We wanted an authentic experience, so we left and went to Fábrica de Arte Cubano which is an art museum transformed at night. It had multiple random rooms with different vibes and music and filled with locals.
So now you want to know exactly how to go. Here are my exact steps.
We booked our flight through Alaska Airlines, with a direct flight from Seattle that had a stopover in LA.
The stopover is required because this is where you can get your Cuban visa if you haven't already gotten one. It’s $85 in person or $115 online (arrive quickly in 4 days).
You need to fill an affidavit stating which out of the 12 categories apply to you and why you are visiting Cuba. We picked Educational activities or Support for the Cuban people. They never asked us to verify or prove it, but we were well-prepared with printed agendas and names of the hosts of people we were going to be visiting just in case.
For our stay in Verdadero, I’d highly recommend the place we stayed in pictured below. It was right on the ocean, and only a ten minute drive to the main resort area in the town. We got a better deal and a real Cuban experience staying at this house. It comes with a full staff that took care of us. We even had a personal translator, and we got them all to teach us how to dance salsa!