Things to Know Before Traveling to Cuba
If you've read my, How I Almost Died in Cuba story, then you may have been turned off to the idea of visiting. Like I said in that post, that was my fault -_-. Aside from that terrifying moment, visiting Cuba was an amazing experience. Before our trip I did my usual internet search trying to find things to do, and what I needed to get into the country. At the time the borders hadn't been open to Americans for that long, so there wasn't that much information out there. No Pinterest boards, cute travel guides, or pages of 'bucket list'. So here is every thing you need to know before booking your ticket.
What You Need To Get There
- Travel Visa
Of course, you will need a passport to visit Cuba, but you will also need a travel visa. No worries, this is nothing you need to apply for in advance. There is no form you need to submit, or a letter you need to write either. While doing all my internet searching I thought I needed to fill out a form and write a letter about why I was visiting. You do not need to do that. You buy the travel visa at the airport. Yep, at the ticket desk after you show your boarding pass. The visa cost $50. You will also fill out a form asking about the purpose of your visit. These are the 12 categories that do not require prior approval for visiting the country.
- Family visit
- Offical business of the U.S. government
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
For every form, we checked support the Cuban people. You'll fill out a similar sheet when you exchange cash before leaving the States (we'll get to that). That's it! You buy your plane ticket, purchase your visa at the ticket desk, and fill out your form. It's not as complicated as the internet makes it seem. If you get stopped at the airport once you arrive in Cuba, just say you are there for one of the reasons on the list (this happened to us).
I'd suggest bringing some basic toiletries (toothpaste, soap, mouthwash, deodorant, etc.) to leave while you're there. People really are in need there. I can't tell you how many times we couldn't finish our food and would pack it up, and gave it to someone on the street. Don't hand out your money, bring a few supplies if you can.
Cash (CUC vs. CUP)
This is very important. In Cuba, you will only be able to pay for things in cash. Your U.S. bank card will not work over there. There are no card machines to insert a chip into. Everyone deals in cash. With that being said take all the cash you will need. The dollar cannot be exchanged in Cuba, and Cuban money cannot be exchanged in the U.S. Before leaving the U.S. I exchanged my currency to Euros. Then, when I got to Cuba I exchanged my Euros for Cuban currency (CUC). I recommend only exchanging money at the airport or major hotels in Havana. The currency exchange is right outside the airport on the bottom floor. Try to get smaller bills if you can. Also, whenever I travel I always have a currency exchange converter on my phone. This way you know how much money you should be getting back.
I brought about $1000 in cash for my trip. When exchanging a large amount of money you'll be asked several questions in regards to your trip. Because I was going to Cuba, and the amount of money I had, I had to fill out the same form stating my reason for visiting (support the Cuban people). Any tours, and our lodging, were booked beforehand, so we used our debit cards back at home for that. My trip was for seven days, and we were frugal while there, so $1000 was enough (plus Cuba isn't expensive). However, you know your spending habits, so plan accordingly. I never carried all my cash on me at once. I would take out what I needed for the day and left the rest where we stayed. I also recommend bringing a small change purse or wristlet you can carry smaller amounts of cash in. Don't make yourself a target taking out your wallet and fumbling with money every time you need to pay for something.
Cuba has two forms of currency. As a tourist, you will use the CUC (kook) and not the CUP. They look similar but are different. Most importantly, they do not have the same value. CUC is worth more than CUP, so be sure when getting change back you don't get CUP. I leave this here so you can read up on currency before you go. Everyone who has been to Cuba can tell you the same thing about dealing with money over there (nothing to be afraid of though). If you have CUC leftover, exchange it at the airport before you leave Cuba. Their currency only has value within their borders and cannot be exchanged back in the U.S. So, unless you want some monetary souvenirs, be sure to exchange your money before getting on your flight home.
Your Insta Stories and Snaps will have to wait until you get back home, because Cuba is not WiFi friendly. The Internet is available there, but not like it is stateside. The majority of homes and businesses do not have it, and if they do, it's not available to the public #whatsthewifipassword. Unless you're staying at a major hotel you won't see it many places. However there's always a loop hole. In Havana they have a "WiFi park." There you purchase a card with a code on the back that will enable you to have WiFi, on your phone, for an hour. You can log on and off until your time expires. We only bought one card during our trip and used it sparingly. Mainly to let people back at home know we were safe since they wouldn't see us on social media, and couldn't call us. Here's the thing, all of this is done under the table. Don't go around asking where you can buy a WiFi card. If you stay at an AirBnB ask your host, because everyone in Havana knows about it. With that being said you'll need to get a map. A paper map of Havana. When I travel I depend on Google maps to navigate, but your phone is basically a camera here. I'd suggest getting one at the airport or at a major hotel because they're not available many other places.
First things first, know how much you want to pay and always barter. In Cuba anyone can slap a 'taxi' sticker on their car and give you a ride. Be sure you know the difference between a real cab and someone with a car and some free time. We found that even the cab drivers don't know all the streets in Havana. You will need to know the address to where you are staying, and a well know landmark near by. Write down all the information for your trip and make copies. Try to know as much about the immediate are you are staying in because, again, you cannot depend on your phone there. We were lucky enough to find a cab driver during the middle of our trip who kind of became our tour guide. Rather than go through a tour company we arranged for him to take us to Vinales and saved a big chunk of change. While there, he took us around the country side and showed us all the sights. It was great! If you can find a local to show you around then do it, but obviously be careful. Our guy gave tours regularly and also knew our host. He just wasn't apart of a tour company, but he wasn't a stranger off the street.
Everything else you'd need to know is basic traveling 101. Don't drink the tap water, stay alert, be careful what you eat, know the area you're in, etc. Cuba was an amazing trip. It's off the beaten path and like going back in time, but absolutely worth visiting. I'd book your tickets while the doors are still open. Oh, and bring lot's of sunscreen 0_0! The higher the SPF, the better (even for my chocolate folks).