There are a few obstacles for Americans when visiting Cuba. Once you arrive and plant your feet on Cuban soil, you’ll realize foreigners from other countries are having a different experience from you. Not to worry! It’s like a special club where you’ll bond with the few Americans you run into and laugh about the things that have gone wrong.
The biggest issue we had was the inability to use our credit cards and debit cards. It is a scary thing to consider: you’re in a foreign country and you’re carrying all the cash you have for your vacation. How do you know how much to bring? What if you lose it? What if you run out? Well, that happens and it happened to us!
Read my 8 tips below to help you avoid any mishaps on your Cuban vacation.
Tip #1: Bring more money than you expect to spend
When we arrived in Miami, we had $1200 in our pockets with the assumption that we would spend $150 total on visas. A budget of $1000 for 7 days seemed like enough since all of our accommodations were prepaid. But if you read my previous post, our visas ended up costing $300 and that made us a bit nervous.
We headed out of our terminal to the only ATM near our gate and as we attempted to take out $300, the ATM broke. We looked at each other and thought, “$900 should be enough right?” We thought so, but we were wrong. My advice is, bring more than you need. If I could go back, I’d take $1500 for the week plus $500 in emergency money. Just because you bring it, doesn’t mean you have to spend it, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Tip #2 Exchange most of your money to Euros and leave some American dollars
The currency for tourists is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the exchange rate is 1:1 for Euros. American dollars, on the other hand, are taxed 10% during the exchange, so it is better to exchange your money to Euros prior to arriving in Cuba.
And why keep some dollars? In case you get into a bind. When we ran out of Euros while in Vinales, the line for the bank was incredibly long. On a failed attempt to pick up money from Western Union (long story), we headed to the bank to exchange our last bit of Euros to find that the bank had closed 20 minutes early. Many businesses are also closed on Fridays and Sundays, so we found ourselves stranded and unable to catch a ride back to Havana if we couldn’t find someone to exchange our money.
Turns out, there’s a way to get your money changed and it makes you look a bit sketchy. We found a group of guys who hang out in the town square and offer several services for tourists, one being a money exchange. It’s probably illegal, but we’d be stuck in Cuba if it wasn’t for them. Overall, it was a difficult exchange because all of them wanted American dollars, not Euros. It took a couple minutes of begging until one guy finally stepped in and agreed to exchange 40 Euros. That was enough to get us back to Havana so I was grateful, but I also wished I had kept some dollars to make that whole process easier.
Tip #3 Bring EVERYTHING you think you might need
Cuba doesn’t have a corner store where you can buy things you happened to forget. If someone in your group gets sick, gets hurt, or gets a terrible sunburn, you’re out of luck! Try to think of things that might go wrong, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Example of things I brought: suncreen, children’s Tylenol and ibuprofen, Bandaids, antiobiotic cream, aloe vera, bug spray, Benadryl. I felt like a girl scout preparing for a major backpacking trip, but I’m so glad I had these things with me, just in case.
Tip #4 Skip the hotels and book a Casa Particular
A casa particular is a private residence that rents out rooms. You can book through Airbnb and it’s significantly cheaper than a hotel. Our first casa cost us $20/night and our last one cost $32/night. When we looked into hotels, $250 per night was the cheapest we could find and the reviews were pretty terrible. At a casa, we were able to mingle with the locals and learn about their culture. We also made friends with other travelers from around the world.
Most of the casas also offer you breakfast for about $5/person (children are usually free). We opted for this since it was cheaper than eating out, and the food was always so fresh and delicious.
When booking through Airbnb, make sure you book with a casa that has reputable reviews and a host you can contact prior to your trip. Long story short, we could not find our casa when we spent 3 days in Vinales. Our cab driver asked several locals for directions and was unsuccessful when calling our host. We ended up in front of another casa where Americans were checking out so we decided to stay there. Side note, this is why we ran out of money in Vinales because we ended up spending 100 CUCs more than anticipated when we booked a new place.
If you book through Airbnb, use my code to get $40 off your first trip! I’m not affiliated with the company, but using my code will get me $20 off my next booking, so help a girl out!
Tip #5 Use collective taxis to get around
When we needed transportation, we used a taxi collectivo. It’s where you share a taxi with other people going to the same destination. When we needed transportation from Havana to Vinales, we learned it was cheaper and quicker to take a taxi than a bus. The bus cost 12 CUCs per person with potentially more charges depending on the amount of luggage. The taxi to Vinales cost 20 CUCs each and small children are free, so it was a better deal for the 3 of us. On our trip back to Havana, we organized a taxi for 15 CUCs each (again not including children). Your casa host can organize this for you or you can find someone on the street whose job is to organize rides.
*Note: taxi collectivos were not an option going to and from the airport and I’m not exactly sure why.
Tip #6 Keep street cigars in Cuba, bring sealed cigars home
When you’re a tourist in Cuba, everyone will ask you if you want to buy cigars. We don’t even smoke, but buying a cigar in Cuba sounded like a cool thing to bring home. We bought a box in Havana when we arrived then purchased 10 cigars wrapped in a banana leaf when we did a horse tour on a tobacco farm in Vinales. The day before we went home, we were informed by a tour guide in Havana that US customs can confiscate your cigars if they do not have a seal of authenticity on the box.
We were bummed at the idea of our 10 cigars being thrown out, but once we went through customs in the US, our cigars weren’t an issue. Since getting back, I’ve read about Cuban customs detaining Canadians for attempting to bring home cigars that weren’t purchased at a government shop. The information seems to be inconsistent, but to avoid detainment or confiscation in either country, the safe thing to do is enjoy your street cigars in Cuba and bring the legit, sealed cigars back home.
Tip #7 Print out important information and buy a wifi card asap!
Internet is not the easiest thing to obtain in Cuba. It’s not everywhere like it is in the US. Prior to arriving in Cuba, I had all of my Airbnb info printed out, along with maps for directions to our casas. I also printed out blog posts on things to do and see in Havana.
It wasn’t until we were in Vinales, running out of money that we purchased a wifi card to contact my mom so she could attempt to send money through Western Union. It was then that I realized, we should have purchased a wifi card at the beginning of our trip. It’s good to have just in case you need info, or if you need to contact someone back home in an emergency. Also, it’s good to just check in and let everyone know you’re okay!
Wifi cards can be purchased at several locations such as the one in the picture. Just find a hotspot (it’s usually areas where everyone is sitting in a random place staring at their phone) and log in.
Tip #8 Learn Spanish
Clayton and I dabbled a bit with the duolingo app thinking we had the basics down and turns out, we knew nothing. Seriously, it was embarrassing.
We were grateful that our hosts were able to speak some English, but that was pretty uncommon when walking around. Be sure you brush up on knowing your numbers and how to ask questions like “how much”, “where is…”, “I need a ride to…”, “where can I exchange money?” Even basics like “where can I find breakfast, lunch or dinner.” One of the housekeepers at a casa had an app that translated sentences. Get one of those and make sure it doesn’t require wifi. Anything that helps will go a long way! I often had a blank look on my face when people spoke to me and the only time I didn’t look confused was when someone offered me cerveza.