10 Things You Should Know About Traveling to Cuba

Guest post by Jean Warneke of JB Journeys.

Travel to Cuba is in the news every day, just recently with the announcement of US airlines being approved to begin scheduled service from US cities to Cuba “sometime later this year.” Until then, you can get there on chartered flights. And while much more open than just a couple of years ago, there are still lots of hoops to jump through.

Cuban Tody © Laura Kammermeier

Cuban Tody is one of the many species birders want to see when traveling to Cuba. © Laura Kammermeier

I’ve been fortunate to spend a bit of time in Cuba in the last two years. It’s what I expected – and then some. Many ask my opinion if Cuba will change now that it’s open to the US. My answer is “Of course it will,” but I doubt that is will happen quickly. They just don’t have the infrastructure for it, and they know that. During Cuba’s “special period” in the 1990’s (when Moscow cut off the $4-5 billion annual subsidies), they had to allow foreign investment, but all development required that Cuba be a 51% or more stakeholder. I think tourism will expand in a similar fashion. The Cubans are a proud and very friendly people, and they want you to experience the Cuba they know.

Should you travel now? Definitely.

10 Things You Should Know About Traveling to Cuba

1. LEGAL TRAVEL –

US citizens can travel under any of 12 categories, but the most common and easiest to fulfill is “people-to-people”. Whatever your interest, an itinerary can be adapted to this category. While previously you pretty much had to travel in groups, individual travel is now also permitted under this category.

Cuba Cigar Shop ©Laura Kammermeier

Tourists visiting a Cuban Cigar shop. ©Laura Kammermeier

2. PAPERWORK –

According to the State Department and US Treasury, travelers are required to keep copies of all paperwork pertaining to a trip to Cuba for five years.

3. ITINERARY –

Your itinerary may be more tightly scheduled than you are used to when traveling. That is due to both U.S. and Cuban regulations, and adheres to the requirements of the category under which you are traveling. U.S. law requires that you follow the schedule of your itinerary and participate in all pre-planned activities and meals. Plan in advance on having an afternoon, evening, or full day on your own, which is permitted.

4. MONEY –

Cuba has TWO currencies, the Cuban peso and the Cuban convertible currency, or CUC (pronounced kook or say-uh-say). The CUC was created for tourism and is “equal” to the U.S. dollar, but there is a currency transaction fee of 13% (so for $100 you get 87 CUC). Money can be changed at hotels, banks, change houses and airports, and you need your passport. You should bring crisp bills. Traveler’s Checks are not changed in Cuba.

We are hearing more about US credit cards being accepted in Cuba, but don’t count on it. In reality, Cubans don’t understand how it works, bank connections do not exist, and clerks/waiters do not know how to operate the machines. Around Havana, US dollars may be accepted by some vendors, but probably not restaurants. Outside Havana, have CUCs. US currency is fine for tips.

Cuba is still a cash society. Bring sufficient cash with you to cover expenses; there is nowhere to get more. You might budget $100 per day, depending on what is and isn’t included in your itinerary. [Editor’s note” $100/day is not an exaggeration.]

5. TIPPING –

Tipping is always optional, but a bit different in Cuba. Those who work in the tourism sector have the ability to augment their paltry government wage, so tips are expected. This is a short list of those you might tip and suggested amounts: tour guide ($7-10 per person per day), bus driver ($3-5 per person per day), taxitas ($1-2 per ride), maids ($1-2 per room per day), restaurants (5-10%), local guides ($1-2 per person). Musicians usually pass the hat and you can put in any amount or purchase a CD. Tipping in US currency is fine.

Don’t be surprised by the attitude that a tip is “owed.”

Cuba Street Preformer ©Laura Kammermeier

Tourists interacting with a Cuban street performer. ©Laura Kammermeier

6. BATHROOMS –

Bathrooms in Cuba are not as neat or clean as those we are accustomed to. The bathrooms in restaurants and museums are your best choices; you’ll usually find attendants there who are tipped in exchange for toilet paper and keeping the bathroom clean. (A 25 centavo tip is adequate.) It’s always a good idea to carry some toilet tissue with you just in case. Also, deposit used toilet paper in the basket beside the commode as the island’s sewer systems are insufficient to process the paper. We also recommend bringing hand sanitizer.

7. TELEPHONE, WI-FI, ETC –

There is internet access in most hotels and in hot spots around Havana. However, in addition to the wifi connection, you need a wifi card with username and password, both usually incredibly long and complicated. Cards are sold at some hotel lobbies, internet cafes, even on the street, but are sometimes hard to find so don’t count on it (be sure the password is covered as it must be scratched off to reveal). Cards sell for from 2-5 CUC per hour of access. Large hotels have their own network and you must purchase a card from the business center; these run 5-7 CUC per hour. Speed is about the same as dial-up, but improving. Internet cafes can be found in town. [Editor’s note: many hotels had run out of, or said they’d run out of, wifi cards during our stay. If you find some, buy as many as you can if internet is important to you.]

As of this writing, Verizon works in Cuba, and AT&T says it does; each require the purchase of a travel data plan. Or, you can purchase a local SIM card for your own unlocked GSM phone; the process of getting your telephone converted can take hours at the phone service office. You can direct dial the U.S. from almost any hotel for about 3 to 4 CUCs each minute.

We recommend that you adopt the attitude that you will be incommunicado for a week.

8. WATER –

Drinking bottled water is recommended and is easily available throughout Havana. Drink plenty of it, especially if you are not accustomed to the tropical heat.

9. BRING IT WITH YOU –

Bring everything you might need, even things you would pick up last minute at any convenience store at home. In Cuba, shopping is not reliable or convenient! In addition to the usual items in your travel bag, make sure you have Pepto or Lomotil for upset stomach, Dramamine for bus rides, water purification tablets or a Steripen, just in case. One thing we couldn’t find anywhere was paper cups!

10. OPEN MIND –

Cuba is for travelers, not tourists. The most important things you can bring are an open mind and flexibility. It is not unusual for your guide to substitute specific itinerary inclusions, visits, meetings with individuals and organizations, etc. with alternatives of equal relevance and interest. If everything went exactly according to plan, you wouldn’t have that great travel story to tell your friends.

Cuba Child in Street ©Laura Kammermeier

A child playing in a Cuban street. © Laura Kammermeier

Jean Warneke, CTC, is co-owner of JB Journeys, a Texas-based, woman-owned travel company, dedicated to sustainable travel around the world. Our offerings in Cuba include cultural, culinary and birding itineraries. We partner with Arturo Kirkconnell, co-author of The Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba.
[email protected]
www.jbjourneys.com