10 Things Every American Must Know Before Visiting Cuba
Hi Travel Bugsss! I have been wanting to put this together for quite a while now. As many of you reading this will already know, flights to Cuba directly from the US have been possible since Aug 31 of 2016. This has made travel to the once "forbidden territory" much easier. Gone are the days of arduous transfers in an inconvenient third party country (i.e flying north to Canada to fly back down south. Oye vey.) However, getting there is far from the only thing you need to worry about before stepping foot on the beautiful island of Cuba. Here they are in no particular order.
1. Flights & Cities
Currently you can only get direct flights to Cuba from 11 Cities with just 8 airlines providing service. Here is the list sorted by city. If your city is not on the list, you will have to fly to the closest/most convenient one to you.
American 4x a day to Havana
American also operates flights to Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Matanzas, and Santa Clara for those interested in flying into those.
Delta 1x a day to Havana
JetBlue 2x a day to Havana
JetBlue also operates flights to Camagüey, Holguín, and Santa Clara
Southwest 2x a day to Havana and Matanza, and 1x a day to Santa Clara.
JetBlue and Delta 1x daily to Havana
JetBlue 1x daily to Havana
Southwest 1x daily to Havana
United 1x daily to Havana
Delta 1x daily to Havana
American 1x daily to Havana
Alaska 1x daily to Havana
United every Saturday to Havana
2. Travel Health Insurance
U.S. residents must have proof of travel health insurance in order to enter Cuba. Many of the airlines provide this within a packaged deal an is usually included in the ticket price. BE SURE TO ASK. In the event that they DO NOT, you can purchase an insurance policy before you arrive in Cuba or once you arrive. (At the airport, port, or marina where you enter the country). Some high end credit cards have travel Insurance policies that may cover this (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve). Just be sure to call the number on the back of the card and talk to a concierge about the coverage needed (most US based coverage not accepted in Cuba) and to book the flights with the card that provides said coverage.
3. Reasons To Travel
There are only 12 official reasons that make it legal for US citizens to travel to Cuba. They are as follows.
1. Family visits.
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
The reports have been that no one is verifying your reason for visiting either on the Cuban side or the American side. Tourism as a reason is still forbidden, so while there are many reports of US citizens visiting Cuba for exactly that reason, do so at your own risk.
US citizens do not need a visa to travel to cuba unless traveling on business or as a journalist. If you are, you must apply at least 3 weeks in advance through a consulate. If you are not flying to Cuba on business or as a journalist however, you simply need a tourist card which your booking airline will provide for a price. See the list below.
Southwest: $50, purchased online and delivered at the gate
JetBlue: $50, purchase at gate
Delta: $50, purchase at gate or through mail
United: $75 ($50 + $25 processing fee), purchase at gate.
American: $85 ($50 + $35 processing fee), purchase online and sent via mail.
Alaska: $ 85$ (50.00 + $35.OO processing fee), purchase online and sent via mail.
You may also be charged for the shipping of the card of it is sent via mail.
*DO NOT LOSE YOUR TOURIST CARD*
You can not leave Cuba without it and will have to spend a day getting a replacement.
5. Cash, Credit Cards & Currency
This is VERY important. DO NOT expect ANY of your US credit or debit cards to work in Cuba. Reports as of the time of this writing say Cuba is at LEAST 6 months out from accepting US plastic. What does this mean? For starters, you are going to need to bring cash money. Bring enough to cover the cost of the length of your stay and then some (because stuff happens). No, you can NOT withdraw cash from an ATM machine with your US debit card. Best bet is to buy the currency online and have it shipped to your address via monetary exchange companies such as Travelex.com
There have been many reports of American horror stories where citizens run out of cash in Cuba and it is just a disaster from there. Issues vary from failed wire transfers, having relatives book them a flight home early, getting stuck in the airport and so forth. DO NOT let this be you. Bring cash and give yourself wiggle room in case of emergency.
Also note that Cuba has two currencies. This can be very confusing and you want to make sure you have at least a decent understanding of the physical differences between them before you go as one of them is far less valuable (about 25x) than the other and is not even accepted as payment for most of the goods a tourist would typically be buying. The one you want is the Cuban Convertible Peso otherwise known as the CUC. This is the currency tied to the dollar and will likely be the tender required almost everywhere you visit in the big cities. Alternatively, the Cuban Peso aka the CUP is mainly a currency used by Cuban natives as that is generally what they are paid in unless they work at a tourist attraction where they are likely to be tipped in CUC. You might want to have some on hand in order to buy from street vendors, especially if you like to go off the beaten path.
How to tell them apart? Simple really. The CUC will have monuments on them and the CUP will have faces. See below.
Good Luck. Wifi in Cuba will more than likely be found in most of the resorts and hotels but access is almost never included. You typically have to purchase access cards from the from desk which provide access for a limited period (usually 1 hour) before you have to purchase a new card. Do not expect the speeds to floor you and expect to pay at least $2 (2 CUC) per hour. Of course, this will only serve you on hotel property. There have been reports of them running out of access cards by the end of the day with new ones coming in the next day. Call ahead to ensure that your hotel or resort will have wifi.
Additionally, according to the FCC there are 189 public wifi spots around Cuba as of Jan 2017 and you can pre purchase access through ETECSA (the Cuban national telecommunications authority.) These will cost $2 per hour. Expect a crowd and unbearably slow upload speeds.
Cuba heavily censors internet usage. So if you want to use any of the blocked social apps such as snapchat, you are going to have to use VPN.
Currently, Sprint, At&t, Verizon and T-mobile all offer roaming plans for Cuba, but man are they expensive! The least expensive is T-mobile which comes in at $2/min for calling, $0.50/Text/SMS and $2/MB of data. Verizon, typically the most expensive carrier in the US, charges $2.99/min, $2.05/MB of data and text/sms rates depend on your international data plan which are not cheap to begin with and still will either charge you for messages sent and received or limit the number of free transactions. Wi-fi calling and messaging (iMessage/whatsapp) remain free on all 4 major carriers.
Want some of the BEST Cuban food in the southeast corner? Make a pit stop in Miami on your way to Cuba. This is not a test. You read that right. Cuba does NOT have the best Cuban food, or nearly the best food for that matter. Due to poor or non existing trade agreements with major exporters of spices and beef, Cuba is full of mostly bland, uninspired dishes. Lots of pork and beans (this is the most common dish) and rice is usually served with every meal. Steel yourself before this trip if you are a foodie or even remotely picky of what you eat as selections are slim and unimpressive at best.
Important. Since there is little to no wifi and expensive roaming, you should pre-download maps of the areas you plan to explore. Visit google maps app and visit "Offline Areas" and select "Custom Area" then choose the area you wish to download. The larger the area, the bigger the download and you must be on wifi and have the app open. This will allow you to navigate foreign territory without the need for an internet connection. Do this before you leave for your trip.
Taxis and buses are fairly inexpensive costing about $5 to take a cab from Old Havana to Central Havana and $0.05 to ride the bus. Arrive an hour early for buses as you have to purchase a ticket to ride and this can not be done in advance online and they often sell out. Shared taxis are also a thing and cost about as much as the bus and serve many of the popular cities in Cuba. You will find them parked at the bus stations picking up passengers without bus tickets. If they price your trip too high, negotiate.
Vintage taxis are exclusively meant for tourists. They are more restrictive as they have set routes (like a bus) but will make for great IG posts when you can connect and have 5 spare minutes. ;)
10. Honorable Mentions
Consume bottled water only
Exporting art requires you pay a fee and to look for an "official seal" at the point of sale. If your artwork does not have one, bring it to Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales in Havana at least 36 hours before your flight departs as you will have to pick it up next business day.
Cuba will allow you to leave with 50 boxed cigars duty free (untaxed). America will allow this. Previously, the limit was $100 worth.
That is it for now everyone. Please let me know what you think in the comments. Especially if I missed anything you feel deserves to be on this list! Happy travels!