As has been discussed previously on the blog, money in Cuba is a complicated topic. It’s easy to spend a lot more money than you want, but it’s also possible to spend very little (ask any Cuban on a government salary). As a foreigner, how much money you spend has a lot to do with how you navigate the two currencies, which roughly cater to the foreign and local economic worlds. The key to spending less money is to dip into the local economy where you can — where it’s appropriate and allowed and where it actually get’s you something you want. The art of living cheaply in Cuba is a larger conversation, but here are a brief list of tips for someone traveling to Cuba for the first time:
Travel in a Group
Much of the expense of traveling to Cuba is on lodging and transportation. Private taxis within Havana and from the capital to other cities and towns can add up, and lodging, while not expensive compared to many places, can add up for someone traveling on a budget (and prices have been climbing). To mitigate these issues, travel with 3 to 4 people you know and like and can cohabit with. Many Cuban casas particulares have two beds to accommodate 3 or 4 people, and sometimes more, and most don’t raise the price for more guests, and if they do, it’s a nominal fee. Similarly, taxis don’t raise the price for more passengers, which means a car divided among 4 is way more economical for getting around Havana and getting to provincial cities and towns. Dividing the price of lodging and taxis between 4 people will automatically reduced the cost of travel drastically — you’ll be able to do and see four times more without paying more.
Do Things That Are Free
Havana might be the most wanderer-friendly city in the western hemisphere. It’s extremely safe, full of odd discoveries around every corner, and absurdly photogenic. If you’re trying to build some cheap activities into your itinerary, consider blocking out a day to wander and/or people watch— peek into buildings, try to get onto rooftops, chat with locals, and if your hot and tired, stop somewhere for a beer before continuing to roam. You’ll be happy you did it.
Buy Things That Are Priced in Cuban Pesos
The Cuban Peso economy is designed for locals — the CUCs that foreigners spend fuel the Cuban economy and allow the government to allocate funds to subsidize basic food staples, bus fares, movie tickets, local cafeterias, and health care. Cubans depend on this pricing system since many locals only get paid a salary in pesos and never see any CUC, so its important to realize this and not abuse you’re innate wealth advantage, but there is nothing stopping a foreigner from taking a local bus (.5 cents USD), going to a movie (25 cents USD), taking a collective taxi (50 cents USD), grabbing a hot dog or a soda at a local cafeteria (50 cents USD each), boarding the commuter ferry to Casablanca or Regla (1 cent USD), or buying local fruit and vegetables at agromercados for local peso prices. Local sellers, aware of your potential wealth as a foreigner and wise to your money-saving maneuvers, might request that you pay extra as a foreigner — and you’re welcome to haggle with them or not — but even so you’ll almost always still be getting a good deal.
Stay in a Casa Particular
Hotels in Cuba are mostly to be avoided — some have interesting history and architecture and are often nice to visit for a few hours, but they are generally overpriced and have very spotty reviews. Casas particulares — the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast — are great places to stay and are scattered across the city of Havana and any town that travelers frequent. The casas in Old Havana, Centro, Vedado, and Miramar are getting pricey, but there are plenty of offerings in more peripheral neighborhoods like Cerro, Santo Suárez, Luyanó, Regla, Casablanca, Guanabacoa, Marianao, La Lisa, and Buenavista where you can find beautiful casas for a fraction of the price. They may not be the fanciest of homes, but almost all Havana housing has a charming feel or an ingenious design, and anyone who rents a room knows to keep it clean and acceptable for international guests. Also, hosts in less desirable areas are generally more friendly helpful, and appreciative of your business — you’re much more likely to make a friend for life when you stay somewhere where the hosts aren’t spoiled by the seemingly infinite demand for their lodging.
Get Out of Old Havana
This goes along with the last one — the city of Havana is multifaceted and has interesting sights to see from one end to the other. Old Havana is dense and amazing and certainly not to be missed, but it’s also the most expensive place to eat, drink, and move around in the city. Exploring Vedado, Miramar, Santos Suárez, Cerro, and areas beyond can be just as interesting, and prices for food, beer, taxis, etc. will be significantly less. Local Cubans in these areas tend to be less constrained by their own economies, and are generally more helpful, and less transactional, when interacting with foreign visitors. If you neglect to see the rest of the city, you’re missing out, but you’ll also be paying a premium for everything, much like you might in the touristy center of any big city.
Visit during the Low Season for Tourism
Over the past several years, tourism on the island has been increasing, and it has become an increasingly lucrative business for locals. With demand surging, many locals have naturally begun to raise the prices for meals, lodging, and taxis. But during the summer and early fall months, roughly June to September, prices subside because fewer people are traveling to the island. Aside from the lower prices, most attractions are less over-run with foreigners, which is a nice perk. The only downsides of traveling during the low season are the heat, which can be unbearable in July and August, and less access to certain things like museums and other government run sites and activities, which are closed for most of August so that Cubans can have a well deserved vacation!
Take the Bus
Buses, in general, will always be less expensive than cars. The public bus (Omnibus) fare is less than 1 cent. The beach bus from Parque Central to Playas del Este is 10 CUC roundtrip. The Viazul bus between cities is always cheaper than a taxi, even a collective taxi, and the ride is air conditioned and comfortable, just like a chartered bus in the U.S. or any other part of the world.
Don’t Use Roaming on Your Phone
U.S. carriers introduced roaming in Cuba not long ago. This means that in a pinch, you can access the internet from wherever you are, without having to find a pesky wifi hotspot. But at around 2 USD per megabyte, you’re looking at a cost of a few dollars for checking email or loading even a handful of websites. If you use it regularly or use any data-needing apps, you can rack up a few hundred dollars of data fees over a week, so watch out. Generally speaking, if you need to maintain U.S. levels of internet connectivity while you travel, don’t go to Cuba. If you want to enjoy Cuba to the fullest, lay off the email and the Instagram for your time on the island — it will still be there when you get back, and you’ll have a foolproof excuse for why you didn’t get back to anyone — you were in Cuba!