Whether you’re on a solo trip or headed to Cuba with a group of friends, there are lots of extra details that you need to know about before you go. Here’s a breakdown of the rules, regulations, and special considerations that you should know about when planning a trip to the ol’ Pearl of the Antilles.
Your U.S. Travel Category
Before you can wander the streets of Old Havana or explore the tobacco fields of Viñales, you need to be aware of U.S. travel regulations issued by the the Office of Foreign Assets Control within the U.S. Treasury, which state that you need a valid purpose for your trip. There are 12 categories of sanctioned travel, and the most commonly used and least restrictive is the educational category, specifically the “people-to-people” section, which allows U.S. citizens to travel independently from any tour groups, as long as they plan a full time schedule of activities that are intended to “enhance contact with the Cuban people,” and will result in “meaningful interaction” between travelers and Cubans. This means that to follow the law, you’ll need to fill your itinerary with museum visits, guided historical and architectural tours, and meetings with Cuban specialists. The rules state that you must to keep documentation of your activities (receipts, daily journal, photos) and maintain those records for 5 years after your trip. Oversight of these rules is almost nonexistent, so it’s very unlikely that there would be any consequences if travelers fail to uphold the travel regulations during their trip on the island. When you buy a plane ticket, or reserve lodging, you’re required to check a box certifying that you intend to follow the rules, but there is nothing else you need to do beforehand to validate your trip for the U.S. government.
Your Cuban Tourist Visa
In order to enter Cuba, you will need a Cuban tourist visa, which can be purchased either through your commercial airline or companies like Cuba Travel Services. This documentation is for the Cuban government and doesn’t have anything to do with your U.S. travel category. Airlines usually sell visas to ticketed passengers at the airport during the check-in or pre-boarding process, and CTS requires travelers to fill out and send in a form before receiving the visa in the mail. Typically the visa processing costs between $50-$100, and if you’re using CTS, make sure you plan ahead so it arrives in time for your trip!
How Much Cash you Have
If you plan on visiting Cuba with a credit card and nothing else, you may find yourself in some serious trouble. Cuba and the US still haven’t normalized financial relations, so US banks are non-existent on the island, and US credit and debit cards are completely worthless. Even ATMs for european banks are not easy to come by, so travelers are advised to figure out a rough budget for their trip and bring all the money they will need (and a little extra just in case) in cold, hard cash. U.S. Dollars are accepted at Cuban government exchange offices, but for travelers who want to avoid the extra 10% fee that Cuba charges for US Dollar transactions, Euros are the best form of currency to bring. Before your trip, find out how to order Euros from your local bank—the fee to change USD to Euro and then Euro to Cuban currency (CUC) should be less than the total of 13% you will lose in the USD to CUC transaction.
Your Casa Particular’s Address
When most people travel to the Caribbean, they envision a nice hotel on the beach, but in Cuba, hotels are often poorly managed, run down, expensive, and lacking in the unique details offered by Cuba’s many casas particulares. Casas particulares are a form of guesthouses or BnB-style lodging that are owned and managed by locals, much like a boutique hotel. Websites like Airbnb.com, Cubaccommodation.com, MyProudHavana.com, and a growing number of smaller websites for individual houses, allow travelers to view photos, maps, and other details about homes before reserving. Prices are as low as 25 CUC (Cuban currency) per night, or as high as a few hundred for independent villas on the coastline. Make sure to reserve at least a month ahead of time—Cuba has been experiencing a tourism boom that has tested the limits of their available rentals, so the earlier you get this taken care of the more quality options you’ll have.
How the Internet Works
Cuba is one of the few countries on the planet that, in addition to censoring certain websites, restricts use of the internet by its citizens by imposing limitations on access. While traveling on the island, the same restrictions will apply to you. In order to access the web, you’ll need to find a public wifi hotspot, usually located in a park or busy intersection, where you can buy a card with a login and password from a street vendor. These days, many casa owners will sell them to guests as well. The cards cost 2-3 CUC and last 60 minutes, after which you are automatically logged off. The speed of the internet has increased over the years, but still lags behind the rest of the world, and surfing the internet on your phone on the side of the street with a time limit is not an ideal situation, but it’s the only option. If you really need to get work done (and don’t want to drive yourself crazy), log on to the internet to check your email, and then log off while you write responses, saving them as drafts when you’re done. Then, the next time you log on, send out all of your saved drafts at once.
If all of this seems like a lot of work, and maybe you’re thinking it’s not really that worth it to go to Cuba — not true! Cuba is more than worth the hassle of logistical hurdles — its culture, nightlife, history, architecture, and completely unique way of life makes it the most fascinating place to visit in Latin America. And whether you’re into baseball, cars, boxing, music, film, dance, nature, cigars, design, farming, art, politics, history or just about anything else, Cuba has a U.S. connection to be explored. Your trip may be complicated to organize, but you’ll no doubt be rewarded by all that you discover.