Cuba is one of the most culturally unique destinations I’ve visited, not to mention, a gorgeous tropical island with some of the best beaches in the world. However, it is one of the most challenging places to visit for several reasons including political complexities, complicated currency issues, and a generalized scarcity of resources on the island. I can assure you the challenge is worth it and you will meet some of the warmest and most resilient people in the world. Americans probably have the most questions since there is a misconception that we cannot travel to Cuba. After my recent 3-week trip I thought I’d share what I learned and provide some practical tips for traveling to Cuba.
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I was surprised at the lack of up-to-date information when I was researching my trip and there is also a large amount of misinformation out there. Luckily, I found some Facebook groups that offered some good advice from other travelers and I received helpful tips from the people running the tour that I did. I will provide links to all of this at the end. If you look up “Cuba Travel Community” or “Vacation in Cuba” you will find the Facebook groups I mentioned.
To summarize my trip, I spent one-week diving on a liveaboard, one week traveling independently and one week on a small group tour. Because of going with a tour, I had more help than most navigating the confusing world of Cuban travel. After returning, I shared some of my tips in the same Facebook group from where I had gathered so much good information. I decided to put it all together in a handy package since I have had multiple people ask for this information.
Short answer: Yes.
There is much misunderstanding about this among Americans so I’m going to give the quickest summary of history ever. I urge you to dig deeper and learn more about this but I’m certainly not the expert. Since 1961 there has been an official economic embargo of Cuba by the United States Government. The type and degree of restrictions have taken many forms since then.
President Obama tried to lift the embargo, but Congress did not allow it. In 2009, President Obama eased the travel ban, allowing Cuban Americans to travel freely to Cuba and in January 2015, the administration further reduced restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. While restrictions on travel for missionary work and education have been loosened, visits for tourism remained “banned” (but not really).
In 2017, it was announced that President Trump’s administration would re-enforce the business and travel restrictions that were loosened by the Obama administration. However direct flights from the United States to Cuba still exist. I’ll cover these below.
As you can see it has been a confusing few decades with various US administrations taking different approaches. Currently, the situation is that travel for “tourism” reasons is banned, but to be honest, this seems like a joke because it is still incredibly easy to travel to Cuba as an American. The United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is who “regulates” this travel.
You have to print and fill out an OFAC form choosing one of the 12 acceptable categories of travel to Cuba. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are:
Choosing “Support of the Cuban People” is the easiest. You need to have the form with you upon returning to the United States in case you are asked. MOST people are never asked for it. If questioned you need to show your itinerary and “proof” that you did not support the Cuban government. If you avoid government-owned hotels, this is easy to do. I’ll talk more about this under “Where to Stay”.
I recommend a quick read of the State Department’s Policy about Cuba before going.
Short answer: You simply book a flight and go and make sure you have some paperwork. Here are the direct flight options.
All of these airlines have specific Cuba travel information pages that are very helpful
I just listed the direct routes. Of course, you can fly from other cities but your layover will be in one of the above places depending on which airline you choose.
US citizens need a visa aka tourist card (mine was $85 at the United Airlines desk in Newark Airport right before boarding that leg of my flight. You can order ahead of time online also. The various airlines have a desk where you purchase this before your flights but only on the direct leg of your flight. If you are traveling from the United States (regardless of your nationality) you need the “pink tourist card”. If you are traveling to Cuba from any other country (even as an American) you need a “green tourist card” which is cheaper.
American Airlines has this website where you can order your tourist card ahead of time.
This was copied directly from the United Airlines website.
In Houston and New York/Newark, we sell Cuban entry permits at the check-in counter and at the departure gate and collect payment before you board. You will need your passport, boarding pass and a major credit card to make your purchase. A Cuban entry permit costs $50.00 USD per person and is not included in the price of your airline ticket. An additional $35 USD service charge will also be collected per person by Cuba Travel Services (CTS), which administers the distribution of entry permits
As I mentioned earlier, you also must print and fill out the OFAC form and choose one of 12 categories for accepted travel in Cuba (choose “support of Cuban people” and make sure you don’t stay in any blacklisted government-owned hotels).
It is required by Cuba for all travelers to have travel insurance for medical coverage. Some airlines include this in the cost of the tickets. I carry my own yearly travel insurance policy via Allianz so I didn’t need to worry but definitely check to see if your airline includes this.
According to American Airlines:
Cuba requires visitors to obtain Cuba-specific medical insurance, and will
be automatically included in the cost of the customer’s fare (a $25 surcharge)
Currency is an evolving complex situation and it’s always best to speak with someone who JUST went to get the latest info. Essentially as of this June, you can use USD everywhere but some places prefer Cuban pesos (CUP). ***Note the CUC is NOT used anymore. Many blogs I read still mention this. They are not up to date. The official rate is 120 CUP per $1 USD. However, the street exchange is anywhere from 150 to 200. I don’t recommend doing this in the bank since the lines are long. Your Casa hosts can exchange some money for you. I suggest $100 USD bills with no tears or marks. Larger notes are better for exchange but make sure you bring plenty of small notes for everyday things. All of your bills should be in good condition or may not be accepted.
Some restaurants will accept any currency (EURO and USD are essentially interchangeable) but depending on what their exchange rate is you may be better off paying in dollars but sometimes pesos. Learn the math! It’s crazy. Be wary of hustlers on the street offering to exchange money for you. I don’t recommend this.
PLEASE understand this. I saw many people who didn’t plan and were stuck cashless. Bring enough cash (more than you think you will need) for your entire trip. Even if you are not from the USA your credit card may not be accepted. I had European friends struggling with this. Even if you can use your non-US ATM card, the cajero (ATM) may not have cash. I also saw other non-Americans struggle to get cash. Not to mention that the rate at the cajero is $1 USD(or euro) to 120 CUP. Not good.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to ALWAYS have enough cash stowed away to get yourself back to the airport. And have a safety plan for carrying around all that cash. I don’t recommend keeping it all in one place. I either lock some in the safe or in my luggage or both.
You really don’t need to pre-book anything but you can if you want.
The bus is $5 to the city but I hear they only accept credit cards and many cards don’t work. For Americans, this is not possible. A yellow taxi is a government taxi and you know that you won’t get screwed with the rates because they are standardized. It was $25 one way.
For some reason, you cannot book this with Cuban internet but you can from outside Cuba or within Cuba with a VPN. I recommend a VPN anyway for Cuba ( I use one everywhere). Here is the link for Viazul. Book ahead of time if you don’t want to use a VPN. I like Express VPN for anyone interested.
This is a shared taxi. Typically is a small van with 6-8 passengers and is 30 USD or 30 euro per person. They have set times and routes and your casa host can arrange this for you. I took one in between Trinidad and Varadero and Varadero and Havana. On the longer routes, they will stop for restroom and snack break.
Once I had to take a private taxi because it wasn’t a popular route between the port of Jucarao where my dive boat docked and Trinidad. The ride was 3 hours and cost $120.
Here is a comprehensive guide to transportation in Cuba.
Book Casa Particulars on Airbnb to support locals. I normally don’t love Airbnb as a company but I think in Cuba, it is a good thing. Your casa host can help you arrange your transportation between cities and exchange money for you.
‘Hostal’ is a classification invented by the Cubans. It’s just a different name for a Casa Particular with more than 1 room. A Hostel in Cuba is a room with multiple beds, dormitory style more like a traditional hostel. Casas typically charge 25 USD and up per night for a room while hostels can be much less. Full disclosure, the types of casas I stayed in were closer to 80 to 100 per night.
I do not have extensive travel experience in Cuba but for those who want to know, here are the places I stayed and recommend. I did not like where I stayed in Varadero so the rec is from a friend who had a great experience.
This felt like a true B&B experience rather than being in someone’s home. It is a colonial-style mansion built in 1816 full of art and the rooms are charming with balconies overlooking Havana Vieja. They serve a very nice breakfast on the rooftop terrace.
This is a beautiful colonial-style house with amazing hosts. it is right in the heart of old Trinidad and within walking distance to everything.
If you choose hotels make sure to avoid those on the USA state department restricted list. I spent one night in Havana at the Iberostar Parque Central. It was well-located and has a stunning view from the roof. I didn’t like that when a local Cuban tried to enter the lobby to meet me, he wasn’t permitted.
I see that many people come to Cuba for the wrong reasons. In my opinion, coming here thinking you’ve found a budget luxury beach destination is 100% the wrong reason. I don’t find Cuba the ideal luxury all-inclusive resort type of vacation. There are plenty of others in the Caribbean. Cuba is experiencing a period of extreme scarcity after years of the pandemic, decreased tourism, inflation, and a lack of petrol. It honestly feels icky coming here looking for 5-star hotel-type luxury.
You are helping Cuban people less at an all-inclusive resort than privately owned lodging and honestly, they’re not worth it. I checked a few of them out just to see what the fuss was about. Wasn’t impressed. Most of the big resorts are either government-owned or foreign-owned.
Your cell phone service won’t work in Cuba (not even Google Fi which works almost anywhere in the world). Order a Cuban sim card ahead of time on ETESCA website and you can pick it up at a booth at baggage claim. It was a very easy process.
Overall I believe Cuba to be a safe place. I have not heard any reports of violence against tourists but as with anywhere you go, use basic safety precautions. Much of the time I was solo and I experienced some catcalling but nothing excessive that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Mostly I felt completely safe walking alone, even at night. In Trinidad, women were a bit aggressive about trying to get me to buy jewelry. There are many street hustlers trying to sell a tour or get you to exchange money or buy cigars (which will be fakes). Just say no thank you or ignore.
Read my Safety Trips for Solo Female Travelers for some basic safety travel trips.
In case you didn’t know, the island is experiencing a time of scarcity that is unprecedented. Because of the trade embargo and years of pandemic which restricted tourism, fewer goods are available on the island. They need almost everything and rely heavily on tourists to bring needed items. The list is extensive. Basic medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen are at the top of the list (children’s formulations are appreciated also). Vitamins for children and the elderly are very much needed. Condoms, tampons, birth control pills, plan B, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, soap, candles, and black hair products are also things I was asked for. Sugar and flour are challenging to find. I was not served bread by one of my casa hosts in Varadero because she said she couldn’t find any. Contact your casa host and ask what they need although they are definitely better off than the average person. I carried some things with me in a tote to hand out when I came across someone who needed it. One tour guide expressed a desire for an American team baseball cap (which sadly I didn’t think to bring).
Definitely bring donated items to Viñales because the farmers there don’t have access to things that people in Havana do. Shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, medications, and condoms were enthusiastically received by the farmers I met. Trinidad sees significantly fewer tourists than Havana and Varadero so they are in greater need also. In Trinidad women on the street begged me for extra shoes and clothing.
The animals in Cuba need medications, and flea and tick treatments too. Don’t bother bringing pet food because they are used to human food here. I carried leftover food around to give to skinny dogs in the street. Cuban portions are huge so the animals in my vicinity were well fed.
Always remember that what food you have access to as a tourist is not what the average Cuban has access to. Many tourists say “I had no problem finding food” and don’t seem to believe the locals have a problem. This is the privilege of being a tourist and having access to stores that either only cater to tourists or have prices only tourists can afford.
I visited Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, and Varadero. There is a ton to do in Havana and Trinidad. Viñales is stunning and not to be missed! The beach in Varadero is beautiful but other than that kind of boring. Unless you love lying on a beach I think 2 days here is enough.
I had 2 days here on my own but the rest of the time I was on a small group tour with ReRoot Travel which I cannot recommend enough. I will do a separate post about this experience.
Essentially you don’t do many stereotypical “tourist” things. You won’t go to a Spanish-built cathedral. Hemingway’s house is not on the tour (he isn’t Cuban!). You WILL get an authentic dance lesson from the Tropicana dancers. How about a food economics lesson from farmers? You will learn about the medical system from the premier gynecological surgeon in the country. We went horseback riding through tobacco country and saw where the cigars are made. You will learn about the Afro-Cuban culture. You will eat and drink at some of Havana’s best restaurants. The best part, you are helping locals as much as possible with this tour.
Trinidad is a delightful pastel and cobblestone-laden city. It is brimming with history with many fun activities in the area. Trinidad was founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez, and made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. It grew in wealth during the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of the slave trade and sugar plantations.
I would hazard a guess to say that this is one of the most popular places for many Canadian and British tourists. The beaches are truly gorgeous but I implore you to venture beyond beaches to get the full Cuba experience. I also don’t recommend any of the all-inclusive resorts here. To me, they are not worth the luxury price tag and overall are a tad generic and devoid of true Cuban culture, not unlike many resorts in Cancun. As I’ve said above, I don’t recommend Cuba as a luxury destination so manage your expectations and you’ll be happier and more prepared.
There are a few government-owned “chains” that I saw in every city. Places like La Floradita Bar and Bodeguita Del Medio restaurant. They are considered tourist traps by locals but La Floradita is famous for being the inventor of the daiquiri. I cannot verify the validity of this claim. Bodeguita supposedly has the best mojito. Again, I’m dubious. I did stop in these places to check them out. La Floradita has great music but so do most places in Cuba!
Viñales is not to be missed. Ideally, you would have two days and nights here. I actually only had one night which included almost a full day and a sunrise hike the next morning. My trip was arranged by my tour with Reroot Travel. We stayed in a casa with the most incredible hosts who treated us to a fantastic lunch upon arrival with food from their farm. Afterward, we took a horseback ride through the valley and stopped at a tobacco farm where we learned all about cigars. We then stopped at a place for a mojito with a view and then a delicious farm-to-table sunset dinner. It was like a very rustic pub crawl on horseback!
The next day the brother of the host took us on a memorable and beautiful sunrise hike where we sat on a farm chatting with the elderly farm couple who lived there. We played with their kittens and goats and drank coffee while marveling at the vista, which could be the most impressive in Viñales.
I did a Liveaboard (I will do a separate post on this) called the Avalon and it has exclusive rights in the Jardines de la Reina, the only marine protected area in the Caribbean. It was fantastic and one of the best diving experiences of my life. However, it is expensive around $3500-4500 for the week depending on the time of year you go. I personally found it to be worth every penny but I understand this is not in everyone’s budget.
There are other places to dive in Cuba that are land-based and much more affordable. I haven’t personally done these but if you book a trip with ReRoot Travel I know they will help you find them. I heard from other travelers that Playa Larga wasn’t great but Playa Giron was nice for snorkeling. Varadero has diving as well.
Cuba can be a very challenging place to travel, especially for Americans. I met other very experienced travelers like myself who all said the same thing. It’s frustrating to learn about politics and how the government could be doing better for its people. However, the culture here is one of the most unique in the world. The people in Cuba make the most of an impossible situation with ingenuity and strength of character. It is impressive to see and I’m humbled by the warmth and generosity I experienced.
Have you been to Cuba? What would you add to this guide?