How to Travel to Cuba | A Gringo’s Guide
If you're curious about how to travel to Cuba, you're certainly not alone.
The once luxurious Caribbean nation offers mystique and intrigue to many a traveler, especially for those of us from the United States.
There's just something about the cigars, smooth rum, salsa music, and friendly people that captivates foreigners.
Oh, and don't forget about the crumbling buildings and infrastructure, either!
Yet most of that intrigue leads to confusion, as traveling to Cuba has been off-limits to Americans for decades.
Many wonder if they can even travel to Cuba these days.
Luckily, we can.
Anyone can travel to Cuba these days by simply taking a few precautions and planning things out a little bit.
It's not difficult. You just need to understand a few things about how Cuba works before you hit the road.
Which is where I come in.
After taking an eventful trip to Cuba a few months back, I wanted to share everything I know about traveling this wild Caribbean nation.
That's why I'm writing about how to travel to Cuba from a gringo's perspective:
- Don't Believe the Hype
- Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
- Let's Look at the Details…
- Money in Cuba
- Where to Stay in Cuba
- Classic Cars and Transportation
- Things to Do in Cuba
- Is Cuba Safe?
- WiFi in Cuba?
- Buying Cuban Cigars
- Travel to Cuba | A Gringo's Guide
If any specific sections stand out to you, feel free to click and skip ahead through the guide. This bad boy is in-depth and detailed.
If not, just keep on reading.
Everything you need to know about how to travel to Cuba is found below.
Don't Believe the Hype!
Don't believe the hype and rumors about Cuba. After visiting the country, I'm inclined to say almost nothing I heard beforehand came true.
Cuba is more than open for travel. People from all around the globe have been visiting this country for decades.
The only people who haven't? Americans.
Plus, it's not hard to get to Cuba and the bureaucracy isn't as bad as some people make it out to be, especially on a short trip.
Cubans want American travelers to visit their country. They desperately need the money. So getting into the country shouldn't be too tough.
We'll go over that below.
On top of that, Cuba is probably the safest Latin American country I've ever stepped foot in. Let's just say the Cuban government doesn't take petty theft lightly.
You won't have any issues traveling around the country if you simply take a few precautions. Precautions that you should take when traveling to any foreign country anywhere in the world.
Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Americans can travel to Cuba.
Anyone can travel to Cuba.
How to travel to Cuba? Just book a flight, gringo.
The country desperately wants tourism dollars. Tourists are the only way most Cubans can make extra money. The money they desperately need because their government check is almost nothing.
That being said…
There is a trade embargo on Cuba from the United States that has been in place since the 1960s (Source).
This embargo does limit travel to Cuba in some ways for Americans. You have to do a few things before you go – just in case.
Don't worry, though. It's not hard to do these days.
Te lo juro.
I'll cover those below.
Let's Look at the Details…
First, you can take a legally sanctioned flight from the United States through a number of different air carriers.
Or you can fly to Cuba from an international airport like Cancun or Toronto. This is technically “illegal” as an American, but you won't have any issues. Although I'm no lawyer.
Personally, I flew from Cancun and had absolutely zero issue entering or exiting Cuba.
I breezed through immigration with ease and was never questioned. Cuba wants Americans to visit. They're not going to bother you upon entering the country.
If you choose to fly through the United States, you'll be required to select a reason for your visit.
These are called categories.
You'll be required to declare a category when booking flights, lodging, and more in Cuba.
Don't worry about this.
While there are 12 categories, the vast majority of travelers simply need to select the “Support For Cuban People” category whenever requested.
Once you've begun booking things and have declared your category, you'll also have to think about getting a Cuban visa.
Again, this is a breeze. No need to worry.
If you're flying with an airline in the United States, the airline will generally help you through the Cuban visa process automatically.
While airlines change their Cuban visa practices and policies all the time, here's how a few common carriers have been handling things:
- Southwest: Available for purchase online for $50 and delivered at gate
- United: Available for purchase at gate for $75
- Delta: Available for purchase at gate for $50
- JetBlue: Available for purchase at gate for $50
Overall, it's an exceptionally straightforward process when flying from the United States. Just select your reason for traveling or category – then confirm with your airline how you'll get ahold of a Cuban visa.
For individuals flying outside the United States, you'll usually get your Cuban visa at the airport.
I traveled through Cancun and paid $20 at the gate for my visa. It was a straightforward and simple process.
This was for a 30-day tourist visa.
Now, we're getting to the good stuff.
My passport was actually stamped upon entering Cuba. I didn't even have time to request the girl stamp my tourist card upon arrival.
She simply took my passport and stamped away before I could say a damn thing.
Luckily, it doesn't matter. No one cared when I got back to the United States. Having a stamp from Cuba on your United States passport in 2018/19 is absolutely irrelevant. Don't worry if it happens to you.
Once my passport was stamped, I waltzed through immigration in under a minute and went outside to find some Cuban cash and a taxi to Havana.
Money in Cuba
That can be surprisingly difficult for Americans. Due to the embargo, credit and debit cards from the United States are absolutely worthless in Cuba.
As such, you have to kick it old-school while in Cuba and bring cash with you. And this is where things start to get tricky.
First, you'd think Cuba would be crazy cheap with how poor the country is. Think again.
While it's easy to live off $50-100 USD a day in countries like Mexico or Colombia, that won't get you far in Cuba. The gringo tax is alive in well while exploring Fidel's homeland.
You'll need a minimum of $100 USD per day to get by in Cuba.
I'm talking about spending money.
You should book and pay for your hotel or casa particular beforehand.
Meals are $5-15 each. I'd recommend $30 a day for food and snacks. You'll end up spending $10 a day on water to drink and Internet usage, too. Then there are the taxi rides. I'd budget at least $10-20 a day for those.
That puts you at damn near $60 USD per day in Cuba already. Then you have to account for actually doing shit.
Taking tours and buses, other tourism, visiting other cities, drinking rum, dancing salsa, and smoking cigars.
Not too mention the gringo tax the Cuban government hits you with when you walk in the country…
U.S. Dollars are hit with a 13% tax when exchanging at the government-run exchanges.
So you'll want to bring in $113 USD for every $100 you plan to spend in Cuba.
Luckily, you can bring in other currencies. Euros tend to work the best, but I brought in Mexican Pesos and was able to avoid the 10% U.S. Dollar tax.
When you exchange money in Cuba, you'll receive Cuban Convertible Pesos – also known as CUC.
This is the currency tourists will need while in Cuba. CUC is pegged to the U.S. Dollar at 1:1.
So $1 USD always equals $1 CUC.
Most businesses that cater to tourists only accept CUC.
Now, there is also another currency in Cuba – the Cuban Peso Nacional or CUP.
CUP isn't pegged to the U.S. Dollar. The exchange rate fluctuates for CUP, but you'll usually get 24-25 CUP for $1 USD.
Locals generally use CUP, as that's what they get paid in every month.
As a traveler you may get some CUP as change back, that's fine. Just make sure you pay attention.
I used CUP to buy street food more than a few times while in Havana.
Where to Stay in Cuba
While I tend to stay at private apartments filled with modern amenities and full kitchens when traveling, that's damn near impossible to find in Havana.
In Havana, you have two choices when booking a place to stay:
- Casa Particulares
Normally, I avoid hotels like the plague.
But in Cuba hotels offer a lot of amenities that you simply won't find elsewhere. Amenities like the Internet, quality food, swimming pools, and more.
While you'll certainly pay a premium to stay in a hotel throughout Cuba, you're sure to have a more enjoyable experience if you do.
The best hotel I found in Havana?
Casa particulares are the next option.
My buddy and I stayed in a semi-private two-bedroom, two-bath casa particular with a massive balcony. It was just a few blocks from the Malecon in a decent area.
We paid around $80 a night split between us through Airbnb.
Overall, a pretty decent value. But the place was nothing special.
In Havana, I'd recommend staying in these neighborhoods:
- Old Havana
Once you get away from these places, you're starting to get a little far outside the tourist areas. In many cities, this is a great thing but it's a nightmare in Cuba.
Classic Cars and Transportation
But yeah, the cars are pretty cool.
You'll have ample opportunity to catch a classic car taxi ride anytime you're in Havana. They're all around and always looking for gringos to overcharge.
One tip: Always negotiate with these guys.
They'll start off by charging you what they normally make in a day for a 15-minute ride.
Offer them 30% of what they initially ask you. If you can't agree to 50% of their initial offer or less, just walk away.
That being said…
A few of the drivers aren't scammers at all and were genuinely good people. I always tipped these type of drivers damn well while in Cuba, as life is rough in the country.
Tourist buses work well all throughout Cuba, too.
You can take a tour of Havana all day long for only $10 bucks.
A bus ride to and from the beach is only $5 from Plaza Central.
Outside of the classic car taxis and tourist buses from Plaza Central, the only other taxi I took in Havana was to and from the airport. The ride cost around $25 USD each way.
Things to Do in Cuba
A week in Cuba is more than enough.
Te lo juro.
So what are some of the best things to do in Cuba on a short trip?
Well, here's a few of my favorites after spending some time in Havana:
- Smoke Cuban cigars
- Visit Viñales
- Drink rum like water
- Go to Playas del Este
Those are just a few off the top of my head. Havana is an enchanting city. You should never get bored while exploring the crumbling streets of Cuba.
Is Cuba Safe?
Cuba is 100% safe for foreign travelers.
The country needs tourism dollars. The people know this. They have no desire to do you harm. They just need money.
Furthermore, the laws in Cuba do not treat criminals well. Petty theft or not, a Cuban robbing a foreigner is putting a lot on the line for an iPhone or laptop.
By a lot, I'm talking about life in jail or worse.
Maybe it's hype, but the Cuban people do not want any problems with their police force or government.
WiFi in Cuba?
Do not come to Cuba expecting to do anything other than checking a few emails and mess around on Twitter.
Hell, half of the time the WiFi was so slow that I couldn't even get Instagram to load. A travesty!
Not to mention…
You have to pay $2-5 bucks just to get a WiFi card for an hour. Then you can only use that card at the dedicated WiFi hotspots throughout the city. A huge pain in the arse.
I won't harp on the horrid Internet too much here. Just know that Cuba is certainly not a digital nomad destination – and for good reason.
Buying Cuban Cigars
Or as the locals like to call them, puros.
The cigars in Cuba live up to the hype and then some. While Cohiba seems to be the most popular brand throughout the country, I fell in love with Guantanamera Cigars. Highly recommended.
But can you bring them back to the United States?
You can bring up to $100 USD of Cuban cigars back to the United States. Just make sure you have proof of purchase when heading to the airport. Customs may check.
How to Travel to Cuba | A Gringo's Guide
This guide turned out a little bit longer than expected, but that's perfectly fine.
If you're curious about how to travel to Cuba as a gringo, you should find everything you need to succeed above.
Traveling to Cuba is simple these days, although that's when the simplicity tends to end for most travelers.
Cuba is equal parts awful and amazing. Crippling and chaotic yet calming.
Come to Cuba for 3-5 days, maybe a week. See what you think.
For me, I'd had enough by day 5 of my trip and was ready for a little civilization – which you won't find in the wild west known as Cuba.
P.S: No matter what you do, make sure to learn some Spanish before you go. Click here to get started!
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