Can US Citizens Visit Cuba?
Yes! Even though there was some confusion after the changes in November 2017, American citizens are still allowed to visit Cuba under certain conditions. Tourist travel (think staying in resorts, beach vacations, etc.) is not a valid reason to travel to Cuba, however there are 12 categories of visa that still allow Americans to travel there.
Previously, there was an option for "People to people" travel, however this category has shifted to “Support for the Cuban people”. The purpose behind this visa is to support the people of the country directly instead of supporting military owned establishments.
Independent travel under this visa is a little harder because it means creating an itinerary filled with activities that support the people directly. Creating a full time schedule means having at least 6 hours of activities each day that interact and support the Cuban people. Without internet or any previous connections, finding Cubans to support may be difficult so there is the option to find boutique group tours. There are also several ways to support the Cuban people:
1) Staying at privately owned homes (Airbnb, casa particulares)
2) Eating at privately owned restaurants (usually called paladares)
3) Hiring Cuban guides (to tour around the city or outskirts)
4) Participating in Cuban run activities (i.e salsa dancing classes etc.)
5) Volunteering with non-government organizations
Read the full list of authorized activities in Cuba with examples here.
It's important that you create and keep the itinerary that outlines your full time schedule since the US can audit your travel to Cuba for 5 years after your trip.
How can I get to Cuba?
There are several large airlines that fly from the United States to Cuba such as Delta Airlines, American Airlines, Jet Blue, Southwest etc. When you purchase your airline tickets you will have to self assign which category visa you are traveling under. Remember, to check Support for the Cuba People at this stage and confirm it at the airport when you get your physical visa card.
I flew from the New Orleans airport first to Ft. Lauderdale and then to Cuba on Southwest Airlines. There are no direct flights from New Orleans because the "port of exit" are in select airports.
My roundtrip flight cost a total of $440 -- this price also includes the mandatory healthcare ($50). Since the country is communist, everyone has healthcare and if anything happens you will also be taken care of, hence the mandatory health insurance.
Since I signed up for the Southwest Airlines credit card last year when they were having their companion promotion, the second ticket was just $77 (with the companion pass you only pay for taxes and fees and in this case, the healthcare). All in all, roundtrip flights for two people came out to $517!
The nice thing with Southwest Airlines is that you can also purchase your Cuban visa ahead of time. Through Southwest Airlines we were able to purchase it several weeks in advance and when we arrived at the airport it was a very quick process to get the visa and stamp needed for boarding.
If you are traveling with another airline, you can purchase visa's at the port of exit when you get to the airport. For us, it was just peace of mind just in case our flight was delayed or something else unexpected happened.
To enter Cuba you will need the following:
1) valid passport (expiring after you come back from your trip)
2) return ticket
3) Cuban visa
4) health insurance
When you arrive in Cuba, have your documents ready. I don't think the border control asked me one question -- you just have to approach one person at a time, take a photo and get your passport stamped. Whatever papers are given to you, DO NOT lose them or throw them away because you will need it to leave the country.
How do I get around Cuba?
The first place you need to know how to get from, is the airport. The airport is about a 30 minute drive away from the center of Havana so you will definitely need to drive there.
If you are doing a tour, they will probably provide transportation for you. If you are traveling on your own, you will have to book a taxi. You can either flag down a taxi once you arrive, or you can pre-book a taxi online. Which one is cheaper? They are the same price.
A taxi into Havana is a set price of 25 CUC ($25 USD) per ride. Thankfully, it's not per person so whether you have one person or five, the taxi ride will still be 25 CUC.
Like in most countries, you will have to negotiate the taxi price. There are no meters (that I saw), so you will have to name the price. Generally, the price is about 10 CUC to a suburb near Habana Vieja and the same to get across to the other side of the bay. It should be less to get around the city. If you want to ride in an old American car, there are plenty of those taxis near Parque Central.
There is also the option to find a taxi to share with the locals, a taxi collectivo. These are much less expensive. These taxis have a set location that they depart and arrive to and will most likely be less comfortable than a regular taxi. If you are staying with a local family you can always ask where these spots are if you want to save some money and travel like a local! Hotels can also help arrange a taxi collectivo for you.
There are several points of interest on either side of the bay. From Havana you can either take a taxi under the bay through a tunnel to the other side or you can take ferry. The ferry terminal on the side of Havana is located across the from Park Araselo Iglesias and takes you right next to the El Christo monument. The ferry mostly has standing room, but the ride to the other side is only 15 - 20 minutes.
If you are planning to go to different cities, you can either take a taxi collectivo or the bus (Viazul). Taxi collectivo's can be booked in advance or in Habana Vieja, you can find several outside the bus station. For the bus, its suggested to buy your tickets at the bus station several days in advance to avoid being sold out.
Most people decide to stay in Habana Vieja where most of the points of interest are. This area of Havana is very walkable. The street are pretty narrow and cars still drive through them, but walking is more convenient and you will be able to feel the energy of the city this way.
Since internet is hard to get (more on this later), it will be hard to use any mapping app you normally use back home. You should be able to use Google Maps to view your GPS location or you can use another app called maps.me. You can download the Cuban map and use it while walking around.
Our Airbnb actually had little maps made for us, so we ended up using that one a lot of the time because it had points of interest marked on it.
Where to stay in Cuba?
If you are traveling to Cuba to explore the capital city of Havana, I suggest staying in Habana Vieja (Old Havana). This area is what most people picture when they think of Cuba with the Spanish architecture and the old cars. Another neighborhood that is near Habana Vieja, but is less expensive is Vedado. It's a nice, quiet suburb from which you can also walk to Habana Vieja or take a quick taxi ride.
As part of the visa agreement, you have to support the Cuban people and one of the best ways to do this is stay with a family. You can do this by staying in a casa particular, a private room in someone's home. This way you are directly impacting this families financial livelihood. If you prefer a hotel, that is also fine, you will not be penalized for staying in a hotel that is not on the restricted list.
Your options of where to stay:
1) A hotel that is not on US government restricted list as of November 2017. This is for those who want a relaxing hotel experience. The prices tend to be higher for hotel rooms than casa particular.
2) You can arrive in Cuba an knock on doors with red signs outside homes that advertise a private room (blue is for Cubans) -- the people may turn you away, but they will probably have a friend who has a free room.
3) If you're more of a planner, you can book a room in advance online. We booked an Airbnb before we arrived which took off a lot of stress walking around the streets of an unfamiliar city looking for a place to stay. Our Airbnb experience also allowed us to have a Cuban homemade breakfast and access to a family that was more than willing to help us with any questions or concerns.
Which currency is used Cuba?
There are two official currencies in Cuba: CUP and CUC.
CUP (Cuban peso) is the currency used by the locals while CUC (Convertible Peso) is used by tourists.
24 CUP = 1 CUC & 1 CUC = 1 USD.
Most tourist locations will have prices in CUC or there will be signs for both currencies. The currencies look similar so make sure to check when you get your change whether its in CUP or CUC because you can easily get short changed. Even being careful, it happened to us out for drinks at a bar and didn't realize it until later.
So why are there different currencies? Many places have two prices with one pertaining to locals who do not have as much money as tourists. A Cubans monthly salary is about $20 USD. CUP is used at entrances to museums or attractions, taxi collectivos and street food. We had the best pizza-type dish served out of a small window surrounded by locals and it was just 1 CUC each.
Exchanging USD for Cuban CUC
The other tricky thing about Cuban currency is that it is only within Cuban borders. There is no way to get Cuban currency in the United States so you have to exchange for it when you arrive either at the airport or at a CADECA (bank) in the city.
You have two options with this as well: you can either bring USD to convert into CUC or you can convert USD in the United States to Euros and bring Euros to convert into CUC. The preferred method is the latter. Not all banks carry Euros so contact your bank a week or earlier to see if you need to special order it.
Although you will lose ~ 3% converting USD to Euro, when you reach Cuba you will only lose the cost of the Euro currency. If you convert USD you automatically lose the cost of USD PLUS a 10% on top, just because its USD. As you can imagine, Cuba is not happy with the United States because of the embargo so they slap on a 10% tax for US Dollars.
One other very important thing is that US Debit and Credit Cards DO NOT work in Cuba. That means you need to bring cash for your whole trip. We got away with spending about ~50 CUC per day but we had several activities, housing and transportation booked beforehand. If you like to dine out at nice restaurants or buy a lot of souvenirs or are a very spontaneous person, you will need more. Take more than you think you will need because there is no other way to get more money if it runs out. Plus, better safe than sorry, right?
Is there WIFI in Cuba?
There is Wifi available in Cuba, but only in certain spots. In the United States where we are used to having wifi everywhere or at least the choice to use Data, this is not the case in Cuba.
Wifi is coveted time and connection to the outside world. To get wifi you will have to find a store that sells WiFi cards. They usually sell for about $1-2 USD and you will receive 1 hour of internet access. Long lines form outside these stores so if you are vying for some social media or online time, get there early and buy multiple so to save time later in your trip.
Other options to getting a WiFi card include buying it on the street from a local who will mark it up ($3 - $5) or at a hotel. Most hotels that sell WiFi cards will mark up the price to $3 to make a profit. However, if you can find Hotel Mercure Sevilla, they only charges $2. There will most likely be a shorter line at a hotel than at a WiFi store.
After you have the WiFi card, you will have to find a WiFi hotspot (usually parks or squares). Wifi is not available everywhere so you will have to walk around until you find a large group of people standing around on their phones. This will stick out like a sore thumb because in most streets, homes, and restaurants people are not on their phones. You can also ask local Cubans where to find a nearby WiFi spot and they are more than happy to help.
Some Airbnb's promise to have WiFi at your homestay, but hey don't actually have access to WiFi most of the time. Don't let your Airbnb choice revolve around that because you will be disappointed.
Personally, I chose not to get a WiFi card because it seemed like too much wasted time and hassle. There was one opportunity for us to get WiFi, but we found out that all the WiFi cards were bought. Yes, there is a limited amount of WiFi cards and sometimes people buy out Wifi cards so that they can sell them marked up on the streets.
In the end it's up to you whether you need WiFi, but if you can avoid it, I would recommend disconnecting for the duration of your trip.