Cuba Guide: Planning Your Trip

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Some countries take more planning to visit than others. Cuba is one of them, especially if you’re traveling on a U.S. passport. Figuring out the hoops you’ll need to jump through to legally travel to Cuba—visiting under an accepted category and purchasing the necessary health insurance—is only part of the challenge. Landing at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, you’ll find no free Wi-Fi, no rail station, and no ATMs that accept American debit cards and see Cuba is no ordinary holiday destination.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: It’s pretty much summer all year long in Cuba, but some months are hotter, stickier, and more uncomfortable than others. The best time to visit Cuba is between November and April. These are not only Cuba’s driest months, but also good bets for 70 degree blue sky days made for exploring the country’s cobblestone streets and lounging on its secluded postcard-perfect beaches.

Language: Spanish is most commonly spoken in Cuba. Many Cubans also speak English, but you’re likely to find even your broken high school Spanish comes in handy here.

Currency: With two different Cuban currencies—one type of Cuban peso for visitors and another for locals—Cuba’s currency situation is complicated. American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba, nor do Venmo and Paypal. You’ll want to bring cash to swap for Cuban Convertible Pesos at airports, hotels, banks or foreign exchange offices at a rate of one Cuban convertible peso to $1.

Getting Around: Cuba isn’t blessed with an extensive, easy-to-figure-out public transit system. Rideshare services also haven’t made it here yet. You’ll want to avoid complicated, expensive car rentals and opt for local buses, private taxis, and the occasional tuk tuk or pedicab. Many Cuban taxis are well maintained classic cars from 1950s Detroit.

Travel Tip: Wi-Fi is available in Cuba, but accessing it won’t be free or easy. To get online in Cuba, you’ll need to both be in a place with a Wi-Fi network and buy a prepaid Internet access card. These scratch-off cards are available at government telecom shops, hotels, and many Airbnbs. Several restaurants, bars, and coffee shops have Wi-Fi networks as do some public parks. See a bunch of people on their phones in the park? Chances are it’s one with Wi-Fi. Access typically costs $1 to $2 an hour. Log out of your account when you’re not actively browsing, or the clock will keep ticking.

Things to Do

Cuba is a country with miles of beautiful beaches, rich cultural heritage, and historic architecture seemingly built for Instagram. Havana is home to museums, art galleries, an opulent theater housing the Cuban National Ballet, more live music than you’ll have the bandwidth to listen to, and more mojitos than you can drink. Beyond Havana, you’ll find pristine beaches, well-preserved colonial architecture, and some of the country’s hottest festivals, including Santiago de Cuba’s summer Fiesta del Fuego and Carnival celebrations. Get your trip started with some of these activities:

  • Explore Cuba’s beaches. You can lounge on the beaches of Playa del Este just outside of Havana or escape from everything at the tranquil Playa Paraiso or more developed Paya Varadero. There's also great diving near the sunken ships off the coast of Playa Santa Lucia.
  • Learn about Cuban history in Old Havana, where you can visit Havana’s Museo de la Revolucion to learn about the Cuban revolution or explore the underground Cold War bunker at Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana.
  • Immerse yourself in Cuban culture during carnival in Santiago de Cuba, listen to live jazz in Havana, or appreciate well-preserved colonial architecture in Trinidad.

Find out more great things to do in Cuba, including day trips, best beaches, and museums.

What to Eat and Drink

Since an American trade embargo came into effect in the 1960s, food has been complicated in Cuba. Import restrictions and government policies have taken a toll, and the nation’s diet has changed as a result. Nowadays, rice, beans, and sandwiches are staples of the Cuban diet while chicken, pork, and seafood dishes make regular appearances on restaurant menus.

There’s more to Cuba’s culinary scene than food. Cuba is a place perhaps best known for its rum, making it an ideal spot to sip rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris. For a daiquiri with a dose of history, head to El Floridita. The centrally located bar was a favorite of writer Ernest Hemingway, and its neon sign has become synonymous with Cuba around the world.

Learn more about must-try foods in Cuba, as well as the top 10 restaurants in Havana.

Where to Stay

Because of decades of economic sanctions, you won’t see major American hotel chains in Cuba. There are a few large hotels run by foreign operators or the Cuban government, but a growing network of casa particulars—private homes—have become the backbone of tourist accommodation in Cuba. Most casa particulars are listed for rent on Airbnb. In Havana, you’ll want to focus on listings in Old Havana, Central Havana, and Vedado. Outside of Havana, look for Airbnbs near city centers or the attractions where you plan to spend most of your time. Because public transportation is limited and renting a car is complicated, staying within walking distance of where you want to go can have great value.

Plan your trip by learning more about the best neighborhoods in Havana, plus our picks for top hotels.

Getting There

Visitors to Cuba will want to fly into the nation’s main airport, Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. The airport is a short drive from the heart of Havana and offers domestic connections to other destinations across Cuba. Commercial carriers, including American, Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue, operate flights between the U.S. and Cuba for visitors whose travel falls into several acceptable categories. While tourism isn’t among those categories, support for the Cuban people is and is frequently cited by visitors planning to pump cash into the pockets of private business owners along their journeys. Renting a car is complicated in Cuba and best avoided.

Culture and Customs

Cuba is an open country with a laid back culture and few etiquette rules. Do be friendly and make small talk with wait staff and others in the service industry. Shake hands with strangers, and don’t be surprised if people you know great you with a kiss or double-cheek kiss.

Tipping 10 to 15 percent is customary in Cuban restaurants and bars when service charges aren’t included on your bill. Do feel free to tip more for excellent service, and don’t be mean to the staff.

Do consider bringing toiletries and other basics to leave behind as gifts. Years of economic turmoil and trade restrictions have led to shortages or the unavailability of essential items like toiletries, art supplies, plastic ponchos, and over-the-counter medications. Gifts of chocolate and other treats are also well-received. Cuba is one place where the daily necessities you leave behind can fulfill real needs. If you’re looking for a reason to overpack, a trip to Cuba is it.

Money Saving Tips

  • Avoid traveling during peak times like Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s when prices tend to climb due to increased demand. Invest time into figuring out the Cuban bus system, particularly for trips between cities, to save money on transportation within Cuba. Some airlines charge a $50 fee to obtain the $50 health insurance policy required for Cuban visitors. Check if the airline you’re considering is among them.
  • Avoid using your American cellular plans because most are quite costly to use in Cuba. T-Mobile, which generally offers free texting and at least slow speed data in many countries, charges $.50 each for outgoing texts in Cuba. Data is priced at $2 a MB and phone calls at $2 a minute.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol and cigar you bring home. Americans who are 21 or older and traveling to Cuba can bring back one liter of liquor and 100 cigars without having to pay additional taxes.

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