What Americans Traveling to Cuba Need to Know

Vintage car driving on Havana street, Havana, Cuba
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Some countries are more complicated to visit than others. Cuba is among them. Figuring out how to travel to Cuba is one thing, but once you land at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and you’ll quickly notice there’s no rail station, no free Wi-Fi, and no ATMs that accept American debit cards. While it’s now easier to travel to Cuba than it’s been in decades, getting around this Communist island nation — which still has a strained political relationship with the United States — is a unique challenge. If you’re an American planning to visit Cuba, here’s what you need to know.

Getting to Cuba

Americans can still visit Cuba; however in October 2019, the Trump administration announced that all commercial U.S. flights will have to discontinue routes to nine destinations within Cuba (not including Havana). So Havana will need to be your main point of arrival and departure within the country.

And in June 2019, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on group travel to Cuba. Cruises and group tours are no longer options for Americans looking to travel to Cuba, but commercial flights are still available to Havana from airlines including American, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue for travel that falls into one of the acceptable categories. Tourism isn’t one of those categories, but support for the Cuban people is. It’s frequently cited by visitors planning to pump cash into the pockets of local private businesses.

Visas, Vaccines, and Health Insurance

You’ll need both a visitor visa and health insurance to visit Cuba, but there are no recommended vaccines. Fares with U.S.-based airlines typically include the cost of Cuban health insurance for up to 30 days. Visas are issued at departure airports for $50. Some airlines charge additional processing fees.

Bringing Cash to Cuba

U.S. credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba, neither do Venmo or Paypal. You’ll need good, old-fashioned dollar bills. You can convert them into Cuban Convertible Pesos at airports, hotels, banks and foreign exchange offices for a 10 percent fee. You won’t be able to bring more than $5,000 with you, but unless you’re an incredibly big spender or staying for a very long time, that should be plenty. Budget at least $25 to $50 a day for meals and activities depending on your travel style. Accommodations and activities can be booked in advanced and paid in advance via Airbnb.

Getting Around Cuba

Cuba doesn’t have an extensive public transit system or rideshare services live Uber and Lyft. Additionally, car rentals are complicated and expensive, especially without a credit card. Local buses are available, but figuring out the system is more challenging than in the average capital city. Many travelers opt for private taxis, often in the form of classic American cars, for in-town travel and trips across longer distances. Government cabs and tuk-tuks also are available. Pedicabs are plentiful in tourist districts.

Internet Access in Cuba

Wi-Fi is available in Cuba, but it won’t be free or easy. You’ll need to be in a place with a Wi-Fi network and buy a prepaid access card before you can logon. Scratch-off access cards are available at governments shops, hotels, and in many Airbnbs. You’ll find Wi-Fi networks in public parks, restaurants, hotels, and some Airbnb accommodations. Expect to pay 1 to 2 CUC (around $1-2) per hour of internet access. Remember to log out of your card in between sessions or the clock will keep ticking. You will need to bring your passport when purchasing Internet cards at a government shop.

Cell Service in Cuba

You may be able to use services from your U.S. wireless carrier, but it’ll cost you. For example, T-Mobile, which generally offers free texts and slower speed data in many countries, charges $2 per minute for phone calls and $.50 each for outgoing texts in Cuba. Data is priced at $2 a MB.

Bringing Back Rum and Cigars

Americans who are 21 or older and traveling to Cuba can bring back one liter of alcohol and 100 cigars without having to pay additional taxes.

What to Do in Cuba

In Havana, you’ll want to check out the art at Fábrica de Arte Cubano — a performance space, gallery and dance club spread out over a network of old warehouses and shipping containers. Take a long stroll through Old Havana where you’ll stumble onto the old stomping grounds of Ernest Hemingway, explore Cold War-era bunkers under the Hotel Nacional, take a sunset stroll along the waterfront or book a salsa class via Airbnb. Airbnb also offers a number of bike and walking tours, many of them led by local students and professors. A few hours outside of Havana in Vinales, you can visit tobacco and coffee plantations to learn about cigars, coffee and the region’s special guava-based rum. If the beach is more your style, venture to Varadero. Adventurous travelers to the country can go climbing, surfing, or cycling, among other outdoor activities.

Where to Stay in Cuba

Because of economic sanctions, you won’t see a single big hotel chain in Cuba. While there are Cuban government hotels and properties operated by non-U.S. hoteliers, most Americans opt to stay in private homes called casa particulars, many of which are now listed on Airbnb. In Havana, many of these rentals are in Vedado, central Havana and old Havana, each of which is well-positioned to serve as a home base for exploring the city. 

What to Bring to Cuba

Years of economic turmoil and trade restrictions have taken a toll on Cuba and basic items are often in short supply. Gifts of art supplies, toiletries, toys, panchos, over-the-counter medications, and chocolates are often 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.