In the fall of 2018 my roommate, who was on exchange in the US from South Korea, told me she was thinking about going to Cuba during Thanksgiving break. My immediate reaction was to feel nervous for her since I did not know a lot about Cuba and she admitted that she would be going alone. Over the next two days, I did some research into the process of traveling from the US to Cuba and ended up asking her whether she would mind if I tagged along. So, we booked the tickets.
Blogs, for me, were very helpful for research into the travel process and I’m hoping those looking to travel to this vibrant country will find this post helpful as well! That being said, I am not an expert on Cuba or US policy toward Cuba and travelers. This post only recounts my experience with the process. So, I highly encourage doing your own research as well :).
Some things to consider when thinking about going to Cuba
- The US government does restrict travel to Cuba
What this means: According to the United States government, there are 12 reasons one may be eligible to travel to Cuba. These are Family visits, Official Business of the US Government, Journalistic Activity, Professional Research, Educational Activities, Religious Activities, Public Performances, Humanitarian Projects, Activities of Private Foundations/Institutions, Exportation/ Importation of Information or Information Materials, Authorized Export Transactions, and finally (the reason I used) Support for the Cuban People. This also means that, as an American, I could not spend money on government-owned businesses. The Department of State has the complete list posted here.
In order to travel to Cuba, when we reached our final airport before Havana, for us this was Boston International, we had to buy visas. These visas cost $75 and allowed us to enter and leave the country. When we purchased the document we had to state our reason for traveling to Cuba, which for us was supporting the Cuban people.
“Supporting the Cuban people” seems vague, and it is. This is the most flexible category for travel. One must have a “full time schedule” which means 8+ hours of itinerary on weekdays of activities that qualify as supporting the people of Cuba. Some of these activities include:
- Meeting with local business people and patronizing local businesses
- Exploring independent museums
- Shopping at local marketplaces
- Eating at privately owned restaurants
In other words, things you would probably be doing anyway! I will include the full text of activities that qualify under this category here.
2. American Credit/Debit Cards Do Not Work in Cuba
What this means: When traveling to Cuba you will have to bring all the money you plan on spending in the county with you- in cash. Also, there is an additional fee for exchanging US dollars into Cuban pesos. Because of this, my friend and I exchanged our dollars into euros before leaving the states to avoid the fee.
How much money you bring is entirely up to you. I like to be overly prepared so I estimated about $40 total for lunch and dinner (breakfast was offered for $5/day with our Airbnb). Then an additional $30/day for miscellaneous expenses like museums of souvenirs. In total it came to about $75/day although I did not spend nearly that much. But, better safe than sorry.
Havana is very inexpensive compared to Philadelphia (where I am from). Food costs very little and if you know some Spanish you can haggle for the prices of souvenirs.
3. Cuba Has Two Different Currencies
When you arrive you are going to change your currency at the airport to CUC or the Cuban convertible peso. CUCs are pegged to the US dollar so, the exchange is 1:1. The CUP is mostly used by locals and the exchange is around 27 CUP to 1 dollar.
It is good to keep this in mind when you see two prices for different things. The “higher” price is referring to how many CUP an item costs. Also, be aware as we heard of tourists receiving CUP as change instead of CUC, and therefore being shortchanged.
4. Your phone will not work in Cuba (or it will for a crazy fee)
I had my phone on airplane mode for the whole trip because my cell carrier charged a high fee for usage in Cuba. My roommate and I were able to buy internet cards which would, in theory, allow us to connect to the public wifi in parks. Yes, parks. My card did not work, I was never able to figure out why. So, I used Minhae’s phone to contact my loved ones to let them know I was safe.
Honestly, I missed the internet but for a few days it was nice to disconnect and really live in the moment of being in such a beautiful place. (Cliche, I know)
All in all, if you’re willing to do some planning traveling to Cuba is 100% worth the effort and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to experience a beautiful, unique travel destination.
I will also be posting a page about my experience in Cuba that is less logistical. So, stay tuned for that!