Cuba Travel Tips & Common Misconceptions

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Cuba has been on my bucket list for a while. Before embarking on this adventure I’ve done a decent amount of research online on various do’s and dont’s in Cuba as trust me: it’s not an easy place to travel to. Moreover there are many misconceptions about Cuba. Pay attention to these things to know about Cuba – here are my Cuba Travel Tips!

Along with my boyfriend and friends from Getting Stamped we’ve asked our friends about some travel tips for Cuba and read a bunch of blogs. All of this just to be prepared for any eventuality and learn all the important things to know about Cuba.Cuba Travel Tips


Cuba Travel Tips & Common Misconceptions

Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that what you can read online cannot always be trusted and there are way too many misconceptions about Cuba. Moreover, it seems like many travelers went to Cuba without doing even the slightest amount of research.

Based off of what we all saw, Cuba is far more complex and better than how it’s portrayed on the internet. It might not be a perfect country and you definitely shouldn’t expect luxury conditions as if you traveled around the US, so there are a few things to know about Cuba before you go.

I’d like to point out a couple of common misconceptions about Cuba and some important things to know, so that you can plan your trip accordingly and explore it with your eyes open. Especially if you want to do some independent travel to Cuba.

Cuban pink car

Rocking the pink car!


1. Getting into Cuba isn’t easy

While the US might have said it’s not legal to travel to Cuba a lot of people are confused about the details. The State Department says that all travel to Cuba must still meet certain activity-related requirements. There are 12 types of travel that are permitted, including family visits, journalistic activities, professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances, and religious activities. You cannot book a flight without selecting one of the 12 categories, you cannot book an Air BnB without selecting one, but don’t worry!

Documentation needed for Cuba isn’t as complicated as it may sound at first. It all seems vague, but… the easiest way to travel to Cuba is flying through Cancun. Since we’re based in Mexico at the moment it was easy for us to book our flights with Interjet and head to the airport.

At Cancun airport it doesn’t matter if you’re American, European, or from the moon, white, black or blue… you simply pick up a Tourist Card for $20 at the check-in counter and voila! Moreover, when we arrived in Havana all Americans were asked if they’d like their passport to be stamped or not.
Cuba Tourist Card


2. Pre-booking accommodation in Cuba & airport pickup is a good idea

Housing in Cuba is hard to find online, so I wouldn’t bother and opt for casas particulares in Cuba. What exactly is a “casa particular?” I’d compare it to AirBnB without a necessity of booking it online.

Cuban residents can rent out an extra room in their home. They pay a monthly government tax of 10% of their income, but staying there does help the locals more so I’d highly recommend staying in casas when in Cuba.

Anyway, to make things easier we pre-booked out first 2 night including the airport transfer on AirBnB. We got our confirmation within a day and a driver was meant to wait for us at the airport. Sounds easy, right? It turned out that getting out of the airport wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. There were at least 100 people squeezed in the arrivals hall holding a name card. Finding our driver was almost a mission impossible.

When I finally found him, the poor guy had to wait for us 1,5h as the line to the only one Casas de Cambio SA (CADECA) – currency exchange booth in the arrivals hall was enormous. In the end we ended up paying even more than we would for a regular taxi as we made the driver wait.

casas particulares Cuba

Look for this sign everywhere!


3. There’s no internet in Cuba

Almost everyone was telling us that we need to take 2 weeks off from work simply because we won’t find any internet. Others warned us that even if we find internet it’s going to be unaffordable or simply it won’t be working well. Well, what a bunch of bullshit! Since I was Snapchatting our adventures every day I could easily find internet all over the country.

While wifi doesn’t work everywhere, like it would in other countries, it’s definitely not impossible to find a hotspot. Every major hotel has wifi. Also if you see a group of people sitting around with their phones in the park, it means it’s probably a hotspot. If you want to find out more how to get online in Cuba check out this article.

snapchat in Cuba

Snapchat in Cuba: anna-everywhere


4. Cuba is very cheap

“Cuba is cheap, because people earn $20 a month” was what we heard. But we prepared to spend at least $50 a day. We weren’t wrong. The level of tourism infrastructure that was in place and also the many tourists flocking here, which results in higher prices.

Unfortunately, prices in Cuba are slightly different. The cost of a trip to Cuba for a week would be a minimum of $500.

In Havana you could find double-decker hop-on-hop-off busses and world-class hotels for approx. $175-300 a night. We took plenty of cabs that costed $10-15 CUC, and while that’s cheap, plenty of Ubers in LA are the same price.


5. It’s hard to find bottled water in Cuba

“Water is incredibly hard to find because you can’t just stroll down to the nearest street corner and find them” we read online. We brought our LifeStraw Bottles to avoid unnecessary problems, but we hardly got a chance to use them. People were selling bottled water everywhere. You could also easily buy a can of coke if you prefer it.


6. Cuba food is awful

We read to be aware of Cuban food and to be prepared for the worst aside from the infamous Cuban sandwich. Our friends told us that famous Cuban pizzas are inedible, and that we need to bring some spices and hot sauce, because the food is bland. And even more important that it’s actually hard to find any food.

Sorry guys, but I’m not sure if we traveled to the same place, because the food in Cuba was cheap and delicious!

Breakfast for 2 in Havana!

Breakfast for 2 in Havana: quite a feast!

You haven’t been to Cuba unless you’ve had a succulent grilled lobster for $5 or a giant seafood platter with lobster, crab, shrimp and a bunch of sides for $6.50! We’ve never spent more than $10 on a dish and I was struggling to finish my plate every time.

We’ve never actually used our bottle of tabasco, as we’re always offered a salsa, ketchup and salt. I also discovered my new favorite dish: crema de queso, which is basically a soup made of grated cheese.

As for the Cuban pizza it’s not bad, but it’s not good either. It tastes like a frozen pizza you’d eat hungover, but for $1 I can’t really complain!Cuban pizza


7. Cuba has the best mojitos & pina coladas

It’s no surprise that Cuba is a rum country, with Havana Club rum leading the pack for only $4 a bottle. While you can also purchase some rum in the box (which seems to be Cuba’s leading invention when it comes to street nightlife), I expected the best mojitos in the world.

Unfortunately, here’s where I got disappointed. The ice was never mushed and I never fully tasted the mint. I decided to stick to Pina Coladas, but here’s the twist: they always sprinkle cinnamon on top which makes the drink taste like a cinnamon more than a coconut. But the fresh pineapple juice used in a Cuban piña colada certainly contributes to its easy drinkability.DSC05745


8. Havana is a dump

As we read a lot of visitors weren’t happy with what Havana has to offer and described it as a ‘dump’. Is Havana ugly? I tend to disagree, as we all loved the city! While it might not be the cleanest capital city of the world and many buildings are falling apart, it’s definitely a beautiful place.

Capitol Building Havana

Capitol Building in Havana


9. You can’t buy anything in shops in Cuba

“Stores to buy simple supplies such as bottled water or snacks were very few & far between. Often the shelves were less than half stocked, so cosmetic items cannot be replace” – we read. We prepared like for a deserted island, carefully checking if we have enough soap, lotion, toothpaste and toilet paper (yes, we read to bring our own toilet paper too).

While bringing these items to Cuba was useful I’ve never experienced a lack of soap or toilet paper anywhere. I could have easily bought a big bottle of shampoo and lotion at the store. There might not be a 7-Eleven at every street corner, but it doesn’t mean you can’t buy anything in Cuba.DSC05612


10. Bus is the best way to travel in Cuba

We expected to use bus a lot, as we were told it’s the best way to travel around Cuba. There are 2 long-distance bus companies. One company is called Astro where you pay in moneda nacional (CUP). The other is Viazul where you pay in the more expensive CUC currency. Tourists usually can’t catch the less expensive Astro bus, because it’s mainly reserved for Cuban citizens.

Here’s where we were wrong though. While buses might seem like the best priced idea it would only be cheaper if you travel solo.

On the way to the bus station to purchase bus tickets for the following day (as bus tickets sell out quickly) our taxi driver offered to take us to Viñales for 70 CUC. While we were 4, so it turned out it was only 2 CUC per person more than the bus would be. But transportation door to door saved us on taxis to the bus station. We could stop for photos whenever, and do everything without being stuck to the bus schedule.

On the way back from Viñales we simply asked around for a driver who could take us back to Havana and within 5 minutes we got an offer. It was easier, cheaper and definitely less stressful.

Havana-7

Photocredit: GettingStamped


11. You can easily rent a car in Cuba

We wanted to rent a car in Cuba to explore the island on our own. “You can rent a car” said various websites, but it turned out to be barely possible. Why? Let me tell you a story here.

First, we tried to book a car online and got an email that our reservation will be confirmed within 72h. After 24h we got another email saying that the reservation cannot be processed.

Then we tried to go to the car rental place in Viñales, but the booth never actually opened despite the sign saying that it’s open.

We made a choice to return to the airport as we saw 4 stalls with car rentals. Guess what? None of them had cars available. Moreover I was told that booking online is always going to be rejected in Cuba and we should have booked our car in person at least 2 weeks in advance.

This is when I started to wander around the airport leaving my friends in the line to the currency exchange. I stumbled upon a guy who sold us internet cards and happened to remember me. I told him that we wanted to rent a car, but now we’re probably going to have to take the bus. “Wait here!” he said and went to talk to another guy.

Within 5 minutes he called me up, as it turned out his friend worked for a car rental place at the airport (which told us they had no cars before) and I was quickly offered a few cars to choose from.

I’m still unsure if I got the car for us because I was a girl wandering around the airport on my own, or because they thought my Spanish was good and wanted to be nice to me. One way or another rental cars in Cuba are only given to people who they like.


12. Cubans don’t know what’s going on in the world

While Cuba might seem to everyone like a country that’s still behind the US or Europe, it turned out not to be true. People were surprising us about their knowledge about the world and current events. I’d go even further and say that many Cubans knew more about the world than some Americans do.

Cubans playing dominos

Cubans playing an intense game of dominos


13. Varadero is crowded

The coastline around Varadero has a plethora of all-inclusive resorts that seems to rival Cancun. We weren’t originally supposed to go to Varadero as we thought it would be a tourist trap. But since we were driving around the northern beaches we stopped there for a night and… I’m glad we did.

Varadero, while has some resorts, isn’t very touristy outside of the them. The town was small, beaches were gorgeous and we really enjoyed the local beach bar with cocktails and cheeseburgers for 2 CUC. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Varadero beach

Blue waters of Varadero


14. Cuba is dangerous

The entire time we were there, we felt extremely safe. With a rate of fewer than 5 homicides per 100,000 people, Cuba is safer than any other Caribbean destination except for Grenada, according to U.N. statistics. We never had to feel insecure about our professional cameras. I could wander on street of Havana on my own without any issues. In Viñales we saw that no one locked up their bikes there – that’s how safe it is.DSC05281


Don’t forget about travel insurance

Don’t forget to arrange a health insure before heading to Cuba. Visitors are often stopped at the border and checked if they have a valid insurance. In case you don’t have one, you might be forced to buy a Cuban one. But not all insurances cover Cuba. It’s not clear whether World Nomads Travel Insurance covers Cuba, so you might want to contact them to double check. 


Suggested books for Cuba:

The Authentic Cuba Travel Guide
Real Havana: Explore Like a Local


Hope these Cuba Travel Tips were helpful. If you have any more questions let me know!

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33 Comments

  1. Apr 19, 2016 / 8:39 pm

    I’m Canadian and I visited Cuba with my boyfriend in early 2014. It was such an amazing place to visit, it is so safe and Havana is incredible, although we did find that Wifi was hard to find. As in, we didn’t find any! Maybe it has improved since we visited. We found Cuba to be relatively cheap/affordable but the tourist currency (CUC) definitely makes it more expensive than what the locals pay.

    Overall, it was a unique place to visit and we hope to go back sometime in the future to see how much it has changed because it is definitely a country in transition!

    • Apr 29, 2016 / 11:22 pm

      I guess wifi in Cuba must have improved since you guys were there 🙂
      I’m also curious to see how the place will develop over the next few years!

  2. Apr 20, 2016 / 9:33 pm

    Wow! An unlocked bike really is a sign of how Cuba is (at least in Vinales). This is such a great post and I think more and more people should read it as Cuba becomes a destination of interest. Your photos really showcase Cuba, so bravo to you!

    • Apr 29, 2016 / 11:16 pm

      Definitely, we loved Cuba – looking forward to revisiting it some time 🙂

  3. Apr 22, 2016 / 5:56 am

    I was in Cuba March last year and absolutely agree with the security of the country. I was surprised how safe it was. I even went home myself in the dark without being scared which I would always avoid in other Central/South American countries.

    Concerning point 10: You can also find the shared taxis when you’re traveling on your own. They just put together four people and each person has to pay their share. As you said about 2 CUC more than the Viazul. Completely easy. I just took the Viazul from Havana to Vinales. While at the bus station in Havana I learned about the shared taxis and used them from Vinales to Trinidad, Trinidad to Santa Clara and Santa Clara to Havana. I always approached taxi drivers/stands a day before and they always found other people to go with me, picked me up and brought me to the new accommodation. Travel super easy!

    • Apr 29, 2016 / 11:19 pm

      For sure! We just wanted to have more freedom to stop and spend as much time as we need to take photos. I always worry that some people who aren’t passionate about taking pictures might get annoyed… it happened before 🙂

  4. Apr 23, 2016 / 10:55 pm

    With the opening of the two Embassy’s now more than ever Americans can travel to Cuba and enjoy the beauty of this wonderful island.

    • Apr 29, 2016 / 11:17 pm

      Definitely – it’s going to be even easier 🙂

  5. May 6, 2016 / 9:07 pm

    I can’t agree with you more about Havana!!! I was taken by the city and I am not even a city person. It is easily one of my top 5 cities in the world even after visiting almost 70 countries. The colors, the cars, the people, the architecture…. yea it’s third world but it just has an irresistible charm in my opinion!

    • May 7, 2016 / 7:29 pm

      Did you guys go to the Tropicana Show? Matt and I went the last nigth and it was so much fun!

  6. Jun 7, 2016 / 10:47 pm

    I thought that going there on a cruise was really nice! Especially since there isn’t any wifi….. We had EVERYTHING we needed on the ship and then some! I could go again and again…..

  7. Fransien
    Jul 15, 2016 / 11:55 am

    How have you beem on snapchat in Cuba?

    • Jul 16, 2016 / 1:05 am

      I had a VPN installed 🙂

  8. Oct 1, 2016 / 11:41 am

    Nice to know that Cubans still know what’s going on in this world!!! There are so many rumours about them being close-minded :(. Did you have a chance to speak with many locals? 🙂 If so, what did you guys usually talk about?

    • Oct 1, 2016 / 3:50 pm

      I did actually. We talked about everything really, from Cuban lifestyle, to American presidential elections, to tourism in Mexico honestly 🙂

  9. Oct 30, 2016 / 11:35 pm

    Hi Anna,

    Awesome post, I too found out the truth about many Cuban myths while I stumbled my way around this great country. I met a young man who definitely was engaged with what was going on in the rest of the world and felt very comfortable and safe staying in the casa particulars. I found Cuban folks to be fantastically friendly and anybody who didn’t work behind a desk was wonderfully helpful ( aka, ask the bus driver for help, not the ticket agent!). Hope to go back some day and explore the Eastern half of the island.

    Cheers,

    Emily Kydd

  10. Alisa
    Nov 15, 2016 / 12:06 pm

    Hi Anna, would you recommend booking a flight from Cancun to Havana in advance and online or in person at Cancun airport? Would it be reasonable to use US credit card to book this flight? Any recommendation what website to use that may accept other forms of payment such as paypal, for example? Thank you in advance.

    • Nov 15, 2016 / 5:13 pm

      Hi Alisa! I think you should book in advance – my flight was full. The airlines are like any others (interjet, aeromexico), so you can freely use your US card. I think Aeromexico allows you to pay by paypal, but you don’t really need to do this.

      • Alisa
        Nov 15, 2016 / 10:11 pm

        Thank you, Anna. Would you also recommend to bring euros versus US dollars with us? I hear that there is/was 10% fee for converting US dollars. I assume there is no separate fee for converting EURs. Thank you.

        • Nov 15, 2016 / 11:39 pm

          Yes, that’s right – there’s 10% conversion fee on US dollars. Euros or Pounds would be better.

  11. Suzanne Brehmer
    Nov 25, 2016 / 3:00 pm

    Anna! I just returned from my 2nd trip to Cuba, both with airline flights on Copa airlines. Each time I purchased the mandatory Tourist Visa at the Gateway airport of Panama City for $20 US (cash only). I am now planning flights on American Airlines from Miami and AA representatives know NOTHING about the Visa. I read on a DELTA airlines site that you can purchase ‘the’ Visa at the US gateway city for $50! That seems unreasonable (to more than double the price) and I asked a Cuban immigration employee as I departed through the security turnstile ‘” what happens if you arrive in Cuba without a tourist card?”‘ and she replied: ‘”you go down to the end to Cubatur and purchase one for 80CUC”‘ (so almost $90 US with the 10% USD conversion rate!) I see that you are using CUN as your departure city (where, like with Copa at PTY, you pay $20) – can you possibly shed light on a way to depart from the US and pay the $20 vs. $50 or 80CUC? Thanks so much for your advice! Your tips are spot on!

    • Nov 25, 2016 / 6:08 pm

      Hi Suzanne, I honestly have no clue about flying from the US. I heard that JetBlue sells tourist cards at the counter, but those I spoke to said they went to a travel agent to get visas and they were $100. So it’s all very confusing 🙁

      • Suzanne Brehmer
        Nov 26, 2016 / 3:35 pm

        Thanks, Anna, for responding to my query. I am hoping there are other Americans out there who have flown from US gateway cities and can shed some light on the situation. A Copa airlines reservationist told me on the phone in September that the visa was $50 (a potential increase from last December’s $20) but when I got to Panama City the price was still $20USD. It certainly is confusing that it could cost more for Americans. I can say that there is still the 10% change fee for US dollars as opposed to an actual fee for CAD or Euros.
        Thank you for updating on your blog if you hear definitive answers to these questions! Inquiring minds want to know!

  12. Ellie
    Nov 28, 2016 / 4:42 pm

    I visited cuba this year in the summer but wasnt able to access snapchat, how did you access it and if it was VPN, then how did you install it?

    • Nov 28, 2016 / 6:18 pm

      You need to install VPN before you get to Cuba. You simply download it from Appstore.

  13. Paulina Strom
    Dec 17, 2016 / 1:40 pm

    Hi Anna,

    May husband and I would like to visit Cuba this upcoming summer 2017. However, I am confused on whether we need a travel agency to visit Cuba now that your can fly out of the US via United or Southwest. Have you heard anything about that? If not can you recommend us with some travel agencies we can go through?

    Thanks
    Paulina

    • Dec 18, 2016 / 1:48 am

      Hi Paulina,

      You don’t need an agency. I know for sure that JetBlue hands in visas (tourist cards) at the airport for $80 and I think (don’t quote me on this) United started to do the same thing. Cuba is fantastic – you’ll have a great time I’m sure!

  14. Zak
    Dec 29, 2016 / 1:11 am

    Hi Anna,

    Which VPN did you use?

    Thank you!!

    • Dec 29, 2016 / 3:11 pm

      I was using Samsung back then and literally used the first one available to download for free from the app store.

  15. David
    Jan 5, 2017 / 1:41 pm

    Hi Anna,the wife and I are flying to Holguin,Cuba on 7th March from London, (we actually live in the Canary Islands and can’t fly anywhere direct) we have three weeks and are looking to move around a bit, I’ve seen your comments on bus and taxis but what about train and plane,did you try either?

    • Jan 5, 2017 / 5:11 pm

      Traveling around Cuba by plane is expensive, but you can book flights at the airport once you arrive. Trains are considered cheapest, but also least reliable way to travel around and you need to be at the station waiting for at least a few hours before to secure your tickets. But it could be a fun adventure 🙂

  16. Anya
    Jan 7, 2017 / 9:55 am

    Hi Anna,
    My husband and I are going for a mini vacation (5days) to Cuba from Cancun. Could you please recommend, based on your experience, what would be best to visit at the first place?
    Thank you!

    • Jan 7, 2017 / 4:09 pm

      I’d say Havana. I think there’s enough to do in Havana for an entire week, but if you’re short on time then you can do a day trip to Varadero beach in an old car and spend 2 days 1 night in Vinales.

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