I intended on including all of this information in the Havana Travel Guide until I realized it was so much information. American travel to Cuba is relatively new and Cuban government plays a big role in your experience while you’re there. Cuba hasn’t changed much since the 1960’s so most visitors are very unaware of what to expect. Here are 9 things you absolutely need to know when you book a trip to Cuba.
Before you Travel
Get a Visa
A visa is required in order to visit Cuba. Tourist travel is not allowed, so there are 12 allowed travel categories you must fall under in order to apply. Once you book your flight, contact your airlines about purchasing a visa. Southwest sent me a simple link where I purchased one for $50.00 after filling out a quick online form. Your final ticket counter before flying into Cuba will hold your visa for you. For me, that was the Southwest counter in Ft. Lauderdale.
Don’t Flush the Toilet
The bathrooms are very different. By different, I mean… You can’t flush toilet paper or any other toiletries down the toilet. Their plumbing is incredibly sensitive and to be frank, old. When I first used the bathroom in the Havana airport, I thought maybe that one may have just been a little out-of-order. I was wrong. After you clean yourself, it must be thrown into the trash. Many of the restrooms only use bar soap to wash your hands (which isn’t antibacterial) and one went as far as only providing you a bucket of water to dip and rinse your hands in. Because they don’t want folks putting toilet paper in the toilet, some of them won’t even have any in the bathroom. Pack baby wipes or tissue with you and a lot of hand sanitizer. Even still, Cuba was amazing.
Transportation is Tricky
Cuba isn’t an expensive place to visit, but it isn’t necessarily cheap. The majority of our money went to transportation. Only four people are allowed in most cars and because there were six of us, we had to take two cars almost everywhere. A 10 or 15 minute cab ride was costing us between $8 to $20 each time. If you’re planning to walk more than you take taxis, you’ll be fine. There are bus routes, the T1, T2, and T3, that allow you to make several different stops around the city depending on where you’re wanting to go. Here’s a map of every stop each route provides. The most popular route is the T3, that you can catch right outside the front entrance to Tropicoco. It costs 10 CUC but always you to hop off and on and any stop you’d like. You pay when you first get on and show your receipt each time you need to go to a new destination.
Leave your Cards at Home
You can’t use a debit or credit card anywhere in Cuba, cash only. I took $800 cash and converted $500 of that to Euros to be exchanged into CUC (Cuban currency) upon arrival. The Euro gave me better conversion rates than a dollar would have. If at any time I ran out of CUC, I could then exchange more Euros at local banks or most major hotels. I wanted to avoided bringing any type of currency back home that wasn’t US dollars, but I’ve still got 5 Euros in my purse. Cubans without a doubt take advantage of Americans when it comes to money. We had drinks with two Cubans and the waitress charged us 10 CUC, while theirs were 5. They assume we have the money to spend, so I advise you haggle everything. I spent $500 in five days, even with Spanish negotiations.
Don’t Check Bags
The Havana airport is like the rest of the city, outdated; which means there is no automatic baggage claim. All checked luggage is manually taken off the plane and brought to baggage claim. It could hold you up hours once you land. I flew Southwest, so I was able to take a carry-on luggage as well as a large duffel on the plane with me. Whatever you do, keep your luggage with you or you’ll miss out on several hours of actually enjoying Cuba.
Screenshot What you’ll Need
Screenshot all of your important information. You won’t have the luxury of pulling up whatever you need off of your phone at any time. I advise you to screenshot everything you’ll need prior to arriving in Cuba. For example, the location of your hotel and the phone number, the names of landmarks and restaurants you’d like to visit and anything else that will help you navigate more easily. We made the mistake of only screenshotting the address of our AirBNB, but cut off the phone number. That could’ve went really bad. Luckily I was able to load an email AirBNB had sent that had the number included.
Cuba does not import many things, certainly not Doritos and Capri Suns. Don’t expect to walk into a corner store and pick up your favorites from 711. Luckily I packed a huge bag full of chips, granola bars, oatmeal, gold fish and other bagged items. Outside of our meals, we didn’t eat so all of us were really thankful for those snacks LOL. In most “corner stores” you’ll find mostly beverages and rum.
Our first day in the city, we met two Cuban gentleman who walked us around the city. They took us to several bars, a restaurant with a nice rooftop and even helped us find cigars. We were thankful, but when it was all said it done they had asked for a meal at the restaurant, had drank some of our rum and then asked for a tip. Be mindful that when you stop someone to ask where something is or where something can be found, they’ll gladly show you for a fee.
Translating is Necessary
Havana wasn’t as English savvy as we were expecting it to be. Luckily I was able to ask all the necessary questions we needed in order to get around the city, find the food we like and whatever activities we were interested in. In this post, I mentioned a language phrasebook app that you’re able to use without wifi that allows you to look up familiar phrases regarding eating, greetings, emergencies or everyday common dialogue in whatever language you need. You will need it, believe me.