How to Travel to Cuba Without Looking like a Total Tourist
This fall, I boarded a flight in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and touched down in Cuba 45 minutes later. I was on a people-to-people visa through CubaOne, a new organization that brings Cuban Americans to the island to explore their heritage, Birthright-style.
Tourist travel to Cuba technically remains prohibited, but you can get a license from the Department of the Treasury or attain one of 12 special visa categories, including family visits, humanitarian projects and the aforementioned people-to-people. Whether you’re in Havana, Trinidad or any other of Cuba’s gorgeous cities, here are the helpful travel tips to know while planning your trip.
What to Pack
• Pack light—baggage claims can take forever, often as much as two hours.
• Prepare as if you were going camping. Toilet paper isn’t plentiful or free to the public.
• If you take (or return with) more than two electronic devices, you’ll have to declare them or else risk having them confiscated. (Pro tip: Ask a friend to carry one for you.)
• U.S. credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba, so bring enough cash to cover your stay. Pay for hotels and activities in advance by booking them online.
• There are two currencies: the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and Cuban national peso (CUP). Travelers can use the CUC to pay for almost anything in Cuba, while the CUP is used mostly by Cuban nationals.
• You can only get CUCs in Cuba—as in, you CANNOT do it pre-trip in the United States. One CUC is roughly equivalent to one USD ($1) and can be exchanged at a CADECA (money exchanger).
Where to Stay
• Casas particulares (private houses) are like homestays, complete with a private room and bathroom, air-conditioning and meals.
• Luxury travelers, take note: The 5-star hotels feel more like 3.5-star hotels (true luxury hotels are under construction to lure American tourists).
• Airbnb has been operating on the island since 2015 and is another affordable option for accommodations.
• Buses, which cost about 10 cents, can get packed but offer a glimpse at how locals get around.
• Yellow taxis have meters, but no one uses them. Negotiate the price before you get in the car. For a small cost, some casa particular or Airbnb hosts will also agree to drive you around.
Phone and Wi-Fi
• If you’re not staying at a hotel with Wi-Fi, the best way to stay connected is by purchasing an Internet card from ETECSA (Cuba's major telecom company). Cities are dotted with public markers where you can use it to hop online. (Unlike in the States, you must have an Internet card to log on to public Wi-Fi.)
Where to Eat
• Most restaurants don't serve breakfast, so be sure to fuel up before the day gets going. If you’re staying at a casa particular, simply ask your host to include it with your nightly rate.
• No matter which city you’re in, stick to paladares (private restaurants) rather than state-run restaurants. The latter are tightly controlled by the government and serve only what is available under state regulations; paladares can source more inventive ingredients.
• Tipping is the norm in Cuba; tips are considered a vital part of one’s income. The Cuban average salary works out to $25 a month, so a tip of one CUC is a small fortune.
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