Reprinted from Air Fulfillment Services “AFS Traveler,” September 2016
Do I need a visa?
As a visitor traveling from the United States, you must obtain a visa, which you can apply for before you leave for Cuba. You will also need to prove that your visit falls under one of the 12 categories of approved travel to Cuba, as outlined by the US government, which include humanitarian missions and journalistic activity. Officially, you can’t visit Cuba if you are just looking to sip mojitos on the beach. Tour companies often are able to help obtain a visa for you: You will need to provide information like a copy of your passport, but most people-to-people operators can do the rest, and they often have relationships with the government so that they can get their visas in batches. Travelers flying through Mexico on a layover to Cuba can obtain an on-the-spot visa at the airports in Cancún or Mexico City for $25 in cash. Visas can only be supplied by Cuban embassies, travel agents, and companies approved by the Cuban government. Alistair Riddell, director of tour company Cuban Pioneers, has been traveling to Cuba for 15 years and notes that your visa is included in the price of your ticket on some airlines like Air Canada. Otherwise, the cost of applying for a visa can vary.
CITA tip: You will need the tourist visa plus an affidavit that the airline will typically supply. On the affidavit, general travelers will check the People to People category, which is a subset of the Education category. (On a google search some travel category lists will only identify the Education category and I have had a few questions from folks who are not sure where People to People applies.) The visa through the airline charters in the US are running about $75 pre-paid or $100 at the airport.
How should I exchange money?
Travelers can exchange money at the airport in Havana (or any other port of entry) with euros, pounds, or Canadian or American dollars. You can also exchange money in cities at Cadeca money exchange stores (casas de cambio). We recommend exchanging as much as you can while you are at the airport in case your flight arrives early or late and you are unable to find a store open nearby. Ask your tour guide where the closest Cadeca is and check to see when they are open, as hours may fluctuate.
CITA tip: You can also exchange money at some hotels, which is quite easy and convenient. Find out if that is an option you are staying and if so, go that route. The rate of exchange on USD to CUC is typically 13%. At the Parque Central in Old Havana, they will also exchange any unused CUC back to USD.
Should I bring credit cards?
Bring cash; most American credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba. You can exchange money at airports and major hotels, though. Just keep in mind that if a lot of planes or cruise ships arrive at once, there will be long lines and it’s not uncommon for Cadecas to run out of CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos, the main unit of currency for non-Cubans). You may have better luck with international credit cards, if you have one.
CITA tip: The issue with the credit cards is not only an American bank vs. Cuban bank issue. Many establishments will not be equipped to take any cards, International or otherwise. Cash is the safest bet.
How much cash should I bring?
Depending on the type of activities, cost in Cuba can vary. Expect to carry around 100–125 CUCs (1 CUC is equivalent to 1 US dollar) per day for food and activities. You’ll probably want to budget more if you’re expecting to buy gifts or go on out-of-the-city excursions. City tours, like a ride around Havana in a classic car, will typically cost 20–30 CUCs.
CITA tip: You need to keep in mind that if you have $100, you can exchange it for 87 CUC. Vintage cars are 30 CUC per hour, coco taxis are 15 CUC, lunch might be about 20 CUC (depending upon the establishment) and dinner would be upwards about that. Everyone from wait staff to drivers to the museum guide will expect tips. On average, tips will be about 2-3 CUC per server and about 5 CUC (per person in a group) for a guide. The US government limit on purchases is $400, and within that a limit of $100 for alcohol or tobacco. Art purchases are exempt from that $400 limit, and should have an artist’s seal, or stamp, on them.
Do I need travel insurance?
Yes. Travelers to Cuba must have proof of travel health insurance. Since this insurance must be recognized in Cuba, many US health plans may not be accepted, so purchase separate travel insurance from your tour organizer. Make sure to ask what type of coverage you will be receiving while you are in Cuba, as you will want to make sure it is comprehensive and spend time reading the fine print. Example: Does the policy cover ambulances or an emergency flight home? Tour companies in Cuba will charge anywhere from $5-10 per day per person to cover the cost of Cuban state insurance. Although there has been talk of the option to buy health insurance at airports, that has not materialized yet. Most charter flight operators already provide insurance as part of the price of the ticket.
CITA tip: US health plans are not accepted, and cash is not accepted. As a socialist country, Cuba offers free health care for everyone so they are not equipped to transact in cash or file claims. Health insurance is provided with charter air tickets and commercial airlines will have their own policies on what they offer. For example, American has been referring customers to a charter air company for the visas and insurance. Then if a traveler would like emergency medical evacuation coverage that can be purchased through a travel insurance provider.
Is the Wi-Fi as bad as they say it is?
Cubans and expats alike tell us that the biggest change in Cuba has been access to Wi-Fi. You can get access to Wi-Fi at parks and squares in most cities, including Havana, Santa Clara, and Viñales. It will typically cost you 1 CUC or 1 US dollar for an hour of Wi-Fi. Some hotels in Havana also offer Wi-Fi, but strength and consistency of service are spotty at best.
CITA tip: Paque Central’s Wi-Fi worked well. You purchase a card with a code and cost is 2 cuc per hour.
What do I pack?
You’ll want to wear comfortable clothing and shoes—the style is less Manhattan and more Miami or Barcelona. Both men and women dress confidently and boldly. Women often dress in feminine, colorful arrays, while men wear jeans or cotton pants and a T-shirt or a guayabera, a traditional lightweight, loose button-up shirt. We didn’t see a lot of people in black, which makes sense considering the weather. You’ll also want to bring comfortable shoes, especially in cities like Trinidad to navigate its cobblestone streets and hills. Because of the heat, bring lightweight clothes and hats. Pack your preferred brands of bug spray and sunscreen, as well as travel-sized toiletries and meds you can’t do without, including feminine products, Tylenol, Band-Aids, Pepto-Bismol. Many of these things aren’t available on the island or are only in a few tourist shops. Cruise ship travelers can buy basic items from their on-board shop.
CITA tip: Nicer hotels do have bath amenities such as shampoo, conditioner, etc. In the evenings, shorts and flip flops are not acceptable in many of the nicer restaurants and clubs. Although we did not have any problems at restaurants, members of one group were not allowed to enter the Tropicana nightclub and needed to go back to the hotel and change.
Sources: Condé Nast Traveler and Cuba Incentive Travel Associates (CITA)