For Americans, traveling to Cuba requires jumping through a few extra hoops but I promise you, it is worth the effort to visit this fascinating country! Today’s post will teach you all you need to know about traveling to Cuba in 2022.
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When we posted a departure photo on Facebook, many of our friends were surprised to learn that you can fly to Cuba directly from the US. A list of carriers is summarized below and, in future months, the options should increase now that certain travel restrictions have been lifted. To date, cruise service to Cuba has not yet been restored.
- Southwest flies directly to Havana from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
- Jet Blue flies directly to Havana from New York, Boston, Orlando, and Fort Lauderdale.
- American flies to Havana from Miami, New York, Houston, Tampa, and Los Angeles. Note that some of these are connecting flights.
For transfers to/from Havana airport and our lodging, we used Sun Transfers. Negotiating for a cab right on arrival can be stressful so we pre-book our transfers. They were also pre-paid so one less cash transaction we needed to worry about (aside from tip).
Declaring a Travel Category
Pure leisure travel is still restricted for US citizens so when booking a trip you will be asked to select one of twelve categories for your visit. Most US citizens wanting to visit for tourism purposes select “Support for the Cuban People” from the list below.
- Family visits;
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- Journalistic activity;
- Professional research and professional meetings;
- Educational activities;
- Religious activities;
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- Support for the Cuban people;
- Humanitarian projects;
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
- and certain authorized export transactions.
Pick one category and stick with it. Additionally, you will need to:
- Apply for a Cuban tourist card/visa. US citizens should apply for the PINK card, not the blue card.
- Obtain Cuban health insurance. This is typically covered by the airlines when you book your flight. Southwest sent an email verifying this shortly after our booking. If you don’t receive a notice from your carrier, I’d check with them prior to your departure.
When traveling under the “Support for the Cuban People” category you must:
- Stay at sanctioned properties called Casas Particulares. These are privately owned lodgings ranging from individual rooms to boutique hotels and can be found on Airbnb, VRBO, etc. We stayed at Residencia Santa Clara as we wanted to be at a property with a few other tourists. It was very well maintained and well located in Havana Vieja. Highly recommend!
- Engage in activities that support the Cuban people and show a written itinerary of your plans (private tours, eating in private paladars not state-controlled restaurants, etc.).
- Find the full list of restricted entities HERE.
- As US travelers are often curious about bringing back rum or cigars, please refer to the official Customs & Border Patrol policy. As of this writing, Americans are not allowed to bring Cuban cigars or alcohol into the country.
Or Hit the Easy Button
If all this is feeling like just too much to coordinate, you can use a company like Cuba Explorer. Our travel friends Dan & Billy used them to visit Cuba in 2016. The pro is that you’ll see a lot, all your transport will be pre-arranged and you won’t need to carry as much cash as the tour is pre-paid. The con is that you’ll have less independence/flexibility.
American travelers need to be aware that you must bring cash sufficient for your entire stay in Cuba. This includes paying for your lodging if it is not booked through a site that is pre-paid and accepts American credit cards (Expedia, VRBO, etc.).
American branded ATM and credit cards will not work in Cuba. The best currency to travel with is the Euro although Sterling, Mexican pesos, and Canadian/US dollars are accepted.
Until recently, Cuba used two currencies, one for locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC). That is no longer the case and the Cuban peso (CUP) is the only currency. The next most important piece of information for tourists is to avoid changing money at banks or currency exchange bureaus AND to avoid changing money on the street! Hotels and restaurants will give you the best rates.
For instance, the official (bank/currency exchange bureau) rate is €/$ 1 = 25 CUP (Cuban pesos). Our hotel offered €/$ 1 = 80 CUP and most restaurants were offering €/$ 1 = 100 CUP. That’s the difference between a 3,000 CUP meal costing €/$ 30 versus €/$ 120. Big, big difference!
An exchange on the street may get you even 110-120 CUP for €/$ 1 but you run the risk of receiving old CUC currency or fake bills. CUP should have pictures of people on it, the old CUC had pictures of buildings.
Bring small denominations. Many places will take Euros directly but you will receive change in pesos and they have no use anywhere but Cuba so don’t be stuck with a lot of them. It can be helpful to exchange a small amount for pesos (€/$ 50 or so) when you first arrive so that you’ll have money for small entry fees, street food, etc.
We found our most expensive paladar meals to be between 35-50 euros (includes 2 entrees, an app and dessert, a side or two, and 3-4 drinks). Entrances to sites were very minor. We tipped our tour guides generously …40 euros or so. The most surprising/expensive thing was cab fare, running between 10 and 40 per trip depending upon distance, time of day/night, whether they were waiting for us at a site, etc.
Cuba is an incredibly safe place to travel. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is likely the safest country to visit in all of the Caribbean, Latin, or South America. While you are very likely going to be walking through some areas that look run down and sketchy, we never once felt even remotely concerned for our well-being, unlike Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica, Belize, etc.
Most Cubans have been vaccinated against COVID. The government recently dropped its mandatory mask restriction and no testing or proof of vaccination is currently required for entry. We did still see quite a few Cubans opting to wear masks while out in public.
We have minimal Spanish but got along OK. The younger generation and those that work in tourism speak English well. For those that don’t, pantomime and Google Translate helped us out. The people are among the most friendly and genuinely helpful we’ve ever come across in our travels. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation!
There are a handful of common scams in Cuba. Most won’t have a significant impact on you but you should be aware.
- Discount cigars on the street. People (usually men) will approach with the offer to sell you real, factory-made Cuban cigars at a huge discount. These are fake cigars. Always. No exceptions. No matter what they say. We found the most effective deterrent was to just say “we don’t smoke”. They’ll suggest cigars as gifts. “None of our friends smoke.” They’d leave pretty quickly after that. Buy your cigars in a state store only.
- Baby needs milk. We read about this scam in advance but encountered it only once. In a strange twist, we ran into a police officer we’d talked to at the airport and after introducing us to his wife, he asked us for $10 for milk for their baby. Because the Cuban situation is so dire right now, we thought there could be a bit of truth to the story so we obliged. Not the best way to go about getting milk but heed your conscience and do what you want.
- Money changing. Per the above section, people on the street will ask if you want to change money. It is not necessarily a scam but you do have a good chance of being ripped off and might waste a portion of your day walking to their “money man”. We just said no to all offers and they left pretty quickly.
Best Time to Travel
The best time of year to travel to Cuba is from October through February/March. October is still technically part of the rainy season but temperatures are milder and there is less humidity than during the summer months.
Summer travel is certainly doable (we just did it)! But, expect heat and some insanely high humidity. These little cooling neck wraps, while a bit silly looking to wear, worked quite well.
We’re fairly ambitious travelers and are committed to seeing a lot but if you think the heat might be an issue for you, I’d consider traveling in the cooler months or adding a couple of days to your itinerary so you can still see everything but at a slower pace.
What to Bring
Obviously, you will want to pack for a warm climate. Tennis shoes will serve you better than sandals for walking the streets during the daytime. Be certain to bring any/all medications, bug spray, tissues, sunblock, etc. with you as you will not be able to find any of that while in Cuba.
Bring hard copies or screenshots of your itinerary and any confirmations you may need as internet access is spotty (see below). Download offline versions of maps and translator apps. Lastly, if you are interested in helping the Cuban people, you may also want to consider bringing some gifts. I’ll have more on that in a future post.
How to Get Around
There are a number of modes of transportation for you to use in Havana. For all of them, you want to agree on a price for your destination and whether they should wait for you before getting in the cab. We didn’t barter very hard but feel free to.
- Bici Taxis/Bike taxis: Abundant, low-priced, and great for shorter distances on a hot day.
- CocoTaxis: Super cute, super dangerous. The driver wears a helmet but you don’t get one. We avoided these even though it did look kind of fun.
- Private Taxis: Owned by private individuals, often Soviet-looking cars or in less-good condition old American cars. These are probably the least expensive of the taxis. Hail them as you would any other taxi.
- Shiny, historic American convertibles: These are also usually privately owned. An hour + tour of central Havana’s sites should be about €/$ 40. Fun and great photo ops!
- State Taxis: These are the yellow checker cabs that are run by the government. They’re comparatively pricey but also among the easiest to find.
- Collectivo Taxis: These run on set routes and don’t leave until there are enough people in the car/van. Incredibly inexpensive but also a bit time-consuming as you have to walk to the right route, wait for enough passengers and then walk to the site you want to visit instead of being dropped off right in front. We did not use these.
All of these taxis are cash only. Most seemed welcome to take foreign currency but have some pesos on you just in case. Also, note that it can be difficult to get return taxis in remote areas so it may be worth the small extra expense to ask them to wait. More on this in the upcoming Havana post.
We found the food in Cuba to be good. While not particularly memorable, most dishes were tasty and filling. Staples include fish, chicken, pork, rice/beans, seasonal vegetables, and fruit. Given the scarcity of food in Cuba, we walked away quite impressed with both the quality and presentation of the meals we were served. Also, the ice cream was amazing!
Most major US cellular providers state that they have some connectivity in Cuba for calls and texts but we did not find that to be the case. Once at lunch, I had a flurry of texts come in and could send a quick reply to one but it never happened again so I don’t know what exactly was going on. Perhaps a setting that we had incorrect on our phones.
For email/web searches, most lodgings, restaurants, and public parks offer WiFi. It can be a bit slow and sporadic but you should be able to read emails from time to time. Where free WiFi is offered, you just connect as usual.
For the Cuban parks that offer WiFi, you will need an internet card to connect. You can buy them at the ETECSA kiosks near the parks for a minimal cost.
While I found a number of blog posts relating to Havana travel, most were from the pre-pandemic days. The r/Cuba Reddit thread was a good place for some updated information.
We both read the book The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times prior to our trip. It follows the lives of several Cuban families from the Batista years, through the revolution to the modern-day and sheds significant light on the impact of the Castro regime. Must read!
Lastly, the travel guide, Real Havana: Explore Cuba Like a Local was a great read for only $4. While many of the travel specifics are now outdated (2019 version), the book gives a great cultural immersion into Cuban life and is a wonderful supplement to the book above.
For an adventurous traveler, Cuba offers an exceptional experience. It’s a step back in time and a chance to be disconnected in a place far removed from the American brand advertising we’re bombarded with on the daily. It’s a trip that will stay with you for quite some time. In future posts, I’ll be covering the top things to do in Havana as well as sharing what makes the Cuban people so memorable and admirable.
Until next time…keep cultivating a simple, stylish, and satisfying life!