Things you need to know before traveling to Cuba

In 2016, I had a Vision Board party with my friends. I placed Cuba on my board as a destination I wanted to travel to.  Although it didn’t happen last year, it came to fruition a year later in May of 2017.

Preparing to travel may appear overwhelming. I hope the tips provided will help you plan a successful trip to Cuba.

Purchasing an Airline Ticket 

You have now decided to travel to Cuba. The first step is purchasing an airline ticket. I would check several airlines to compare the cost of the trip.  I choose Alaska Airlines because it allowed me to fly from LAX to Cuba without any layovers and the prices were cheap compared to other airlines. The cost of the tickets were $168.10 to Cuba + $232. 46 from Cuba =$394.56

Visa

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You must purchase a visa in order to travel to Cuba. The price of the visa depends on the airline.  Airlines such as Jetblue and Southwest Visa’s are only $50. I obtained my visa at Cuba Travel Services located in 10833 Valley View St #250, Cypress, CA 90630. I called ahead of time to make an appointment.  Upon arrival to the location, the visa only took 10 minutes to obtain. The cost was $85. It is to be noted that you can have the visa sent via mail or obtain at the airport and the cost is $100. An explanation of how to fill out the visa form is provided. Please fill out visa form correctly or you will have to purchase a new visa.

Tourism is illegal so you have to choose one of the 12 categories. You will be asked to choose why you are traveling to Cuba when purchasing your airline ticket and visa.

  1. Family visits.
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations.
  3. Journalistic activity.
  4. Professional research and professional meetings.
  5. Educational activities.
  6. Religious activities.
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions.
  8. Support for the Cuban people.
  9. Humanitarian projects.
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes.
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials.
  12. Certain authorized export transactions.

Do not be alarmed or deterred if you feel like you don’t fit into any of the categories. Most people choose educational activities or support for the Cuban people. I chose Support for the Cuban people (which means we took tours etc.) It is a formal process but airline officials did not ask any further questions at the airport.

Health Insurance

You need health insurance as most US Medical insurance is not accepted in Cuba. Most airlines include the price of health insurance as part of the airline ticket. Alaska Airlines charged $25 which was included in the fee.

Official language is Spanish

Some people know how to speak English but many do not. I suggest the following: refresh your memory on any previous learned Spanish, purchase a Spanish-English Dictionary, or use Goggle Translate. Despite not following the suggested advice I am providing, I was able to communicate with the limited Spanish I know by remembering previously learned Spanish from High School, using hand gestures and pointing to pictures if necessary.

Exchanging Money

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Check to see the exchange rate and which currency (GBP, CAD, EUR etc) provides the best rate. I have heard that Canadian currency has a great exchange rate. I changed US Dollars into Euros (1.16) at my local US bank. Call before going to make sure they have Euros at the Bank. I bank with Chase. I went to one location and they didn’t have them in the bank but I was quickly directed to Chase branch near the Carson Mall. You can exchange US Dollars in Cuba but will be taxed a 10% fee. There are two types of currency in Cuba. CUC which is usually used by tourist and CUP used by the locals.  1 CUC = 1 USD = 25 CUP. Once in Cuba, you will exchange Euros into CUC. Ask for smaller bills as most people will say they don’t have change when purchasing items. You can exchange money at the airport, hotel or ask a driver to help you exchange money. I recommend exchanging some money at the airport so that you have enough for a taxi or food for the first day.

Spending Money

I would budget about $120 a day, that will include the cost of tips, taxis, food, and tours. They have ATM’s but it does not accept American debit/credit cards. I wouldn’t rely on this service but you can have money wired through Western Union.  The process is a bit difficult as your host would have to accept the money for you. Bring extra spending money especially if you plan on buying souvenirs such as alcohol, cigars, and art. Bring more money than what you think you will need. Trust me you will be happy you did.

Lodging

You have the option of staying at Hotels, Airbnb, Homeaway or Innclusive. Some people prefer hotels but the hotels are a more expensive. I choose to stay in Airbnb’s because it’s a cheaper option and you have the opportunity to interact with the locals. I looked through pages of Airbnb’s to find the Airbnb home that suited my style.  I am pleased to report that overall I was happy with the locations I chose. When choosing a location read the reviews, fine print and look at the pictures. I would recommend you choose a place that has AC and serves Breakfast. Book your lodging in advance as you can pay before arriving.

What to Bring

Medical supplies– Make sure you bring Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, Digestive pills, Charcoal and Cipro (prescribed by a doctor for travelers diarrhea) in the case of an upset stomach. Some people have complained of having upset stomachs while in Cuba and after returning home.  My stomach became upset on the 6th day, so my supply came in handy.

Tissue, wipes, toilet seat covers, suntan lotion, mosquito repellent and hand sanitizer– Be prepared to pay coins to use the bathroom, but the bathroom, attendants only give you a couple pieces of toilet paper, so bring your own tissue in the case you have to do more than pee. Don’t be surprised if the toilet does not have an actual toilet seat. I forgot to bring toilet seat covers from home but grabbed a bunch at the LAX Airport.  Some people have mastered the art of squatting but it is something that I m still working on.

Even if you think you don’t need suntan lotion, please use and apply.

Bring mosquito repellent, If mosquitoes love your blood like they love mine, you will need it.

Washcloth– All the Airbnb’s had large body towels but no small wash cloths.

Gifts for locals–  This has been a controversial subject as to whether or not to bring gifts. I didn’t bring gifts but wish I had. I love donating to organizations and schools when I travel. If you bring items I would suggest bringing hygiene products such as lotion, soap, deodorant, etc because they are a bit expensive to purchase. Also, they love chocolate, gum, candy, and snacks that we have in the states.

Snacks– In the USA  you can find several 7 Elevens or a liquor store within a 1-mile radius. Cuba does not have convenience stores like this. I bought snacks such as apples, granola bars, Ritz cracker, Pringles, nuts etc. These snacks were very useful when I didn’t eat breakfast or had a late dinner or lunch.

Internet

I am addicted to Social Media. I was excited because this allowed me to disconnect. I know it will be a difficult to not check FaceBook, post on Instagram or Snapchat the experience but you will live, I promise. Use the time you would spend on social media to be present in the moment.

In order to use Wi-fi, you have to buy a Wi-fi card. Cards can range from $1.50- $4.00 CUC for an hour.  Try to find the cheapest card available as the prices add up. I heard that you can buy a card that will allow you to use Wi-fi for several hours, which may be a cheaper option instead of buying them by the hour. Once you buy the card, you have to go to designated spots such as a Wi-fi park or hotel. Even at one of the designated locations, Wi-fi may still be spotty due to the connection and the amount of people using the same network.

Remember to write down the number, and address of places you want to visit. I printed out the itinerary but forgot to print out telephone numbers. We often had to text people in the US to see if they could look up contact info numbers places we needed to go.

Download

Maps.Me and Google Translate before you go. Maps.Me works offline and helps with directions and determines how far a place is. You can input destinations before you leave the states if you know the location address.

Make sure you download the offline version of Google translate. I made the mistake of only downloading Google translate but was unable to use it due to no Wi-fi.

I suggest downloading E-books or games on your phone/tablet for when you have free time. For example, I am used to checking my social media before bed. Due to no Wi-fi, I was unable to do that. It would have been nice to read or play a game before bed or when driving long distances to the various cities.

Phone Service

Check with your phone carrier to see how much international text message and calling maybe while in Cuba. I have AT&T, roaming charges for Cuba it is $3 per minute, 50 cent for text,  1.30 for picture and video and $2.05 per MB. You can also inquire about international phone plans.  If you do not wish to roam simply turn off roaming and turn on airplane mode.

Alternatively you can purchase a unlocked phone from Amazon (approx. $60) and a Cuban Sim Card (approx. $25). This will allow you to make calls and text. It is to be noted that I have not purchased these items from Amazon but I have used unlocked phones in other countries and they were very useful to have when I needed to call my family in the states and use the phone to call places where I was currently traveling at.

Food

Prepare to spend $15-20 CUC per meal unless you find cheaper alternatives. Have the locals show you where they eat.  If you love lobster, fish, shrimp, you will enjoy as the seafood is cheap and delicious. I hope you love white rice and Black beans because it usually comes with every meal. Stay tuned, I will be writing a separate post on places to eat at.

Be Mindful

Cubans are very helpful and nice.  Be mindful that some people will be willing to be helpful for a small fee. They usually will offer to take you somewhere and expect a fee in return.  Before taking them up on the offer, ask if they expect a fee and how much. This allows you to either accept the offer or politely decline.

Plan Ahead

I planned tours and drivers ahead of time due to not having access to Wi-fi.  Remember that even with planning ahead things may not go as planned. Roll with the punches and find alternatives without becoming frustrated.

Join a FaceBook Travel Group

I used groups such as Black Girl Fly, Nomadness Travel, Black Travel Movement, Unlocking the Mystery of Cuba, Up in the Air life to name a few. These groups were helpful in planning my trip to Cuba.

 

 

 

 

 

23 Comments

  1. Very important post since the interest of going to Cuba is huge many people don’t research in advance. Thank you for sharing your experience. Tweeting now

    • Glad I could be helpful in the case that you are able to travel to Cuba. I love reading a god post on things you need before traveling and like to give my readers the same.

    • How exciting! I would love to go back and do all the things I didn’t get a chance to do. When are you going back?

  2. I love vision boards, they definitely make you strive for what’s on them. How exciting Cuba! Planning is very necessary and I see you took all of the measures needed. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for reading Daria. I used to do vision board with my students and now have been trying to get my friends involved. Yes planning is necessary especially to a place like Cuba.

    • Yay, I hope you get a chance to go soon. Ill be writing more about Cuba, so look forward to hearing more

    • Yes I hate that an announcement has been made, its confusing for some and and makes people nervous to experience the previous forbidden island. Hopefully people still go despite there fears.

  3. This is a GREAT post breaking down how to plan a trip to Cuba! I’m glad to know that you just can’t site Tourism for your reason of visiting. I do want to go, and I’m assuming that it may be cheaper from Chicago. Hopefully I can get a trip to Cuba under my belt before I turn 40. I love this list breaking it all down for me, now I know I will be properly prepared!

    • Thank you so much, I was overwhelmed when I first started planning, and thought a comprehensive list would have been great to have. If you don’t get a chance to go before your 40th, that would be a great 40th Birthday trip. Thank you so much for reading and I am glad you enjoyed the blog post.

  4. These are great tips. You are lucky to have been able to go before 45 puts a stop to visits. I’ve used the downloaded maps from google during previous trips.

    • I had never heard about the app before going to Cuba. I’m so glad as I did as well, only like 2 weeks before he made the announcement. The great thing is that people are still able to go and visit.

  5. Great post! It will be interesting to see how things change now with Trump’s reversal from last Friday. It stated that independent travel would be disallowed.

    • Thank you! Yes I noticed the new changes, I hope it wont deter people from traveling to Cuba simply from not understanding the new regulations that are in place.

  6. You’re list is fantastic. I am scared to go to some places because I can’t live with out my phone, and I don’t want an outrageous bill to follow me. I had a filling that the current administration would make it harder to travel to Cuba, and unfortunately I was right. I think it’s awesome that you had a chance to go. You’ve made history.

    • Thank you so much for reading. You ca still use your phone, just depends on the carrier and your international plan. If you don’t want to use your personal phone, you can buy an unlocked phone for $60 and a sim card for $25 that you can take with you. Yes they have put more restriction but the great thing is you can still travel. Just use a tour company and stay an Airbnb and you will be fine. Never thought of this trip as making history, but you are certainly right.

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