Cuba is one of the most unique countries on the planet and that makes it a destination of curiosity. Really though, how many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba”? Yep, it’s foreign and “frozen in time”, and that presents a set of challenges as well as unique opportunities that you need to know about before traveling.
Here are our Top 15 Tips for Traveling to Cuba…
1. Plan Well Before You Go
We can’t tell you how many places we’ve traveled and who we’ve met that didn’t plan before they arrived. We’ve met people sleeping in their car in Iceland who didn’t plan for how expensive Iceland is. There was a couple on a short layover in Rome asking for the best things to do who didn’t know there were so many options. And we’ve seen multiple travelers scrounging for housing in the streets of Cuba because they simply didn’t plan well. In light of our experiences and the limitation of information and internet in Cuba, we suggest you plan and book before you arrive. Take our advice, plan well to maximize your time and allow your holiday to be less stressful!
We suggest weighing your options and decide if you want a hassle-free vacation or if you want to be adventurous and fly by the seat of your pants.
Hassle-free Travelers: Book experienced and trusted travel services before your arrival. Browse our available tours to see how we may serve you!
Adventurous Travelers: Do extensive research before your departure, and purchase a reputable guide book. If you’re the adventurous travel type who likes to go without plans, for sure keep reading.
2. Stay in a Casa Particular (Bed & Breakfast)
If you want the most authentic Cuban experience, staying in Casa Particulares (we call them Bed & Breakfasts) are the way to go! Plus, for Americans, it’s required for you to stay in a BnB, as the new laws prohibit you from staying in the fancy hotels. Cuban BnBs are comprised of a private home, private rooms, private bathrooms, air conditioner, and a homey touch with a host family that may cook for you and help point you in the right direction if you are the curious traveler.
Gardner Tours utilizes Cuban BnBs on all of our tours because the experience in a Cuban BnB is authentic and it also gets you the best experience for the right price. We have worked with our trusted BnB partners since 2012 and they are like family to us. Some are mid-1800s colonial homes and some have a modern touch with Cuban style. Click the photos below to view some of our partner BnBs. You can’t go wrong with staying in a Casa Particular in Cuba. In addition, the beds in the Casas are the same as in the hotels, so you’re not missing out on anything by staying in a Casa Particular. See what one of our travelers had to say about his BnB in Havana…
“Our Cuban BnB was better than the hotel we’re staying in on Cayo Coco–stylish, comfortable, immaculate & friendly hosts with delicious, fresh breakfasts.” –Marc Harrison (Traveled with Gardner Tours in September 2018)
3. Understand Cuban Internet & Communications
Internet access is available at some public parks and hotels in Cuba, and is often unreliable. To gain access, you need to purchase a card (from 1 to 3 CUC per hour), of which you may do so via the “ETECSA” office or via your Gardner Tours Guide. You may also purchase internet cards in the parks from locals, but know that you will pay a premium price. Upon receiving your internet card, it’s time to scratch off the password and get connected. Simply turn on your wifi and connect to the network labeled “ETECSA”. After waiting a few seconds, a window will appear and you can enter your username and password to connect.
Locals and tourists alike attempt to get and stay online, which slows the internet down and makes if unreliable. If you desire internet, we recommend having an ample amount of time to spare!
Cell phone access in Cuba may also not be guaranteed or the most reliable. Please contact your service provider to check on the availability of your company’s cell service while traveling in Cuba.
When traveling to Cuba, let your friends and family know that you’re going to be off the grid for a while. In that case, we recommend you take advantage of being unconnected and indulge yourself as you immerse fully in Cuban culture. From experience, none of our travelers have ever commented negatively about being disconnected while traveling Cuba. It’s freeing, you should try it too!
4. Don’t Count on Credit Cards – Plan for a Cash-Only Vacation
No matter what country you are from, we recommend preparing for your Cuban holiday to be cash-only. American debit or credit cards are not accepted currently in Cuba, yet most vendors aren’t equipped to accept payments even if your card was accepted. Note: Gardner Tours has received travelers from the UK that brought only a certain amount of cash and their credit card, yet they were still restricted because their bank routed cash via the USA (they didn’t know that prior to arriving) and there were few locations they could use their card anyhow.
Knowing this information, you need to budget properly. To do so, utilize our Budgeting for Cuba page.
5. Know Cuban Currency
Cuba has two currencies–a tourist currency (CUC) and a local currency (CUP). You may use both, but you need to know the difference.
The tourist and major legal currency for Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC. It’s what you exchange your foreign currency for and make all your purchases with in Cuba. Most tourists will only ever deal with CUC. For international exchange purposes 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.15 USD. Note that there is a 13% penalty charged when exchanging USD, so, you will only receive .87 CUC for 1 USD when changing the money, allowing for the 13% interest. One way to determine if you have CUC is noticing the monuments on the bills. Monuments determine that they are CUC.
The second legal currency in Cuba is the Cuban Peso, CUP, which is primarily used by locals, but it’s still something you should know about, as it is perfectly legal for tourists to use. 1 CUC is equal to about 25 CUP. One way to determine if you have CUP is noticing the faces on the bills. Faces determine that they are CUP.
6. Learn How to Get Around
If you’re traveling on an all-inclusive tour with Gardner Tours, you won’t need to learn how to get around. However, if you’re an independent traveler, it’s of utmost importance to learn about traversing Cuba before arrival.
Traveling from one part of the country to another requires either hiring a private taxi, using a collective taxi (traveling with others you don’t know), or taking a Viazul bus, and those are in order from most expensive to least expensive based on convenience. If you choose to utilize Viazul, we recommend booking online in advance, as they sell out quickly. (Don’t forget to print your booking reference before you depart your home country.)
7. Learn to “Hurry Up & Wait!”
If there’s one thing Cuba is known for besides cigars, classic cars, and a rich history, it’s long lines. Another reason to book with an experienced and trusted booking service like Gardner Tours is getting to avoid long lines. This also helps you make the most of your time! Nonetheless, there are some lines that you can’t avoid like customs at the airport, bank lines (for exchanging money), the occasional line to use the bathroom, or a line for the bus (if traveling independent of a tour company).
If you happen to find yourself in a line, to save you the stress of finding the end of the line, simply ask “el último?” In short, the Cubans have devised a brilliant system for lines and that expression means, “Who’s last in line?” Once you have identified the last person in line, and possibly even the person in front of them, just keep your eyes on them. And don’t forget to answer to the next person asking “el último?”
8. Utilize & Appreciate Your Hosts
Whether a tour guide, taxi driver, BnB hosts, or all of the above, know that your hosts are hard-working locals, and chances are, they’ve lived and worked in that area for most of their lives. They’re usually well connected with a network of information and often have the answer that you or your guidebook may not. In need of a private taxi? Ask your BnB host. Just can’t seem to find that one souvenir? Ask your tour guide. Can’t locate the restaurant you’ve heard all about? Ask your taxi driver. Or even if you need an evening to yourself, ask your BnB host to cook you a meal (it’s a custom offer in Cuban BnBs). Your hosts are honest, hardworking people, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, tip them, or show them how much you appreciate their help by leaving a note or a small gift from home.
However, know that often, if you arrange services outside of your BnB, the prices may go up on you. This is due to the fact that Cuba largely works on a commission basis. For arranging services outside of their own, they may require commission from the service provider, which can drive up the price. However, if you travel with Gardner Tours, it has been agreed upon and is guaranteed that not one of our trusted partners will charge a commission on account of any requested services.
If you’re traveling independently of Gardner Tours and you need to stay at a trusted BnB, Gardner Tours is happy to arrange your accommodations with our trusted BnB partners. Simply contact us requesting that we arrange your accommodations and we will take care of you!
9. Plan Your Evenings
If you’re traveling independently and would like to experience Cuban nightlife, we recommend you do your research in advance. Be prepared to spend some time and money traveling between venues, especially in Havana where they are greater in number yet dotted sporadically throughout the city. If you find a venue you like, stick with it, and enjoy your evening!
Also, if you want to eat at the most acclaimed Cuban restaurants, don’t count on walking up and getting a table. Many, if not most, of those restaurants require reservations four to five days in advance.
Note: Gardner Tours offers tours that include meals and nightlife, your transportation, entry, reservations, and meals are pre-arranged and paid for–this makes your holiday hassle, haggle, and frustration free!
10. Eat at Paladars (Privately Owned Restaurants)
Although some government restaurants may appear to be nicer and cheaper, believe us when we tell you, their food quality is definitely not as good as the local Paladars. Since the Cuban government opened up the possibility for locals to own and operate their own restaurants, the options for exquisite cuisine in Cuba have drastically increased! Creativity in the private food department of Cuba is blooming, and it’s guaranteed to leave your mouth watering for your next meal.
Gardner Tours was founded by a people-loving foodie and cultural guru, thus we partner with what we believe are the best restaurants in all of Cuba, based on sanitation, food quality, service, and cultural experience.
Don’t forget what we said above. If you’re traveling independently, you’ll want to arrange reservations four to five days prior to your arrival at the most famous eating spots.
11. Know How to Communicate with Cubans
If you’re discernibly foreign, you will probably get plenty of attention in the streets. You’ll likely be approached by locals asking where you’re from or if you’re in need of a service. Don’t worry, these people might be slightly annoying and pester you over time, but they are usually not a threat. If you’re not interested, we recommend communicating “no thank you” and continuing about your way. Remember, your body language says it all. Do you hesitate, opening the door for more communication, or do you keep cool, look and sound uninterested, and continue moving?
Also, if you agree to their offerings, prepare to pay a higher price for almost anything they offer. These jineteros (street hustlers) are not only acting illegally, but they receive commission, thus ultimately increasing your bill.
At the same time, use discernment and if you believe they are simply being friendly and want to chat with no ulterior motives, feel free to stop and chat. The Cuban people are friendly, love to talk, and enjoy new people!
When it comes to your hosts, once comfortable, feel free to be expressive. Give hugs, smile, laugh, and even give them a kiss on their left cheek when you greet them! You’ll find they genuinely enjoy serving you and want you to feel loved and cared for in your time with them. When with Gardner Tours, you’ll quickly find our partners and guides to be friendly, trustworthy, and equally huggable.
12. Travel Light
No matter how you choose to travel in Cuba, we recommend you pack light–try to travel with carry-on luggage only. As you might carry your own bags up the stairs at your BnB or hotel due to the lack of porters, you might want to think about ensuring you don’t pack your entire house! Not only that, but some taxis, vans, or buses don’t always have the proper space for large luggage. That being said, we recommend bringing only a small backpack for carrying small items (camera, hat, water, sunscreen, etc) during your day activities, and a carry-on size piece of luggage, which is 45 linear inches (22 x 14 x 9 in) or 115 centimeters (56 x 36 x 23 cm).
13. Utilize Offline Maps
Because your cell provider may not provide service in Cuba, we recommend printing maps or utilizing offline maps on your smartphone, especially if you’re not directionally gifted. With all of the options of places to visit in Cuba, and the risk of getting lost in an unknown foreign country, we suggest you don’t leave home without Maps.me! That’s right! It offers offline maps, search capability, saving locations, and even gives voice directions! Simply search “Maps.me” on your app store, download it, then download the Cuba map within the application. You can thank us later.
14. Know When to Go
Cuba is a tropical island in the Caribbean, but that doesn’t mean conditions are always ideal. Although it’s possible to travel to Cuba at any time, it’s important to know what time of year is best to go. Unlike many countries in the world, there are only two seasons in Cuba–dry season and wet season. Late October to mid-April is usually the best time to visit if you desire cooler weather and less humidity, however if you prefer warmth and humidity, May to September is your time to go! Keep in mind that July to early November is hurricane season, where likely you’ll just experience windy days at most.
15. Don’t miss an Old Havana Walking Tour or a Classic Car Tour!
Even if you’re one to prefer traveling by the seat of your pants, there are experiences that you just can’t afford to miss nor can you authentically recreate on your own! No matter your plans, we recommend taking time for an Old Havana Walking Tour to discover Havana’s five-century-old history and little-known secrets as well as a two-hour Classic Car Tour to see the city’s best views and most historical sites… in a nation with the world’s largest collection of well-preserved American classic cars! Without taking part in these not-to-miss tours, it’s almost impossible to have the “authentic Cuban experience.”
BONUS – *Americans can still freely travel to Cuba!*
That’s correct! Americans are still free to travel to Cuba, and there are now direct flights from the USA for your convenience! In order to travel to Cuba, all persons traveling from or through the USA must travel under one of the 12 licensed categories. Therefore, to help you, we’ve ensured that all services provided by Gardner Tours qualify you under the licensed categories. Our travelers qualify under the Educational Activities (see §515.565) and/or the Support for the Cuban People (see §515.574) categories. Browse our Cuba Tours to see how we might make your Cuba travels amazing and hassle-free!