cuba

Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your First Trip to Cuba

Updated November 9, 2017

If you’re looking to plan your first trip to Cuba, you’re already on the right path.

A plan is definitely necessary to visit this special country  - especially for Americans. There is no “winging” a trip to Cuba... but trust us, that is for the best. You wouldn’t want to accidentally miss anything on this marvelous island!

You’ve probably heard that American travel restrictions to Cuba have recently changed. However, as per American law, visiting Cuba as a “tourist” is still illegal.

Huh? What? But then how are Americans visiting?

Visiting Cuba as a tourist is still illegal, but it's now legal to visit independently with one of eleven (rather vague) pre-approved reasons.

Photo: Alexander Kunze

Our guide to getting a general license explains all the new restrictions, but simply put: it is legal to visit Cuba for educational purposes, journalistic research, and to support the Cuban people, among other reasons.

But how will they know what I am doing while I'm there?

Well, customs might just ask, especially if you are flying direct from the United States.

That is why it is important to have a structured plan arranged before you leave - but don’t worry, we’re going to help you with that.

Hands down, the easiest way to get a travel plan that fulfills government requirements is to have a local plan your trip. Locals have connections to tiny organizations, private classes, and small businesses. These connections would be impossible to find otherwise, especially because internet is scarce in Cuba, and locals do not advertise online.

Let one of ViaHero’s on-the-ground trip planners curate your Cuban adventure. These locals take into account your travel preferences - outdoor adventures? food fanatic? museum junkie? - and create a plan for you. They also ensure you participate in enough local activities to fulfill any government requirements.

Best part? You’re going to have a more fulfilling and authentic trip! ViaHero’s locals will ensure you get to see the real Cuba.  

Ready to go on an enriching trip to Cuba? Match with your local today and start curating your dream Cuban adventure!

Photo:Ban Yido

Things to know when planning your first trip to Cuba:

Before you go:

First things first - drop all pretenses and forget the myths you’ve heard. It is best to visit Cuba in with an open mind. Cuba is an unforgettable island with a robust culture that sweeps you up the second you get off the plane.

Before arriving, consider what you want to do. Do you want to stay in Havana the entire time, and soak up city life? Do you want to explore Cuba’s lush wildlife? Do you want to head on an epic road trip to other Cuban cities?

Figure out what sort of Cuban adventure you want to have! This will help you declare what type of general license (approved reason) you are applying for.

Flights:

Travelers must figure out their “reason” to visit Cuba before booking their flight. A query will pop-up before you can purchase your tickets, asking your qualifying reason to visit.

Read our Cuban Flight Guide for more information on flying to Cuba from the USA.

Accommodations:

Accommodations can be difficult to arrange in advance because internet is scarce in Cuba. Your hero will be able to suggest comfortable accommodations in a wonderful part of town.

It is recommended that you stay with a Cuban family in a casa particular - a type of Cuban homestay that is similar to an Airbnb.

Hotels are controlled by the government and very expensive, but not very nice. Staying with a family will provide a more authentic experience, and help you support Cuban locals.

Photo: George Barker

Spanish:

It's important to remember that you are the foreigner in Cuba, and you can't expect everyone to speak English. Although some people speak English, rudimentary Spanish is very helpful, especially when trying to negotiate prices.

At the very least, be sure to know how to say phrases like, “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “how much is…” and “where is…”

If you have time before your trip, make an effort to brush up on your Spanish!

Travel Insurance:

The Cuban government requires that all travelers have valid health insurance to be permitted to enter the country. Your US insurance plan will not cover you while in Cuba, and you'll have to purchase special travel insurance.

It is unclear if they enforce this rule, but it is easy enough to purchase an inexpensive plan before arriving. Policies can also be purchased at the airport after you land.

Bring:

Sunscreen
Toilet paper
Hand sanitizer
Snacks for children (if they are picky)
A car seat if you’re bringing young children

Photo: Augustin de Montesquiou

Once you arrive:

Understand before arriving that Cuban airports are stressful, chaotic places.

Things take a long time, lines are long, and organization is limited. Remain calm, and always give yourself more time than you think you need to get through the airport.

If possible, consider bringing a carry-on bag to make the process faster.  

Expect the unexpected:

Expect to discover roadblocks throughout your journey in Cuba. Not everything operates smoothly. Sometimes cars will break down, or the power cut out. Handle these situations with a relaxed smile, just as the locals do.  

Internet:

The internet is extremely limited. Luckily, your plan from ViaHero will work in an offline map that retains all of the information you need.

In terms of answering emails and posting pictures, don’t plan on doing either. If you find internet, great! If not, think of your Cuban trip as a digital detox.

Money:

Cuba is a cash economy. ATMs are hard to find, and American cards will not work in them. Arrive in Cuba with enough cash to pay for your entire trip.

Bring bills to exchange into the Cuban tourist currency - the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) - when you arrive.

Note: U.S. dollars have an extra 10% exchange tax applied to them. Bring Euros, Canadian dollars, or Mexican pesos to exchange instead.

It is important to tip everyone who helps you at least 1 CUC.

Photo: Simon Matzinger

Transportation:

The main ways of getting around Cuba is by bus, taxi, or plane. The bus system is well organized, although it is crowded and not comfortable.

It is also possible to pay for a taxi to take you around.  If you find a taxi driver that you get along with, keep their number so you can use them throughout your trip.

Cheap flights between cities exist, but beware the airport. 

Prices:

If you don’t speak Spanish well enough to haggle prices, you may find it difficult to negotiate fair rates. Ask your casa particular host about average prices for things like taxi rides and souvenirs.

Food:

You will likely find food to be one of your favorite parts of visiting Cuba! There are many private restaurants that give travelers a peek into Cuban home cooking. Expect lots of rice and beans - they are a staple in Cuban cuisine. Our hero Lisbet is a Cuban food writer - match with her to get amazing food recommendations!

Water:

Do not drink tap water in Cuba or use ice unless you know it comes from bottled water.

It is not easy to consistently find bottled water, so when you locate some, stock up.

Talk to the locals:

You will find locals to be friendly and well-educated. Do not miss an opportunity to have an enlightening conversation. The arts are respected in Cuba, and it is easy to have a vibrant discussion about music, dance, or books.

Souvenirs:

Friends and family are going to want you to bring Cuban rum and cigars back with you! Be sure to check on importation restrictions for travelers. 

Tobacco and alcohol must be transported in carry-on baggage and for personal use, and cannot be resold. 

Receipts:

Visitors must keep all of their Cuban travel receipts for five years after they return from their trip.

Have more questions about Cuba? Here is a list of local Cuban Travel Experts who can help you or you can message us any questions you have.

Ready to plan your dream trip to Cuba? Match with your local today!

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