Travel to Cuba from the US: Your 10 biggest questions… answered.
You can’t miss the buzz. If you’re an American who loves to travel, you are surely hearing that “now is the time” to see Cuba – before it changes forever. (PS: They are right.)
Today, Carnival’s Fathom cruise ship set sail from Miami towards Cuba. You tell me if that marks impending change for the island…
I’m happy I’m not on that cruise, but I did just take a trip to Cuba under the “people-to-people” license – one of 12 legal ways Americans can currently visit Cuba. I happened to go with a small NYC based tour company called “Travendly” which brings together a small group of people all from the same city (so you can easily stay friends once you get back).
If you are thinking of going to most likely have some questions, like…
1. Do I still need a special license to visit Cuba? I think I heard Obama say you can “self-certify” now?
Yes, you still need to meet one of the 12 categories of criteria for legal travel to Cuba. Anyone can, but you need to know what they are and what you can and cannot do. Obama recently eased restrictions to the point of allowing self-certification under the 12 acceptable categories. You still cannot travel to Cuba for leisure as an American and *technically* you must keep a log of the activities you did that met the conditions of your license for 5 years in case OFAC ever felt like auditing you. You can’t legally hit the beach.
But the only way to travel directly from the US to Cuba at this point in time (May 2016) is a charter flight. That means that while JetBlue or American Airlines may be flying your plane, you can’t book with them. You’ll need to use a third party like Cuba Travel Services. My understanding is that these companies will only book your flight if you are booked on an officially licensed tour (so much for self certifying).
Later this year, you should be able to book directly with the airlines – which will be a huge relief as working with the Cuban companies is no picnic. They are not what you would call customer service oriented”.
** UPDATE: Commercial flights from September 2016 are NOW ON SALE so you can ignore the above paragraph if traveling after that date. **
The other option is routing via a third country, like Mexico or Canada. Now that you can self-certify your OFAC license, there’s no legal reason you can’t. But should you? That depends on you. My suggestion for this point in time is to stick with a tour for simple peace-of-mind reasons.
2. Is it as easy to navigate travel to Cuba as to other similar islands?
No! If you are on a charter flight from the US, leave at least 3 hours for your check-in
ordeal process. It will be at a special counter. Do not check any bags unless you ABSOLUTELY need to. You may wait 1-4 hours to reclaim if you check. I’m not joking. Once you get to Havana, you will be bombarded with taxi offers. Feel free to negotiate with a few before you settle as taxi negotiations are standard. It’s probably about 30-50 CUCs to your hotel or casa. Depends how well you can negotiate!
Locally in town, there will be three kinds of taxis. Old beat up (but still cool!) classic cars, old boxy cars that say TAXI, and realllly cool classic convertibles. They are all taxis, but the latter will cost about twice as much. Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it! An average short ride in town was about 5-8 CUCs or 10-20 CUCs in a convertible. Don’t be afraid to bargain (though you’ll need your basic Spanish handy).
You: “Cuanto cuesta ir a Habana Vieja?”
You: “Quince? Nooooo, Cinco. CINco.”
Driver: “Noooo. Veinte. Ok, Diez.”
3. Can I use US dollars in Cuba?
No!! Silly American….
You will need CUCs (pronounced like “kook”). Some people will incorrectly tell you to get the local currency – CUPs) but those are used by locals for staple goods. They CAN use them in private businesses like you will, but at a standard conversion rate. of 25 to 1 There’s no savings and technically foreigners cannot spend CUPs anyway.
1 CUC = 1 US Dollar. That easy conversion rate makes you think you can just spend your dollars but you will need to exchange for CUCs at the airport or you won’t be going anywhere.
Your best bet is to bring Euros or Canadian Dollars to exchange at the airport. You CAN exchange US Dollars directly but the bank in Cuba will charge you a 10% penalty to do so (yes, on top of the exchange rate). When you come home, change your CUCs at the airport in Cuba because you cannot do anything with them in the US. No US banks or currency exchange centers may handle CUCs and you will be turned away.
Small tip: If you are changing currency at home for a foreign currency you will later exchange to CUCs, don’t mention to the banker or clerk that your destination is Cuba. Because the US banking rules haven’t changed yet, they can’t legally enable you to transact money in Cuba. Strange but true quirk of the law in 2016.
Besides the airport in Havana, the only place I saw to exchange money was in a massive flea market near Old Havana. Same rates and US Dollar surcharge.
4. Wouldn’t I get better rates just using my credit / debit / ATM card in Cuba?
No!!!! Because the banking regulations prohibiting US banks from dealing with Cuba are still in effect, your US based credit cards, debit cards, and ATM cards will NOT work. At all. If you ran out of cash I suppose you’d need someone to wire you money. Because you have no way to get it with any of your plastic.
NOTE: As of July 2016, it is being reported that a US bank is issuing credit cards that work there, though this is still beyond rare for now. See Sonia’s comment below for info.
5. Will my cell phone work in Cuba?
Verizon phones will get service (I don’t know the per minute fees) but will not currently get data. Other carriers, like AT&T which I use, will make your phones into paperweights while in Cuba. No service anywhere. Zero.
6. Can I get Wifi in Cuba?
Well, technically you CAN. But good luck. There are a handful of hot spots in major cities like Havana. You will need to buy a special card to use it which charges by the hour. Service will be terrible. And those hot spots are few and far between. In Havana, some major hotels have hotspots and certain parts of certain streets. I can’t tell you where for sure because it was enough of a pain that I gave up. Even if you are staying in hotel with Wifi (which again, will not be free), it may or may not work. If you have mission critical work that requires access, you may want to wait a bit on your Cuba trip.
Plan to just take a break from the Interwebs.
7. Do you recommend a trip to the beach while in Cuba?
Well, for one thing, that is against the terms of the US license you are agreeing to. But our tour guide, a Havana native, couldn’t understand the question. In her words “the beaches in Cuba are not special. Why come all the way here for an “OK” beach?” So listen to her and spend the time getting to know the Cubans. See the history. Experience the country.
8. How is the food in Cuba? How are the sanitary conditions? Is it safe to drink the water?
For the most part, we all really enjoyed Cuba food. Have some Ropa Vieja (a traditional Cuban beef dish). It isn’t a culinary mecca – but there’s good food to be had. Restaurante Decameron was great, as was a place called NAO, right in the old city.
We stayed in a very nice Casa (yes, that’s just a house) that was setup with multiple rooms – like a large bed and breakfast. Breakfast was served every morning. The last two days we were there, we lacked running water. Not a fault of the Casa…. A water main in town broke and we ran out of our rationed water. Don’t *expect* that will happen to you but, hey, it’s just not a first world country so you should expect the unexpected. Casas are legally required to have air conditioning in order to serve foreign guests – so you should expect that. It would be HOT if you didn’t.
You are advised NOT to drink the tap water. I used tap for brushing my teeth without incident, but bottled for everything else. Personal sized bottles of water will only cost from 50 cents (local stores) to $1-$2 in tourist places.
A lot of smaller restaurants – especially ones with outdoor cooking areas – may not follow strict hygiene standards. We were in one where the cooks openly admitted that soap was not part of their hand-washing ritual. Just again be aware that this is not a first world country. If the restaurant looks dirty in the areas you can see, that’s probably not a great sign. Use your best judgement as you will need to eat….
9. Is it safe in Cuba?
Great question. We always felt safe and it’s regarded as a safe country. However, I do think that is at risk as the country struggles with a widening income disparity between those that are working in the private sector and those that work in government jobs at the very time there is about to be a massive influx of tourism.
The country is in the midst of MASSIVE change. And if you ask me, all those tourists are eventually going to look like ripe targets for the more down on their luck locals. So even though I felt safe, I’m going to suggest you still keep an eye out for anyone that looks less than well intentioned. You don’t want that kind of problem in a country where you can’t use your cell phone nor get cash.
10. Tell me more about the “changes” happening in Cuba? What will change with US tourism?
The locals talk a lot about the coming US tourists. The infrastructure isn’t setup to handle massive amounts of US tourists. For one, the airport terminal that accepts US flights has one gate. ONE. And flights go when they go. Worst airport check-in experience of any country I’ve been to (so that’s out of 42). All the desks are staffed by government workers regardless of your airline and it can be painfully slow to get through. But even in town, they’ve had the same flow of tourism since the early 90’s. Canadians and Europeans, mostly.
Facilities are old and most are not up to “US standards” – that is to say, we’re picky tourists and the facilities are not 5 star.
You may have heard Starwood Hotels and Marriott International will look to build hotels there now. We also saw several signs where boutique hotels are “coming soon.”
But as nice as that sounds, that’s not Cuba. And when those hotels arrive, they will be expensive. They will be such tourist silos that they will put the real Cuba “on display” for the tourists. Like a zoo.
The locals will adapt to figure out how to lift more money out of the American pockets. They will become shrewder. And prices – where you can currently have a great dinner for $10-$20, will rise. A lot.
And many tourists, especially the early ones, are likely to be disappointed in the caliber of the hotels and casas and restaurants and complain that it wasn’t up to their standards.
But that’s just it. It’s not about US standards. It’s about Cuban life and all the politics and history that had brought it to where it is today.
Go to see Cuba and to appreciate its heritage and get to know the people. But don’t expect luxury. in the words of our hosts every time something went awry: “It’s Cuba!”