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12 Things to Know If You’re Thinking about Going to Cuba

Thinking about going to Cuba soon? We just visited Havana from Jan 17-20, and can share some recent observations about visiting Cuba generally and Havana specifically. As changes continue, check back on AFAR.com. We’ll be following developments in Cuba closely.

1. It’s a challenging place. Cuba is not just rough around the edges, it is pretty raw throughout. That being said, for the most adventurous and experiential of travelers, it is a fascinating and rewarding destination. The people are great, along with the music, the dancing, the entrepreneurial spirit. Its history is very unique, and this is quite a moment in time. Cubans are very excited about the changes going on there, in particular the coming arrivals of more Americans, and their enthusiasm is infectious.

2. Getting there. As of January 15, U.S. airlines and travel agents can sell and book travel directly to Cuba. Our travel advisor, Jetset World Travel, booked our trip directly through Copa Airlines (via Panama), the first time JetSet had ever been able to ticket this way. American Airlines has been running flights for specially permitted travel between Miami and Havana for years, and it is looking to expand service in light of the new regulations. United has said it is applying to fly from both Houston and Newark to Havana. When these new routes will take effect are still uncertain but the fact that they applied for operating licenses on the same day the changes went into effect signals that they want to move fast.

3. Getting in. As of January 15, Americans can visit Cuba without prior approval or as part of a pre-approved program, as long as the visit is for one of 12 reasons the regulations provide. Cuba has in the past required Americans to buy a visa for $20. The visa is just a form travelers can easily obtain at the departure airport from the airline they are flying. It is not certain if this visa will be required after the change in U.S. policy, but we secured them for our recent trip and no one indicated we could have skipped it.

4. Hotels and other lodging. There are very few great hotels in the country. There are between two to four very good hotels in Havana, and hardly any in the rest of the country. The hotels in Havana are already basically at full occupancy in high season, even before Americans start coming. All of the hotels are owned by the government. It is still best to book hotels through travel companies experienced in doing business in Cuba, although this should loosen up over time. As of this date, the hotels do not take American credit cards, although that will be changing after January 15th. Travelers can also stay in private homes, casas particulares, for much less money than hotels, but the quality is very spotty and they are difficult to find and reserve. This website has listings in Cuba. Most Cubans have very limited Internet access, so casas particulares are not being listed or booked on Airbnb or the like yet. Unless you have a personal recommendation and phone number or email address of a casa particular, they are difficult to book in advance.

5. Money. There are two Cuban currencies, the peso (moneda nacional), which is used exclusively by locals, and the C.U.C. (generally called a dollar), which is used by tourists and by locals for nicer things. The C.U.C. is worth about 25 times the peso. The Cuban government has said they will get rid of the dual currency system, but it was still in place as of our visit. One C.U.C. is about US $1.15. Travelers can convert into C.U.C. at large hotels, major banks. and at the airport from U.S. dollars and euros. For the last several years, exchange rates have been better on the euro than the dollar, and more places accept the euro, so the recommendation has been to bring euros from the U.S. to convert. We converted euros at the airport on arrival and more at the Saratoga Hotel.

6. Credit and debit cards. The January 15 regulation changes permit Americans to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, but it was not yet possible as of January 20. Some restaurateurs in Cuba tell us they expected acceptance of American credit cards to be available soon.

7. Mobile phone service. The January 15 regulations also permit American telecommunication companies to establish relationships that will allow American travelers to access phone service while in Cuba, but once again this had not yet been accomplished as of January 20th. With our AT&T international service, we could see Cubacel service available, but we were unable to connect with it. Even when cell connection is available, mobile service does not currently connect to the Internet, so the service will only be useful for phone calls and texting.

8. Internet service. Internet service in Cuba is sparse. Many hotels do not offer access. Most Cubans do not have service, and for those who do, it is slow and expensive. The Saratoga and Parque Centrale hotels have excellent service and sell access to non-guests at the business center for about 10 C.U.C. an hour.

9. Getting around. There are lots of taxis in Havana, some government-approved and many not. Rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The taxis charge tourists roughly three times what they charge locals. There is no point fighting that. Always clarify the rate for your destination before starting the trip. Most Cuban drivers do not speak English well. The fare from the airport to central Havana is about 25 C.U.C. (US$30).

10. Dining. I think you can eat better quality Cuban cuisine in the largest American cities than you can at restaurants in Havana. That being said, the opening of many privately owned restaurants (paladares) since the Cuban government has made private business easier the last few years, has improved the dining situation considerably. The paladares are opportunities for excellent chefs to earn more than they could at government restaurants.

11. Scams. You will be offered the opportunity to buy cigars on the street. Keep on walking. These cigars are either stolen goods, or not the real thing. In addition, you’ll be buying at highly inflated prices. Don’t be a sucker. If you’re a cigar aficionado, head to the higher-end hotels. You can buy them there or the concierge can point you in the right direction. Also, many Cubans will approach you on the street and try to befriend you. Know that they are more interested in your wallet than being your friend. It can be a great opportunity to see the way real people live but know they’ll want a “commission” at the end. Try to negotiate that up front.

12. Safety. Cuba is pretty darn safe. Messing with tourists is a big “no no” because of the revenue it drives for the country. If you’re aware of your surroundings and your belongings you shouldn’t run into trouble. Just like any place, if you leave your bag lying around, you shouldn’t be surprised if it turns up missing. Petty crime is probably your biggest worry but don’t put yourself in a situation where something more serious could develop.

Photo by Holly Wilmeth.