How do I get to Cuba?
Cuba has 13 international airports, with the busiest being Havana, Varadero, and Santiago de Cuba. It’s easy to get to Cuba from Europe and the UK, and US travelers will find plenty of direct flights from New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale, as well as to and from various destinations in Central and South America.
The main airlines serving Cuba from the U.S. are American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, and United. Air Canada operates from Canada, and AirFrance, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic are among the carriers flying from Europe and the UK. If you’re looking for discount flights from Europe, consider Cuba’s own Cubana Aviación or a charter carrier such as Condor.
How do I get around Cuba?
Many visitors to Cuba travel by car, either renting a vehicle themselves or hiring a car with private driver. Public transportation can be unreliable, but the options are there, including buses, trains, and domestic flights. Here's what you should keep in mind:
Road tripping is one of the most gratifying ways to explore this country, but renting a car in Cuba requires some planning. State-run rental agencies—international corporations are absent—have outlets nationwide, including the most obscure places. But in Havana, especially in high season, actually finding an available car can be a challenge, in which case you should try your luck with offices outside the capital. Your contract may also stipulate that you need to take the vehicle in for maintenance at a designated mileage.
While Cuba has an extensive road network, many roads are badly deteriorated and the obstacles are many—from giant potholes to chickens and cattle in the road. Beyond that, at certain points, many roads are only one lane, shared in both directions. Drive slowly and carefully as you snake through the countryside and negotiate the city traffic. Another reason to avoid speeding is Cuba's traffic police—they are ubiquitous and highly efficient.
If you're planning on traveling between, say, Havana and the eastern provinces, flying might be the way to go. As mentioned above there are airports throughout the country, and two domestic airlines—Cubana Aviación and AeroGaviota—fly between the provincial capital cities, but delays and cancellations are common. Book well in advance.
Relatively few Cubans own cars, so the subsidized public bus system is the default mode of transport for inter-city travel. Foreign visitors are barred from using the Ómnibus Nacional system, but fear not: Víazul buses, which serve tourists, link the major provincial cities and resorts and operate with surprising efficiency for a state-run company. Reservations are essential, and kimkim's local experts can assist.
Budget travelers and masochists may be enticed to travel by train. The good points: a single line spans the country connecting major cities, with branch lines linking secondary towns. Also, fares are relatively inexpensive. However, service is irregular and unreliable, and carriages are typically filthy and excessive air-conditioning is guaranteed to send your teeth chattering.
Are there restrictions on where I can travel?
Many visitors arrive with the false notion that travel around the island is restricted. This couldn't be further from the truth. With the rare few exceptions, like the military zones around Guantánamo Bay, you’re free to explore Cuba end to end.
What is the food like?
The Revolution did Cuba’s culinary scene no favors, but anything you might have heard about the island’s dismal dining is old news. Recent economic liberalization has fostered a blossoming of paladares (private restaurants) that every year grow more sophisticated and experimental. Today, Havana’s culinary landscape is quite exciting.
Cuban food is heavily influenced by African and Spanish culture, and you’ll discover a variety of typical dishes, most containing chicken, pork or shrimp, accompanied by rice, black beans, plantains, and either starch root vegetables or tomatoes and cucumbers. Cubans season their food mildly, an example being their national dish of ropa vieja (old clothes). It's made of braised marinated lamb or beef cooked with sweet peppers and onions. Various seafood dishes are widely available also, including lobster. In the countryside, there’s not a great variety of dishes, but everywhere you travel you’ll find at least a few tasty and filling options. As for dessert, Cubans have a sweet tooth and adore ice cream, but other desserts include flan, and a delicious custard called natilla.
How big is Cuba?
Answer: bigger than most visitors imagine. Long and narrow, it measures about 800 miles east-west, about as much as Britain and California measure north-south. Most of the southern shore is marshy and uninhabited, so settlements concentrate along the spine and northern shores, with Havana in the far west, and Santiago de Cuba—the nation's second largest city—in the extreme east. On the northern coast, you'll find the resort area of Varadero, plus a series of long islets rimmed with gorgeous white-sand beaches.
Only two roads run east-west along the length of Cuba: the Carretera Central runs along the spine, end-to-end, while the disjointed Costera Norte runs along the north coast. A badly deteriorated eight-lane freeway—the Autopista Nacional—connects Havana to Pinar del Río Province to the west, and Santa Clara to the east, running parallel to the Carretera Central, which is single lane in each direction. Getting between cities is easy, although it may take longer than many people expect due to the poor conditions on certain roads. To further get your bearings, check out this article about the five regions of Cuba.
Do I need a visa?
Yes, a tourist visa—tarjeta de turista—is required for all visitors. It’s valid for 30 days (90 days for Canadians) and can be extended twice while in Cuba. Tourist visas can be purchased in advance from Cuban consulates, or tourist agencies, and even the airline providing travel to Cuba. U.S. airlines that offer service to Cuba provide visas through affiliate travel services. Your passport must be valid for six months beyond the date of entry to Cuba.
Is Cuba a safe place for travelers?
In January 2018, Cuba was named “Safest country in the World” at the International Tourism Fair, in Spain. Violent crimes are extremely rare. What little crime there is can be associated with fraud schemes and thefts related to the growth of Cuba’s tourism industry, so a good deal of caution is wise when you’re in public places.
Your number one concern when it comes to safety is the often hazardous state of sidewalks and roads, and extreme care is required when walking and driving. Hurricanes are a slim possibility June-October, but Cuba has an exemplary warning and evacuation system, and it is extremely rare that anyone is injured or worse.
Can I bring my children?
Absolutely! Cubans are extremely family-oriented and adore children. Plus, there’s plenty to excite the kids.
When is the best time of year to visit?
The winter months—November through May—are undoubtedly best. This is when you'll find the coolest weather, least amount of rain, and most festivals. However, this is also the high season for tourists and prices, and the most popular venues, such as Habana Vieja (Old Havana), and the colonial city of Trinidad can get crowded. The off-season summer months are hot and humid, with severe thunderstorms and even hurricanes a possibility. Still, Cuba at any time of year is rewarding and, in July, the nation's main carnival is hosted in Santiago de Cuba. For more detailed info about the best times to visit, check out this article.
How many days should I spend in Cuba?
That depends on your budget, schedule, and what you want to see and do. If you want to spend a long weekend in Havana, that’s easily doable: With a week or 10 days, you can enjoy Havana plus explore many of the most popular and important regional destinations, such as scenic tobacco country, Santa Clara, and the colonial city of Trinidad. Or if you prefer a long road trip the length of the island, you’ll need a few weeks: see How to Spend 2 Weeks in Cuba. If you want even more ideas, be sure to check out our piece titled, conveniently, "How Many Days Should You Spend in Cuba?"
I don’t speak Spanish. Can I travel independently?
Absolutely. Many people in Cuba speak at least a little English, which is compulsory in all schools. Even if you’re out in the countryside far from tourist areas, you’re likely to find someone who speaks English. However, it certainly helps to arrive in Cuba having already learned some common words and phrases. That said, a trip to Cuba is a good opportunity to learn a little Spanish. But even if you speak some Spanish, it’s a good idea to hire a local guide. Beyond simply assisting with communication, a guide can offer valuable insights into local culture, history, and customs that can be difficult to learn on your own.
What currency is used?
Cuba currently uses two currencies, although the government intends to unify these by the end of 2018. Almost all transactions that a tourist will make are in pesos convertibles (convertible pesos, or CUCs), which officially trade on a par with the U.S.$. A second currency—the peso, or moneda nacional (MN)—is used by Cubans for local purchases, such as food items, buses, taxis, and baseball games. Budget travelers are the only visitors likely to need MN, as convertible pesos are typically used.
One CUC is worth 24 MN, so getting to learn the difference between them is critical to avoid being a victim of scams when receiving change. They’re easy to tell apart: CUCs are multi-colored, are printed with the word “peso convertible,” and feature monuments of national heroes. Each MN bill is a single color and shows the face of a national hero. CUCs cannot be purchased outside Cuba. All currency exchange in the country is charged a 3% commission, but there’s a 10% surcharge for changing U.S. dollars. Hence, U.S. travelers should bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange.
Is Cuba expensive?
It depends. Cuba is what you make of it. If you’re a budget traveler on a shoestring, you’ll find plenty of inexpensive accommodation for around $20-30 per night, plus affordable local meals—such as pizza, spaghetti, or chicken with rice and beans—for a few convertible pesos. And you can always get around cities in the basic local transport, and eat ice cream for the equivalent of pennies using moneda nacional (MN) in local Coppelia stores.
If you’d prefer more creature comforts and upscale dining options, you’ll find a wide array of hotels—many of them lovely boutique properties—in the $75-200 range, plus good restaurant options. And if you're looking for luxury hotels, you'll find them—notably in Havana and the main beach resorts). Remember that hotels typically charge considerably higher rates in high season, and car rental will set you back at least U.S. $75 per day.
Are credit cards widely accepted?
Visa and MasterCard are accepted in Cuba, but often the processing equipment isn’t functioning, and an 11% surcharge is typically charged. Travelers should note that no U.S.-issued card can be used, and non-U.S. travelers should check that their card isn’t processed through a U.S. financial institution: If it is, there is a strong likelihood that U.S. regulators will freeze the account. For the same reason, U.S. visitors should avoid checking their bank statements online while in Cuba, as the U.S. financial networks are set up to identify the IP addresses and will assume a financial transaction is in occurring from Cuba, which is a “sanctioned” nation under U.S. embargo laws.
U.S. visitors will need to travel on a cash-only basis, and all travelers should arrive with more cash than you believe you will need in the event that you’re unable to use credit cards.
Is there a tipping culture in Cuba?
Yes, for good service at restaurants, plus other services in hotels such as your concierge and housekeeper. Some paladares (private restaurants) include a 10-15% service charge in your bill. The state-owned yellow tourist taxis are leased to the drivers, who are self-employed and usually build their profit into the negotiated rate. However, feel free to tip if your chofer (driver) offers extra amenable service. Elsewhere, tipping is less common.
What should I pack?
That largely depends on when you travel and what activities you’ll be doing. While winter months are usually warm, with long spells without rain, it can get cool—especially in Havana and the western provinces—and heavy rainfall is always a possibility. Summer months are very hot and humid, and rain is virtually guaranteed at some stage during your visit. The exception is around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, which lie in rain shadows and get very little rain.
It’s best to bring breathable layers that can be added and removed throughout the day as conditions change. Be sure to pack a sweater, fleece jacket, and a rainproof in winter, and an umbrella in any season. And of course, you’ll always need sunscreen and a hat. Insect repellent is a wise investment, especially if you’ll be hiking. Shorts for men are now acceptable wear everywhere (except at most nightclubs). But if you’ll be spending time in Havana, bring along jeans or dress pants for nighttime dining in nicer restaurants. For more on planning your trip to Cuba, see this article.