Planning Your Trip to Cuba
Now is truly the time to visit Cuba, a relentlessly photogenic country in the midst of major change. It’s a special place at a special time, and much of what travelers who’ve been there rave about is quickly fading to myth. But for now, Cuba’s enigmatic appeal is still very real. Images from the Revolution (defined by Cubans as a unique social, political and economic experiment) are everywhere: Che Guevara’s likeness alongside that of Fidel Castro and exhortations of "Patrio o Muerte!" (Fatherland or Death!). It’s made even more surreal by Cuba’s caught-in-a-time-warp setting, with classic cars and 1950s redux architecture everywhere you turn.
Cuba's colonial cities, lush countryside, and incredible arts and cultural scenes lend to spontaneity, but some planning is essential. In the excitement of finally being able to visit Cuba, it can be easy to overlook the legalities and other important details that can affect your trip. Read on for some practical advice to prepare you for a successful and enthralling visit - and before you know it, you'll be rumbling down a potholed Havana highway in a 1950s-era Chevy, with the rhythms of rumba on the radio.
Travel to Cuba from the United States
While Cuba itself has no restrictions, U.S. embargo laws are still in effect. It is technically illegal to spend money in Cuba without a license from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). If that sounds daunting, don’t worry: travel to Cuba is, in fact, legal and easy with a pre-approved license.
Currently, there are eleven travel categories covered under a pre-approved "general license," including official government business, journalism, family visitation, and humanitarian projects. In 2019, President Trump canceled the “people-to-people” educational exchange license category that previously permitted any U.S. resident to visit Cuba. However, the following license category still permits any U.S. citizen or resident to travel to Cuba at any time, independently or as part of a group.
Activities intended to provide support for the Cuban people
What kind of activities, you ask? The OFAC states that such support activities “include but are not limited to (1) activities of recognized human rights organizations; (2) activities of independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; and (3) activities of individuals and nongovernmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”
Since (1) and (2) involve anti-Castro dissident groups within Cuba, you’d be well-advised to give these a wide berth. However, (3) is considered to include any Cuban involved in private business, such as a restaurant, B&B, taxi driver, or dance tutor, as well as community organizations of an apolitical nature. Under this license, you can travel to Cuba at any time and pursue any itinerary you desire, so long as you’re primarily supporting private enterprise independent of the State. This can be “self-directed" travel on a freewheeling itinerary. Plus, all U.S. residents can still travel to Cuba with any tour company or other entity that offers group programs in accord with with “support for the Cuban people” intent, be it a motorcycling tour, arts program, or high-end cultural trip. A “group” can be defined as two people or more - so you and a friend can arrange your own customized program.
Other legal requirements
“Tourism” and “recreation” are banned by Uncle Sam, which unfortunately means no beach vacation. However, you can participate in a recreational activity if it is demonstrably intended to “support the Cuban people.” Since 2011, the U.S. government hasn't been actively policing individual travel. However, there’s no guarantee that this will continue - it's important to always stay up to date on the current administration's stance and policies regarding travel to this region.
In November 2017 the U.S. government published a list of more than 80 Cuban state hotels, plus other businesses, that U.S. citizens may no longer use. Blacklisted enterprises range from shops, marinas, and Ron Caney and Ron Varadero rums to the Manzana de Gómez luxury shopping mall, all of which the U.S. says are tied to Cuba's military, intelligence or security services. Refer to this list when deciding on lodging and activities. Hence, as far as accommodations and dining go, it’s best to stick exclusively to private entities.
Under all circumstances, you are legally required to maintain a full-time schedule of activities relating to your license category. Be able to document that your travel qualifies under a general license, and keep a written record of your activities (and expenditures) in Cuba as relates to the authorized travel transactions for five years.
Planning Your Visit
Citizens of most countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, must possess a passport valid for at least 6 months from your date of entry into Cuba. If you don’t have a passport, don't wait until the last minute - it can take several weeks to obtain one.
Most visitors will also need a tourist visa. Your airline will likely provide your Cuban visa and include it in the price of your ticket, but you can also obtain one from any Cuban consulate. The visa is typically valid for 30 days and can be extended twice for a maximum stay of 90 days at inmigración offices in Cuba.
Cuba requires that upon arrival you can demonstrate travel insurance to cover any medical expenses in Cuba. As of 2017, the insurance was pre-packaged into the cost of airline tickets for flights from the U.S. Your boarding pass will be stamped as such, and you should retain this for the duration of your stay in Cuba. Travelers who can’t show proof may be required to purchase a package from Asistur.
Every community has at least a basic clinic and pharmacy. However, Cuba’s medical system faces severe shortages of medicines and up-to-date equipment. Foreigners can receive special treatment through Servicios Médicos Cubanos, which has a 24-hour international clinic in most major cities; plus the Clínica Ciro García hospital in Havana. U.S. citizens should note that payment for all but emergency medical services is banned, so don’t plan on taking advantage of Cuba’s medical tourism facilities.
Supplemental evacuation insurance is highly recommended in case of medical emergency, as well as insurance for trip cancellation or loss of baggage.
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso (or moneda nacional) and the convertible peso (or CUC, worth 24 times the former). All touristic transactions are in CUC, which can only be obtained in Cuba and has no value outside the country. You can change major foreign currencies at hotels (usually for guests only) or at CADECA exchange bureaus. The U.S. is fixed 1:1 with the CUC, but an additional 10 percent surcharge applies for exchanging U.S. dollars. Unless you’re a budget traveler, there’s relatively little need for moneda nacional except for taxis, ice cream at Coppelia, and market produce.
Plan to operate on a cash-only basis during your visit. No U.S. credit card currently functions in Cuba, and U.S. citizens who attempt to use a credit card while in Cuba (or even to check their financial statements online) may have their accounts blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, as the financial networks are set up to instantly identify potential transactions with sanctioned nations.
In January 2018, Cuba was named “Safest Country for Tourism” at the International Tourism Fair in Madrid, Spain. Gun crime is unheard of. Violent crime is rare. Even the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security admits that what comparatively little crime there is “can be associated with pick-pocketing, purse snatching, fraud schemes, and thefts from unoccupied cars, hotel rooms, and/or dwellings.” So be sure to keep an eye on your belongings, lock your door when leaving the hotel, and remember that scams against tourists are common.
Cuba is a large island and getting around takes some planning. Havana is a walkable but sprawling city. Cubans get around using colectivos, crowded "shared taxis" that run along fixed routes like buses and charge 50 centavos. Yellow-cab tourist taxis charge in CUC and are found outside hotels, or can be summoned in Havana by calling Cubataxi. Owners of 1950s classic American cars often operate as taxis also - they can be found outside most major hotels. Plus, every city has bicitaxis (three-wheel pedal taxis) for short getting-around distances.
Cubana Aviación and AeroGaviota offer domestic air service between all major cities. Delays, cancellations, and schedule changes are common. Foreigners (except resident students) are barred from using the Omnibus Nacional inter-city buses. However, Víazul offers service by air-conditioned bus between all major cities and tourist destinations; reservations are essential.
A railway runs the length of the island, connecting Havana to all major cities. However, service is irregular and dysfunctional.
There’s no shortage of car rental outlets islandwide, but in high season securing an available vehicle can be a challenge. Car rental is also costly by international standards and utmost caution is required when driving - anyone found guilty of causing injury or death in an accident faces a mandatory prison term.
Cuba has 13 international airports. Many U.S. airlines offer direct service to Havana and cities throughout Cuba, along with AirCanada and most major European carriers. Additionally, Cuba’s own Cubana Aviación flies to Canada and several European and Central and South American nations. A taxi from Havana’s José Martí International Airport to downtown Havana will cost about CUC25 as of early 2018.
When to Go
In short, Cuba has a dry season (November-May), with mild-to-warm temperatures the norm and occasional storms and downpours; and a wet season (June-October) that is hot, humid and often rainy. Temperatures generally increase eastward.
Where to Stay
The options are twofold: A state-run hotel or a casa particular (private B&B). Havana has dozens of hotels, from quaint colonial boutique options in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) to deluxe foreign chains. Rates have gone up in recent years given the new demand from U.S. tourists, and reservations in high season are strongly advised.
Outside of Havana, there are fewer options. Except at beach resorts, where the vast majority of hotels are foreign-managed and all-inclusive, lodging is hit or miss. You’re likely to find one or two charming, rehabbed colonial hotels in most cities, but service is often wanting: bed sheets often don’t fit the mattress and hot water is rarely guaranteed.
Regardless of where you are in the country, you’ll almost certainly be able to find a casa particular, and usually at a fraction of the cost of the nearest hotel. Rates typically range from $30-$100 in Havana, and half that elsewhere. It's a tremendous way to intimately connect with Cuban families.
One more thing to keep in mind: since November 2017, US citizens are barred from staying at any hotel affiliated with Gaviota, the state hotel group operated by the Cuban military. Make sure you plan accordingly.