From America to Cuba: Part I

Hello friends…or should I say hola mis amigos! I’m so happy that you all have decided to stop by my blog today. I recently returned from a week-long stay in the beautiful island nation of Cuba! As always, I will be detailing my entire trip, but have decided to do it in a two-part series–the first part pertaining to the actual process of getting to Cuba and the second discussing “fun stuff”.

Today, I will be sharing with you all how I prepared to travel to Cuba.


 

Back in 1960, the United States imposed a severe trade embargo against Cuba. As part of this embargo, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over half a century. Or more specifically, it’s technically illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba under most circumstances. Basically, this regulation has prevented most Americans from considering Cuba as a travel destination. Due to economic sanctions, air travel to Cuba from the United States was almost impossible. American credit & debit cards don’t work in Cuba either.

However things are finally beginning to change.

 


 

Can Americans Travel to Cuba?

Well…yes and no. Traveling to Cuba can be very tricky.

Even though travel to Cuba for Americans is restricted, that doesn’t make it impossible to visit. For many years some intrepid Americans were traveling to Cuba anyway. Initially, there were only three ways to accomplish this:

1. Special license: You could register for a special license with the U.S. Government if the reason for your travel fit a certain category. These include family visits, professional reasons, journalism, religious or cultural programs, and humanitarian projects. You can see the full list here.

2. People-To-People tours: Organized tours that involve some sort of educational experience with local Cuban people. It’s never been defined officially, but basically your trip can’t just involve sitting on a beach. Travelers would talk with a school, volunteer for a community project, or collaborate with artists. This option is a kind of legal loophole that tour companies use to sell tours in Cuba.

3. Foreign gateway cities: The other option was to travel to Cuba “illegally” through a foreign gateway city. This means flying yourself to Canada or Mexico first, then traveling to Cuba on your own from one of those countries. Because for the rest of the world, Cuba has been a popular travel destination for many years, just not for U.S. citizens.


 

Independent Travel to Cuba

As of January 16, 2015, Americans no longer needed to pre-apply for specific licenses if they fit one of the 12 special categories. It simplified the process for Americans that meet those special requirements to visit Cuba.

But it also created a gray area in the process…

If you didn’t need to pre-apply for a license, could you say your trip is for journalism when it’s not? Will anyone check to make sure you actually match one of the 12 categories?

If you don’t fit the categories, will anyone enforce the rules when you return to the United States? For a long time, the answer was no. But with Trump in office now, that might be changing in 2017.

For now, you can still travel to Cuba independently, but you’ll need to choose an approved travel category other than People To People tours. Declare a category like Support For The Cuban People when booking your flights, lodging, and when you return to the U.S.

Build an itinerary containing activities that meet the criteria for the category you chose, or get help from local experts to plan a legal trip. (Click here to search for a local expert in Cuba to get assistance in planning your own Cuban adventure.)

2017 Update: As of June 2017, President Trump announced changes in travel rules for Cuba, which seem to ban transactions with Cuban-military owned businesses, and ban individuals planning their own “people-to-people” trips. However, Obama’s travel rules remain in effect until the new regulations actually take effect later this summer, which I believe the specific date is September 15. Click here to read about Trump’s Cuban travel changes.


 

How to Travel to Cuba

Airlines that are flying to Cuba from the United States now include American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Spirit, Alaska, and Delta.

For flights leaving from the U.S., the visa process can be different depending on the airline you’re flying with. Here’s more information about obtaining a Cuban visa in the United States, depending on who you’re flying with:

  • Southwest: $50 – Purchase online & delivered at the gate
  • JetBlue: $50 – Purchase at gate
  • Delta: $50 – Purchase at gate or through mail
  • United: $75 – Purchase at gate
  • American: $85 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail
  • Frontier: $110 – Purchase online & sent via regular mail

I caught a direct flight with Delta Airlines out of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, GA. Obtaining a visa was super simple. I checked my bags and purchased my visa in the same process.

For info on the best flight databases to use to assist in finding affordable flights, check out one of my previous posts by clicking here.

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Sitting at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with passport, boarding pass, and visa in hand

 

Exchanging Money In Cuba

Credit and debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash. How much? I’m planning to include a budget travel guide for Cuba in my next post, but to give you an idea, you can travel there comfortably on $50 – $100 USD/CUC per day.

Bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re out of luck!

Cuba actually has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use and is worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.

$1 USD = 1 CUC = 25 CUP (in Cuba, you will also see CUP as MN, or moneda nacional)

You can exchange USD for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead. I took $1000 USD to my local Wells Fargo and received approximately 850-860 Euros, then exchanged those Euros for CUC at a Cuban bank in Havana. There’s also an official currency exchange right outside the airport in Havana.

You can exchange your leftover CUC back to Euros (or whatever currency you need) before you leave the country, too.

The leftover CUC I had, I exchanged back to Euros at a Cuban bank before I left the country. I know that at Wells Fargo, they do buy back paper Euros to exchange back into USD, just not coinage.

Be careful when using your money in Cuba though. Because there are 2 currencies, there is a very good chance that you may get swindled my locals if you’re not careful. Recognize the 2 types of currencies. Also, sometimes when getting change back, for example, if you pay $3 CUC for something that costs $.75 CUC, you may receive CUP back. This is okay. Just be aware that 99% of places will not take CUP as proper payment, not even taxi drivers. The only places that I saw that accept CUP are street food vendors.

Image result for cuc vs cup
Cuban currency: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC)

 

Accommodation in Cuba

You’ll find some hotels and resorts in the most popular tourist cities like Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero, but they generally aren’t cheap. To travel on a budget in Cuba, you’ll want to stay with locals in casas particulares.

A casa particular is like a homestay or guesthouse in someone’s home. They sometimes include breakfast and run between $20 – $30 per night for a double room. To operate a casa particular, local families need to register & pay special taxes to the Cuban government.

Most casas don’t have websites, so you just walk around and ask about availability when you get there. If one is booked, the owner will usually help you find another nearby.

We stayed with a young woman Jessica and her father Jorge. They were extremely sweet and spoke good English, so communication was never an issue.  They were very helpful in suggesting places to go and activities to partake in while in Cuba.

You are able to book these casas and other homestay-type accommodations via AirBnB.


Transportation In Cuba

Cuban Bus System

Cuba has a government-run bus company for tourists called Viazul that covers most of the country. Tickets aren’t very expensive, but you can’t book them online yet, and popular routes sell out fast. Which means you might need to buy your ticket in-person at the station the day before.

Renting A Car

Renting a car in Cuba isn’t easy or cheap. There aren’t many vehicles available yet, so you generally have to book a car at least 2 weeks in advance by calling or emailing the company.

Vintage Taxi

The other option for traveling around Cuba is to rent a vintage American car with driver. This isn’t cheap unless you split the cost with a few people.

Hailing a vintage taxi for a short ride in town will cost you $8 – $10 CUC. Renting one for a longer 2-3 hour trip can cost around $60 – $70 CUC depending on your bargaining skills.

For our trips to Viñales (3 – 3 1/2 hours) and Veradaro (2-2 1/2 hours), we paid $50 to $80 CUC total for all 3 of us.

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This man was one of our drivers during our trip. He drove us from Havana to Viñales and back—that’s approximately a 7-hour drive! 

 

Internet in Cuba

Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years, Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs.

These days, you can get connected through Cuba’s state-run ETECSA telecom company. Tourists can buy ETECSA pre-paid WiFi cards at special kiosks for $2 -$3 per hour of service.

These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for ETECSA wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country.

You can often buy additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet isn’t blazing fast, but you can certainly upload web-sized photos to Facebook & Instagram.

Fortunately, our casa particular had WiFi available, but most do not. We did have to pay $3 for 1 hour of use.

Internet in Cuba
WiFi card that can be purchased at the ETECSA kiosks (left) and WiFi log-in prompt that will appear on electronic devices upon connection to WiFi

 

Cuban Exit Fee

As of May 1, 2015, Cuba no longer charges the $25 CUC exit fee to travelers leaving the country, this fee is now included in the price of your airline.


 

Drinking Water In Cuba

Tap water in Cuba is not safe to drink, and bottled water can sometimes be difficult to find depending on where you are. Every opportunity that I got, I  bought the biggest bottle of water that I could. I have never sweat so much in my life, and the Cuban heat will drain you. Please, carry water wherever you go!


 

Can You Bring Back Cigars?

Officially, if you are traveling to Cuba under one of the 12 special categories, you are now allowed to bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, including up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars.


 

I hope that this covers most all of your questions pertaining to the technical side of getting to Cuba. I will continue to update this post as more questions arise and are answered.

Stay tuned for Part I on my dream of a vacation in Cuba!


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