Havana Nights: A Practical Guide to Get You to Cuba
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
With our impending move to China, I didn’t think another international trip would be in the plans for us this year. But a trip to Cuba has never been easier or cheaper than it is right now. So in a moment of unbridled carpe-diem-ness (yes, I did just make that word up), I went home and booked a last minute trip to the beautiful island nation where my mother grew up—and getting there was much easier than you might think! Read on for some practical advice, suggestions, and sample costs I have put together just for you.
Booking Your Flight
When travel opened between Cuba and the United States, airlines raced to propose new routes to transport Americans to the previously off-limits country. However, the demand for flights has been less than anticipated, meaning many airlines are reducing or completely canceling their routes. On the positive side, this also means and that prices are incredibly cheap. In other words, GO NOW. From our home in Florida, the flight is only about an hour and a half and we found plenty of flights for $100 each way. We flew on Southwest and I recommend them for a number of reasons. Southwest allows you to change or cancel your flight up to ten minutes before departure without any penalty or change fees! I actually booked before I had the time off from worked approved, but I knew I had the flexibility to change my flight if necessary. The prices on the flights were already reasonable, but we flew for free with our Southwest Companion Pass. This magical pass allows Andrew (my companion) to fly with me for free any time I fly on Southwest! Even on international flights. If you are a points and miles enthusiast like we are, and you don’t have this lucrative perk—you simply must get it!
If you are not a Southwest groupie like me, I won't be offended. These other airlines are currently offering flights directly from the US to Cuba :) :
UPDATE APRIL 2018: Currently, American tourists are only allowed into Cuba on an organized tour group or under the category "support for the Cuban people".
While Americans can visit Cuba, you are still required to provide a reason for travel that falls within one of the twelve designated categories of "authorized travel". Now, I know this might sound super official, but fear not--the categories are very open ended. We were asked our reason at customs (and Andrew kept jumping in to say, "Vacation!" or "Leisure!"--FYI, neither of these fall into the categories of authorized travel), but no one ever verified it in any way. The official categories are as follows:
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
Professional research and professional meetings;
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
Support for the Cuban people;
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
Certain authorized export transactions.
We selected “support for the Cuban people” as our designated category because it seemed the most broad (although I felt kind of awkward stating this as our reason to the people at customs). I have also heard that you can select “educational activities” since “people to people exchange” is a form of educational activity. So if you plan on speaking to a Cuban native, you qualify to go to Cuba! Another benefit to booking with Southwest was that they provide a special Southwest Airlines Tourism Visa for only $50 each, which you can purchase during the ticketing process. And then we just picked up the Visas at the gate before our flight. Easy!
There is a lot of paperwork, but nothing to worry about!
Non-U.S. traveler's health insurance is required while traveling to Cuba. The US International Travel department states, "Cuba also requires visitors to have non-U.S. medical insurance, which can normally be purchased at the airport upon arrival to Cuba." But when we purchased our flights through Southwest, the travel insurance was already included! Check!
Where to Stay
There are a number of hotels in Havana, but we opted to stay at a casa particular for a more authentic experience—and a much cheaper price! You can now find casa particulars on Airbnb.com, or you can book your own through a number of local websites. We chose Airbnb for the convenience and satisfaction guarantee, even though it was a little more expensive. It is important to manage your expectations, since a five star hotel in Cuba may not be the same as a five star hotel in the United States. We were pleased to find the place we stayed homey, clean, and right in the middle of Habana Viejo, a beautiful historic district. Our host, Carlos, speaks fluent English and served as a concierge—he will book dining reservations or excursions. To book a stay in his modern suite, visit HERE---but hurry, because it looks like he is already booked through the summer! I still have family in Cuba, so I met my second cousin and discovered that she owns one of the most popular casa particulars in the area! It is beautiful and spacious (and almost always booked), so be sure to check it out and reserve as early as possible!
Budget: 3 Nights in Habana Viejo at a casa particular (approx. $60/pn) plus fees= $280
Splurge: 3 Nights in Habana Viejo at a historic hotel (ranges from $200-$400/pn)= $600-1200
If you have been following our blog, you know we had money problems in Patagonia earlier this year. I was not going to let that happen again in Cuba! Not only is Cuba a predominantly cash country, but American debit or credit cards do not work there at all. If you run out of cash, you will literally have to beg, borrow, or steal to get by (don’t steal though, please--you do not want to be detained). We were going to be in Havana for three nights and four days, so we planned on taking out $500. Then, last minute, I called Andrew and asked him to take our $700 just to be sure (we did not end up using even close to that amount of money).
Something worth noting: when you arrive in Cuba, you must exchange your money into Cuban money, and they impose the standard 2-3% conversion rate. HOWEVER, if you exchange American dollars, you will be subjected to an additional 10% fee! So we went to the bank at home and withdrew cash in a different currency before even arriving in Cuba. The most favorable exchange rates fluctuate between the Euro, Mexican Peso, or Canadian Dollar—which in this case, our $700USD exchanged for around $850CAD. We then exchanged our CAD for Cuban currency when we arrived at the Havana airport.
When you receive your money in Cuba, you will be given what is known as the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). It is sometimes referred to as the "tourist" currency because it is utilized primarily in tourist locations and its value is usually pegged to the US dollar. There is another currency that locals use called the Cuban Peso (CUP) and is worth about 1/25th of the CUC. You can elect to get some currency in CUP, but CUCs are accepted everywhere. The only benefit to obtaining some money in CUP is if you intend to buy food from street vendors or visit local establishments. We purchased some churros on the street for 5 Pesos, and then realized it was 5 CUP--the equivalent of $0.20 . Since the vendor couldn't provide that much change, we happily elected to pay him the entire $1 CUC.
I'm not sure how much these cute little taxi cabs cost, but taking the photo was free!
Street food or "peso" food.
These ladies were so excited to get a photo with Andrew! They practically bombarded him and started madly kissing his face. We assumed it was because of his charm and good looks, but immediately after, they demanded $2CUC. If you would like a picture, be prepared to pay, but don't feel bamboozled into paying for a picture you didn't ask for...like I did.
There isn't any. The internet is regulated by the Cuban government and you will need to purchase an internet card when you arrive if you wish to feed your technology habit. Then, you will need to find a hot spot where you can get on the internet (no such thing as wi-fi in your hotel or apartment here). It's relatively easy to tell where you can get on the internet, because you will see groups of people hanging around the street on their phones. Or, you can go unplugged like we did. My word of advice is to make sure you auto-check in for your flights and know the flight information ahead of time. I forgot to write that down and couldn't remember our departure time---so we ended up getting to the airport three hours early. Better early than late though, right? Oh, and one other word of caution, be careful what you write while online. The government does monitor everything.
Don't know how much to bring? Don't worry, I've got you covered. Below is a sample budget for a three night visit for two to Havana, Cuba. I have included a budget based on what we actually spent to give you a few guidelines what to expect and how much money to bring. I have left out flight, visa, and health insurance costs, since they can vary significantly based on location and personal preference.
Taxi Ride to/from airport $20 x2 ways = $40
Lodging (plus fees) $60 x3 nights =$280
Breakfast for two (approx) $20 x3 days =$60
Dinner for two (approx) $60 x3 nights =$180
Classic taxi ride $40 =$40
Castillo Cannon Event $12 =$12
Street food, souvenirs,
drinks, extra/buffer money $100 =$100
This is just a sample budget. You might find that you spend more or even less. We traveled moderately--choosing to spend more time walking the city than paying for excursions and we ate at moderately priced restaurants. However, we were able to have a drink and dessert with almost every meal while dining at rooftop locations. Our lodging was also situated in the middle of the beautiful historic district, but since we didn't stay at a "government hotel", we got a lot of "bang for our buck".
Overall, we found Cuba to be an easy country to navigate (we do speak a fair amount of Spanish, but there are many people who speak some English in the tourist locations) and very inexpensive. We were only sad we had just three days to spend there! Hopefully, we can go back one day to visit the rest of the island.
Hopefully you are ready to visit Cuba right now--the timing has never been better! Feel free to comment below with any specific questions, and please feel free to share this post! Happy Travels!
Still not sure if a trip to Cuba is in your near future? Well check out this Cuba travel inspiration and I'm sure you will be booking your tickets in no time! Want to see more photos? Visit my Cuba photo page!