Cuba is a unique travel destination that requires some unique planning. Here are 30 things to know that will make your dream trip… well, a dream.
Double check the visa requirements for the passport you hold. Ensure that that you allow enough time to apply for a visa as needed.
2. Exchanging Currency
US dollars are not much use in Cuba, since exchanging them for the local currency results in an annoying surcharge. Bring Canadian dollars, British pounds, or EU euros to change. There are cash machines at airports, so you can get money after you arrive (Cuba has a closed currency, so you can’t get their pesos outside of the country).
3. Accessing Funds
Check with your bank to ensure that your card will actually work in Cuba. This is not always the case and if you only discover this after you arrive, you’re going to have some major problems.
4. Getting Cash
Cash machines are not a common sight in Cuba, so when you check into your accommodation, ask about the nearest location. Trust us, you’re going to need it since credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere.
Travel insurance is mandatory. There are often spot checks at immigration, so have your documents ready for inspection. No travel insurance either means no entry unless you immediately buy insurance from a local provider at the airport.
Confirm your accommodation before your departure. Many homestay types of accommodation will not have a regular internet presence, so email them a week or so before you go to ensure that they get the message, or call them.
7. Your Phone
Check to see that your phone service provider has a roaming agreement with their Cuban counterparts, allowing you to be contactable in emergencies. Get a local sim card if needed.
Your data connection is not going to work everywhere in Cuba, so sometimes it will feel like your smartphone is merely a phone of average intelligence. Luckily there are an increasing number of wifi zones in major cities, so you can still access data. Ask at your accommodation about the nearest one. You’ll need to buy a scratch card that has a code, allowing you an hour of network access (and more cards can be purchased as needed).
9. Book Some Things Ahead
Internet access can be a little bit hard to find in Cuba. There are internet cafes and some hotels have kiosks, but please remember you’re not going to have access everywhere you go. So if there are any inclusions you thought you might want (such as tours), book these ahead. The same goes for any research about other places where you might want to go. In a pinch, you can use your phone and find a wifi zone, but this is not always a practical solution.
10. Hard Copies
If you need printed confirmation about anything (accommodation, booked tours, etc), then print these out before you leave and bring them with you, since this will not be so easy when in Cuba.
11. Finding Your Way Around
You can’t simply look up places on your phone while in Cuba. Invest in an actual paper map, or download a map that allows offline access.
12. Getting Around
There’s a good bus service around Havana, but this is not always the case in smaller towns. When getting a taxi, ensure that the meter has been turned on. If the driver wants to negotiate a rate, don’t agree if you find the cost to be excessive (remember that one Cuban convertible peso is roughly equivalent to one US dollar).
13. Vintage Taxis
Those pristine vintage taxis that drive around the larger towns generally follow a predetermined route with a fixed price. It’s like a tour in a classic car as opposed to an actual taxi service. Remember this if you need a taxi to take you to a particular location.
14. Bus is King
You might want to fly from town to town, but the bus is the cheapest and most reliable option (don’t get us started on the trains). Go to the bus station the day before your departure to ensure availability. Make sure you go to the right ticket office. There are generally two; one for same day departure and one for advance purchases.
15. Beware of Touts
You will occasionally be approached by friendly locals asking you if you need a meal or a drink. They will then take you to a specific restaurant or bar. Yes, they get paid for this. Just say no if you’re not interested. Sometimes the place they’ll take you might be sensational, but often it’s not.
16. Buyer Beware
There are also touts who specialise in selling “authentic” Cuban cigars. Never buy these on the street since they’re cheap counterfeits.
17. A New Friend
It’s not a common occurrence, but if you’re alone in a bar or restaurant, be mindful of any extravagantly friendly persons who try to join you. It’s not a scam as such, but there have been instances when tourists have been expected to foot the bill for their “new friend’s” drinks and evening of entertainment. Cubans are largely a friendly lot though, so while caution is helpful, you don’t need to be that distrustful.
18. Your Diet
Vegetarian food is becoming more widespread in Cuba, but if you follow a specific diet (gluten free, lactose free, etc), then you might need to suspend this while in Cuba since it can be difficult for local restaurants to accommodate you.
19. Choosing a Restaurant
Until fairly recently most Cuban restaurants were run by the state and were unsurprisingly untasty. Private enterprises have flourished, and these Paladares offer amazingly innovative food. Alway choose the Paladares.
20. Drinking on a Budget
Yes, you can drink alcohol in public in Cuba. It’s a nice way to save money so you don’t spend all your night at a bar.
21. Street Music
There are a lot of street performers in Cuba. Walk on by if you want, but if you stand and listen, it’s considered bad form if you don’t give even a small tip.
22. Taking Photos of Residents
Some residents are happy to be included in your photos, and some will ask for a small tip.
23. What Not to Photograph
Taking photos of military installments and law enforcement is not recommended. A ban on photos of these things is not rigorously enforced, but it’s unwise to try.
24. Bottled Water
Find it, buy it, drink it. The local water is not deadly, but it might upset your stomach.
25. Essential Items
Some essential items are hard to find in Cuba, particularly toiletries, cosmetics and over the counter medication. Bring these with you.
26. The Local Lingo
English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, but this can not be the case in rural areas. Take a Spanish phrasebook with you. You might never need it, but it might also be the most useful purchase for your trip.
Even a larger city such as Havana is walkable. Comfortable walking shoes are smart whenever you travel, but they are essential in Cuba.
Pack for the heat, and remember that you will only ever need something smart casual for the evening. Don’t overpack for Cuba, since it’s a waste of effort.
29. Your Valuables
Street crime is an infrequent occurrence in Cuba, but take the necessary precautions anyway. You might need to carry around a significant amount of cash, so get a money belt, and leave your expensive jewelry at home.
Whether you agree with Cuba’s system of government or not, remember that it’s unwise to be overly critical of Cuba’s political history, since it’s something that many locals are proud of.
Do you have any questions? Please leave a comment!