There are some currency quirks and general money matters that you really need to be aware of when you travel. Sure, you need some of the local currency, but even that might not feel like it’s so important. In many destinations you can still just pay with your credit or debit card as you would at home, and if not, no drama… you just hit the cash machine. But this is really not the case everywhere in the world. And what a boring world it would be if everywhere was the same! So it’s really important to know what to expect. Surprisingly few small businesses in Berlin will accept credit cards, which is weird in the capital city of one of the most prosperous nations on earth.
Many residents in Copenhagen don’t use cash very much at all, and simply do an instant transfer via a smartphone app when buying something in a store. Isn’t technology awesome? Your holiday in Cuba is going to be one of the best things that ever happened to you, and yet you really need to know what to expect when it comes to how to get money, and how you can actually spend it. Not to worry, because we’ve got you covered with everything you’ll need to know.
Don’t Bring US Dollars
It’s not a secret that the US and Cuba weren’t exactly best buddies for a while. This is changing, but there are still a number of residual effects that can impact your visit. Maybe one of the most important of these is that you should not bring US dollars to Cuba. You can change them for the local peso, but you will pay for the privilege. Skip the surcharge and bring Canadian dollars, Great Britain pounds and European Union euros instead.
Cuba is a cash-based society, and only certain restaurants and stores (and the larger resort hotels) will accept your credit or debit card. Even then, cards linked to US-based accounts (or even cards issued by US-based or US-associated companies) will not work. No matter where you’re from, before you go to Cuba you need to contact your bank or financial institution to ensure that your card will work. If not, speak to them about an alternative. Ask about any fees you might be charged when accessing your account in Cuba, so you don’t end up spending more than you were planning.
Once you’ve worked out that you’ll be able to use your card to withdraw cash while in Cuba, what’s next? You’re going to need some cash, and you’re going to need enough to get you through the day. When you check in at your accommodation, ask about the location of the nearest cash machine. These can be annoyingly difficult to find, so it’s important to know where to go. While street crime is refreshingly rare, you might want to invest in a money belt if you feel uncomfortable carrying so much cash around. Once you’ve been in Cuba for a few days, you’ll know roughly how much you’ll need on any given day, and this means you can withdraw enough for several days at a time. This is a great way to avoid those pesky daily withdrawal fees.
We might say that you really, really need health insurance when you travel. You might say… well, duh. If you are one of those people who hope for the best and travel without health insurance, you might encounter some expensive problems in Cuba. There are occasional spot checks at immigration, and if you’re found to be without valid insurance, you will need to buy it at the airport from a local provider before you will be allowed into the country… and trust us, the deal will not be in your favour. Shop around well before you go in order to save cash with your Cuban health and travel insurance. To not have international health insurance when you need it is a financial tragedy, but to be caught without the actual insurance in Cuba can be an expensive mistake.
Friendly, but Somewhat Annoying
Touts are somewhat irritatingly everywhere when you travel to certain places, and they eventually become white noise. Touts in Cuba are very friendly, but they have to be. They’ll try to convince you to come to an awesome restaurant or bar or club… and they receive a small commission for everyone they bring. You might get lucky with this, but probably not. You are likely to find somewhere that’s of a better quality (and a lower price) if you take the time to hunt around yourself.
The Most Important Meal of the Day
Unless you’re going for a luxury hotel, chances are that you’ll stay at a Casa Particular while in Cuba. This is like a bed and breakfast, and they can be stunningly inexpensive. Your hosts will serve you a hearty breakfast each and every morning, and you need to take advantage of that. Stock up on as much food as your belly can handle so you don’t have to spend a lot on food later. You might even want to buy some groceries yourself and ask your hosts if you can use their kitchen to prepare some snacks to take with you for your day of exploring.
Don’t shudder at the idea of joining a tour group, even if it’s just for the day. Do a bit of research before you get to Cuba (since the internet isn’t exactly so easy to access there) and find a tour group that offers a range of attractions where you only pay one fee that also includes transfers. You can skip the lines, avoid public transport, and visit some deeply interesting sites all for one reasonable price. There are a lot of companies that offer these services in Cuba, particularly in the larger cities.
Some street food in Cuba should be avoided. Drooping sandwiches that have been sitting in an unrefrigerated glass cabinet for who knows how long? “Pizza” that is basically greasy cheese on processed dough? No, and no. Street food can be dirt cheap, but look for something fresh. You don’t want to save money and yet give yourself intestinal distress. Try whole corn on the cob, freshly cooked, or even freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice. This will fill your stomach while only costing you some loose change.
The “Right” Currency
This is one that could go either way. Technically speaking, visitors to Cuba use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), whereas locals use the standard Cuban peso (CUP). Some businesses will display prices in each currency, and the prices in CUP are often significantly lower, even when you work out the exchange rate. It never hurts to ask, so enquire if you can receive some change in CUP, thus allowing you to take advantage of those refreshingly low prices that are offer when you use the truly local currency. The vendor might insist upon only giving you your change in CUC, but you never know…