Are you looking for the best Cuba travel tips? You are in good hands! I have visited the country extensively and I am about to tell you all the things to know before traveling to Cuba. Indeed, so many people contact me with questions about Cuba, that I thought it may be easier to just put everything in writing.
You see, Cuba is an incredible destination. Beautiful cities; breathtaking landscapes; gorgeous beaches with pristine waters; vintage cars; excellent music – you name it: this is a country that really has it all. Yet, a trip to Cuba is not like any other. For as much planning you may try to do, things in Cuba are different and something inevitably goes wrong (I only know too well). So, going in well prepared knowing what to expect is actually a must.
Continue reading for all the Cuba travel tips that will help you make the trip a memorable one.
19 Truly Useful Cuba Travel Tips
The best time to visit Cuba
When is the best time to visit Cuba? Between December and March is the typical holiday season in Cuba as this is when the weather is mild and dry. You may also want to avoid the hurricane season which is between June and November, though I know plenty of people that went in August and had good weather throughout – save for some thunderstorms every now and then.
Get your tarjeta de viaje
You need a visa to enter Cuba. This is known as tarjeta de turista, and it is normally valid for 30 days but can be extended while in Cuba. It costs around $35 USD and can be bought through the Cuban consulate, or, better, through a good travel agent. You can also get it online.
Americans can legally visit Cuba on the “support for the Cuban people” license tours – yes, they can still go despite all the new restrictions. All it takes is joining a guided tour that works under that definition and that really works to support the local economy by staying in local casas particulares and eating in locally owned restaurants.
Make sure to read my post How To Get The Visa For Cuba In 8 Easy Steps (Also For Americans).
Get a good travel insurance
Cuban authorities made travel insurance compulsory in May 2010, so it’s very important to get this before traveling. Your travel insurance will need to cover for any medical emergencies that may occur throughout your stay in Cuba, and it’s also worth looking at a more comprehensive package that covers against other emergencies, theft or loss.
Have your vaccinations in place
General advice recommends to make sure to be up to date with all of the recommended vaccinations you should have in your home country. In addition, one of my best Cuba travel tips for you is to get a Hepatitis A jab before traveling, especially if you are going to be experimenting with local food. Even though most homes will boil the water before use, some street vendors won’t, which could leave you susceptible to this disease.
Know the local currency
Cuba used to have two currencies. Tourists were only allowed to use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) where the exchange rate was $1 USD for a CUC and little over 1 CUC for €1 Euro. The local currency was the Cuban National Peso (CUP, also known as Moneda National or MN).
As of January 1st, 2021, the CUC was removed from circulation and payments can only be made in CUP, though many hotels, restaurants and bars also accept payments in US Dollars or Euros. The exchange rate is of around 24,50 CUP for $1 USD and almost 28 CUP for €1 Euro.
Cash is king in Cuba, and you will be expected to pay cash for pretty much anything, including accommodation and restaurants. In fact – and this is one of the most useful Cuba travel tips – you should bring enough cash with you for the duration of your trip, and try to exchange it regularly, because not all towns have an ATM and banks observe rather flexible hours (in other words: they open at random times) and you may not always be able to withdraw. In fact, I was once unable to withdraw in Baracoa as there was a power outage and I had to run around town to find someone who could exchange some cash!
Another thing to keep in mind is that US generated credit and debit cards or ATM cards aren’t accepted anywhere – you can’t even use them to withdraw cash.
How to get to Cuba
The best way to get to Cuba is by plane. Most people fly to Havana Jose Marti Airport which has direct connections to many destinations including various cities in Canada, Mexico and Europe (there are directly flights from Paris). You could also fly to Varadero or to Holguin, but there are less connections.
You will need a round-trip ticket in order to enter Cuba. Airlines make sure to check whether you have a valid ticket for your return flight and deny boarding if you don’t.
You can actually travel to Cuba on a private own boat, but make sure to go to a port that accepts international arrivals. These include the Gaviota Bahia de Naranjo Marina in Holguin; the Cayo Guillermo Marina and Cayo Coco in Jardines del Ray; the Gaviota, Chapelin and Darsena Marinas in Varadero; and Hemingway Marina in Havana.
Equally, if you are traveling to the southern coast, Punta Gorda Marina and Cayo Largo del Sur Marina in Santiago de Cuba or the Maria La Gorda International Scuba Diving Centre in Pinar del Rio will be the ones to travel to.
How to move around Cuba
If you feel like driving, you can definitely rent a car in Cuba, but you should make sure to book online well ahead of your visit, because literally nothing will be available if you just show up at a car rental office – trust me, I have tried!
By private transfer
Another option is to book private transfers from one destination to the other. Otherwise, simply do it the old Cuban way: ask the owners of your casa particular to arrange a transfer for you: they will surely know someone who has a taxi and can take you to your preferred destination. Needless to say, you will have to agree on the price beforehand.
Most travelers – and that would include me – actually opt for a mix of private transfers booked via the accommodation, and bus rides, which are usually offered by Viazul. Another reliable company is Transtur.
The only way to book a spot (though not a seat! Seats are not assigned) on the Viazul bus is to actually show up at the bus station in person, with your passport, and buy a ticket. That’s when you can also check the timetable. Once you get to your destination, it’s probably easier to go straight to the ticket counter to get your ticket to your next destination.
With Transtur, you can also buy tickets at any Cubanacan travel agency in Cuba – there’s pretty much one in every city.
Make sure to read this post that explains how to book buses in Cuba.
Is Cuba safe?
Cuba is one of the safest tourist destinations in the world, and attacks on tourists are virtually unheard of. You can safely travel to Cuba as a solo female traveler, and even with children.
The main issues you may encounter as a tourist in Cuba are petty crime and scams (more about that below) – but nothing of a violent nature. Definitely keep your eyes open at all times, and your valuables out of sight, and keep them in a safe, locked place when leaving your room.
Instances of theft of clothes or money from locked suitcases are not uncommon, so it’s a good idea to count the money regularly and make a note of how much you are leaving. If you note any discrepancy, immediately warn the police. At times, even the threat to call the police is enough to get your stuff back.
Watch out for scams in Cuba
As I have just said above, Cuba is generally a very safe country, but among the things to know before traveling to Cuba is that scams are very common and literally all tourists will face at least one during their trip. One of my Cuba travel tips is to go prepared and know how to face them (I have written an entire post about it).
The first category of people you need to be aware of is that of jineteros – literally a swindler, or hustler. They are pretty much everywhere and it’s truly difficult to get away from them. They are the kind of people who try to “help” you find a taxi, a tour, a restaurant, a casa particular – anything really. The rationale is that they will get a commission for any customer they bring in, and their interest is certainly not to help you, but rather help their “business”.
Jineteros will do their best to make you believe that the restaurant you are walking to is out of business; that the casa particular you have booked is closed; that the bus you want to get on is full – and will be prompt to find a solution for you.
Never trust them. Literally. Go check yourself, and you will catch them in a lie.
Another kind of people you need to stay away from are those that want to accompany you – they will want to dance with you, have a drink with you (in a bar of their choosing), etc. Rest assured that they are working for a commission too.
Tipping in Cuba
Tourists are expected to tip in Cuba. You will have to leave a small tip (around 10%) in restaurants, to access toilets at certain places, and guides appreciate tips too. Always carry around small change for the occasional tip.
My advice is to use your good judgement in deciding how much to tip, and when. Honestly, at times my sister and I found the service so bad that we simply refused to tip. Other times, we decided against it because there simply was no service at all (ie the time a man at the bus station in Baracoa opened the truck of the bus and held out his hand demanding a “propina”).
Know how to get online in Cuba
To make a long story short, one of the things to know before traveling to Cuba is that it’s probably best to forget about getting online there. Forget about social media, forget about Whatsapp too. It’s honestly for the best, as trying to find internet can be incredibly frustrating.
First of all, don’t expect hotels or casas particulares to have Wi-Fi. In order to access the internet, you will have to find an ETECSA center – that’s a state-run company that provides internet in Cuba. Once you find an ETECSA center, you will need to get a card. There are options for various amounts of internet time, with 1 hour typically costing $1.50. Cards are sold by time and not by data.
Lines at ETECSA shops can be long, but sometimes you will find a local that’s ready to sell a card for a bit of a higher price. Furthermore, ETECSA centers are only found in larger towns and are only open during the day, so if you find one you may as well stock on internet cards.
Once you have the ETECSA card, you need to find a public Wi-Fi area and select the ETECSA network, and enter the ETECSA password you find at the back of your card in your phone / computer. And don’t get too frustrated if the connection is slow.
Consider getting a VPN
You don’t actually need a VPN to navigate the internet in Cuba, not unless you intend to access sites that are hosted in the US; or sites that offer online payments (which are not allowed in Cuba) such as Airbnb. If you know you will need to make an Airbnb booking, or to access your online banking, then get a VPN.
Download maps offline
Speaking of internet – one thing we all commonly do when traveling, almost anywhere in the world is using Google Maps for directions. The lack of internet in Cuba means you won’t be able to do that, so you will need to get a good guidebook that does at least have a map of the city center or every place you will be visiting.
Another thing you can do is downloading offline maps of the various locations – both Google Maps and Maps.Me allow you to do that.
Pick your accommodation wisely
One of my top Cuba travel tips for you is to forego hotels and instead opt to stay at casas particulares throughout your trip. Hotels in Cuba are mostly owned by the state, and much like state run restaurants, for some reason prices are higher but service bad – in fact, rooms tend to lack character, and food at hotels is plain (think old high-school cafeteria type of food).
Casas particulares are a much better option, especially given that at times they are located in beautiful colonial buildings. These are literally guest houses run by locals (so it’s your chance to get to know them), who typically rent out to tourists any spare room they may have.
Prices vary – they can be anything between $15 and $40 per night for a room (so it’s much cheaper if you are traveling with someone); but the deal is pretty standard: a double room with a private bathroom, most of the time with air-conditioning.
Most casas also offer meals: breakfast is usually around $5 USD and is a real feast; and so is dinner, which can cost up to $12 per person. Some casas even offer to prepare a packed lunch in case you are off for a day trip (and you should take it, because you won’t easily find ingredients to put together a quick sandwich!).
Booking a casa particular can be tricky. Nowadays, you can do that via AirBnB – though with internet restrictions, you’ll have to book everything before you travel to Cuba. In many cases you can simply send an email or call (well, provided you speak Spanish) to book a room. Don’t be surprised if you show up at a casa and find that the room you have reserved is not available. In fact, it happens quite commonly in Cuba, but the owners will be prompt to place you in an equally good room at one of their friends’ casas.
Another thing you may notice once you are in Cuba is that the owner of a casa will ask about your further travel plans and will recommend a place to stay in your next destination and offer to make the booking for you. It’s like if they have a network of friends / colleagues in every city, and it honestly works really well.
Book activities via your hosts
One of the things to know before traveling to Cuba is that, much like booking accommodation, booking guided tours can be a hassle. The only third party reseller that offers tours in Cuba is Civitatis, but even they have a rather limited offer. Prices can be more expensive than what you’d get locally, but on the other hand you can read online reviews and can count on actually qualified guides. They even offer free walking tours in various destinations.
If you don’t want to book online, you can either go to a local (state owned) travel agency, or ask the owner of your casa particular to arrange an activity for you.
Frankly, I don’t recommend booking activities with state owned companies like Cubanacan or Havanatours. While prices are set and you won’t have to go through the effort of haggling (which can be exhausting), the quality of tours is mostly poor, with some guides completely incompetent. We had a truly bad experience with a guided tour in Trinidad and there was no way we could get a refund for the tour we did.
Owners of casas particulares, on the other hand, will have a good network of reliable guides and drivers, and they can arrange pretty much anything from horse rides to hikes and bike excursions. It’s actually the best option.
Watch out for your dietary requirements
While food in Cuba is good and cheap, you won’t necessarily find a place that will accommodate your dietary requirements. Forget about lactose free milk or yogurt (trust me, I have asked), or a gluten free diet; and while you can find some dishes that are naturally vegan, don’t expect to find many vegan options.
Some vegan and vegetarian restaurants pop up every now and then in the most popular tourist destinations, but with locals showing little to no interest in these trends, they soon either close down or become a normal restaurant.
That doesn’t mean you’ll starve. As I have said, some dishes are naturally vegan, and you can definitely also talk to the waiter and explain about your dietary requirements.
Make sure to read my post What To Eat In Cuba.
Here’s one of the most useful Cuba travel tips for you: pack smartly. You definitely should pack light and use a backpack rather than a rolling suitcase, because dragging a suitcase on the uneven pavement of Cuban cities can be a nightmare.
However, you really have to bring anything you may possibly need – and that goes for toiletries too – because chances are that if you do need something, you won’t actually find it that easily in Cuban shops; and when you do it will be quite expensive. That’s when you’ll realize the effects of the trade embargo.
My post What To Pack For Cuba will give you full guidance into what you need to pack for your trip.
Learn some Spanish before your trip
Most Cubans don’t speak English at all, and even if they say they do, they really don’t speak much of it. One of the best Cuba travel tips I have for you is to learn some Spanish before your trip – basic words to make yourself understood in emergency situations, as a minimum, or to place an order at a restaurant, haggle the price of a taxi and so on.
You may also want to download Spanish in Google Translate to help with words – and please remember that Cuban Spanish is actually quite different from the Spanish you may have heard in Mexico or Spain!
Read my post The Best Tips For Learning A Language.
Consider joining a guided tour
Finally, here’s one of the Cuba travel tips you may have not thought about. You may be a pro at planning your trips, but Cuba is a country like no other and for as much as you try to stick to a travel plan, things go wrong on a regular basis and you will be forced to revise it. A way around this, if you are keen on seeing certain specific places and if you have limited time, is to actually join a guided tour.
These posts may come in handy when planning your trip:
- The Best Things To Do In Cuba
- The Best Things To Do In Havana
- The Best Day Trips From Havana
- The Best Beaches In Cuba
- The Best Hikes In Cuba
- A Short Guide To Trinidad
- A Short Guide To Camaguey
- A Short Guide To Cienfuegos
- A Short Guide To Baracoa
- A Short Guide To Vinales