So, you want to go to Cuba?
When my step-daughter announced she wanted to go to Cuba as a part of a school study program, I believe I heard an imaginary “jackpot” sound effect go off somewhere in the distance. I’d always wanted to go to Cuba, and this could be the ticket to get there. However, it was still Cuba, which always makes me think, Cuba sounds cool, but is it safe? when someone talks of traveling there. My husband felt the same way, so he of course had lots of questions about her program. Number one, is it safe to do this? How long is the program? Will the classes count for credits, or is this just a “fun” trip?
HOW TO GO TO CUBA:
After we learned that her program was not only legit, but also very safe and very cool, we started to think about visiting her. After all, having a family member staying in Cuba for an extended time is one of the 12 ways US citizens are allowed to travel to Cuba. The US State Department outlines these categories nicely on their website.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED TO DO BEFORE GOING:
PASSPORT. The first thing you’ll need to do is be sure your passport is up to date (remember, if it expires within 6 months of your trip date, you’ll be out of luck trying to go anywhere). Click here for info on getting an initial passport or renewing your existing.
VISA. You’re going to need a Visa (also called a “tourist card”) to get into Cuba. We bought ours at the Delta ticket counter at the airport on the first leg of our flight. It was $50. This price may vary according to airline, so you might want to check with yours ahead of time to see what they charge. A few things to note about Visas - be very careful when you fill yours out! Apparently, Cubans don’t like sloppy forms. If anything is crossed out or messed up, they’ll make you buy a new form. Also note that you need the Visa to both enter AND leave Cuba, so don’t lose it!!!
VACCINATIONS. About two weeks before we left, I thought, “Wait. Do we need any special vaccinations for our trip?” Word to the wise, you should really think about this at least 6 weeks before you go in order for the vaccinations to be most effective. Nevertheless, my husband and I got Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations, and were given meds to take in case we had stomach issues on our trip. (Which thankfully, we didn’t need because we listened to our hosts and stuck to bottled water.) In addition, my husband picked up some very fancy bug spray (for clothing and skin) from our local travel clinic. Play it safe and talk to your doctor well before you go, to see what he/she recommends.
MEDICAL INSURANCE. Speaking of vaccinations, what happens if you do get sick in Cuba? Will your US insurance work? Nope. The good news is, medical insurance is most likely included with your plane ticket. (Check with your airline to be sure.) Find out more about additional coverage here. Also note that travelers to Cuba “must have a return air ticket, evidence of sufficient funds for their minimum financial needs, a valid visa, and proof of travel health insurance.”
COLD, HARD CASH. Here’s the deal. US citizens can’t use credit or debit cards in Cuba. So, you’ll need to bring all of the money you anticipate using with you, and exchange it to CUC’s (Cuban currency) when you get there. We first converted our US dollars to Euros (through our bank) back home in order to avoid the 13% charge for converting from US dollars to the Cuban currency. There’s still a fee for Euros, just not as high. However, there’s a lot of math involved (or maybe just a little math, which feels like a lot), so it’s fine to just bring US dollars and convert those to CUC. You’ll probably want to convert a large chunk of your money at the start of your trip, then based on your spending patterns, convert more as you need it. The reason? There’s a fee to convert your CUC back to USD. So, unless you want to end up spending a lot at the airport shops (there are some there, so shopping is a legit option), convert your money throughout your trip. How much to bring? Most sites advised $100 (100 CUC’s) per day, per person. We did this, and found it to be pretty accurate.
WHERE TO STAY. There are 2-3 hotels that Americans absolutely can’t visit/stay in Cuba (due to US regulations, not Cuban). The rest are okay, but it’s more common to stay in a “casa particular” where you rent a room or entire apartment from locals. We found ours on Airbnb. The great thing about Airbnb is that you book before you leave, and can be in contact with your host via email. Plus, it’s all paid for, so you don’t have to worry about bringing cash for lodging. If you choose to wing it, and find lodging when there, this is cool too - just look for the special symbol on houses/buildings, signaling that it’s a safe place to stay. Regardless of how you book, these casas are a great chance to get real Cuban TLC, as your hosts genuinely want to open their homes to you and teach you about the Cuban culture. Our hosts, Tony and Vivi, were amazing (Casa Vivi, click and stay with them!). They picked us up from the airport ($25 is typical rate), made us an awesome breakfast each day ($5/person per day), and hooked us up with Cubans to take us to various places we visited. (More on lodging and choosing where to stay in Havana in a future post.)
AIRLINES. There are 10 US cities that fly to Havana - Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., New York, and Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. Get yourself to one of those cities, and prepare for an amazing adventure!
Stay tuned for future tips on travel to and in Cuba, and best of all, a glimpse at the people of Cuba... the best part of the trip by far!