The ASP Guide To Cuba
Are you ready to travel to a country that's felt the weight of a U.S. imposed embargo for over 50 years? There's not many places where you can travel and feel like you've just gone back in time (North Korea being another notable destination), but the flood of classic American cars and the lack of ubiquitous wireless internet will definitely help transport you to the Cuba of today.
I'll be updating this guide from time to time and as I get questions, so feel free to ask away in the comments below!
Who Can Travel To Cuba?
Well, pretty much anyone, but if you're an American things can be a bit hazy. Developments are happening rapidly, and I think it's only a matter of time before Americans can once again freely travel to Cuba as they can any other country. Until then though, as an American you can travel on a "People-to-People" tour, which is a legal and pricey means of traveling to Cuba. There's still some confusion and uncertainty in what may constitute legal travel to Cuba given the Obama administration's changes in January 2015. Basically, people that were previously allowed to legally travel to Cuba under a specific license are no longer required to obtain the specific license, but you are still required to meet the classification criteria for that license.
There's 12 categories in which special licenses apply, such as "Journalism", "Education" and "Healthcare", but that doesn't mean anyone can just say "Oh, I'm going to Cuba as a Journalist" as you are actually required to have past professional experience (e.g. you've been paid to work as a journalist before) in the field. If you want to travel with the assumption you meet the criteria, I'd encourage you to google around a bit to better understand and see if this is the right choice for you. The reality is, enforcement of this may now be a bit lax, but you don't want to be the poor soul that gets the short end of the stick when re-entering the U.S. Another good way to mitigate this risk is to apply for Global Entry if you don't yet have it.
If you're American and want to go the fully legal route, this is your best option. You will, however, pay a premium to go on a people-to-people tour compared to other options. On the up-side, you have easier access to charter flights originating from Miami and perhaps a few other select cities, which may make travel easier for you depending on where you're located. There's a number of operators that operate in this fashion, and while some operators like NatGeo may provide a value-add of having a photographic expert join the tour, you should know that there are only two tour operators in Cuba. That means, regardless of what operator you book your tour through, you're going to end up on the same buses, with the same tour guides, and overall same quality regardless of who you book your tour through. What does this mean? Going with the cheaper option is likely your best bet.
Some operators that provide legal, people-to-people tours:
In Touch With Cuba is, from what I've heard, the cheapest option around, although I have not tried any of these operators for myself, so you'll still want to check reviews of them on a site like TripAdvisor.
How To Travel To Cuba Without A License
This is the far cheaper and flexible option if you're an American, however depending on your situation it is potentially illegal. It's also the route I chose for my own trip, which worked out just fine. You'll basically have your normal tour options, ranging from fully packaged tours to à la carte options.
Fly Through A Third Country
Probably the easiest way, is to fly through a gateway city. Since I'm on the west coast, I found the flight timings actually worked out to be a little more convenient to fly through Mexico as opposed to a people-to-people tour, most of which originate in Miami. I saved having to spend a night in Miami in a fancy hotel just so I could be on a charter flight to Cuba. Going through Mexico saved me a lot of time and money. You can find flights to Cuba from Mexico City, Cancun, Bahamas, Panama City and Canada as well as several other cities if you're not flying from the U.S.
Booking Your Flight
For me, I ended up booking my own round trip ticket to Mexico and then used a travel agency to book the round trip ticket from Mexico to Havana. If you're American, it's starting to get a bit easier to find and book your own flights to Cuba, but mostly they go through a third country. The online flight search engines (Kayak, Hipmunk) are starting to display flight options for Cuba, but their options are limited and booking them can be problematic. Here's some resources to help get you started:
Flights To Havana From Mexico City
Note: Flight times may vary depending on daylight savings time and airline scheduling.
- Cubana (CU 131): Wed-Mon, MEX @ 08:45 - HAV @ 12:15
- Cubana (CU 130): Wed-Mon, HAV @ 06:00 - MEX @ 07:45
- Aeromexico (AM 451): Daily, MEX @ ~10:15 - HAV @ 14:10
- Aeromexico (AM 452): Daily, HAV @ 15:20 - MEX @ 17:27
- Aeromexico (AM 453): Mon/Wed/Sat/Sun, MEX @ 16:00 - HAV @ 19:55
- Aeromexico (AM 454): Mon/Wed/Sat/Sun, HAV @ 21:03 - MEX @ 23:09
Flights To Havana From Cancun
Note: Flight times may vary depending on daylight savings time and airline scheduling.
- Cubana (CU 153): Daily, CUN @ 16:05 - HAV @ 18:25
- Cubana (CU 152): Daily, HAV @ 13:45 - CUN @ 15:05
- Aeromexico (AM 447): CUN @ 11:02 - HAV @ 13:20
- Aeromexico (AM 448): HAV @ 14:20 - CUN @ 14:41
Getting Your Cuban Visa
You'll need a visa (tourist card) to enter Cuba, but luckily the cost is relatively cheap at only 25 CUCs (~$28). If you're booking a tour, you can get one from your travel agent. You can also get one when booking your flight, or from the airport in a gateway city such as Mexico City.
Hotels/Accommodation In Cuba
I booked my hotels in combination with some tour activities through A. Nash Travel. I was a little surprised to learn that my rooms were in fact booked through a Canadian hotel booking site, Sunwing.
Cuba does have a tiny experiment in capitalism where individual home owners with a special license from the government can rent their homes out, which is known as a Casa Particular. It's definitely more affordable than a hotel room, and now, many of these same casas can be found on Airbnb. You do have to be American if you want to use Airbnb in Cuba, but from what I've heard many casa particular owners list their homes at much higher rates on Airbnb than through other means.
There's two different currencies in use in Cuba, which doesn't help to simplify things. Generally, as a tourist, everything will be priced in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), pronounced like "kooks" or spelled out as "C-U-Cs." The other currency in use is the Cuban Peso (CUP), which you might get from a street vendor, especially if you don't have the exact amount or a small enough denomination in CUCs, so be mindful of that when trying to buy small goods like water. In general, you want to avoid collecting CUPs as it'll be harder to use, and you'll need to have enough CUPs to convert them into CUCs, so you can in turn convert them back to another currency when leaving the country.
The CUC is pegged to the dollar, but if you try to exchange US Dollars for CUCs, there's a 10% tax applied. Convert at a hotel, and an additional 3% commission is taken. If you have or can convert to EUR, CAD, or GBP, without losing 10% the value, you'll be coming out ahead. If flying from the U.S. through a third country, that's an excellent time to withdraw some non-USD money from the ATM to then convert in Cuba, avoiding the 10% tax.
Now, this is important: Make sure you bring enough hard currency with you to last throughout your trip. You don't necessarily need to convert it all up-front, but the likelihood of you being able to use your credit card or an ATM to withdraw money is limited. If you have a U.S. issued card, it's pretty much non-existent, even though relations are improving and some card issuers are allowed to do business in Cuba. So, plan to use cash throughout your trip. When possible, you might want to pay for things in advance with credit card so you earn your points/miles/etc... such as for hotels and pre-booked tours.
Don't. Count. On. It. Internet access in Cuba has historically been quite limited due to political reasons. Some hotels may have internet access, but will be confined to a lonely desktop computer. Personally, I avoid all public computers since I never know what software/spyware has been installed on them. You can expect to pay $6 CUC to $10 CUC per hour of internet access at hotels, and whether Wi-Fi or on a desktop, the speeds will be extremely slow (maybe 768kbps for an entire hotel) at best.
My stay at the Hotel Saratoga included unlimited Wi-Fi, which was a really nice perk! However, it was extremely slow. Good enough to get some e-mail across and a facebook update or two, but not much else. As of July 2015, the Cuban government announced public Wi-Fi in 35 spots across the country costing $2 CUC/hour, just don't expect the process to access the internet to be so easy like at your local Starbucks. A passport will be required to set up an account, and it's not clear to me how easy that will be for visitors.
Duty Free: What Can I Bring Back?
You might be surprised to learn this, but you can actually legally buy and bring back Cuban cigars and alcohol for personal use to the U.S. The CBP lays it all out, but the long and short of it is, you can bring back up to $400 in goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 of that can be for alcohol and tobacco products (combined). There's also some limitations on total number of cigars (50) or cigarettes (200) you can bring back, and similar for liquor (1 liter), so be sure to check out the info on the CBP website to learn more.
When it comes to liquor, let me put on my Captain Obvious hat for a moment and just say that rum is the way to go. You can find rum from brands like Havana Club in airport duty free shops all over the world, but some rums are a little more difficult to find (although not impossible, depending on the country) outside of Cuba. Santiago de Cuba is the brand most Cubans referred me to time and again, saying it's the original Bacardi. Apparently, after the Bacardi family left Cuba in 1960 due to the nationalization of businesses, Santiago de Cuba rum popped up in its place, using the same recipe and distilleries. In some limited research I wasn't able to verify this, but numerous Cubans have all recommended it, and Cuba is basically the land of rum, so whether it's true or not, it's still an excellent choice of liquor.
As for the cigars? Well, I don't smoke, so I can't offer much guidance except that Cohiba (Fidel's preferred brand) and Montecristo are pretty darn famous. If someone offers to sell you cigars for cheap, such as a street vendor, chances are they're fake black market cigars which you should avoid. For genuine cigars, make sure you shop at the government-owned stores.
A couple of good movies I can recommend you check out before your visit. If you're not already familiar with the revolutionary icon you've probably seen on t-shirts, you should definitely check out Che. It was originally shown in two parts, but only the first part is relevant to Cuba with the second part being about Che Guevara's time in Bolivia. Thirteen Days is a dramatization about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.