Last January I decided to spend a few days in Cuba since now there are many flight options to Cuba from the US. I had a sense of urgency to travel to Cuba there since there’s some uncertainty on whether or not the new travel regulations will remain in place. This Havana travel guide is based on my short three day trip to Cuba.
While booking the airline tickets was easy, booking tours and carrying insane amounts of cash was a pain. Other than that, Cuba is full of friendly people, tons of history, tasty food, old cars, interesting architecture, and good music. Cuba is easily one to the most unique places I have ever traveled to and is well worth the trip.
Flight Booking and Visa
Booking was simple and was just like booking any other airline ticket. There was flyer miles availability on AA.com, yet I could not find availability using Alaskan Airlines miles for the same AA flights. I decided to use my AA gift cards for this flight since originated in the US. I’ve had them for a couple years since I couldn’t use them for flights originating in Europe where I live. The next day after I booked the tickets, American Airlines called me and left a message saying I had to call them back regarding my Cuba itinerary. When I called back they gave me the run down stating I had to go to the airport three hours early, check-in in person, state my reason for travel at the “Cuba Ready Station”, and purchase a Visa for $100.
While travel restrictions have been lifted, there are still some in place. You cannot go to Cuba and lay around on a beach drinking mojitos all day long. You can go to Cuba legally without a license if you fall within several US Government approved categories. The most common is the educational people-to-people exchanges which, is a pretty broad category which includes educational guided tours conducted by locals. US visitors are required to engage in a full time itinerary of activities related to the category they choose.
The airtime on the flight was just over 1 hour from Charlotte, which was surreal because Cuba seemed like another world.
Others have complained about their luggage taking forever to arrive off their plane. I suggest to learn how to pack light and use carry-on only.
Cuba has two forms of currency. The Convertable Cuban Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC is used by tourists for most things imported or anything intended for purchase from foreigners. The CUP is what locals use for staple goods and services not oriented towards foreigners.
The exchange rate between the CUC and the USD is pegged at 1:1. However, exchanging US Dollars to CUC incurs a 10% tax. I wish I knew this before I left Germany, as I would have brought over euros instead. So, if you have Euros, bring them since there is no tax on non-US currencies.
After you get your bags and go through customs, there is a desk outside the airport where you can convert your currency. I recommend arriving in Cuba with ample cash since lines at banks/ATMs are long and US credit cards are not accepted yet. I usually only carry around $20 so this made me feel uncomfortable, but no worries, Cuba is fairly safe.
The only US hotel chain that offers hotel stays on points is SPG. I thought the price and the points redemption was way too high compared to what I could get on airbnb.com. For under $100USD I got a huge beautiful room in a less populated area of Havana.
Some folks have reported issues with their Airbnb lodging in Cuba. If you stay at a place with many reviews, you should be able to avoid issues. The place I stayed at had a host with over 200 reviews, served breakfast, spoke English, and arranged a taxi pickup at the airport.
Wifi access is extremely limited in Cuba. I did not know before I went to Cuba that you can only access the internet in a few areas like a major hotel or designated Wifi parks. People do not have internet connected homes in Cuba. Before you can connect, you need to purchase internet cards that give you access for a specific period of time. I did not bother with this since I figured I could last a few days without internet. In fact, I really enjoyed not hearing any news for a few days.
There are certain roads where classic car taxis travel and pickup multiple passengers along a designated route and the prices are (I heard) 2 CUC since its a shared ride. However, when I hopped in a taxi (which now that I think about it, was just some dude’s car) he charged me 20 CUC. My fault for not negotiating the price up front, especially since the taxi had a cardboard passenger side window and no functioning gauges.
Riding in the taxis was always a fun experience since the cars are so old, rare, and in some sort of bizarre condition. I rode in a 1929 Ford Model A, 1937 Chevy Master, 1954 Chevy, and a 1982 Russian car. The Russian car from the 80s was frightening since I took a 15 minute ride at night with no functioning headlights, no door handles, no interior paneling, and while making every conceivable rattle, buzz, squeak, and pop along the way. I suggest taking the 60 year old American taxis instead. They do have some modern Japanese taxi cabs but that is no fun.
Booking tours was a pain, mostly because I approached it the wrong way and I started at the last minute. Typically, I book tours by sending out emails to tour operators and work out the details that way. What I did not realize as I was going through this process was that the tour operators in Cuba have to go to their closest Wifi location and conduct their internet correspondence a couple hours at a time per day. Sometimes it took 48 hours to get an email response. I suggest calling tour operators that you find on tripadvisor.com to plan out tours in order to avoid any confusion or delays in booking.
I booked two tours with two different operators in case one of them didn’t work out. This turned out to be a good idea because one of the tour operators canceled on me because it was raining. The tour operator that I had success with was “Fertours 2 Havana”. He booked a great 5 hour tour that included 2 hours driving tour of Havana, dinner, and two hours walking tour throughout old Havana. I wish I had booked “Fertours 2 Havana” for both days since I saw his tour guide still conducting tours in the rain the same day my other tour guide canceled on me.
The food was pretty good in Havana and the seafood was excellent. A lot of the places to eat feel like the living room or down stairs of someone’s house. That’s because indeed you will likely end up eating at a place that is run by a family that is living in the house. It doesn’t get any more home cooked than that! While the dishes were nothing fancy, they were priced well, had large portions, and were delicious.
I never felt in danger at any time while in Cuba since everyone I interacted with was polite and friendly. I toured Havana an night as part of my private tour since I was traveling solo but would have felt fine walking around at night if I wasn’t solo.
I was elaborately haggled by several folks trying to get to me to purchase cigars. Each person walked up to chat with me, gained some information, then relayed that information to the next person via cell phone to continue the haggling once I walked a few more blocks. One person even claimed to be my airbnb neighbor based on the previous person asking what neighborhood I was staying in. I almost fell for it! They were all claiming it was some special holiday and they could sell high end cigars 80% off. Based on my research they are selling cigar scraps or relabeled cheap cigars. I just bought cigars at the airport instead.
I think Cuba is a must see destination, especially if you are residing in the US since the flights are so short. Architecturally, its about as European as you can get without going to Europe. Also, it’s like traveling back in time with thousands of 60 years old cars, almost complete lack of internet, and no modern chain stores like KFC everywhere. What better place to enjoy some tropical weather and bring back some awesome cigars? I sure hope I’m able to visit this place again someday in the future.