Traveling to Cuba? Finding good, practical advice for your first trip to Cuba is definitely time-consuming. Worse, the information may not be accurate at all in 2019! There’s a distinct lack of solid, practical Cuba travel tips for first-time visitors.
Figuring out things like what is the Cuban currency, how to save money, what to pack, how to dress, how to access the Internet Cuba, or even how to stay safe and healthy can be confusing for first-time visitors. This can be especially difficult for Americans since visiting Cuba was strictly forbidden for so many years.
Until now! We’ve put together the most comprehensive list of practical Cuba travel tips that totally work in 2019. Everything that you must absolutely know.
Cuban currency tips
1. Understand the Cuban currency
If you’re unfamiliar with Cuba’s currency system, you’re in for a surprise. Cuba has two official currencies, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).
The CUC will cover most of your purchases as a tourist in Cuba. Typically hotels, resorts, restaurants, and tourist attractions accept CUC.
Unlike the CUC, the CUP is mostly used by locals. As a tourist, there are a few situations where you should use CUP instead of CUC:
- Street vendors and food stalls
- Bus tickets
- Purchases at flea market
- Purchases made at small local bodegas and convenience marts
For more Cuba travel tips related to Cuba’s currency system, check out this Ultimate Guide for Travelers.
2. Know where to buy the Cuban currency and how much you will get
You can’t exchange your home country’s currency for Cuban currency ahead of your trip. Instead, you’ll have to wait until you actually land on the island to make the exchange.
You can exchange your currency for CUC at state currency exchange offices (called CADECA), airports, banks, hotels, and resorts.
American visitors (or any visitors carrying U.S. currency) should be aware that when you exchange U.S. cash into CUC you’ll be charged a 10% fee, on top of a 3% bank fee. It means that you will receive 0.87 CUC for 1 USD. Tough, right? This bring us to our next Cuba travel tip.
3. Bring Pound Sterling or Euro… if you can
The two most “valuable” foreign currencies in Cuba are the British Pound Sterling and the Euro.
To avoid the exchange fees mentioned above, US visitors should exchange American money into a foreign currency like the Euro or Pound Sterling prior to touching down in Cuba.
4. Bring cash to Cuba, a lot
All things in Cuba can be paid for in cash. In fact, just a few businesses accept credit cards and debit cards, so you should carry cash on you at all times.
Due to US restrictions, credit cards issued by U.S. banks are not accepted in Cuba.
If you need to re-stock up on cash during your visit, Cuba has about 780 ATMs throughout the country, mostly located in larger cities like Havana, Matanzas (Varadero), Santiago de Cuba, and Holguin. Again, credit cards issued by American banks won’t work.
How much money to bring to Cuba?
5. Calculate the approximate daily budget
Cuba can be quite affordable if you plan correctly.
Before you arrive in the country, you should get a feel for what major expenses like accommodations, transportation, and food & drink cost. Here the most common expenses to incur in a trip to Cuba:
- Accommodation costs: casas particulares cost between 20-50 CUC/night. Hotels and resorts cost anywhere between 100-500 CUC/night.
- Transportation costs: private taxis cost around 1 CUC/kilometer. The Viazul bus is about 4CUC/hour. Renting a car will cost around 85CUC/day.
- Food and drink costs: Varies quite a bit! Breakfast at your casa can cost anywhere between 3-7 CUC while a sit-down restaurant meal can range from 8-20 CUC.
- Entertainment costs: A city tour of Havana in a classic car costs around 30 CUC. Tickets to a baseball game cost 3CUC/each. Some museums are free and others can cost up to 10 CUC.
6. Tipping in Cuba: who and how
Like many destinations throughout the Caribbean, tipping is common and even encouraged in Cuba.
Popular tippling locations include hotels, resorts, restaurants, guided tours, taxis, and spas. Anytime someone provides a service for you like cleaning your room, waiting for your table, or transporting you in a taxi, you should strongly consider offering a tip to that person–especially if they do an outstanding job!
We recommend at least 1 CUC for maids, porters, receptionists, street musicians, and taxi drivers. Local guides generally expect 3-5 CUC while 10% of the bill is the gratuity standard at restaurants in Cuba.
Money saving tips for Cuba
7. Stay in casas particulares (private accommodations)
This is a piece of Cuba travel advice you shouldn’t ignore!
Casas particulares are a popular and highly authentic type of lodging to stay in during your Cuba trip. A casa particular is similar to a bed-and-breakfast and usually cost between $20-30 USD per night, making them much more affordable than resorts on the island. Check out availabilities!
Bonus tip: Be aware! You may be tempted to save money by staying at someone’s place for free. It’s illegal! Avoid trouble with the law and overpriced hotels by staying at a homey casa particular instead.
8. Book flights to Cuba with a flights search engine
Direct flights to Cuba–especially from the United States–are limited and many airlines don’t fly to Cuba.
To book a flight to Cuba, it’s easiest to see ticket options from multiple airlines. You can check out a flight search engine like JetRadar that covers flights to Cuba.
9. Don’t stick to one cruise line
Just like flights search engines, CruiseDirect is a search engine that shows you cruises heading to Cuba as a port of call. Instead of sticking to one cruise line, you can investigate voyages from multiple cruise lines so you can get the best date and price for your trip.
10. Eat at paladares (private restaurants)
Cuba has a growing restaurant scene where you can find everything from gourmet meals to comfort food.
Paladares are private restaurants typically owned by families. Paladares are an excellent way to get authentic Cuban food at an affordable price.
Cuba travel guides like this one from Lonely Planet often have lists of paladares you can choose from. It also includes culinary facts about Cuba and advice for the island’s best restaurants.
11. Share urban taxis in Cuba
Cuba’s taxis are a convenient and authentic way to get around the cities. Plus, Cuba’s almendrones (private classic cars) are world-famous and totally unique to the island.
Although it may be a little uncomfortable, sharing an urban taxi for short rides is a cheap and authentic way to experience Cuban.
12. Book the tours to Cuba before you leave
Guided tours offer an unparalleled, authentic experience of Cuba.
From walking tours of history-rich cities like Havana to hiking or horseback riding in the stunning countryside, an experienced guide can show you parts of Cuba that you’d miss out on if you traveled solo.
Tours can book up fast so be sure to plan your itinerary and book your tour in advance. Plus, tour guides are experts about Cuban culture and history, so they’ll have tons of more helpful Cuba travel tips!
If you are on a really tight budget, check out our recommendations to travel to Cuba on a budget.
Packing tips for Cuba
13. Bring the essentials. The survival packing list for Cuba
There are certain things you don’t want to travel to Cuba without.
With Cuba’s rationed economy, supplies are limited on the island. So, you may not be able to pick up some of your travel necessities if you forget to pack them in your bag. Double check this list to make sure your bags are ready to go before you board your flight!
- First aid kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Convenience kit
- Water bottle with filter
- Microfiber towels
- Mosquito repellent
- Portable charger
- Pin adapter (for Europeans)
- Travel guide
- Spanish-English phrasebook
For a full rundown of what you need to bring to Cuba, check out our ultimate packing guide for Cuba.
14. Don’t bring what is not allowed
What you can and cannot bring into Cuba is one of those important things to know when traveling to Cuba. Check the list of banned items before you pack your bags.
Dressing tips for Cuba
15. What to wear in Cuba? The essential outfit
Dressing for Cuba will obviously vary based on your personal style, but two things to keep in mind are the weather and the kinds of activities you’d like to do while in Cuba.
Cuba has two seasons: the wet season (May – October) and the dry season (November – April). The wet season brings lots of rain, humidity, and high temperatures, so dress accordingly!
Here are recommended clothes for the hot, humid weather in Cuba:
For a woman traveling to Cuba:
- Light summer dresses
- Tank tops
- Walking sandals
For male travelers to Cuba:
Tips to avoid getting sick in Cuba
16. Review your travel insurance plan
How to stay healthy during your trip is an important thing to know, especially when traveling to Cuba.
Visitors to Cuba are required to have travel insurance like RoamRight temporary travel insurance.
Before you land in Cuba, be sure to review the health and medical portions of your insurance plan so you know exactly what situations you’re covered for during your trip. If an emergency strikes, the last thing you want to do is have to shuffle through your insurance paperwork.
17. Bring your medications
Cuba’s physicians have a good world-wide reputation, but you should still be prepared for minor illnesses or injuries that don’t necessarily warrant a hospital visit.
Pack an all-purpose First Aid kit with all the necessities like bandages, aspirin, and bismuth.
18. Don’t drink tap water in Cuba
We don’t recommend drinking the tap water in Cuba!
Cuba’s water supply is home to its own unique bacteria and microorganisms. The bacteria itself isn’t dangerous per se, but your body isn’t used to it and can make you very ill. Nausea, cramps, upset stomach, and other gastrointestinal issues that could potentially wreck your trip are common.
Water bottles with built in filters are an easy way to keep your water clean and safe to drink during your stay.
19. Don’t buy street food
Cuba is home to delicious local food, but buying food from a street stall or vendor can make you sick. Street stalls are simple set-ups and don’t have the luxury of refrigeration and sanitation that restaurants have.
If you fancy yourself a dare-devil and decide to indulge in the street food anyway, you should be extremely careful about what kind of fish you eat. Certain types of local fish from Cuba’s southern shore can poisonous (siguato) because they eat toxic sea vegetation.
20. Eat at the recommended restaurants in Cuba
Since food from street vendors can be iffy, you should instead eat at one of Cuba’s many private restaurants, referred to on the island as paladares.
Cuba travel guides like this one from Lonely Planet often have lists of paladares you can choose from. It also offers tons of Cuba travel tips for getting the best of Cuba’s culinary scene.
21. Take basic food safety precautions
You can avoid many potential illnesses in Cuba just by exercising basic safety precautions regarding food, sanitation, and hygiene.
For example, washing your hands before each meal will help eliminate harmful bacteria. When it comes to food, you should avoid eating anything raw or undercooked and forgo consuming unpasteurized dairy products. Washing and peeling your fruits and veggies also helps to get rid of harmful germs.
22. Protect against Zika in Cuba
You’ve probably heard of Zika thanks to its coverage by the media.
Cuba is a humid, tropical island is home to lots and lots of mosquitos–bugs are just one of those unfortunate facts about Cuba. And since Cuba is warm all year round, there will be mosquitos around no matter what time of year you visit.
The International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) recommend that you should “take meticulous anti-mosquito bite measures during the daytime. Pregnant travelers should seek counseling from a travel medicine practitioner and consider postponing travel to this country.”
Bring a potent insect repellant with you to keep away mosquitos during your trip!
23. Write down the hospitals and physicians available
If you find yourself sick or injured in Cuba, you don’t want to be left scared and helpless because you don’t know who to turn to for help.
Did you know that the U.S. State Department put together a list of hospitals and physicians for all of Cuba’s major cities? Bookmark the list so you can use it as a quick reference in case you or one of your travel companions needs medical attention.
Travel safety tips for Cuba
24. Get the emergency numbers
We don’t like to think about getting into emergency situations while we traveling, but the truth is, they can happen anytime. Write down these important phone numbers just in case you find yourself in a bad situation.
- Police: 106
- Fire Department: 105
- U.S. Embassy in Cuba: +53 7839-4100
- Canadian Embassy in Cuba: +53 7204-2516
25. Don’t exchange money with street vendors
Visitors to Cuba sometimes fall prey to currency scams. You should always exchange currencies at a legitimate location. CADECAs are located at hotels, airports, and banks.
Avoid exchanging money through informal means like street vendors. You might get the wrong amount of cash back or counterfeit money.
26. Don’t carry too much cash on you
It’s smart to carry cash on you while in Cuba, but it’s not smart to carry too much all at once. The more cash you have in your pocket, the more you could lose if you have the misfortune of being pickpocketed.
Instead, carry what you need for the day and leave the rest in a safe place back at your room.
27. Avoid pickpockets
Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Caribbean to visit, but petty theft is still commonplace. This is especially true in major tourist areas where thieves are looking for “easy” targets.
The best way to deter pickpockets and protect your valuables is with a money belt like this one from Peak Gear. A money belt is subtle, secure, and lightweight, so you can keep your valuables hidden and close to you at all times.
28. Don’t go to very poor neighborhoods
Just like any other country you visit, some parts of Cuba are safer than others.
Poor neighborhoods, especially in large cities like Havana, could be dangerous to tourists due to muggers and robbers. In Havana, certain neighborhoods in Centro Habana, Marianao, and Guanabacoa are especially dangerous. You should only consider going if you have a knowledgeable, trustworthy local friend.
If it helps, you should consider carrying a travel whistle like this NOOPEL Emergency Whistle.
29. Don’t show off
There’s something about vacation that sometimes makes people want to show off, but Cuba is not the place to do that.
Showing off symbols of wealth or status like luxury clothes, bags, watches, or expensive electronic devices, can attract the wrong kind of attention and mark you as a target for thieves or muggers.
Instead, keep your valuables at home and instead bring only what’s practical and comfortable for your trip.
30. Hire only professional Cuban guides
Cuba is full of guides willing to take you on tours of the cities and beyond, but only some of them are legitimate.
Instead of hiring someone on the street, stick to reputable guides. Hiring the wrong guide can be a waste of money and potentially dangerous.
31. Lock your luggage
Locking your luggage can make the difference between keeping your stuff safe while you travel and having it stolen.
Although Cuba is a safe country to visit, it’s not unheard of for things to go missing from unattended bags. Keep your things safe with a TSA lock like this one.
32. Use your common sense
Cuba is a safe country with relatively low crime rates. That being said, you should exercise your common sense when traveling throughout the country to best protect yourself from trouble.
Avoid walking alone at night and don’t invite strangers back to your room. These are just a few of the Cuba safety tips you can learn about from the Ultimate Guide to Stay Safe in Cuba.
Transportation tips for Cuba
33. Plan your local transportation in advance
Cuba has a variety of transportation options for getting around the island. Which one you choose will depend on your budget as well as the distance you’re looking to travel.
For getting around within a city or between two nearby cities, taxis (state taxis or almendrones) are the most affordable option. You can rent your own car, but be aware that daily fees are pricey and road conditions in Cuba mean they’re not always safe to drive on.
For longer trips between cities or other parts of the island, you can take the Viazul bus. If your trip is longer than you’re comfortable traveling by bus, you can skip the Viazul and book a domestic flight across the island.
34. Get a street map of Cuba
You’ll probably spend a lot of time traveling on foot. With Cuba’s year-round warm weather and the beautiful old architecture of its cities, you’d be missing out if you didn’t hit the pavement.
For getting around Cuba on foot, a paper street map will be your best friend. Internet access in Cuba is spotty, so don’t assume you’ll have access to Google Maps or Apple Maps on your phone.
How to get Internet access in Cuba?
35. Don’t expect easy Internet access in Cuba
Cuba does have internet, but access is limited and service isn’t available everywhere. The best spots to find reliable internet access are hotels, internet cafes in major cities, and public hotspots at airports.
Once you get connected, don’t expect lightning-fast speeds. Bandwidth is limited, so you should be fine making basic web searches and sending emails, but don’t expect to stream music and videos.
36. Know your options
You’ve got a couple of options for connecting to the Web in Cuba.
1. Buy a NAUTA card
You can purchase a NAUTA card at ETECSA offices, but be prepared to wait in a long line. Travelers have reported that the line in Havana can take up to two hours!
Some hotels also sell NAUTA cards, so you may be able to skip the trip to the local ETECSA center. As of 2019, a 5-hour card costs 5 CUC and the one-hour card costs 1.00 CUC. Note: bring your passport! You’ll need it to buy the card.
While we don’t recommend this option, you can also purchase an internet access card on the black market. If you go this route, expect to pay an extremely inflated price!
Once you have your NAUTA card in hand, you can connect to the web at any of these places:
- Public wifi hotspots. Here is a list of all the WiFi hotspots in Cuba.
- Hotels and resorts
- Salas de Navegación: desktop computers at ETECSA offices.
2. Desktop computer with Internet access at your hotel
Some hotels and resorts are equipped with desktop computers with internet access. In this case, you don’t need a NAUTA card.
However, this isn’t a universal commodity for all hotels in Cuba. You’ll want to research the hotel beforehand if this is your option of choice. A site like booking.com lists many of the services and features each hotel has to offer.
3. International roaming
Some major cell carriers like AT&T offer roaming coverage in Cuba. You can get an idea of what calls, texts, and data in Cuba cost by checking out the plan here.
T-Mobile’s Global Plus 15GB Plan also covers cell service in Cuba. Verizon and Sprint also have coverage but, unfortunately, no roaming packages for Cuba.
AT&T prices: $3.00/minute for calls; $0.50/text; $2.05/MB for data
T-Mobile prices: $2.00/minute for calls; $0.50/text; $2.00/MB for data
4. Get a SIM card with Internet at ETECSA or rent one from a home rental owner
If you decide to bring your mobile phone with you to Cuba, you have the option of getting a SIM card from the ETECSA office (same place you get your wifi card). This will take you a lot of time to set up and cost you around 40 CUC.
Alternatively, some casa owners may be able to rent you a SIM card with Internet for a price.
5. Buy or rent a SIM card online
A few online companies also offer Cuba SIM cards you can purchase ahead of your trip. Cellomobile and OneSimCard are two popular companies that allow you to purchase or rent a SIM card for use in Cuba.
Cellomobile prices: Incoming calls $2.19/minute; outgoing calls $2.19/minute; free incoming SMS text messages; outgoing SMS messages $0.49/each.
OneSimCard prices: Incoming calls $0.65/minute; outgoing calls $1.25/minute; free incoming SMS text messages.
Cuba travel tips for dealing with the ugly
37. Be prepared for the long lines
Many goods and services on the island are still rationed and distributed via the state bureaucracy. Be prepared to wait in line at the bus stop, bodegas, banks, and cultural attractions like museums.
38. Many bathrooms are paperless
If you’ve spent a lot of time in North America or Europe, you probably take toilet paper for granted.
Many bathrooms in Cuba don’t have toilet paper or have toilet paper outside the stall near the washing basin. In cases where you do find toilet paper, there’s a chance it will be low-quality.
Instead of finding yourself literally S.O.L., you may prefer to bring a small supply of your own or a packet of travel kleenex when you’re going to be out on the town.
39. Don’t expect the entire menu to be available
Cuban restaurants are often working with limited ingredients depending on what’s available. This is mostly due to the fact that the Cuban government still controls the availability for meat, vegetables, and other ingredients. This can impact the availability of certain meals and dishes on the menu.
40. Don’t expect high-quality service everywhere
Cuba is undergoing a lot of changes, many of which you’ll notice during your stay on the island.
One of the most noticeable signs is the difference between the quality of service you’ll experience. While there are many outstanding businesses, restaurants, and hotels in Cuba, others may not meet what you’re used to experiencing in your home country.
41. Catcalling is common
Lady travellers to Cuba should be aware that catcalling (called piropo in Spanish) is pretty common. Expect to hear lots of compliments like guapa, linda, and chula.
This is more likely to happen if you’re travelling as a solo female than in a group with males. Keep in mind that as annoying as the practice is, typically catcalling is harmless behavior and doesn’t lead to harassment or violence.
Respect and support the locals
42. Learn some Spanish
Although some Cubans have conversational skills in foreign languages like English, it’s best to learn some Spanish so you can communicate in the local tongue.
Pack a Spanish-English phrasebook like this one that specializes in the Cuban dialect.
43. Avoid talking politics
Politics is a passionate and complicated subject in Cuba. We recommend steering clear of bringing up politics while chatting with your new Cuban friends to keep the conversation light-hearted and pleasant.
44. Support Cuban local businesses
If you’re an American visitor traveling to Cuba under the Support for the Cuban People travel category, then you’ll need to show that you’re supporting the Cuban people during your visit. Regardless of your travel designation, supporting local businesses is just a good thing to do!
A few popular ways visitors can support Cuban businesses include: staying in a casa particular; eat at paladares; taking a dance class; and supporting local artists and musicians by attending their shows or purchasing their hand-crafted goods.
What can you bring back from Cuba?
45. Only up to $800 worth of souvenirs to the US from Cuba is duty-free
If you plan to bring back more than $800 USD worth of goods from Cuba, be prepared to pay customs duties.
46. Don’t plan to leave Cuba with more than 50 cigars
Cuba has a reputation for the world’s best hand-rolled cigars, but you can only bring 50 home with you.
47. Don’t try to bring back the prohibited items
Everyone loves to bring home mementos from their travels, but certain things are prohibited to take back from Cuba.
While most souvenir-type items are fine to bring back, you should double check the list from Cuban customs just to make sure you don’t run into any trouble on your return trip.
Additional Cuba travel tips for Americans
48. Make sure that your itinerary is covered by your travel category
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have thawed significantly over the past decade, but technically Americans travelling to Cuba for tourism is still illegal.
That being said, many Americans still visit Cuba each year. To make it happen, you need to declare your travels under one of twelve categories authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
49. Keep your records
Keep records of your travels including accommodations, transportation, food, and miscellaneous purchases when possible.
American travelers may be asked to provide documentation of their Cuban travels upon returning to the U.S. While anecdotally this seems pretty rare, you should be prepared just in case it happens to you!
50. Don’t spend money at restricted businesses
This is a head’s up for all American visitors to Cuba.
Due to lingering restrictions between the two countries, and American visitors can’t spend money at Cuban businesses forbidden by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Basically, any business affiliated with the Cuban military or security services is off limits, and you can view the full list here.
If you want to know more about how to travel to Cuba from the US, read our complete guide to the travel to Cuba restrictions.
If this list had a #51, that’s what it would be! Armed with this handy list, you’ll be more prepared than ever for your upcoming Cuba trip. Now comes the fun part–packing and getting ready for your flight. Cuba awaits!
Have you been to Cuba before? Share your most helpful Cuba travel tips and advice in the comments below!