Everyone seems to have their own opinion of Cuba. Ask anyone who knows a little about the place and chances are, they’ll say “you’ve got to visit before it’s too late”. I think it’s already too late to visit Cuba if you’re picturing an untouched island with remote golden beaches lined by swaying palm trees and historical cobbled streets free of crowds. Despite what you might think, Cuba isn’t a difficult country to visit — even if you don’t speak Spanish. But there are a few Cuba travel tips and tricks I wish I’d known before I went.
So you don’t end up in the same situation, I’m sharing my advice with you. Here are the things I learned the hard way after travelling around Cuba for a couple of weeks.
19 Cuba travel tips
1. Cuba is expensive
Because of its dual currency system, Cuba is both very expensive and very cheap at the same time. How much you spend depends on which currency you use. Visitors tend to use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), while locals use the Cuban Peso (CUP). But the CUP is worth much less than the CUC. The CUC is pegged 1:1 to the United States dollar and 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP.
In Cuba, everything is priced in CUC and CUP. But the prices don’t add up. For example, a menu might advertise a meal at 5 CUC/15 CUP. Since 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP, the two prices aren’t equal and CUP works out much better value for money.
Cuba travel tip #1: Use CUP as your currency in Cuba.
2. The American Dollar isn’t king
Bringing US dollars to Cuba is a terrible idea. Official exchange houses charge a 10% penalty tax when you exchange USD to one of the Cuban currencies.
Cuba travel tip #2: Bring Euros or British Pounds to Cuba, since there’s no tax on exchanging these currencies.
Bonus tip for travelling in Cuba: Click here to find out how much money you need per day in Cuba.
3. The exchange rate is the same everywhere
You get the same exchange rate everywhere in Cuba because only banks and exchange houses are officially allowed to exchange money. There’s no need to try and negotiate a better rate like you can in other countries, because you can’t get one.
Cuba travel tip #3: Don’t waste time searching for the best place to exchange your money.
4. Don’t rely on bank cards
I didn’t use my card once in Cuba because I never saw a single shop or restaurant that accepted bank cards. There are ATMs in Cuba’s biggest cities where you can withdraw cash, but many only accept VISA cards. And even if you find one, you might not have much luck. I saw quite a few ATMs in Cuba that were out of service or out of money.
Cuba travel tip #4: Bring cash.
5. Find out if you need a visa
There are only 19 countries from which citizens can get a free visa on arrival in Cuba. If you’re not from one of these countries, you have to get a Tourist Card before you travel. People flying from Canada can get a Tourist Card onboard the flight. While those flying from Mexico have to buy it at the airport. I flew to Cuba from Europe, so I had to get my card from back home in Norway. The airline checked it both at check-in and again during boarding.
Cuba travel tip #5: Get a Cuba Travel Card if you need one.
6. Share taxis
While the Viazul bus system in Cuba is fairly good and reliable, I think a shared taxi is the best way to get around. A shared taxi ride costs about the same as a bus ride, but you’ll get to where you’re going much faster.
The taxi drivers can even pick you up at your guesthouse or hotel at no extra cost and they’re more than happy to pull over for a drink or toilet break. Just ask the owner of your guesthouse or reception staff and they’ll arrange a shared taxi ride for you.
Cuba travel tip #6: Ditch the bus system in favour of shared taxis.
7. Everything is on Cuba time
Like in most countries in this part of the world, everything in Cuba is relaxed and laid-back. Don’t expect anything or anyone to be on time. From a scheduled taxi pick-up from your guesthouse to meeting up with locals, things are never on time here.
Cuba travel tip #7: Relax and be prepared to wait in Cuba.
8. Cuba is more expensive when cruise ships dock
A lot of cruise ships visit Cuba these days. And prices rise a lot when they’re in town. I found this out when I went to the same restaurant a few days in a row in Havana. On my third visit, the price was double what I’d previously been paying. When I went back to the restaurant two weeks later, the price went back to normal.
Cuba travel tip #8: Avoid spending lots of money when cruise ships are in port.
Bonus tip for travelling in Cuba: Rent a car in Cuba so you can travel independently.
9. You need travel insurance
You must have travel insurance to enter Cuba. You’ve got to show proof of it at the airport when you arrive. And while you might get lucky and not be asked to show it, everyone on my flight was asked to show their insurance papers at the airport.
The girl in front of me was held back, since she didn’t have travel insurance. I didn’t see what happened, but there’s a chance she might not have been allowed to enter the country and had to get straight back on a plane home.
Cuba travel tip #9: Take out travel insurance.
10. Bring a power adapter
The American 110V and European 220V outlets are common in Cuba. But everywhere I stayed had one or the other — nowhere had both types of outlets. My first casa in Havana only the American 110V outlets, while the place I stayed in Trinidad only had the European 220V outlets. It was a nightmare trying to get an adapter in Cuba because everywhere seemed to be totally sold out.
Cuba travel tip #10: Bring a power adapter with you.
11. There’s no free WiFi
There’s nowhere to get free WiFi in Cuba — not even at top end resorts and hotels. You can pay for WiFi at these places, but don’t expect high speeds like you’re used to at home. The WiFi at the most famous hotel in Cuba, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, is both the most expensive and the slowest in the country.
Cuba travel tip #11: Be prepared to unplug or bring a portable WiFi device with you.
12. Use a free map app
Since there’s no free WiFi in Cuba and roaming charges will cost you a fortune, trying to use Google Maps online is useless. The best way to get around this is to download the complete Google map of Cuba via WiFi before you travel and use it offline when you’re there. Alternatively, you can use a free map app. Maps.Me is my favourite. Download it at home before you go and it will save you loads of hassle getting around.
Cuba travel tip #12: Download a free map before you leave for Cuba.
13. Watch out for cigar scams
In every city in Cuba, you’ll get approached by locals on the street claiming they’ve got the cigar offer of the century. They’ll tell you they can sell you authentic Cuban cigars for a fraction of the price they are in official stores.
If the offer sounds too good to be true, it definitely is. 99.9% of the cigars are sold on the street because they’re of such poor quality that they didn’t pass the cigar factories’ tests so they refused to accept them.
Cuba travel tip #13: Buy Cuban cigars from licensed factories and outlets.
14. Airbnb in Cuba
Guesthouses and hostels in Cuba are called “casas de particulares”. Hardly any of them let you book online. But if that’s how you want to reserve your accommodation in Cuba, you will find a few guesthouses on Airbnb.
Cuba travel tip #14: Use Airbnb to find cheap accommodation in Cuba.
15. Couchsurfing is illegal in Cuba
You can’t couchsurf in Cuba because it is totally illegal. While there are a handful of couchsurfing hosts in the country, they’re all acting against the law and if they get caught, they’ll have to pay a big fine.
Cuba travel tip #15: Save up some money and stay in a hostel in Cuba instead of couchsurfing.
16. Drones are illegal in Cuba
Drones are fast becoming an extremely popular accessory for travellers. Even I have one. If you’ve got a drone, don’t even think about bringing it with you to Cuba. All drones are strictly forbidden. You’ll be asked at the airport if you have one. If you do, you’ll have to leave it at the airport and pick it up before you leave.
If you bring a drone into the country illegally and are caught flying it, you’ll be imprisoned. A Canadian photographer in Cuba was jailed for flying his drone and questioned about US spy connections.
Cuba travel tip #16: Leave your drone at home.
17. Even the newest guidebooks are very outdated
Things are changing fast in Cuba. So much so that even the newest guidebook is already ridiculously outdated. I always find guidebooks to be outdated, but the ones for Cuba are particularly bad. Most of the restaurants mentioned have either closed down or are owned by other people. Many guesthouses referred to have also closed down since the books were published. Because of this, it’s just not worth the hassle of carrying one around with you.
Cuba travel tip #17: Don’t bother with a guidebook — do your Cuba research online.
18. Toiletries and basic first aid supplies are hard to get
Simple toiletries and first aid equipment that you can get easily at home are very hard to come by in Cuba. When I was there, the owner of one of the casas de particulares I stayed in asked if she could buy my basic first aid kit, including some ordinary plasters, because that sort of thing is so hard to find in Cuba.
Cuba travel tip #18: Bring all toiletries, first aid supplies and suntan lotion with you to Cuba.
19. Online check-in will save you hours
Havana International Airport had the longest departure check-in queue I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. An older man sat next to me on the flight said it took him a grand total of four hours just to check in. Because the check-in process was taking so long, our flight was delayed for three hours. While this shocked a lot of us, locals said it was completely normal.
Was I standing in the huge check-in queue? No!
Because I’d done my homework and already checked-in for my flight online, I didn’t have to wait in the queue with everyone else. I had to wait just ten minutes in a much, much smaller queue.
Cuba travel tip #19: Check-in online before you go to the airport.