Cuba is such a beautiful country. I celebrated my #Start30WithLove 30th Birthday trip there, but prior to traveling, it was a complete mystery to me. How does one get there from the US? What do I need to bring? What should I know before I go? There is so much information out there but I didn’t know who or what to trust on the world wide web. Luckily my friend Jessica Berry, who is a seasoned traveler and had flown to Cuba for a trip just a few weeks prior, gave me a lengthy but necessary list of things to sort out before leaving. Combined with her list and my own, here’s our top 5 list.
What To Get Before You Jet to Cuba:
1. Get Your Visa
This is the question of the century. Do you need a travel visa for visiting Cuba? The answer is YES. You can get one for $50 during check-in with airlines like JetBlue, ($80 for Delta) and the process is fairly quick and easy.
Pay attention to your emails after you book your trip, because your airline may send you a questionnaire with questions about your trip ahead of your departure to choose the one of 12 allowed reasons for travel to Cuba. Jessica chose “family visit” because she visited a friend’s family during her stay. My group and I chose “educational activities” as we spent most of our time getting educated on Cuban culture. But seriously, no one checks once you reach Cuba. You may also get your visa ahead of time from your embassy, but most people I’ve known have gotten theirs at the airport on the day of travel.
You’ll get your boarding pass, Visa and health insurance simultaneously from your airline (this was the case with JetBlue, at least). Keep both on you at all times, just in case. Your boarding pass doubles as health insurance!
Recommendation: You can check the US Embassy to Cuba website for more info.
2. Get Cash (Lots of It)
Cuba is primarily a cash economy. For Americans, US dollars are not used there. Your best course of action is to order Euros ahead of time from your bank in the US and exchange them for CUC (local Cuban currency) at the airport in Havana once you get there, for the best exchange rate. We arrived at Terminal 3, and the exchange counter is outside. If the line is long (which it typically is), you can take a cab to Terminal 2 where there’s less of a wait. You’ll need your passport to enter that Terminal. EUROS are preferred because Cubans get charged a surcharge for changing US dollars and they past that penalty onto you. So bring euros if you can for a 1:1 exchange.
How much you spend will depend on your tastes but beware YOU CANNOT WITHDRAW MONEY while in Cuba. ATMs there do not accept American debit/credit cards, so you’ll need to have all cash.
3. Get A Good Carryon
Word to the wise – don’t check your bag. Your wait time to leave will depend on a few things. I’ve heard people spend up to two hours at the airport waiting for checked luggage. Ours only took about 30min, BUT the money exchange
line took at least an additional hour. Leaving Cuba took even longer because they’re not yet equipped to handle the influx of new tourism. Do yourself a favor and pack light so you don’t have to worry about checked luggage delaying your travel plans.
Recommendation: Away Travel has super cute and affordable carry-ons. They also have no-brainer accessories like chargers.
4. Get A Tour Guide
There are so many amazing things to see in Cuba and it’s sometimes easier to see alot of things in a short amount of time if you book a Tour Guide to take you around. Popular areas you’ll want to explore include Old Havana – mainstays like the Plaza de la Revolucion, Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana and La Bodeguita del Medio.
The Viñales Tour (can be booked at Hotel El Presidente in Vedado) includes a tobacco farm, lunch, a boat ride at the India caves and visiting the Mural de la Prehistoria. At the Mural de la Prehistoria, they have horse and bull rides, great piña coladas (pour your own UNLIMITED rum), and a restaurant. If you’re into lazy beach days, book a day tour in the beach town of Varadero (about 2 hours driving from Havana) where they have catamaran rides for large groups and more.
Recommendation: Havana Journeys has a great list of day tours. They took great care of us in Havana.
5. Get Used To Being Offline
You will be unplugged in Cuba! Savor it! It is so relaxing, and you won’t miss it after a while. If you really
need to scratch that itch, you have to buy WiFi cards to get on the networks there. They cost 2CUC/card and last up to 80min (depending on the card and where you’re using it). Some hotels run out and/or reserve some for their actual guests, so buy a few at a time. Wifi is not usually strong, so use your time wisely. The popular Wifi hotspots are hotels and “Wifi parks” (just look for the crowds of people on their phones).
There is SO much more to chat about here but this is a quick list of What To Get Before You Jet To Cuba. Have you been to Cuba? Thinking of going? Leave us a comment below.
Photos by Augusta Sagnelli
Special thanks to contributor Jessica Berry for adding to this post!