Can Americans Actually Travel To Cuba?
Short answer- YES.
This topic has been a major grey area for Americans who desire to travel to Cuba for years. First we heard our governmental relations improved and travelers were taking the plunge with little to no information for what to expect. As tourism from Americans grew, online publications were also growing with info - until, of course, we got hit with another curveball and were told we can no longer travel for tourism purposes. Some people were still doing it though, so where is the loophole? Can we actually go? What are the consequences if we are caught “beating the system"?
Potential clients of The Nomad’s Direction have been emailing us regularly over the last year and held back from booking itineraries with us when they learned we had not yet been there to scope it out ourselves. So, we packed our bags and headed to Cuba for 8 days to tell you everything you need to know before going!
How do we fly there?
JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, Alaska, Spirit, United, Frontier, and Southwest all fly to Cuba from the USA. Some have nonstop flights, while others have layovers in Miami or Fort Lauderdale. You can purchase your flight from any of the websites directly, with no visa prepared. If you are going for what we know as tourism, you’d tick off “support of the Cuban people” for your reason of travel. This is because we (as well as Cuban civilians) do not want to support the Cuban government. The proof for supporting the Cuban people can be things like showing your Airbnb receipts, or reservations you have pre-booked for dinners some nights. When we flew there, we didn’t have to present any proof though! No questions asked, whatsoever.
How do we get our visa?
Visas for traveling to Cuba from the US can be paid for right at the departure gate, which is what we did when we flew. Each airline charges a different price, though - so this is something to consider when purchasing your flight. The base price is always $50 for the Visa, but there are various processing fees. While some airlines offer it at only $50, others tack on an additional $50 for a “processing fee” and end up making you pay $100. You can also pre-order your visa online and can save some $ off the processing fee this way. It will be mailed to your house and you’d have to bring it with you to present at the airport. Once you are in Cuba, hold onto your visa in a safe place, as you’ll have to present it again at customs when it’s time to head back home.
How to prepare yourself financially:
The official currency of Cuba is CUC (pronounced Kook). It roughly translates 1:1 in terms of Euros. Euros go a bit farther than the US dollar, so if you can first exchange your USD to Euros before entering Cuba, and then exchange it to CUC, you’ll be better off. Some restaurants in major cities like Havana accept USD under the exchange rate (plus some). But this won’t be common everywhere, so we do encourage you to exchange as much as you can.
American banks are not recognized in Cuba at all, so you will not be able to use your credit card anywhere, even at ATMs. It will be a completely cash only vacation, all the way up to checking your bags at the airport on the way home, so come prepared! You will also not be able to exchange your CUC back to USD at any point. This is the toughest part about traveling in Cuba. You don’t want to exchange too much and have too much left over without being able to exchange back, and you don’t want to exchange too little and be stuck. Something to consider is bringing more than you think you need in cash (USD or Euros) and only exchanging to CUC what you think you will end up spending. This way, if you burn through it, you can continue getting around by paying in Euros at some major places, or exchanging again at a bank somewhere.
If worst comes to worst, there is always Western Union. You can get someone back in the states to wire you money, and have a local take you to Western Union to pick it up. American tourists are not allowed to accept the money from Western Union themselves. You have to be with a local, who has proof of a Cuban address.
Cell service and WiFi:
When people say Cuba is like a blast from the past, they’re not just talking about the 1950s Chevy’s driving around. There is no such thing as “free WiFi” anywhere. Even the restaurants or casa particulares that have WiFi modems in their place don’t allow you to connect with a universal password, and it’s not because they don’t want to. The modems literally only work one way -
When you want to get WiFi connection, you have to purchase a WiFi card. You can get these at most hotels as well as some storefronts that are designated for internet connection. They range from $1 CUC - $4 CUC depending where you purchase the card. The ones that are more expensive are typically from nicer hotels, but include a mojito or a coffee with your purchase. Each card has an hourly rate. The ones you will buy from a hotel will only have 1 hour on them, but if you purchase a card from an internet storefront, you can get up to 5 hours or more on one single card.
How to get around the country:
The best way to make your way around the country is by hopping in a collectivo, which are basically carpool taxis. You tell your hotel receptionist or Airbnb host etc. that you want to go to whichever town next, and they arrange it for you. For a 2-3 hour drive you can expect to pay about $20 per person. For a 6 hour drive you can expect to pay around $40 per person. The collectivo is in a regular sized sedan car and seats 5 people comfortably including the driver. You will never get lucky and end up just 2 people in a single car - there is always someone to pick up in the same town or along the way. But this means it’s also a great way to make traveling friends!
If you have a more flexible budget, you can take a private car or even a vintage car to your next town. (This can all be arranged through your itinerary with The Nomad’s Direction)
What’s the overall vibe?
Cubans are just as vibrant as the country and community they live in. The energy of the people will 100% make your trip special. They are eager to talk to tourists, extremely helpful, and super hospitable. They are also incredibly good looking, extremely talented artists and musicians and dancers. They are joyful people and keep the journey exciting.
There is something for everyone in Cuba. There is something for the low maintenance traveler, and for the luxe traveler. There are private Airbnbs, hotels, or casa particulares which are essentially room rentals with a family where you get a “host” family (these are the most affordable and the best way to experience true Cuban culture)
You can keep your trip laid back and casual, or thrilling and adventurous. You can spend it in the mountains or by the beach. There are waterfalls, hikes, lounges, nightclubs, amazing restaurants, and street food. Each trip from person to person could be completely different, based off of who you are and what you want.
Time to plan for your trip to Cuba:
Fill out the questionnaire on our homepage to begin letting us know what kind of trip you're looking for when you go to Cuba, as well as your budget and the dates you plan on visiting. The Nomad’s Direction can create a personalized and customized experience for you in Cuba, and guide you through everything a lot more specifically than this blog post entails!
This post was intended to get the ball rolling for Americans who would like to travel to Cuba with the basic need-to-know tips before heading down. For specific restaurants, casa particulares, hotels, and more please inquire for your own personal itinerary!
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