If you’re traveling to Cuba as a Canadian there’s very little planning involved, but if you’re traveling as an American there are a few things you need to consider before planning your trip. Basically speaking, tourism from the United States to Cuba is stilled banned. “You can’t go to Cuba to just lie on the beach,” says Tom Popper of Insight Cuba (although this is exactly what I did last winter when I visited Varadero), a travel company that’s been operating trips to the island for 15 years. In order to be able to enter Cuba as an American your trip most fall into one of twelve categories —including religious, journalistic, and humanitarian activities, as outlined by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.
In fact, to have the best chance at getting a license to travel you should try to qualify for the most popular qualifying class which is “people-to-people,” which is defined as having a full-time schedule of activities resulting in “meaningful interaction between the travelers and the Cuban people” (see treasury.gov for more information).
Where should you begin?
I recommend you start by contacting a Travel Consultant. “We’ll take care of everything: flights, hotels, restaurant reservations,” says Popper. “It’s not easy to do it by yourself.” But such trips aren’t for everyone. “You have very little free time,” says Marianne McNulty, a Cuba specialist at Abercrombie & Kent. “There’s a tight schedule of in-person visits that must be followed.”
When and where should you go?
“The sooner the better”, says Popper—his bookings have nearly tripled since December. Since big changes are about to take place in Cuba — as you will see — I urge you to visit Havana, and travel back in time as soon as you can. Knowing the real Cuba will change your outlook on life forever. Check my post on the history of Havana and things to do for more information.
Can you use credit cards in Cuba?
Leave your American Express at home, as it will be useless in Cuba. Legally, you can use Visa but the reality is that the majority of establishments will not accept it, and if they do accept it there is a minimum transaction amount. From experience I’ve noticed that many of the establishments expect you to spend at least $60 USD if you would like to pay with your Visa credit card. You can bring dollars or euros, but to avoid any issues I suggest you exchange your money into Cuban dollars or CUCs.
Where to exchange your foreign currency:
The best exchange rate is at any bank. The next best exchange rate is at any Cadeca. A Cadeca (Casa de Cambio which means House of Exchange) is a government exchange house. They’re at airports, many resorts and hotels and at locations all over the Island.They are easily recognisable white containers on major roads and near major hotels, with a CADECA sign on top.
The worst rate can potentially be over-the-counter at any hotel or resort because the rate is not regulated by the government.
If you’re an independent traveller or a long term visitor and paying everything in CUC then exchanging at a bank is obviously the most sensible option.
If you are bringing cash with you, euros, Canadian dollars or pounds Sterling are generally best for exchange. The rates for these three major currencies will normally approximate their rates overseas, minus the variations in the currency exchange fee charged in Cuba, approximately 3% at the banks and CADECA’s.
How much money should you bring?
This really depends on your budget as a traveler but be aware that Cuba charges an exit tax due at the airport on the day of your exit flight. The current exit $25 CUCs and this has to be paid in Cuban currency at the airport before you leave.
Can you buy cigars?
As a Canadian you can bring as many as 50 cigars but as an American not many—the U.S. says no more than one hundred dollars’ worth. To put it into perspective a box of authentic Cohibas will cost you no less than $300 USD.
Is Cuba Safe?
Cuba is perhaps the safest destination in the Caribbean and Latin America. I have always felt safe walking around at night by myself. Cuba is an easy country to travel, people are friendly and you can safely move around everywhere all by yourself.
What should you expect?
Expect your visit to Cuba to change you. Cuba is the kind of place that encourages you to reconsider your life. It makes you suddenly value things you might otherwise take for granted – soft toilet paper, tomatoes in the summer, strong water pressure in the shower, a health-care system that is quick to respond, and the freedom to travel. I promise that you trip to Cuba will be unforgettable.