After a weeklong adventure in the Caribbean, we are back from Cuba! We loved our entire trip — from salsa lessons in Central Havana to exploring the plazas in Old Vieja to horseback riding in Vinales. If you appreciate bright colored, abandoned buildings, strong coffee, and hospitable people, you will fall in love with Cuba. We certainly did! Today, I’m sharing all of my tips for planning your trip to Cuba.
How To Visit Cuba (Getting a Visa)
Getting to Havana was surprisingly easy. The following airlines fly to Cuba: American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta — though not all fly to Havana. I flew Jet Blue to Havana (highly recommend!) and Spirit back to the States (never again!!).
If you book your flight through JetBlue, you can buy your Visa through them for $50 when you arrive at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. This was less than a 5-minute ordeal! When you purchase your ticket online, you will be asked why you are visiting (FYI, this is your “affidavit” for future reference so hold on to your receipt). You can select one of 12 reasons for your visit to Cuba. Will and I selected “professional research” as this was valuable research for both my blog and book writing (visit my About section for my lifelong goal!).
Most travelers we met went for “aid to the Cuban people” or independently under a people-to-people trip so long as they could prove there was “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” We were not questioned about the purpose of our trip at any point, but we were prepared to explain if necessary.
*Note: Spirit charges $100 for a visa, which is why Will, who flew separately on Spirit, purchased his visa at the Cuban Consulate in D.C. for $50. He took a traveler’s check and his passport and filled out the visa form when he arrived, where he explained his reason for his visit and the address of where he would be staying. He had to drop off his form and pick up his visa in-person. The whole waiting process took about one week. (Thank you to Neha for this awesome tip!)
Where To Stay
Stay in a casa particular (aka Cuban home). Not only does it provide additional income for Cuban residents, but it also gives you a taste of Cuban culture. Because I was traveling from Fit Approach’s yoga retreat in California, I arrived at our casa particular several hours before William. And I’m so glad I did because I was able to talk to our casa owners for a long time! Our hosts, Judith and Orlando, and their grown children, Dayron and Dariana, live in Old Havana, three blocks from the Capitol, which looks suspiciously like our own in Washington, D.C. Hm… 😉
Our host family was a true delight. We were thankful to get to know them and learn a little more about their life in Havana. Cuban life is difficult. Taxi drivers and waiters often make more than government-employed doctors, food is rationed and expensive, and the internet is not easily accessible or affordable. Dayron smiled a lot as he told me about their large Baptist church, favorite foods (beans mixed with rice and served with meat!), and favorite activities (socializing – to which he added that Cubans waste too much time “talking, talking, talking”).
Our hosts raved about the weekly “packet”, a 1-terrabyte USB drive created and sold by a private organization that offers access to world news, YouTube videos, fashion, and American movies. Imagine only having access to the outside world through a thumb drive that you get once a week! We loved learning from our family but were also sad to hear how complicated life is in Cuba — thanks to the government. “It’s so complicated, Cuban people can only laugh,” someone told me on our trip. Though life is hard, we were repeatedly impressed by our joyful, hardworking family.
We used Airbnb to book our reservation but this site is also a helpful resource. Be forewarned — start your search and request to book early on in your vacation planning! Because of limited internet access, you’ll more than likely receive a response at least 24-48 hours later. If you try to book late during the busy season (mid-November to mid-March), most of the places you’ll want to stay will be full.
*If you are planning to visit Havana, I do not recommend staying in a hotel. They’re overpriced and inconsistent. Stay with a family and experience real Cuba!
Preparing For Your Trip
As you prepare for your trip to Havana, you’ll want to check off a few things on your packing list. Leave your computer at home because you won’t have access to wifi (unless you buy a 1-hour card for 4CUC and use it at a hotel). It’s a refreshing way to unplug and experience the sights and sounds of Havana! Download maps.me (Havana) on your phone prior to leaving! This is how we navigated Havana. Trust me, you do not want to skip this step. 🙂
Because it’s located in the Caribbean, Cuba can be hot and humid! Pack light layers and comfortable shoes as you will want to explore most of the city on foot. Fair warning: the streets have a lot of potholes and random construction, as well as friendly stray cats and dogs, which means it isn’t particularly well-kept. For our trip, I packed rompers, sandals, espadrilles, tennis shoes, a hat, sunglasses, my Kindle, our camera, and a small purse. That was perfect and fit nicely in my carry-on. Though it did get a little chilly mid-week (even our hosts were surprised by the last of the winter weather!), I had a light jacket to keep the breeze off my back.
For our trip, I also packed Pepto-Bismol pills, anti-diarrheal medicine (TMI?? Don’t drink the water, folks!), wet wipes, protein bars, band-aids, Sweat Cosmetics sunscreen, and tissues (for the bathrooms that either ration or don’t provide toilet paper). You never know what situation you might find yourself in and to be honest, we used everything but the anti-diarrheal on our trip.
If you are planning to check a bag, I would encourage you to pack items that you can give to your hosts or friendly Cuban strangers. It’s hard for Cubans to get access to goods we don’t think twice about, including toothpaste, feminine care products, and aspirin. I could only pack 3 oz. bottles, but I plan to bring more goods, including peanut butter, next time!
For Americans, our final tip is to exchange your money into Euros prior to leaving the U.S. You’ll save money on transaction fees as there is a higher fee to convert USD to CUC. Also, exchange it back before you leave Havana! Our friends were randomly selected at security for a bag search and then forced to give up their remaining CUC because “CUC does not circulate in the US”. We couldn’t find any information about this online, but hopefully, this tip saves you time and money!
I will share my Havana travel guide later next week. If you’re interested in traveling to Havana, comment below or feel free to email me <firstname.lastname@example.org> with any questions. I’d love to hear from you!