This post was updated on July 2018.
Cuba has always been a bucket-list country for many travelers, but since the recent re-establishment of diplomatic conversations between the U.S. and Cuba, the country rose to the spotlight to become a prime destination for American travelers. In the last year alone, tourism in Cuba boomed exponentially. Not only more travelers from around the world are visiting it, but now Americans added themselves to the tourism mix, even when they are still not quite in the “I can visit Cuba green zone.”
Back in 2015, I had the opportunity to visit Cuba for the first time, and I had a great time there, as I already shared here and here. But, traveling to Cuba can be a bit of a hassle. Here I’ll share all the tips I believe you should know before heading there – especially if you’re American.
Update: As of December 2017, there are still ways to travel Cuba independently, and legally, as an American. More details below.
Getting There and Some Planning Tips
1. Most People Need A Visa
Travelers from 18 countries (see the list here) can travel to Cuba without a visa. Travelers from the rest of the world can purchase a “Tourist Card” at the airport before checking into their flight. For Americans, it’s a bit more complicated.
To this date, only Americans traveling under one of 12 visa categories are allowed to visit Cuba:
- Family visits;
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- Journalistic activity;
- Professional research and professional meetings;
- Educational activities;
- Religious activities;
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- Support for the Cuban people (if you’re going there as a tourist, this might be your category… keep reading for more info on this);
- Humanitarian projects;
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firms
These visas can be obtained via a tour company, the OFAC website, or the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC. Regular tourism is still forbidden, and now, unfortunately, the easiest way to get a visa, the people-to-people category, is forbidden too. But still, there are ways to visit Cuba on your own.
TO CLARIFY: Since I get this question via email quite often. The “Tourist Card” applies to almost every traveler visiting Cuba (except the 18 countries linked to above), but the 12 visa categories are only for Americans (if they choose to fly direct from the US). I give more details below for non-Americans wishing to fly direct from the US to Cuba.
The Cuban Embassy in Washington DC gives visas/tourist cards under one of the 12 OFAC approved categories even if you’re traveling just for tourism (now with a tour operator). The cost of the application is $50 in person or $70 by mail. Their embassy site is
a mess not working at the moment, but here’s their contact information in case you’d want to reach to apply or know more about the tourist cards and the OFAC.
Cuba Embassy in Washington DC
2630 16 St. N W.
Phone: +1-202-797-8518 / +1-202-797-8519
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: On June 16th, 2017, Trump announced the unfortunate news that independent people-to-people travel is no longer an option starting November 8th, 2017. Still, there are many ways to travel legally to Cuba as an American.
For anyone considering planning a trip to Cuba; what does this mean to you now that the regulations are set in place? Sadly, Americans are no longer able to travel to Cuba independently (on their own) under the people-to-people category. But, all American citizens and residents can visit Cuba without prior permission, without special licenses, and without time-consuming paperwork, if they travel with an authorized people-to-people US-based tour operator or organization that puts together full-time programs for travelers. The only obligation of the US traveler while on a legal people-to-people group tour is to engage full-time in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.
Alternatively, if you’re not looking for a tour, I believe you can go back to the “old way” of using Mexico or any other third country as a jumping point to reach Cuba, which while legal, is still considered a “grey area” (see tip #4 below) or using a new tip I’ll share below if you still want to go independently and direct from the US.
One thing to have in mind though is that only people who made a reservation (like a hotel, flights, or anything else for the trip) before the June 16th announcement, will be grandfathered to the old regulations. If you started planning your trip after the announcement, you might be in a gray area, so I recommend contacting your airline to double check on this.
According to a fact sheet published on November 8th by the Treasury Department, individual travel will still be allowed within 12 categories, including humanitarian and religious travel; family visits; journalistic activity; professional research; and participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions.
Americans traveling in these categories will still be able to book a flight and reserve a room online. However, they should pursue the activity in Cuba for which their visa is granted and “keep records of their visit for the requisite five years.”
How can you still visit independently as a tourist?
While restrictions are tougher now, there’s still a legal way for you to go travel Cuba independently as an American. I recommend using ViaHero to travel Cuba as a tourist, without the need of a guided tour. The site helps you plan a customized independent trip to Cuba with the help of a local Cuban expert, thus considered a tour. But in reality, you’re traveling independently (whether solo or with your family/friends) to the places you’re interested in and still meet the requirements for the “Support for the Cuban People” visa category (which is what makes ViaHero so unique).
Even better! GloboTreks readers get 5% off their planning service by using this link or using the code GLOBOCUBA at checkout.
If using ViaHero, you’re still responsible for getting your own visa, but with their planned itinerary you can get the “Support for the Cuban People” category.
The site Cuba Visa Services offers an easy way to purchase online a visa/tourist card (without having to fill all the OFAC “paperwork”). Just select one of the 12 OFAC approved categories that best match your trip. The current cost is $85. Additionally, CubaVisa offers tourist cards for American and international tourists starting at 25 Euros (which is the cheapest you’ll find online). Their only drawback is that at the moment, they only ship to Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and U.A.E.
Important details about the Tourist Cards!
There’s one important detail about the Tourist Cards. There are two types: Green Tourist Card and Pink Tourist Card.
The Green Tourist Card is needed if you’re flying to Cuba from any country other than the US. This one costs you $20 at the airport or a few more dollars online. I know you can buy it at the gate in Mexico and Panama (which are two of the most popular jumping points to Cuba). If flying from Canada, your airline will already include the tourist card price on the ticket.
If you’re flying directly from the US to Cuba, you will need a Pink Tourist Card (this includes direct flights from Mainland US, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands). The cost for the pink tourist card is $50, but some airlines and visa websites charge a processing fee. Depending on the airline, you will be able to arrange it with them either online, via mail, or at the gate. I give more details on point #3.
Important: For direct flights between US and Cuba, you will not be able to board the flight with the Green Tourist Card.
2. Cuba WILL welcome you even if you’re an American without an “Approved Visa” from the U.S.
While the U.S. still has “issues” allowing everyone to travel to Cuba freely, Cuba, on the other hand, does welcome everyone to their country, as long as they have a valid “Tourist Card.” (more on that on #4)
3. There are direct flights from the US, but…
Anyone not from the U.S. can simply fly from their country. Easy. Americans with a visa can fly direct from cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, Newark, and Houston. Non-Americans can also fly direct from the US if they have the “Pink Tourist Card.”
Update: Now that the new regulations are issued (removing independent people-to-people travel), you’ll need to get one of the 12 visa approvals or get the people-to-people visa with a tour company, as their client, or use ViaHero to still go independent. As of now, you can still travel independently with a people-to-people “Pink Tourist Card” if your trip is grandfathered under the old regulations.
Since this information might change at any moment, I’d recommend checking directly at the dedicated “Cuban travel” page of your airline to see if they still sell the “Tourist Card” during check-in at the airport, for how much, and what documents are needed. Below is a list of the current cost as how to acquire a pink tourist card with each major airline flying direct from the US.
- American Airlines: $85 ($50 visa + $35 processing fee), purchase online and sent via mail. AA will send instructions.
- Delta: $50, purchase at the gate or through the mail.
- JetBlue: $50, purchase at the gate.
- Southwest Airlines: $50, purchased online and delivered at the gate
- United: $75 ($50 visa + $25 processing fee), purchase at the gate.
4. The Stopover Technique is still an easy way to go, for regular American tourists.
Anyone from the U.S. wanting to visit as a regular, independent tourist can do so by flying to a stopover country (like Mexico) and then flying from Mexico to Cuba. This “trampoline” technique has been used for decades by “rogue” American travelers. Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic and the Bahamas are among the most popular stopover countries – though Mexico is almost always the cheapest.
An important detail here is that you must pass through immigration in this stopover country to be able to buy your “Cuban Tourist Card” during your flight check-in process there. At the moment (2017), the tourist card costs $20.
Another important detail would be to buy your flights as two different round trips. For example, Denver to Cancun as one round-trip, and Cancun to Havana as a separate round-trip.
To help on your flight search via a stopover country, check this Wikipedia page that lists all the airlines that currently fly to Cuba and from which airports.
Update: As of July 2017, I can confirm you can still buy the “Green Tourist Card” at the airport in Mexico for $20 during check-in.
5. You can enter with a US passport
The American passport presents no issue when entering Cuba, even without one of the 12 visas. Like I said, Cuba has no problem with American. Just buy your Tourist Card at your stopover country (or now even in the US) and once at Cuban immigration, they will only stamp your Tourist Card, not your passport. For non-visa holders, this will avoid some potential problem when returning to the US. I didn’t have any issues when I returned to the US.
Update: Several American friends have gone to Cuba with an American passport and with only a tourist card bought at the airport and none of them had any issue coming back to the US. They actually said the US immigration agents didn’t even bother asking further questions after they told them they just returned from Cuba.
Having said that, it wouldn’t be surprising if now, after the new regulations, they started paying more attention to Americans coming from Cuba and “checking their activities” there.
6. Some search engines don’t show flights to Cuba
Expedia, Orbitz, and other search engines don’t show flights to Cuba. Period. At the time of writing, skyscanner.com, momondo.com, and kayak.com do show flights from the U.S. that can be purchased online. They show flights departing from the U.S. (and all over the world), but will warn you that you can only buy them if you have a visa – otherwise you will be denied boarding. You’re not required to show proof of a visa when buying the airfare.
Update: While flights still show up and you can buy them online, you’ll need to make sure you qualify under one of the 12 OFAC categories to get the “Pink Tourist Cards” at the airport, now that the new regulations are set in. It’s best to call the airline to confirm. Without it, you won’t be able to board the flight.
7. Best time to go there
Mid-November to March is the coolest, driest, and busiest season. May and June are the wet seasons, but Cuban highlights like the tobacco harvesting and Carnival happen at this time. July to November is hurricane season, so there’s a chance to stormy weather between these months – especially more towards late August to early October when it’s the peak of the hurricane season.
8. Buy a tour or not?
If you want to take the easy, yet more expensive road, buy your tours before arriving in Cuba. Traveling Cuba is a hassle, but not impossibly hard if you’re open to dealing with the struggles. In this case, don’t buy your tours and wait until you get to Cuba. There, local agencies often offer tours and hotels for a fraction of the price (or the “national rates”). This is how I managed to stay in the Melia Cayo Coco for about 1/3 of what it costs online. But, prepare to have a hard time finding tour shops in some cities. Also, your host can always recommend doing some tours, which often are run by locals, and not tour companies – adding to the local experience.
Update: Now that the new regulations are set in place, traveling with a US-based tour operator will be the “appropriate” way to visit Cuba as a regular tourist (as an American flying from the US). If you want to go independent, you will need to do the Stopover Technique mentioned above. Should you go on a tour, I can recommend checking G Adventures and Intrepid Travel as they have several tours to Cuba. But, before booking online, make sure the tour complies with your visa as an American. For all other citizens, you’re fine!
9. What about a cruise?
Yes, you still can! Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and a few other companies offer cruises to Cuba departing from Miami. I recommend checking their latest deals and departure dates on Expedia.
You still need a tourist card when traveling on a cruise, and, if the cruise departs from the US, you’ll need the Pink Tourist Card. Some cruises sell them while others don’t so you’ll have to get them yourself.
10. Print out your documents before leaving
Technology is not easily found in Cuba and while there I didn’t see a single internet café. Print and take any travel documents, reservations, insurance, or other information you need before leaving.
11. You need travel insurance
It is required to have travel insurance to enter Cuba. They may or may not ask for proof at the airport, and should you not have any, they could deny your entry. I wasn’t asked, nor other people I’ve asked or read about their entry to Cuba. But, you never know, so better go safe and buy travel insurance.
Ok, we are finally in Cuba! Now what?!
12. Americans can’t use debit or credit cards
And this sucks. As of September 2015, the Cuban Sanctions imposed by the U.S. does not allow any American to withdraw money or pay with a debit or credit card while in Cuba. In fact, I got my bank account frozen just for signing up to my mobile banking while in Cuba. My bank didn’t even want to unfreeze it until after I left the country and showed proof of it via a copy of my boarding pass. This restriction is supposed to be lifted soon as relationships improve, so I recommend checking for the latest updates regarding the sanctions on this page.
Other nationalities can use credit cards, where accepted.
Update: As of September 2017, American credit and debit cards still don’t work in Cuba.
13. Tell your bank you’re going to Cuba
While this is highly recommended every time you travel outside your country, when going to Cuba it is quite important (no matter which nationality). You will want to make sure your debit/credit card will work there.
14. It’s all about taking lots of cash
Cuba is still mostly a cash economy, so even if you’re not American, you should take enough money with you to last most of your trip. Americans, of course, have to take all their money cash.
Some companies are starting to accept credit cards and ATMs do allow withdrawals with non-American cards.
15. Don’t take U.S. Dollars to exchange
Currency exchanges places are known as CADECAs. It is possible to exchange U.S. Dollars, Euros, British Pounds, Mexican Pesos, and a few other currencies, but the worst currency to exchange there is the U.S. Dollar. It gets charged a 10% fee in addition to the current exchange rate while all the other currencies don’t get any additional fee.
Preferably, get Euros or British Pounds from the U.S., as these get the best exchange rates since they are more liquid. Or, withdraw money from an ATM at your stopover country in their local currency (preferably Mexico), to then exchange that in Cuba for Convertible Cuban Pesos.
16. Cuba has two currencies
This will be confusing at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly. There are two currencies in Cuba: The National Peso (CUP), and the Convertible Peso (CUC). Funny enough, Convertible Pesos are valued at 1 to 1 with the U.S. Dollar, while the National Peso stands at about 26 pesos per dollar.
The money you should exchange for is the CUC, Convertible Peso, as this is the currency used for almost everything there (especially among tourists). I don’t recommend exchanging for CUP since you’re probably not going to use it at all. The CUP is only used for local transportation, to buy fruits and vegetables on the street, and some restaurants that cater more to locals. Should you need to use the public bus, for example, you can pay in CUC and get the change in CUP.
17. Always confirm which is the demanded currency
Whether it is CUC or CUP, Cubans simply call it “pesos”. So, when someone says this is “2 pesos,” you should make sure which one he is referring to as the amount is substantially different. You can ask, “is this in CUC or Moneda Nacional?” Or, if the price seems to be really high, them most probably it is in CUP.
18. The most common form of accommodation is known as Casa Particular
There are several hotels in Cuba, but the most common form of accommodation are the Casas Particulares. These are rooms or apartments rented by locals for a daily fee. Sometimes, you might rent an apartment for yourself while in other cases you might rent a room in a family’s house and share the common spaces with them. Many families have turned their houses into Casas Particulares with several rooms to make a living in Cuba. If you can, stay in a Casa Particular for the local experience and to help the family’s local business. The base price per night in a Casa Particular is $25+, which is a fraction of what you’ll pay at a hotel.
19. Couchsurfing is “illegal”
While the site is not illegal itself, the act of staying at someone’s place for free is illegal in Cuba. Under Cuban law, every foreigner must pay for accommodation unless they are friends with a local. In this case, the local must go to the appropriate agency with email exchanges, pictures, and other communications proving you know each other. The authorities may or may not approve it.
20. Bookings are mostly through word of mouth (but now possible through some sites)
Given that the internet is still not widely accessible there, most hotels and casas particulares don’t have internet, nor a website. Most bookings are done through the phone and recommendations from other locals. For example, I “couchsurfed” in Havana and my host from Havana recommended (and booked by phone) the other casas particulares where I stayed in Trinidad and Viñales.
Many Casas Particulares are using Airbnb to promote themselves without the need of a website. You should consider this option (and with this link you get $40 off your first booking). Or, Couchsurfing is another good option (though unlike the rest of the world, you still have to pay).
It is recommended to have at least the first night booked before arriving in Cuba. The rest you can book or extend as you go.
Update: Now sites like HotelsCombined are listing a mix of hotels and casas particulates you can reserve online. You can check the hotels and Casas Particulares available on this page.
Update: The new directive that was set in place November 8th, 2017 prohibits “direct financial transactions” with military assets on the Cuba Restricted List, which includes dozens of hotels and shops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Varadero, Baracoa and elsewhere.
So, if you’re American and are booking a hotel or activity, try not to use any on the list above. Airbnb and Casas Particulares are all fine!
21. Food in Cuba is nothing to brag about
Due to its trade restrictions, Cuba lacks in its culinary delights; so don’t expect delicious meals. Yes, you can find good food here and there, but this is not the norm.
22. Don’t drink the water
Simple and easy. Buy bottled water. Otherwise, your tummy and booty will not be happy about it.
23. Try eating only at Paladares Particulares.
Cuba has two types of restaurants, the state-run restaurants and the privately run ones known as paladares particulares. Try eating at the paladares particulares since they cost about the same as the state-run ones, but usually have better quality. As locals say, state-run restaurants don’t care about the food quality since, in the end, they don’t need the profits (because they are supported by the government). The private ones, on the other hand, if they are not good, they go bankrupt.
How to know which is state-run and which is private? Either ask them before ordering or just pay attention to where locals are eating and queuing. Cubans (who can afford to eat outside) don’t like the state-run restaurants, so they prefer to queue at a paladar particular.
24. Don’t eat from the really cheap local restaurants
I usually eat street food, from very cheap places, but Cuba was an exception. It is common to see places selling pizza and ice cream or other meals for a fraction of what they should cost and charged in CUP (like 10 CUP or $0.50 and much less). These foods, while cheap, are considered “garbage” by locals since they are done with local products of the lowest quality possible.
25. Take your favorite snacks with you
Not surprisingly, markets there don’t offer much variety since they focus on selling items of first need to locals – which don’t include sweets and snacks. You may find a few snacks here and there, but those are rare, and there will not be a lot of varieties.
26. Cuba is relatively well connected by bus
You will be able to visit all major cities and travel all around the country by bus. While there are a few bus companies there, as far as I know, only Viazul is the one that takes tourists traveling independently.
27. Go to the bus station at least an hour before departure
While Viazul has a site with a current service schedule, it is not possible to book tickets online. You must go to the bus station ahead of time and queue for a ticket. Since buses are not that frequent, they tend to sell out quick. But, there’s an option…
28. Shared taxis are also a good option
Taxi drivers stand in front of the bus station to pick the excess of passengers without tickets. They offer a shared taxi ride to some of the most popular and well-connected cities in Cuba for about the same price of the bus and faster. If you’re going to a smaller town not covered by the shared taxi, you can take the shared taxi to the closest city possible, and from there take a local shared taxi called “Almendrones.”
Should they price the shared taxi ride much higher than the bus, then, you’ll need to haggle. Oh, and don’t be surprised if the local sharing your ride paid a fraction of what you paid. That’s Cuba. Foreigners almost always have to pay more than locals.
29. The local buses in Havana are fine, and so are the taxis.
Local buses cost 1 CUP (about $0.04 – which you can pay in CUP or give 5 cents of a CUC). It is hard to understand the routes, but your host could tell you which ones you should take to go to most of the important places. Taxis are not expensive, costing about 5 CUC from Old to Central Havana.
30. Vintage taxis have a set route
All those pretty vintage taxis you see in pictures, those are exclusive for tourists to ride (not drive) and they only go through a select route in Havana. You could, though, have the luck of riding a vintage car as your shared taxi from once city to the other.
31. Havana is walkable
Havana is big, but if you have a few days there, you can save money on transportation by walking it and seeing things at a slower pace. I do recommend walking; that’s when you see the best scenes of the city. Prepare to sweat… I mean, sweat crazily!
Also, Viñales, Trinidad, and other popular cities can be walked easily.
32. Internet… don’t count on it
Don’t expect internet at your hotel or casa particular, and even if they have it, it will not be available for you to use it. Recently, the local telecommunications company (ETECSA) started adding WiFi hot spots on major cities, which can be used with the purchase of a WiFi card that allows you to use it for an hour.
Hot spots are found in select parks in Havana and in front of the ETECSA building in other cities. The cards can be bought at ETECSA and cost 2.50 CUC for an hour’s use. They often run out of cards quickly due to the demand, so make sure to buy a few when available.
Oh, and don’t expect the WiFi to be reliable or fast.
33. Get a Tarjeta Propia
A Tarjeta Propia is a phone card you can buy at ETECSA to make local phone calls in Cuba from any public phone – found all around the city in all cities. This was a saver for me when I needed to coordinate my arrival time with my hosts.
34. Don’t expect roaming phone service
Simple… just don’t count on it. Any (expensive) international call will have to be made from a phone center.
35. Use offline maps or preload your Google Maps
Galileo Offline Maps App allows you to use your phone’s GPS to show your location on regular and pre-uploaded maps from other sites (continued in next point). Of course, you’ll download these before going to Cuba. It is a paid app, but it is worth it.
36. Cuba Junky is a good source of information
A good blog about the country and excellent source to find casas particulares. I recommend downloading their directory app for casas particulares on iTunes. You can upload Cuba Junky’s map with the casas particulares onto your Galileo app to locate them while in Cuba.
37. Stay current with LaHabana.com and Cuba Travel Services app
If you’re interested in music, arts, and events, LaHabana.com lists all current events in the city. The site is also full of current news and tips. The Cuba Travel Services app has an extensive list of sights all over Cuba and can even be used offline.
Other Stuff To Consider
38. Havana is not dangerous, but scams are common
Other than petty theft, violent crimes are not common there. What many people do, though, is “friend you” and tell you about an awesome party happening at a restaurant or café, or some other event somewhere else. They will take you there, sit down, chat and drink/eat, and make you pay for everything. Additionally, they will ask for money for the “recommendations” given during your “lovely chat.” They also get a commission from the restaurant. Don’t be afraid to say no to them.
Having said that, Cubans are generally friendly, so don’t be afraid to chat openly with them, but be cautious about their intentions.
39. You can buy or trade
Due to the trade restrictions, Cubans don’t have access to many items we do. When purchasing souvenirs, it is possible the seller might offer to trade something (a t-shirt, pants, school materials, old used phones, a bar of soap, snacks, or whatever you have available) for the souvenirs. Economically, they might get more out of selling your traded items, and you virtually paid nothing for your souvenirs.
This is not always the case, but it happens often. Don’t forget to haggle if needed!
40. You can now bring Cuban products back to the U.S.
Americans can now import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. So, now there’s no need to smuggle those Cuban cigars, as long as they are under the limit.
41. Learn Spanish
It will make your life easier there. At least learn a few basic words to communicate. Locals are also way friendlier with tourists who at least make an effort to communicate something in Spanish.
The country might be a hassle to travel, and there might be a lot of limiting bureaucracy you might not understand, but this is part of the Cuban experience. You must go through it to live the richness of its culture, and up to a certain extent, the hassles of their daily life.
42. What if you need help while in Cuba?
According to the State Department, because of a reduction in personnel in the US Embassy in Havana, it will be able to help Americans only in emergencies. The State Department provides emergency telephone numbers and information here.