1. Ever since the U.S. lifted the restrictions on travel to Cuba last December, the tropical country has been in the tourism spotlight. And now that President Obama’s there this week, the spotlight is even bigger.
But what does a Cuba trip actually entail? Even though it’s easier than ever before for Americans to get there, it’s still a complicated trip, both intellectually and logistically. I checked in with Cuba travel experts Brendan Sainsbury, author of Lonely Planet’s Cuba Travel Guide and all of its Cuba content, and Edward Piegza, who’s been traveling to Cuba for the past four years as CEO of the tour group Classic Journeys, to get all the latest info on how to get there — and what you can expect when you arrive.
2. 1. As an American, you can go to Cuba only if your visit falls under one of 12 government-approved categories.
So no, you still can’t go to Cuba just to lounge on the beach, as vacation and leisure travel are still not allowed. But it’s certainly a lot easier to go than it was before, when Americans had to get pre-approval from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to visit the country.
All you have to do is be sure that your visit falls under one of the 12 government-approved categories, such as family visits, journalism, professional research, and support for the Cuban people, to name a few. Also, as of this month, Americans can now plan their own “people-to-people” trips, which basically means that you can now make your own schedule to spend time with Cuban people (whereas you had to do it through a group before). If you go on one of these trips, you are expected to have a full-time schedule of your activities.
3. 2. And you have to keep your travel receipts for five years after you return to the States.
This is so the government can make sure that you aren’t just saying you’re there to visit the Cuban people, when in reality, you’re boozin’ on the beach. “It’s hard to say exactly how the government checks on this,” says Sainsbury. “But the Department of Treasury and Commerce might catch up with you if you just make something up and off you go.”
4. 3. You have to book your flight on an authorized charter through an authorized travel service provider or tour company — or you can fly through a third country.
In January, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement that stated that U.S. airlines will be able to offer 110 daily commercial flights to Cuba (20 flights per day to Havana, as well as 10 flights to each of the nine other cities in Cuba that have international airports). But that time hasn’t come yet — all of the airlines are still bidding on the flights to see who will get to fly there. “Later this spring, the Department of Transportation will award the routes, and commercial flights will start in the fall,” says Piegza.
For now, you have to book your flight through services like Cuba Travel Services, ABC Charters, and Marazul, or through a tour company like Intrepid Travel or Classic Journeys. Americans also need a tourist card to enter, but the charter flight or organization usually takes care of that.
Another option entirely: You can fly through a third country, like Mexico or Canada, as long as you meet one of the 12 requirements. This may occasionally be cheaper than or comparable to taking a direct charter flight — so be sure to do your research to compare prices before you book.
6. 5. There is an overall shortage of infrastructure, namely hotels and airports, which can make logistics challenging.
“It’s like the Wild West. It’s crazy, exciting, fun, and the people are happy and optimistic. Yet at the same time, everyone and everything is pulling out their hair. Tourism is up 75%, and there is zero new infrastructure — meaning there’s a lot of demand without the infrastructure to support it,” says Piegza.
For example, José Marti International Airport in Havana is at full capacity, and yet it has added 20 flights a day from the U.S. “I was in Cuba most recently on January 20, and a week after I was there, the Pope was there for two days. Luggage was backed up at the airport for four days,” says Piegza.
7. 6. It’s best to pay for everything in cash.
Credit cards are technically allowed, though Piegza doesn’t recommend actually relying on them in any way. “They say they accept them, and technically they do, but most places don’t have the machines to actually accept them. The infrastructure just isn’t there yet,” he says.
Your best bet? Pay in cash. Cuba has two currencies: pesos, which the Cubans use, and cucs, which are Cuban convertible currency, for the tourists. Pro tip: When you exchange your money, change it into euros or pounds before you go — and then change that money over in Cuba, recommends Sainsbury. “Cuba charges a 10% tax on the U.S. dollar, so you’ll get a better exchange rate that way than if you exchange your dollars,” he says. But if you’re really strapped, you can also pay in American dollars, according to Piegza. “On my last trip, I paid for some things in American dollars, even though it’s all marked in cucs,” he said.
8. 7. Internet service exists, but it’s not great.
Last summer, the ETECSA network, which is the Cuban government’s communication company, opened about 50 Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana and other cities in Cuba. “They’re all listed, and you’ll find them because you’ll see loads of Cubans hanging around the hotspots on the corner,” says Sainsbury.
But even so, internet service is spotty, especially in the countryside. “There’s roaming coverage, but when I traveled around with my Cuban colleagues, even they didn’t have service a lot of the time,” says Piegza. “Service in Havana and Cienfuegos is a little better than the countryside, but your best bet is to go to one of the best hotels. That said, even the nice hotels in the countryside don’t have service.”
If you really need to use the phone while you’re there and don’t want to risk relying on spotty internet to make that happen, you can rent a phone in the U.S. or Cuba and get a SIM card.
9. 8. One of the best places to stay is in a private homestay.
Cuba has had its own version of Airbnb since the mid-’90s, called casas particulares — i.e., private homestays. “Private homestays were authorized in the Castro reign. They’re about 20 to 40 bucks a night, more if you get breakfast, and there are thousands of them. They really help you get a candid look at Cuba, because you’re staying with a Cuban family,” says Sainsbury. And as of April, you can find and book these casas through Airbnb (in addition to Cubania Travel and even TripAdvisor). “Back in the day, you just turned up in town and could stay in any of the homestays. But now it’s easier to book them ahead of time through Airbnb,” says Sainsbury.
Another benefit: The availability of the casas will help with the lack of additional hotels in the next few years. “It’s going to take about five to seven years for more hotels to come in, and so until they’re built, things like Airbnb will help alleviate those pressure points,” says Piegza. “And the other benefit is that they get money right into the individual’s hands, which is great,” he continues.
10. 9. Especially because, through no real fault of their own, hotels may not honor your reservations.
“They’re just overwhelmed,” explains Piegza. Think about it: “Cuban people are coming from two generations where everything was methodically planned through the government, and now it’s all happening at a much faster pace,” Piegza says. “As a result, travelers are often subject to airline cancelations, and occasionally their hotel reservations aren’t honored.”
11. 10. The food is very fresh.
Historically speaking, government-owned restaurants are not top-notch dining. “On my first trip to Cuba several years ago, we went to several state-owned restaurants, and there were limited options,” says Piegza. But these days, the food is much, much better — you may even call it a slow-food movement.
“Some parts of Cuba don’t have the money to import food, so everything you eat is local. You’ll get great locally raised meat, fresh fish, and locally grown fruits and veggies. The quality is quite good,” says Piegza. What’s more, there are many young chefs running private restaurants now.
“The biggest improvement in Cuba over the past four or five years is the food,” says Sainsbury. “There are now Russian restaurants, and Italian, and Iranian … and this has never happened before! It’s quite an exciting time to go.” Be sure to try these five street foods in Havana.
12. 11. It’s fine to talk to locals about politics, as long as you do so with grace and do not get involved in public protests.
Before President Obama arrived in Cuba, Cuban authorities arrested around 50 dissidents who were involved in a human rights protest. However, even though there is still clear political unrest in the country, it’s actually okay to chat with the locals about their stance — as long as you do so with tact.
“Generally it’s ok to talk to Cubans about politics if they are willing, it’s a private conversation, and you are sensitive,” says Sainsbury. “Sometimes you might find the door shuts quite quickly when you start that conversation, but not always — I’ve had many conversations about politics over the years. But still, it’s important to remember where you are. This is not the United States, so do not get involved in any public anti-government protests.”
13. Have more questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Cuba travel + BuzzFeed,” and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.
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