Here at ViaHero we receive many questions about how to travel to Cuba. We also hear many misunderstandings. For example, to clear the air, the embargo has actually not been lifted, which requires an act of Congress. The restrictions on travel to Cuba have been eased, however. Want to know more? Have no fear, we’ll give you all of the practical information you need in order to travel to Cuba.
In addition to your passport, you’ll need a few extra things to enter Cuba.
Self-Reporting License & Itinerary
Americans technically can’t travel to Cuba without restrictions yet. As a US citizen, you need to declare your reason for travel in the form of a general license. Don’t worry, you don’t need to apply for a license. It’s self-declared and a few of the categories are broad enough that just about anybody can claim them. Practically, this just means that whenever you’re asked which category you chose, you tell them. Booking a flight or lodging and the immigrations counter are the most common instances where you’ll be asked. As part of the license, you will need to prepare an itinerary (or your ViaHero travel guide) showing what you plan to do on your trip and how it fulfills the terms of the license you selected. For example, if you are reporting your trip under Support for the Cuban People you will need to document interactions with locals and contributions to the local economy, such as staying in a casa particular. It’s very rare that anybody will ask for this, but going through immigration you’ll want to be prepared.
Fill Out a Tourist Visa Card
The tourist visa card is required by the Cuban government. The airline will give you the card either at the airport or on the plane. Simply fill it out and hand it over anytime you are asked to by Cuban officials. Keep it with your passport so that you don’t lose it, you’ll need it to get home.
Purchase Health Insurance
Health insurance is mandatory in Cuba and American health insurance doesn’t work here because of the embargo. You won’t be allowed through immigration unless you purchase Cuban health insurance first. There’s a stand for Americans to purchase health insurance, conveniently placed right before the immigrations line. It only costs about $4 per day. Despite the transaction taking place at a flimsy card table with two non-uniformed Cubans and a cashbox, this is not a scam. There is no way to do this ahead of your travel to Cuba.
Purchase a Plane Ticket
For the first time since the end of the embargo, you can now book flights direct from the US to Cuba on American, JetBlue and Silver Airways! Right now JetBlue is having a sale on flights to Santa Clara, Camaguey, and Holguin in Cuba. Flights are as low as $200!
Besides the US airlines, you can still purchase a ticket on Air Canada, AeroMexico, and Copa Airlines, but you’ll have to transfer through another country besides Cuba. Right now, this is still the easiest way to fly directly into Havana.
Book a Place to Stay
Whether you choose to stay at a casa particular, which you can book through sites like AirBnb, or at a hotel, you’ll want to book at least your first night in advance. You can book on the fly if you like to stay at casas particulares. They are everywhere and you can generally find last-minute rooms. On the other hand, if you’re a hotel person, know that hotels are scarce in many places. Book months in advance, confirm your room a few days beforehand, and be prepared to stick to your itinerary.
Withdraw plenty of cash before you leave the United States because your credit and debit cards won’t work once you get to Cuba. Upon arrival, exchange American dollars for the two types of Cuban currency: Cuban Convertibles Pesos (CUC) and Pesos Nacionales (CUP). Get the scoop on Cuba’s two currencies, and how much you should have of each one, here.
Since you’ve already managed to travel to Cuba by plane, the best way to get from the airport to your casa particular in Havana is by taxi. Expect to pay around $25 USD.
To travel between cities, most people take the bus. Viazul is the primary bus company for non-Cubans. You’ll pay $10 – $50 depending on where you’re going. The buses are usually comfortable, reliable, and air-conditioned. The trains in Cuba are exactly the opposite of this, so beware.
Renting a car is an easy way to travel as well, but a little more expensive and the cars are less reliable than most other places. You can also rely on locals’ cars: colectivos and taxis. Colectivos run long-distance routes and don’t run on a schedule. You’ll have to wait for the colectivo to fill up before departing and the driver might make some random stops along the way. Taxis are a great way to get around within the cities and even between cities if you have a group.
Cuba is in the middle of a food revolution, so be prepared to dig in. Many casas particulares serve breakfast and dinner for $3-8 USD. The cheapest way to eat in Cuba is to stop at street stalls where you can get a meal for as little as 50 cents. Think ham sandwiches, pizzas, and empanadas. If you follow your nose, you might find some more exciting dishes like guava milkshakes, fresh yogurt, tamales, yucca fries, churros, or coconut pie – all of which cost little money.
A meal at a paladar, a privately run restaurant, will run you about $5-15 USD. Paladars serve more substantial meals. Depending on where you go, you might find Cuban specialties or cuisine from around the world.
And don’t forget, you want to drink only bottled water, which you can find for $1-2 USD per bottle.
Other Important Tidbits
- Language: You’ll want to learn a little bit of functional Spanish before your trip, it’s much appreciated and the best way to understand the local culture.
- Internet: Staying connected is limited to outdoor wifi hotspots and hotels. Hotel wifi is slow and runs $5-10/hour. You can get a wifi access card to access the hotspots in Havana, which costs $2/hour. Getting data on your phone just isn’t possible right now.
- Phone: International calls are now possible, but expect roaming rates. Even calling cards are $1/min.
- Personal Items: Don’t forget sunblock, toiletries, and medications. These are scarce in Cuba and it can take a day or more to find something like toothpaste if you run out.
- Customs Allowances: You can bring back $100 worth of cigars and rum, $400 total of souvenirs and an unlimited amount of art to the US. Keep high ticket item receipts if asked at customs coming back to the US.
Sample Cuba Itinerary
About the Author
Greg Buzulencia is the CEO of ViaHero, a travel startup allowing travelers to hire locals to plan their personalized trip. If you want to travel like a local in Cuba, take their quiz to get started. Here’s a sample itinerary of a trip to Cuba.