Three weeks ago, I spent what felt like countless hours watching the news, reassuring friends/family, and defending my choices. Days later, I schlepped nine hesitant travel buddies to Cuba. Despite how time-consuming and confusing planning was, everything went incredibly smoothly. The below are some tips I’d either heard beforehand or found out the hard way and wished I’d known:
- You can’t simply travel to Cuba for fun (at least not on paper). There are 12 approved reasons you can choose from, though don’t go crazy compiling proof to back your decision up. I selected “Support for the Cuban People” and was honestly clueless as to how we could actually show support. I counted an AirBnB booking (we stayed with citizens!), had everybody bring requested supplies, and hoped for the best. I was half convinced they wouldn’t let us on the plane, but when we applied for our visas, no one asked a thing. In fact…
- …You can save $25 by pre-paying for your visa and pick it up at the gate. We flew Delta and were able to call their main 800 number the week of our trip to pay $50 per visa using a credit card. Aside from having to provide our flight info and specify which reason we chose, the process was insanely simple. We grabbed our visas at JFK (no questions asked) and hopped on our plane, accounting for nearly half the total passengers.
- Money can be a bit of a pain. American cards don’t work in Cuba and you can’t exchange US dollars there. Long story short, your best bet is to take out euros from your bank, then exchange those at Havana airport. There are two local currencies: the Cuban Peso, or CUP, and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the one you’ll exchange for.
- Your phone won’t work, either (at least not your data). You can call your service provider and explore options regarding calls, but data is essentially non-existent. While accommodations are usually a saving grace when traveling, the ones in Cuba don’t have Wi-Fi. Your only option is a pre-paid Wi-Fi card, which will allow you to log in when near a hotspot (like in most parks, for example). In all honesty, your best bet is to embrace the disconnect and go off the grid while you’re away!
- You can’t just walk into restaurants and expect to be accommodated. Granted, we were 10 people, so it’s no surprise I needed reservations. It’s important in general, though, that you plan ahead for meals. Cuba has been flooded with tourists and while the demand’s increased, the supplies have not. This is especially true in busy areas like Havana. Call ahead of time, even if just hours prior.
I cannot stress enough how pleasantly surprised I was with Cuba. The food was excellent, the people were warm, and the process was easy (once I got my facts straight, that is). There was not one moment during which we felt unsafe or unwelcome. Plus, it was insanely cheap! If you’re on the fence, don’t hesitate: book your ticket and go.