This post is also available in: Español
Even if you’ve never been to the island nation of Cuba, you’ve likely heard the stories — colorful buildings, many in disrepair; classic cars that seem frozen in time, cruising down the Malecon; those delicious rum drinks and sweet-smelling cigars. But what do you need to know before traveling to Cuba? We’ve gathered five Cuba tips for the American seeking to get away for vacation.
As with any trip, particularly trips abroad, it’s important to plan well and fully understand any ‘travel quirks’ of your final destination. Cuba can be a lovely trip for Americans, but as it turns out there are a few special considerations as compared to other Latin American locales.
1. Yes, Americans can travel to Cuba.
Traveling to Cuba is possible for Americans, even with Trump’s travel restrictions. To fly to Cuba, Americans must prove they fall under one of 12 approved categories of travel. These include traveling to Cuba as a journalist, traveling as a humanitarian or for professional research. But you can also travel with an established Cuban tour company, like Detours With Matt, which is run by Texas-based gay guide Matt Smith. (He’s been traveling to Cuba with groups for years and is a great resource.)
If you’re an American who falls under one of those 12 travel categories (find them here), you can purchase your flight online and travel to Cuba from the States. Contrary to what some believe, you do not need to travel through Mexico or another country to get to Cuba. American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest and Jet Blue all fly from the States to Havana.
One other Cuba tip for Americans: There’s a long list of hotels, restaurants and businesses where you are not allowed to spend money because they’re run by the Cuban military. Find that list here.
2. You’ll need a visa, but the process is simple.
Bad news: Traveling to Cuba requires a visa. Good news: It’s a simple, stress-free process. Purchase your visa online ahead of time via a site like Cuba Visa Services. If you’ve waited until the last minute, get the visa’s shipment expedited.
Before boarding your flight to Cuba, you’ll need to get that visa stamped at a small kiosk called “Cuba Ready” that you’ll find inside the terminal right before your gate. That’s what you’ll bring with you up to customs officials upon arrival.
3. You’ll need to bring all your money with you.
Americans are charged a 10% fee when converting U.S. dollars to Cuban currency, so I recommend converting your dollars into Euros before arrival in Cuba. Even more importantly, though, it’s imperative you realize that American credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. They’re useless. That means you will need to bring any and all cash with you into Cuba — all the money you’ll spend during the course of your trip. If something happens while in Cuba, or if you run out of money, you’ll have to rely on a transfer through Western Union.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (cucs, pronounced “kooks”) is the established currency of Cuba and widely accepted everywhere. There’s a secondary currency, the Cuban peso, but it’s been in very limited use since 1994.
You’ll be able to exchange your dollars (or Euros) into cucs upon arrival at the airport, at money exchange spots on the island or inside your hotel.
4. WiFi is scarce but not impossible to find.
You’ll find there’s limited access to WiFi services throughout Cuba.
If you’re staying at a well-appointed property like Hotel Nacional, guests can pick up WiFi access that’s usable onsite upon checking in. Otherwise you can purchase scratch cards that will run you a few dollars per hour of WiFi service for times when you need instant access.
Throughout the city you’re likely to spot areas where several people are sitting about glued to their smartphones. Those are WiFi parks, where you’ll be able to use one of your scratch cards.
5. At least a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish will be beneficial.
While fluency in Spanish isn’t a requirement to enjoy your time, when traveling to Cuba it’s an added bonus to make the trek with someone who speaks the native tongue. If you’re not planning to travel with a Spanish speaker, you can look into hiring a guide during your stay. I’d suggest speaking with the concierge at your hotel.