There is a lot of talk about tourism to Cuba. As Americans, you technically still need to be in one of the 12 qualified categories to visit. Christie of Christie’s Chronicles recently visited Cuba and here are some practical tips from her travels. (She can legally visit folks – she’s Canadian).
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With the recent announcement of resuming US commercial flights between the US and Cuba and the upcoming ease of travel restrictions, it will soon be much easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. (Editor’s Note: Scheduled commercial flights won’t start for a while. Existing flights are charters.). Here are a few things you should know before heading over there:
When to Visit
The best time to visit is from November to March as this is when the climate is most moderate. Because this is the best time to visit, this will be reflected in higher prices for flights and accommodations. If you want to avoid the high tourism season, April and October would be good months to visit as the weather will still be decent.
It is essential to book flights early for better prices, although you can sometimes find some good last-minute deals if you are willing to fly through Mexico. From the US, there are currently direct charter flights through American Airlines from Miami daily, from Tampa Bay Thursdays and Sundays, from New York Tuesdays and Fridays, and from Los Angeles Saturdays, to 5 cities in Cuba (including Havana and Varadero). Flights from LA run really high as this is a new route and will cost between $820 and $1000 roundtrip. Flying from Miami is a bit more reasonable and costs about $400-500 roundtrip. If you use a travel service to secure your visa to go to the US, they can usually help you book your flights as well. Once the commercial flights start up between the US and Cuba, we will likely see these prices drop. You can search for all the charter flights at Cuba Travel Services.
There are many flights daily from Mexico City and Cancun to Cuba. If you are looking to save some money, definitely look at booking a roundtrip to one of these cities in Mexico and another roundtrip on Aeromexico, Interjet or Cubana, to Cuba.
There are also many direct flights to/from most of the large cities in Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, etc.) via Sunwing, Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet to Cuba. The prices are less than flying from the US but with the recent spike in Canadians trying to visit before it opens up to the US, it is hard to find a good deal.
Many of the jobs in Cuba are government-run and workers get paid the same amount no matter what, so do not expect high quality service here. Restaurants, on average, are not that fast either so when you sit down, make sure you do not have to get somewhere quickly.
Internet and Cell Service
There are a few Wi-Fi designated areas in Cuba, mostly in Havana. The Internet is very spotty, especially outside of the capital. You can buy internet cards at the internet cafes or find people selling internet cards on the street for 2-3 CUC/hour that you can use to connect in the Wi-Fi designated locations around the city.
Make sure to put your cell phone on an international plan before going down to Cuba as the long distance charges are absurd. I would suggest that you have one phone available to use while traveling as it is also quite costly to make calls from the hotels. From my experience, US phones don’t tend to work in Cuba but Canadian ones do.
Currency & Payment
Cuba has two different currencies: one is called CUC (which is what foreigners normally use) and the other is CUP (which is only really used by locals). You should only convert money to CUC. The exchange rate is about 1 USD to 1 CUC, and 1 CUC is equal to 25 CUP. ATM’s here only work with Visa cards so if you don’t have a Visa, make sure you bring plenty of cash to exchange. The exchange rate is better at the hotels than at the airport so only exchange what you need for the cab ride while at the airport. There is also an extra charge to exchange USD so it might be worth changing your USD to Euros or Canadian Dollars before heading down. Euros seem to have the best exchange rate there. Charging items to your credit card will also give you the best exchange rate but many places in Cuba, outside of hotels, don’t take credit cards.
The outlets are different in Cuba; they use round two-pronged plugs so make sure to bring a converter just in case as some hotels don’t have North American outlets.
There are lots of mosquitoes in Cuba so make sure to bring bug spray as it will be expensive to buy it there. The sun is also very strong so make sure to pack sunscreen as well so you don’t have to spend $25 on a tiny bottle.
The public buses are very cheap but taxis are the easiest way around. Taxis will seem to be expensive compared to everything else in Cuba but they are the most convenient method of transportation, and plus, it is fun to ride in old American cars!
Below are some of the common taxi prices that I saw while there, so if drivers are asking for more, make sure to negotiate ahead of time. Old American car taxis will also try to charge you more but you can negotiate to the same price as a regular taxi most of the time.
- Taxi from Havana Airport to Old Havana is around 30 CUC (30 mins)
- Taxi from Old Havana to Miramar/the Melia Habana is around 15 CUC (15 mins)
- Taxi from Melia Habana to another location in Miramar is around 7 CUC (5 mins)
- Taxi from Paradisus Varadero to Varadero Airport is around 35 CUC (35 mins)
Hotels outside of Old Havana tend to have free shuttles into Old Havana as well but they can sometime be unreliable. Pack light if you can as cars in Cuba are very small and if there are many of you sharing a taxi, you may find it difficult to all fit in one with your luggage. Also, you don’t need to wear seatbelts in cars that were made before 2000 so you will notice that some don’t even have any.
If you are with a group going from Havana to Varadero or vice-versa, it is best to hire a private driver instead of getting the hotel to organize a car as it will save you a lot of money. A hotel will charge you 180 CUC for a car to take you from Havana to Varadero with luggage; but with a private driver, it will only cost you ~100 CUC or sometimes less. Yuni Castaneda (+1 535 372 8425 / [email protected]) of a very reliable driver I used. He can also pick you up around the city or take you on day trips to other towns like Vinales.
If there are just one or two of you traveling from Havana to Varadero, you can catch the Viazul bus for only 10 CUC but it will take twice the amount of time (3 hours).
All cigar stores are run by the government (usually called La Casa del Tobaco or La Casa del Habano), so wherever you go, the cigars will be the same price everywhere. Locally, cigars are called ‘puros’ or ‘habanos’. Do not purchase them off the streets though as these could be marketed incorrectly and made of a lesser quality. Some of the famous brands are Cohiba, Partagás, and Romeo y Julieta. You can bring up to 50 cigars back to Canada and up to $100 USD worth of cigars back to the US. It doesn’t hurt to get a receipt of your purchase to prove that the cigars are from Cuba. Cigars not purchased from Cuba are illegal to bring into the US.
There are two rums that are made in Cuba: the most famous, Havana Club, and Santiago. Bacardi was originally from Cuba but the family moved the business to Puerto Rico. The 7-year Havana Club rum is a good bottle to bring back and is cheap at the price of $8 USD for a handle. You can bring back one 750ml bottle of alcohol into the US.
About the Author:
Christie Lee is a sports consultant from Vancouver, BC, and is usually based in Los Angeles, CA. “Usually” because she’s combined her passion for travel and love of sports to hit the road as often as she can. From the MLB Playoffs in Kansas City to the World Cup in São Paulo to the Super Bowl in San Francisco, Christie was there to not only watch the action on the field, but to check out what the host cities had to offer. However, Christie’s wanderlust isn’t just limited to sports travel. Her big goal is to go and discover new countries every year. Recently, she’s been to Belize, Denmark and Cuba. Christie’s love of photography, printmaking and scuba diving serve as a guide to finding adventure and immersing into the native culture of her latest destination. Follow Christie’s travels in her blog Christie’s Chronicles and on Instagram.
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