Cuba just may be the most exciting travel destination that’s a quick flight away from the United States. But it requires a lot more advanced planning than its Caribbean neighbors.
There’s no place in the world like Cuba, particularly right now. Only 103 miles away from the United States (that’s about the distance between New York City and Philadelphia), the largest island in the Caribbean has lived through a complicated estrangement from its nearest neighbor since 1961. What Americans call “the embargo,” and what Cubans call “the blockade,” has arguably done more (or at least as much) to shape Cuba’s present as its 1959 revolution. Since President Obama lifted many of the longstanding travel restrictions for U.S. citizens when he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015, Americans are now able to experience a country that, in the 1950s, they flooded with tourists. (Now, Cuba is probably flooding your Instagram feed.) What has happened since that high-rolling (and often mob-backed) heyday for American travel is a little paradoxical: almost nothing has changed, and almost everything has.
Many Americans describe Cuba as being lost or frozen in time, and this is true—while Havana is a magnetic, lively city, there’s been very little new construction since 1959. But Cuba also wears those six decades, more or less, on its sleeve—the half-century old cars chugging around the city neither look, nor sound, new. The ripple-effect of U.S.-Cuban relations touches almost everything having to do with the island, from the paperwork you have to fill out before your Havana-bound flight to the dearth of shampoo once you arrive. (We recommend you bring your own.) If relations continue to thaw, travel will likelier become easier for American visitors, but in the meantime, you’ll get the most out of your Cuba trip if you plan ahead. Here are all the nitty gritty, unsexy details you’ll need to know before you leave.
Here’s the good news: all the paperwork you have to do can be handled at the airport before departure. Tourist travel remains prohibited for U.S. citizens, but most trips fall under one or more categories of “authorized travel” permitted by the U.S. government. If you plan, on your visit to Cuba, to hear live music, you can confidently check off “public performances” as your reason for travel. If you plan to stay in a “casa particular,” accommodations provided by a private family, you can check off “support for the Cuban people.” If you plan to visit a museum, you can check off “educational activities.”
The Cuban government, on the other hand, welcomes you as a tourist. Some airlines allow you to purchase your $50 Cuban tourist visa, which you’ll pick up at the airport, ahead of time. Other airlines will sell the visa to you at the airport before your departure. If filling the tourist visa out by hand, write with care—if you cross anything out, you have to buy a new one. Make sure to keep it somewhere safe: You’ll present the visa upon your arrival in Havana, and again when you leave the country. If you lose it, you have to buy a new one. Not fun.
The money question
Cuba has two currencies, the CUP—the peso that most Cubans earn and use—and the CUC—which is linked to the American dollar and which is what tourists use. (You get one cuck joke. Use it now. Get it out of your system.) This system exists so that tourists don’t inflate costs for normal Cubans and so that Cubans can charge tourists prices they are used to paying—creating what’s essentially a local price and a tourist price. For instance, a Cuban might pay the equivalent of 5 cents to go to the Museo de las Bellas Artes, but an American tourist would pay the equivalent of 5 dollars. Expect to pay in CUCs, and make sure the change you receive is in CUCs too.
In Cuba, you can’t use credit or debit cards from U.S.-based banks. (Even if you do have a non-U.S. bank, few places take cards.) This means you have to bring all your money with you on the plane. And be sure to ask for new bills from your bank: the Cuban government will not take wrinkled, torn, or old bills. Cuba also charges a 10% fee for American currency—you can get around this by bringing Canadian dollars or euros; the exchange rate will almost certainly be less than the 10% fee. Do you research, and check exchange rates before you travel.