12 Important things to know before going to Cuba
By College Tourist Contributor of 08/16/17
It’s still a fairly recent change that Americans can head to Cuba for vacation, which is why I want to highlight 12 important things to know before going to Cuba.
Read more from Molly at Molly on the Move
Ever since President Obama changed the policy, Cuba had been at the top of my list for travel. I’d seen photos of the 50s style retro cars and colorful buildings and terrible as it sounds, that was pretty much all I needed in my head as a reason to go. I knew a brief bit of info on Fidel Castro, Bay of Pigs, Communism and other important terms we would have covered in high school history, but that was about it.
My friend texted me asking if I had time for a big trip this summer and Cuba ended up being the perfect destination due to time restraints and our budget. My dad and brother ended up jumping along for the ride and the trip landed smack dab in the middle of an already crazy month. I honestly felt pretty unprepared headed into the trip and usually would have done a lot more research (especially for an international trip) beforehand, but I was very scattered until a few days before the trip. We had our itinerary fairly planned out, but Havana is definitely more of a “seeing” city rather than a “doing” city, which made that easy, but it was all of the other small details that stressed me out.
Especially now, there are plenty of questions about whether or not Americans can still even go. The week leading up to our trip whenever I told someone we were going, the common response was “I thought you couldn’t anymore!” I’m hoping this post can clear up any of those questions and give you all the important information you need in one place. If you can think of anything I am missing, please ask below. As far as I am concerned, no changes have been made since President Trump’s announcement. If changes do fall into place, the “people to people” reason will disappear, and you will need to book a trip through a travel company, rather than on your own.
I will also write a detailed post on what all you should do while in Cuba, in addition to details on our day trip to Viñales. Again, if there’s anything else you have an interest in reading about, let me know! Keep reading for 12 important things to know before going to Cuba.
Be Aware of Their Currency Situation
So, Cuba’s currency sitch is an interesting one. They have two official currencies, but you cannot get either of them internationally, so you have to wait until you arrive. They use both the Cuban Convertible Peso, the CUC, and the Cuban Peso, the CUP. You will most likely only ever deal with the CUC, which is equivalent to 1:1 for Americans. You’ll get the best exchange rates at banks and the worst at hotels- make sure to always have your passport with you when doing this and watch them count it out or else you might get scammed. We came with Euros and then exchanged for CUCs; make sure to come with all the money you could possibly need (but don’t exchange it all at the beginning in case you way overshot).
Bring a Roll of Toilet Paper
I didn’t find out about this factoid until I was boarding the plane to our connecting flight in Florida, womp womp. You will come across some places that have toilet paper and more often than not, those that don’t. Our first encounter was as soon as we landed and my friend asked me two stalls over whether mine had toilet paper or not. The answer to my dismay was no. Another tip: if you have your own toilet paper, you’ll avoid paying the man or woman looking for money by offering toilet paper at some stalls. It’s not necessary to pay in Cuba, as it is in some foreign countries. However, it is nice to tip these folks, especially if you used their TP. Which leads me to my next point.
The average Cuban makes around twenty CUC per month. While the cost of living in Cuba is extremely low, this is still pretty crazy to comprehend. The magic number for tipping is ten percent, but be sure to check that they haven’t already added it in at restaurants. Many bands will play in restaurants and will expect a tip after their performances, so always carry a few 1 CUC notes with you for this.
Read more: Exploring Cuba for the First Time
Eat at Paladars
You’ve probably heard that the food in Cuba is sub-par, but I would beg to differ. We had some amazing meals and after a terrible first meal and advice from our tour guide the next day, we learned the trick. Restaurants owned by the government are no bueno, so look for the private, family-owned ones. A trick to do so is by asking if they are “paladars.” In my next Cuba post, I will be talking about a few of our absolute favorites. We even went to one twice it was so great!
Brush up on Basic Spanish Before You Go
You should probably have someone in your group who speaks very basic Spanish or else it might be extremely difficult at times. Majority of Cubans do not know English, including those at hotels, in cabs and in restaurants. I know very minimal Spanish and can string a few words together, and while my brother spoke enough for us to get by, I wish I could have spoken more just so I could have held better conversation with Cubans.
Check for Air Conditioning if You Need it
We went to Cuba during one of their hottest times of the year, but I can imagine you would always want air conditioning. If staying at an airbnb, make sure to double check that it comes with it. Many places don’t and you might have to seek it out. Additionally, if you’re heading out on a long day trip, search for a cab or car with air conditioning. Only a few of ours had it, which didn’t bother me, but it was definitely noticeable when the car did have it.
Cabs Don’t Yield to Pedestrians
In America, you can expect a car to slow down and stop if you’re crossing the street. In Cuba, this courtesy is not reciprocated. Cubans have a way of crossing the street where they get unnaturally close to a car, but never seem panicked and never hit by a car – clearly they’ve timed crossing the street to a tee. We mastered this at the end, but somehow ended up in the middle of a busy intersection with cars driving by without stopping for us on day one, so be careful before you cross the street.
Read more: Confudling Cuba
Prices were not always as cheap as expected, but remember that they expect you to haggle. When hopping in a cab, shopping at a market, or buying fruit at a stand, I would say never walk away with a purchase at the original price.
Don’t Count on Wifi or the Internet
There are Wifi spots and you can purchase use of the Internet, but in my opinion, you should embrace being off the grid for a bit! My dad was able to send texts at a price for each text and had access to the internet, but had my mom, who was back at home, look anything up we needed because it was so slow. If you want to look anything up, I recommend doing it beforehand for speed.
Cubans are Very Friendly
Clearly, we didn’t look like we were from there, so people often asked us where we were from. Only a few times did someone ask us for money and other times we were greeted with a hearty “Welcome to my country!” Any time we got lost, we would ask for directions, get pointed in the right direction or even personally escorted there as we tried to make conversation in our broken Spanish and their broken English.
Havana is Easy to Get the Feel for and You Won’t Need More Than a Few Days There
I loved Havana. I loved walking around and seeing how much activity there was, even late at night or early in the morning. I loved the sense of community amongst Cubans and the joy of the people. It’s a walkable city and I really encourage you to explore all parts because it’s very safe. We knew our way around pretty well by the end and that was after three days in the city. Since there aren’t too many activities to do in Havana, I would recommend no more than three days there. We spent a little less than five total which included a day trip and I wouldn’t change that.
You Will Need a Visa and Health Insurance
You will need both a visa and health insurance in order to travel to Cuba. Luckily, we were able to acquire these through our Southwest flights, so I would recommend checking through your airline. The visa cost us each $50 and our boarding pass counted as the health insurance.