Planning a vacation to Cuba can seem overwhelming - especially if you are an America. How do you get a visa? How do you deal with exchanging money in Cuba? Is Cuba safe to visit as a solo traveler? Although you may have all these questions running through your mind, I promise a vacation to Cuba is completely worth it. Read on to find out what my top tips are for having a perfect vacation to Cuba.
This article was written in collaboration with Why Not Cuba. They are an international network of Cubans and Cuba lovers dedicated to sharing travel inspiration and up-to-date travel advice about visiting the island.
Cuba is not South East Asia, you will not be able to spend five dollars a day and have a good time. Some people have done it, but their trips include sleeping in parks or avoiding big “expensive” and “touristy” places like Havana, Vinales or Trinidad.
But, if you are a savvy, Spanish speaking traveler with motivation to save money you may be able to keep your budget to $15 USD a day. Do keep in mind though, most travelers typically spend around $50-$100 USD a day.
Bring Your Own Things
Plan on packing pretty much anything from home that is not perishable. This includes: sunscreen, medicine, feminine hygiene products, phone chargers, soap, snacks. Everything. Buying things in Cuba is both expensive and time consuming. You probably don’t want to spend half a day desperately looking for an overpriced bag of tampons when you could be sipping mojitos on the beach or learning to dance salsa.
Save Money on Accommodation
You have two choices on accommodation in Cuba: Either book in advance online or learn how to haggle well. Keep in mind that booking accommodation online once you have arrived in Cuba is almost impossible: The internet is spotty at best, and third party booking platforms such as AirBnb do not allow you to book from the island country.
As with most travel destinations, prices vary depending on location and quality. But you should be aware that the quality in Cuba is on the low side. Even if you see a 5-star accommodation on a website, be skeptical and keep expectations low. You should be able to spend 10 CUC a night per person or less for a shared room, be it a hostel or a casa particular. If you aren’t sure what the difference is between CUC and CUP read this.
Travel Like a Local
This means taking colectivos, buses and camiones instead of taxis and Viazul. Cheap transportation in Cuba exists and the savings can be considerable: a camion to Santiago from Havana will set you back 12 CUC, whereas a Viazul bus will cost you 55 CUC. Similarly, the P12 bus from Centro Havana will leave you within walking (or bike taxi) distance of the Airport for 0.02 CUC. A private taxi along the same route will cost you 15-25 CUC.
Of course, this involves some sacrifices: private taxis are much more comfortable and convenient than packed busses or camiones. But if you’re a seasoned budget traveler, you understand sacrificing some comfort to save money is very normal. If you’re new to budget travel, get used to it but enjoy the savings on extra mojitos.
Know Your Money Matters
It is essential to do your homework on Cuban money. If you know how the double currency works, where (and how) to exchange money and other such issues, you can end up saving considerable amounts of money. For example, if you bring $1000 USD in cash to Cuba, you will end up losing $100 USD in extra conversion fees. To avoid this order Euros or Pounds from your bank beforehand. Again, read this article, where I explain how to acquire Euros from an American bank.
In addition, knowing how the double currency (CUC vs CUP) works can help you avoid scams, being shortchanged and other uncomfortable situations.
Learn A Bit of Spanish
Speaking a little bit of Spanish certainly helps decrease prices, but by no means guarantees you won’t get overcharged. Spanish skills are useful when you want to discover the “real” prices of goods and services. For example, if you’re waiting for a colectivo, be sure to ask fellow passengers how much they expect to pay. You’ll be in a much better position if you know the fair price once the time comes.
Know Where to Eat
In touristy parts of Havana, the same exact meal will cost you 12 CUC or 2 CUC depending on where you get it. Look out for local looking establishments with prices in CUP, and avoid government run places with prices in CUC. In a local paladar a big plate of chicken or pork with rice and beans and some veggies, which will definitely fill you up, can be had for less than 2 CUC.
Of course, as a budget traveler you’ll have to make some concessions: don’t expect to find lobster on the menu for less than 10 CUC. Moreover, the menu in the restaurant is not always accurate due to shortages. It is common to ask for the pork meal only to find out the town is having a pork shortage that month. This can happen with pork, chicken, eggs or anything really. Be sure to ask what is available and try to avoid being disappointed if you pick something that is currently unavailable from the menu. This is the way of life in Cuba.
Even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a guidebook along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
Also, a super common question I get asked constantly is what camera do I use for my travels. The body is a Nikon D3300 and I mostly use this wide angle lens made by Sigma. It's awesome for travel photography - I am seriously obsessed with it.