As you start planning for a trip to Cuba, you may start to feel overwhelmed. There’s a lot to know before you go, including the mandatory insurance policy, visa policies, scams, potential dangers and the dual-currency system.
Every traveler who visits Cuba must show proof of valid travel insurance upon entering the country.
While there are reports of some border officials failing to check, to be safe you should definitely have insurance when you land.
If you don’t have any travel insurance when your plane lands, you can buy it at the airport, but this will be more expensive than most insurance policies (around $5 / day).
There is no visa on arrival (VOA) in Cuba. You’ll need to procure a “Tourist Card” at the airport before boarding the plane to Cuba.
If you’re not flying from the US, these will likely be available at your airline’s check-in counter, and will cost you $20 or $25, depending on which airline you fly with.
If you’re an American Citizen traveling on an American passport, you’re technically not allowed to visit Cuba unless you fall under one of these 12 categories.
Thankfully, it’s becoming increasingly easy for Americans to travel to Cuba, as one of the twelve categories is: “support for the Cuban people”.
You’ve probably already heard of the dual currency system in Cuba. Basically, there is the CUC, which is pegged 1 to 1 with the US dollar, and there’s the CUP which is the national peso. You’ll get around CUP 22-26 for US $1.
It’s always wise to carry some CUP in your pocket in case you come across a “peso food” stand. These places serve up tasty meals and charge in CUP, so you can usually get a filling dish for just a buck or two.
With no trade between the US and Cuba for over 50 years, it’s no surprise that Cubans have a hard time getting rid of their USD. To help cover their costs, they’ve levied a 10% American Dollar tax.
This means that if you try to exchange USD at a cardeca (money exchange booth) for Cuban currency, you’ll be charged an extra 10%. This is why it’s best that Americans convert their USD into Canadian Dollars, Euro, Great British Pounds or another major internationally accepted currency before heading to Cuba.
On another note, American debit and credit cards do not work at the ATM’s in Cuba, and you cannot pay your bill with credit card.
One of the most common scams in Cuba is simply giving tourists back CUP change instead of CUC.
The bills actually look quite similar so it’s important that you study each bill and become familiar with them. If a shop owner is supposed to give you change of 40 CUC and he gives it to you in CUP instead and you don’t notice, you’re essentially out $39. Be aware!
Other dangers and annoyances include selling tourists fake cigars on the street (buy from cigar shops instead), people showing you to a restaurant or hotel and receiving a commission, and some minor instances of pick-pocketing and robbery.
Be cautious of who you do business with and protect your valuables at all times.
While there are some nice hotels and resorts around Cuba, the best way to see the country is by staying in Casas Particulares. These family-run home stays are the most affordable and most authentic places to stay.
Not only will you get a nice room with a comfortable bed and (usually) a private bathroom, you’ll have the added bonus of staying with a local family who can point you to less-touristy attractions, and even cook dinner for you (for an added cost) upon request.
There are enough locally-owned restaurants, hotels and tour guides around the country that you really don’t have to go to the government-run places.
Put some of your valuable tourist dollars back into the pockets of the local people who work so hard to make sure that your trip is the best it can be.
Typically, family-run restaurants are called “paladares” and they’re a much better alternative to the state-run places, especially those seeking a closer interaction with Cuban culture and better, homemade Cuban food.
There are plenty of paladares in most major tourist towns so you should have no problem finding them and helping the local private business economy.