Cuba is one of the safest (if not the safest) countries in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. While pick-pocketing is not unheard of in crowds, any type of violent crime against tourists is extremely rare. And the few times it has happened in the last decade or so have been targeted at tourists doing things that no normal tourist would ever do. If a tourist takes the normal precautions that they would take in any large North American or European city, chances are miniscule that a tourist will be the victim of any sort of crime.
Yes, Cuba has two currencies: The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC is the only currency any regular tourist needs to use. All accommodation, restaurants and official taxis charge in CUC. CUP can be used at fruit- and vegetable markets and for a number of other small daily items and services that most tourists would not need. Any place that charges in CUP will accept CUC and give change in either of the two. No harm in exchanging 10-15 dollars or euros into CUP, in fact for some of our tours they might even come in handy off the tourist track. 1 CUC equals 24 CUP. The CUC is pegged to the U.S. Dollar at 1:1.
Cuba has announced that they are moving towards a normal one-currency system. The date has not been informed.
The CUC is a closed currency and can not be exchanged outside of Cuba. You can withdraw cash with your credit card (as long as it's not issued by an American bank or with a bank owned by an American bank) from ATM's around Havana (ATM's are more scarce in the province). Note that the amount you withdraw will be converted into USD and charged in USD at your home bank.
You can exchange cash in a number of ways in Cuba. The best exchange rate is at the bank, the second best at a CADECA (Casa De Cambio - House of exchange) and the worst is at a hotel. The difference between the rate at banks and at CADECAs is so small that we recommend the CADECA since the banks often have very long lines and it might not be worth an hour of your time saving a dollar or two. Never exchange money with anyone in the street. Fake bills and the double currency system (CUC and CUP) opens up a variety of negative outcoms for the untrained tourist.
For detailed and updated info on currency and credit cards check here (external link)
For info on money exchange, check here (external link)
Amazingly (when compared to airports the world over) the CADECA (exchange house) at the airport in Havana has the same exchange rates as everywhere else. So we do recommend exchanging money upon arrival. If there is a long line at the CADECA in the arrivals hall, the trick is to go up to the departure hall CADECA where there is often no line at all.
In the city, there are lots of CADECAS. If your accommodation is in Old Havana there is a big CADECA on Obispo, the main pedestrian street, open until 20:00 / 8 PM. Also has numerous ATM machines.
ATM machines accept visas, they do not accept mastercard. Inside banks both visa and mastercard are accepted.
Banks give a slightly better exchange rate than the CADECA. Since banks often have long lines, it is questionable whether it is worth your vacation time spending perhaps an hour or two to save very little.
Worst exchange rate is at hotels, but for emergency exchanges they are fine and sometimes come in handy since they are open later than banks and CADECAS.
ALWAYS REMEMBER TO BRING YOUR PASSPORT WHEN EXCHANGING MONEY.
In tourist centers there will always be people looking to strike up conversations or fast friendships with tourists. These guys are called 'jineteros' which literally translates into 'jockeys' or 'riders'. They're looking for free beer, a few dollars for a small guided tour or to offload a box of fake cigars. They are harmless and a firm 'no gracias' will make almost all of them go away. If they do not go away immediately, head towards the nearest police officer (there is usually one nearby at any tourist area in Cuba) and they will run away at the sight of police since bothering and hustling tourists is illegal in Cuba.
You have probably heard that from people who ate all their meals on the main tourist drag. It is true to some point that many state-run restaurants on touristy streets serve quite bland food. But the very good eating options are never far away. If you travel with us, you won't be eating nearly as bad as you've heard. You might even be eating a few very memorable meals. Gourmet food or fine dining is rare in Cuba. Solid homecooked meals of fresh chicken, pork, lamb and fish caught or slaughtered the same day is quite common on the other hand.
It gives enormous freedom to self-drive, and we recommend it to those comfortable with taking on the challenges that do exist in Cuba when it comes to lack of signage, bad roads etc. Ask us for details on driving in Cuba and rental car prices.
Alternatively, we can organize any other type of transportation according to your wishes, the easiest and most affordable being airconditioned, comfortable coach transfers. But if you want a private driver to take you accross Cuba in a 60 year old vintage car, let us know. The sky (and the caribbean ocean) is the limit.
While it is not the norm, it does happen from time to time. We recommend you book your car through us and pick it up accompanied by one of our representatives who have personal relations with the rental car company to avoid any would-be hassle.
A trend of bringing foreign products to hand to random Cubans was born in the early 90's when Cuba was in its so-called 'special period' with heavy rationing after the collapse of its long term friend and sponsor, U.S.S.R. Cuba is doing much, much better today and has been doing so for at least a decade or more. Still, this trend will not die.
Our opinion is that handing gifts to strangers only adds to the creation of beggars. We do not encourage random gifting. And especially not to children who need to learn that the way forward is to study and not to hang around on street corners waiting for hand outs from strangers from abroad.
We do not believe in bringing gifts for strangers. The best way to help Cuba and Cubans is to visit and spend money in the country on 'real' services and products.
That may be true in lots of cases, but not with us. The cost of our services is the one quoted and there are no extras. When dealing with us and any guide, driver etc. working with us, rest assured that we do not expect you to pay for our meals or drinks.
We do not expect tips. We see tips the way it was originally intented: A tip for good service above the expected and what was paid for. You are welcome to tip our guides, but nobody expects you to. Some tourists complain that in Cuba you have to tip BEFORE a service is rendered to make sure you get good service. That is ridiculous; no tipping is required and certainly never before we have even provided the service agreed upon.
Not really. There are good foreign operators and bad foreign operators. And some of the bad ones are those that send most tourists to Cuba. Take one of the largest U.K. travel agencies for instance, they still print on their information letters that camouflage clothing is prohibited in Cuba and that you can't take your smartphone as it has GPS. Other agencies claim that laptops, iPhones and what not can not be taken to Cuba. There are certainly good 'strictly foreign operators', but there's an argument for feeling safer and more comfortable booking with people who are on site with in depth and updated local knowledge over working with agents thousands of miles away, many of whom have never set foot in Cuba.
Not really. Whatever you book with us, some or most of your money will go into the pockets of Cubans. And most of the people working with us are Cuban. Also, some tourists think like this because they feel sorry for Cubans, usually out of misunderstanding how bad Cubans are doing. We do not feel sorry for Cubans. Yes, it is a developing country and as such poverty exists all over, but Cubans have their basic needs covered and are given an almost free amount of food and hygiene products every month. Plus free health care, free education etc. Real poverty, as in hunger/starvation/homeless people is close to non-existent in Cuba. You will see more homeless people in most North American or European cities than you will in Cuba.
We have a number of languages represented among us and the guides working with us, including Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Chinese. Please inquire as to which guides and languages are available for the service or tour you are looking at booking. All guides speak English and Spanish as a minimum. Moving around with a guide who doesn't speak Spanish makes no sense honestly.
Because they are deleted within hours or days after being posted. Except the very few less than positive ones that have been posted over the years. Those are left in place (while our replies to them have been deleted). Tripadvisor is a multi-billion business depending entirely on international hotel chains and they have no interest in smaller businesses having any representation on their website. We have been banned from responding to any comments in the Cuba forum, positive or negative. We are not allowed to be represented on Tripadvisor and all but 3-4 positive reviews that have been posted over the years have been deleted. We have no way of fighting Tripadvisor, they are way too powerful, sadly they do not seem to accept that with power comes a certain responsability to use that power fairly. We have tried discussing the issue with them several times and received extremely rude replies. We have given up and after talking with many other small businesses realized we will never be allowed any representation there. Try googling Tripadvisor and words like 'scam', 'cheat' etc and you will find hundreds of links of small hotels and business that have been destroyed by Tripadvisor. Very sad.
Tripadvisor's Cuba forum has lots of posts but it is for resort tourists. For independent travel we suggest getting advice from Lonely Planets thorn tree forum. No doubt Lonely Planet is also a very solid business, but they do not seem to root out local operators, smaller agencies and hotels that do not directly transfer money into their bank account. They also seem to have moderators who actually read posts and reviews before deciding to delete them. They allow all business owners to reply to reviews on them.
(Updated after regulation changes January 2015. Last updated May 24, 2015)
U.S. travelers basically have two ways of getting to Cuba from the U.S.:
1. Flying direct from Miami, Tampa, New York and a growing list of U.S. cities. They are all charter flights, meaning tickets can only be sold by approved charter companies. There are many, but if you want to get started and book your tickets ABC Charters, Marazul and Marianao are a few of the bigger ones.
These charters can only take passengers traveling legally, meaning every passenger has to sign a piece of paper with them crossing out under which of 12 legal categories they are traveling. Those categories are so vague and open to interpretation that surely you'll fit into one. If not, you can start believing in the afro-Cuban religion 'santeria' today and you can legally fly direct tomorrow crossing out 'religious purposes'.
Note: The OFAC (office of foreign assets control, the U.S. body that oversees Cuba travel) does not get involved, they do not issue licenses anymore. A U.S. travelers needs to do no paperwork with them. The only paperwork a traveler will need to come in contact with is the paper asking under which category you are traveling. This paper is kept on archive by the charter company.
2. Flying via a gateway country. Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Panama, Jamaica are the most obvious ones. Book your U.S.-gateway country flight on any search engine and book your gateway-havana flight with the airline itself or on any non-U.S. owned flight search engine since U.S. operated flight search engines do not show Cuba flights.
The tourist card, as it is called, is either included in the plane ticket if you are flying direct. The charter provides it along with the plane ticket. If you are flying via a gateway country all (except Canada) sell them at the airport and half the plane will be buying it just like you. On Canadian flights the visa is included in the ticket and handed out on the plane.
Probably not, but no guarantee they won't. If they do, great souvenir, you are traveling legally anyway. If at all uncomfortable keep in mind not a single fine has been given for tourist travel to Cuba since 2007.
Yes. But it's hit and miss whether they check. That is irrelavant though since everyne traveling abroad, and especially to a poor country, should have medical coverage.
If your home insurance does not cover you (if it does you should bring prrof of it) in Cuba, you can buy insurance upon arriving in Cuba at any airport. Asistur sells insurances at $3-4 per day. You may be directed to it before you start looking for it, so you will find it.
In case you somehow for whatever (Cuban) reason can't buy the insurance upon arrival, you can buy one first thing next morning at the Asistur office on Prado, the main avenue in central Havana.
Bring cash. Until U.S. banks allow U.S credit cards to work in Cuba this remains the only way. There is a 10% penalty on exchanging USD and there is no way to avoid that either. Some make a small profit exchanging to another foreign currency like euro or Canadian dollars at home before leaving but whether that makes sense depends on the rate you can get at home. As is, with the penalty calculated in, 100 USD will buy you 87 CUC.
Your cell pone will almost certainly not work. You will not be able to get online either. Such service only extends to access to local mail even for Cubans with such subscription. So no Facebook, no Twitter, none of that. Don't let it stress you, use the fact to tell people back home that you are going on a real vacation like people used to go on vacation which means not being much in touch - if at all. No news is good news and an increasing number of first worlders realize when they are in Cuba that the world back home continue to revolve even though they are not online.
Internet is available at hotels and phone company offices. It is from $4.50 to $10 per hour and is quite slow. Good enough to check your mail, but not much more than that. WiFi generally only available at 4-5 star hotels (and at the same slow speed as elsewhere).
If you have some sort of work that demands your online presence 24/7 there is unfortunately only one advice to give: Do not visit Cuba.
If on the other hand you could use a break from social media, checking news sites all day long and responding to mails every waking hour, you will absolutely love what Cuba offers - a feeling you haven't tried for many years: That of being utterly and completely offline.