Cuba Travel 🇨🇺 : Tips & Info (from an American)
Cuba for Americans : Info & FAQ 🇨🇺
I went to Cuba a couple months ago, right before the holidays. It was definitely an experience! Thankfully, my friends and I were lucky to have arrived right after the mourning period for Castro, or we wouldn’t have been able to drink, dance, and see the Cuban culture as it’s typically lived & loved.
People have asked me questions about planning their own trip to Cuba, and a lot of the questions were ones I had before my trip so I wrote up a little guide to help people curious to visit Cuba on their own.
Is it legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?
Yes, Americans can travel to Cuba legally. There are 12 general licenses Americans can travel to Cuba with, and they do not need to apply for anything in order for travel. You can read more about each one here. I traveled under the Educational activities license, which includes a “general license for people-to-people travel.”
Here is info about it from the US government website's FAQs (scroll down to question 13):
13. What constitutes “people-to-people travel” for generally authorized travel?
…Among other things, this general license authorizes, subject to conditions, persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to engage in certain educational exchanges in Cuba either individually or under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact. Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba. The predominant portion of the activities must not be with a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, as defined in 31 CFR § 515.337, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party, as defined in 31 CFR § 515.338...In addition, persons relying upon this authorization must retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities...For a complete description of what this general license authorizes and the restrictions that apply, see 31 CFR § 515.565(b).
I also got my passport stamped, and told customs I’d been in Cuba. No problems at all getting back in :)
How do I get to Cuba? Do I need a visa?
There are a lot of direct flights to Cuba from the states now, but I’d recommend getting an extra long layover and flying through Mexico City or Cancun. Airports in both cities are pretty centrally located, so even with a 12 hour layover, you can go and explore the city. So worth it!
I had enough time to drop by Cancun for lunch with friends & get some beach time before getting to Havana, and enough time to get dinner & chill with a friend in Mexico City before getting back home to SF. Mexico City is AMAZING (go eat in Roma or Polanco!). I highly recommend making a stop there on your way over.
Stopping by Mexico also made getting my Cuban tourist visa super easy — I just dropped by the Aeroméxico info desk in front of my gate before my flight, and was able to buy one for around US$20.
Where should I go in Cuba, and where should I stay?
I would definitely recommend going to Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. The three cities were a completely different experience each, and Cienfuegos and Trinidad both had nearby hikes that were interesting to check out.
I would recommend staying at Airbnbs or hotels. My friends and I stayed at an Airbnb in Havana and Trinidad, and my friend’s uncle found us a place to stay in Cienfuegos, where he lives. I have friends who have stayed in hotels and thought they were fine as well.
(Use this link to sign up & get $40 in Airbnb credit)
What should I wear in Cuba?
Dress for the humidity! I went during the winter (in December) when the weather is supposed to be at its loveliest (aka the least humid), and the humidity was still very much something that impacted my experience and something I remember when I think back to my time in Cuba.
For the most part, I’d recommend:
- day dresses & maxis with light fabric
- shorts & tank tops or shirts
- yoga pants or tights & sports bras w/ shirts (especially useful for hiking)
I would also recommend packing:
- swimsuits for swimming holes (while hiking) or the pool or beach
- a light cardigan that you can throw in a bag at night just in case
For shoes, I would recommend:
- sandals that are comfy for walking around in
- sneakers if you decide to go hiking
- flip flops for potentially wearing around the Airbnb
- Note: I packed heels for nights out, but we ended up wearing some of our comfy yet blingy sandals instead
What else do I need to pack?
Besides clothes, here are some other things that I highly recommend you pack for your trip:
- bug spray! — Super important! I luckily had some left in my bag from a trip I took to Hawaii the month before, but my friends and I did not see any stores during our time in Cuba where we would have been able to purchase bug spray. We were outside in the heat & humidity all day, and often enjoying outdoor or rooftop seating at bars and restaurants at night. Packing bug spray with you will definitely help you enjoy your trip instead of having to worry about bugs and itching!
- shampoo & conditioner — We didn’t see any convenience stores or small marts while we were in Cuba, and given how much we walked around without seeing any, it would have been super inconvenient to go looking for everyday necessities like shampoo & conditioner. Make sure to pack enough to last your trip!
- toilet paper / disposable wipes — This one seems silly to point out, but it’s one I’m glad my friend told me about this on my first day in Havana. I ended up carrying around a small roll of TP from my Airbnb when I took my big bag out, but if I knew in advance I would have bought little tissue packs and packed them to carry around in my purse. Carrying around TP saved me when I went to the bathroom anywhere except at nicer restaurants/bars and our Airbnb.
- power adaptors & converters — This one is a no brainer for any foreign travel. Click here to see what power plugs Cuba uses (I saw two different kinds while I was there)
How much money should I bring?
There are 2 currencies in Cuba. The convertible peso (CUC, “dollar”) was what I used exclusively while I was in Cuba. That’s the currency they gave me when I exchanged my US dollars, and the only currency that seemed to be expected of a tourist.
My friend who is Cuban was able to use the Cuban peso (CUP, “national currency”) to get things like cheaper entrance fees to national parks and museums, but not much else.
For Americans: BRING CASH. You won’t be able to withdraw any money with an American card once you’re in Cuba, so I’d recommend taking more cash than you might think you’ll need. You can just exchange the amount you think you’ll need once you get to Cuba, and keep the rest in US$ -- at least this way you’ll have the option of going to currency exchange houses (cadecas) if you need to to get more CUC.
I was not able to withdraw any money with my US bank cards in Cuba. I only remember having the option to pay by card once or twice, and my American visa card was not accepted either time. Definitely remember to bring enough cash to last you your whole trip, unless you are traveling with foreigners or have foreign bank accounts you want to try withdrawing from.
I’d recommend budgeting around US$100 per day (including Airbnb/hotels).
- Print out your itinerary! Print out a map, your Airbnb/hotel address and phone number, info on every place you want to check out, and numbers for drivers/car companies if you want to travel between cities. Wifi is hard to find and unreliable.
- Download a map of Cuba to your phone!
- Hire private cars between cities and take cabs within, instead of renting a car. It would have been extremely difficult for us to figure out how to get between cities even with a map if we’d rented a car. It cost between $30-100 for each big ride for a car, which was totally worth is when split between 4-5 people.
Hope this helps, and let me know in the comments if a printable pdf guide of places to go would be helpful!