Legal Cuba Travel: 10 Things You Need to Know Before You Go

Posted by Blane Bachelor on September 12, 2011 at 2:16:26 PM EDT | Post a Comment
Like many Americans, I’d had Cuba on my travel bucket list for years, my curiosity piqued by friends’ photos and stories from their trips there through Canada or Mexico. But I was waiting for a legal option for traveling to this long-embargoed country. So when restrictions for Americans were relaxed earlier this year, I was thrilled to join tour operator Insight Cuba on its inaugural trip. Here are a few things to keep in mind about this enchanting—and surprising—island country. Cuba-Havana-Coco-Taxi.jpg Inspired to plan your trip? Learn more about what to see and do with our Cuba Travel Guide. 1. This is not a regular vacation: Travelers who envision days full of sunbathing and sipping mojitos should be forewarned: the new regulations mean traveling with U.S. and Cuban government-authorized operators, and busy schedules of educational and cultural activities. The U.S.’s new regulations allow for "person-to-person" travel that facilitates interaction with locals and an understanding of Cuba’s culture. Itineraries can vary, but activities can include visits to local medical facilities, orphanages, recording studios, tobacco farms, and community arts projects. Organized activities are intended for the whole group (which can be as small as 10 or as large as 30), and free time can be limited to just a few hours a day. 2. Choosing the right operator: Only a handful of authorized vendors are currently providing travel to Cuba, and most offer almost all-inclusive pricing—ranging from $1,800 to $4,000—that covers accommodations, most meals, and airport transfers in Cuba. Prices almost always include three- to five-star hotels, but be aware that the levels of quality and service are lower than standards in the US. Itineraries are always being tweaked to make the government (and clients) happy. New York-based Insight Cuba currently has more than 130 departures scheduled through 2012, with excellent, English-speaking guides; some feature specific themes like jazz, art, or the Bay of Pigs. Distant Horizons is currently developing more than 45 trips with organizations including Harvard University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and UCLA. Dates are scheduled from now through 2012 (some licenses are still pending), and some trips require participants to join a particular organization. 3. All airfare is not necessarily included: All of these companies must use government-approved air-charter operators for their flights, but you must get yourself to the charter flight which typically leaves from Miami. Be sure to ask your operator if the cost of the charter is included in the price you are quoted; if not, it's approximately $450 with taxes. And allow 3 hours to transfer and check-in for all your charter flights; you can't check in online. 4. More money matters: You'll need to bring some spending money for souvenirs, snacks, and other extras. Most U.S. credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so make sure you bring $50–75 cash per day. If you have euros or Canadian dollars, bring them along, since it's cheaper to change them into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) than to change U.S. dollars (expect to lose about 10% on every transaction with U.S. dollars). But you probably won't save anything by changing your dollars to euros in advance of the trip. Finally, don't forget to tuck away $25 CUC for your departure tax, which is not payable in U.S. dollars. Cuba-Havana-painter-Prado-street.jpg 5. A heads-up for timid travelers: Cuba's lack of infrastructure may come as a surprise to some first-time travelers. Drink bottled water, even in higher-end hotels. Expect public restrooms to be sketchy (bring toilet paper, and don't flush it; that's what the small trash cans in stalls are for). Though Cuba is generally a very safe country for travelers, restaurant promoters and vendors can be aggressive, and pickpocketing can happen. Expect domestic flights to be unreliable and open hours to differ from what's listed; service is almost universally less than attentive. 6. Proper packing: Pharmacies and convenience stores are few and far between, so make sure to bring in necessary toiletries, sunscreen, and medicines. Snacks like granola bars can also come in handy. 7. Keeping in touch: When available, Internet is achingly slow (and expensive). Avoid the approximately $3 per minute calls to the US in hotels and purchase a prepaid phone card to use on a public phone (or borrow a cell phone). 8. ¿Hablas español? Most hotel staff and a few taxi drivers speak some English, but you’ll have a much richer experience in Cuba with a basic grasp of Spanish. Knowing some key phrases will help reduce your chances of being taken advantage of as a tourist, like asking ¿Cuanto cuesta . . . ? or How much is . . . ? beforehand, especially in cabs that don’t have meters. 9. Cuban History 101: One of the most interesting aspects of travel to Cuba is getting a local perspective on the country's tumultuous history, as well as the tenuous relations between its government and that of the United States. Reading up beforehand on these topics will only enhance your experience. 10. No cigar(s): U.S. travelers can bring back CDs, books, posters and artwork, but, alas, those coveted Cohibas and Montecristos, as well as rum, are not allowed.

Are you planning a cuba trip? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credits: Prado street and Havana taxis by iStockPhoto / MariaPavlova

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Posted in Trip Ideas Tagged: Cuba

Member Comments (7)  Post a Comment

  • srakent on Jul 14, 12 at 01:49 PM

    We returned June 28 from the Bay of Pigs tour. Loved it! I understand they have discontinued it for a longer (12 days) Undiscovered Cuba experience. I hope to do that one, too. If you like luxury vacations, go somewhere else. I didn't like the lack of toilet paper and clean bathrooms but remember tp and hand sanitizer and you will be alright. For those people previously who couldn't get along without peanut butter or DASH spice or mayo, maybe travel isn't your thing. I like to eat what the locals eat. I love seafood and fresh fruits and vegetables so was in heaven. Someone else said no pepper. We always had pepper. Be sure to vote for Obama and tell all your friends because this legal travel to Cuba could well dry up if Romney gets in. I plan to go back. The wait list fills up in a hurry and I will eat their food not bring my own.

  • AnneMarie_Clarke on May 28, 12 at 05:05 PM

    Just back from 5 days in Havana (May 23-27). A group of 24 went for the Biennial Arts Festival but we saw much more. From the time we were met by our guide, Norberto, and driver, Joseph, we were well-cared for. Our accomodations at the Parque Central Hotel were comparable to better US hotels. We watched CNN and ESPN on our flat-panel television. There was also other US programming. Our days were packed with the "mandatory" pre-approved visits (museums and historical sites). We rode in an older air conditioned motorcoach and were provided 2 bottles of water each day. The cooler did not keep the bottles very cold but there was a refrigerator in our hotel room so you could get them ready for the next day. We brought toilet paper and carried it with us. If there wasn't an attendant handing out a small amount of toilet paper at the entrance to the banos (and it really was a small amount), there might be a dispenser on the wall (that I often missed). It was better to carry your roll with you. Breakfast at the Parque Central was a huge buffet with cooked to order omelets, beans, meats, breakfast foods, yogurts, cereal, fruits and breads. Also champagne and wine at breakfast! The Cuban coffee was strong! (And I did buy some at the airport and brought it back with me despite being advised before hand that we couldn't bring back cigars, rum or coffee.) We had lunch and dinner at several of the tourist sites including La Bodeguita Del Medio and Ambos Mundos Hotel (where Hemingway lived in the 1930s). We had an excellent meal at a new restaurant, El Gijones. We went to the studio/galleries of prominent artists, Eduardo Roco "Choco", and Jose Fuster who has created an unbelievable ceramic "city" in and around his home in west Havana. We did have some free time and we hired a driver who took us to the Crafts Market in his yellow and white 1954 Mercury convertible. There was no muffler and you could hardly hear but he was so proud of his car.
    We visited an elemetary school in Havana and donated a large supply of school supplies we had brought. The students and staff were most appreciative. Several of the students sang for us as thanks.
    You want to have you toilet paper but also consider taking black pepper! There was salt on the table but rarely black pepper. Bring pepper!
    The Cuban people are more than just surviving inspite of The Embargo; they are persevering.
    It was a wonderful experience and I'm so glad I went. Friendly people. No fear of safety. I definitely want to return.

  • dannydan on Feb 2, 12 at 12:36 PM

    cuba is a woundeful place to visite but here is what you need to know bring the essential such has peanut butter, miss dash to spice your food if needed jam travelsize mayo . the people there are friendly and nice rooms are basic but clean if you are in the bar sceen the glasses are small so stop by canadian tire and get a bubba keg to reduce your trip to the bar, and if the service is good dont be a cheapo tip.

  • TGDXB on Dec 13, 11 at 01:31 PM

    I am planning a trip there in May next year. Is it possible to travel on my own if a European citizen? What to plan on a 2-week long vacation? A bit of beach experience but I am keen on discovering Cuba, including history, nature & culture. Many thanks for your insights.

  • OGtz on Sep 16, 11 at 02:20 PM

    @nana5: Thanks for the info.Hhow do you get "invited"?

  • nana5 on Sep 14, 11 at 11:29 AM

    I went "home" a couple of years ago. The way to go is to get yourself "invited" and then hire local tour guides,local taxi drivers who by the way are so versed on their history that for $20 a day they will not only drive you everywhere but be your guide. Going in groups is a very "sanitized" way of seeing this country and you will not be allowed to mix with the locals.The tour operators also don't want you to know that there is a government list of approved homes that are opened and allowed to rent rooms(sort of their version of B&B's). For a fractioned of the cost,you get a clean,air-condioned room and breakfast is included. You will be spending your money on the locals who desperately needed and not in the big hotels.Food is cheap by our standards and go splurge on a couple of restaurants.If you need the safety of an all inclusive tour,do your homework and see ahead of time where they are taking you .Buena suerte.

  • Fran_Arnsdorff on Sep 14, 11 at 10:40 AM

    I have been to Cuba 4 times and it is really worth the trip. The people are wonderful and the scenery in gorgeous. But don't expect the luxuries and conviences of the US or Europe.

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