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Credit Card-Carrying US Independent Travelers Go to Cuba

Credit Card-Carrying US Independent Travelers Go to Cuba

Old Jan 9th, 2017, 04:52 PM
  #1  
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Credit Card-Carrying US Independent Travelers Go to Cuba

We’re a family of four just back from an extraordinary trip to Havana, Viñales and Jibacoa. I spent a month near Havana for a cultural exchange many years ago, but this was the first time for Mr. Crosscheck and our two millennial sons. We speak Spanish, but unlike my last visit, English was everywhere. Some of the mystique is fading as commercialism creeps in, but the vibrant otherworldly creative soul lingers on. We all celebrated the chance to unplug, ponder the dilapidated grandeur, feel the music, hike through the tobacco fields and meet the fascinating people. Old Havana was packed with tourists, but it was easy to get away from the crowds. Would return in a heartbeat to both Havana and Viñales (but not Jibacoa), but I feel as if we barely scratched the surface - can’t wait to explore less touristy destinations.

PLANNING NEUROSIS
Now - or at least until January 20th – the floodgates have opened and the US govt. allows private citizens to arrange air travel, lodging, guides and activities – all possible online. In August we booked one of the first scheduled flights offered by American for December travel. At the time the airline had no details about logistics (Could we get both boarding passes at LAX? Not a clue!), and there was controversy on Tripadvisor’s busy Cuba forum about money and lodging. As seasoned travelers to remote places, it seemed silly to worry about a destination only 38 minutes from Miami (especially after being there in the truly dark ages of the Soviet era), but we had many concerns: Should we stay in casa particulares (popular homestays) or go for a ‘faded luxury’ hotel because all the top ones were reserved by groups? What if our reservation was not honored (a Cuban tradition), and we were stuck scrambling for accommodations on the busiest travel dates of the year? And how could we snag reservations at the few highly-rated paladares (private restaurants)?

NO FUN IN THE SUN FOR YOU!
Americans are on the honor system to choose one of OFAC's twelve poorly-worded categories as the reason for their travel - and tourism is not on the list. Europeans and Canadians get to party and snorkel, but we’re legally required to go to Cuba for an education, not a vacation. Until Obama’s breakthrough visit, many approved tours for Americans involved breakfast with an economist at 8, coffee with architect at 9, a salsa lesson at 10, cigar rolling at 11, etc. We opted for a less scheduled, more spontaneous version of the above, but had doubts about whether we would be able to relax.

AN UNLUCKY FRIEND
A week before the trip when a trusted friend (fluent Spanish speaker, repeat visitor) reported that Old Havana was overrun with tourists/fumes, she had suffered food poisoning in Viñales with no taxis available to take her back to Havana, and it was insanely humid for December. We thought about bailing and heading to one of our usual Mexican or Costa Rican haunts instead. But we stuck to our plan – and ended up with a immensely satisfying, relatively seamless foray into a different world...with rum confiscation by TSA as the most unlucky event of the trip.

NEXT: OUR FAB CREDIT CARD/THE TOUGHEST TABLE TO BOOK IN THE AMERICAS
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Old Jan 11th, 2017, 12:02 PM
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great start, crosscheck but how on earth did you come to have your rhon confiscated? I'm intrigued.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 06:08 AM
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Hi annhig, Glad you're here - there doesn't seem to be a lot of Cuba fever on this board. I posted a mini-trip report on Tripadvisor and there were dozens of immediate responses from Americans trying to figure out how to go independently.

The rum story: You might know from my other trip reports that Mr. Crosscheck always insists that we travel with carry on only, even on long trips to multiple climates. (This turned out to be a good thing in Cuba where there are stories of waiting hours for luggage.)

I had two ill-fated bottles of rum, sealed at duty free so I could take them on our connecting flight through Miami. The first bottle was broken when someone knocked into me as we were leaving customs in Miami. Then the second was confiscated by a TSA agent as we went through security because I didn't have a receipt proving I had purchased the bottle at a foreign aiport within the previous 24 hours. (I had no idea that this rule existed - We had just returned with wine from Italy months before and were able to carry it in sealed bags when we connected from JFK to our LAX flight - but I guess the Italians put a receipt in my bag.)

I was really heartbroken about the rum because it was something I truly could not get in the US. And it was New Years Eve and our anniversary and we were looking forward to bringing one of the bottles later that evening to a celebration with friends. Luckily, that was just about the only mishap of the trip.

Will get back to the trip report later today.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 06:29 AM
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>

Crosscheck - what a tragedy. such a shame you couldn't take your precious bottle to the party. I'd no idea that rule existed either - perhaps it was invented by a rum-drinking TSA agent - I've certainly never had to quoted at me by UK customs.

As for the lack of interest, I think that there are few people here who are interested in Cuba so casual browsers go elsewhere or if they do come here, they are put off by certain resident "experts" laying down the law to them.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 09:12 AM
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So let me lay down a bit more law (hung for a sheep, hung for a lamb):

Posters here are giving impressions, usually of a first and only trip. Misinformation is rife.
"Cuba fever" is a disease of the uninformed, who think U.S. travelers to Cuba are unique.

Posters like HKarina, beardocubauk, HfxJohn, bellagio, and Bob_Michaels, who have become Cuba experts over many trips and years, post on TA and on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.
Their facts, opinions, and experience are tested and trustworthy.

Amuse yourselves here. Go to those TA experts for reliable info on Cuba.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 11:05 AM
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annhig, I asked the mean (rum loving?) agent if I could speak to a supervisor because there were no receipts where I had traveled from. She did say that I probably could convince one to stay united with my rum. A glimmer of hope, but she couldn't find the nice guy who would supposedly bend the rules. We joked that we would bribe him with a cigar - we all felt as if we had landed in a banana republic.

SambaCula,
The esteemed TA posters you mentioned approved of my report. HKarina even called it "lovely and non judgmental." Phew!

However, they are not all US citizens and even the ones who are they, along with the rest of us, are just learning the ins and outs of the new requirements and direct travel to Cuba from the US. I hope to demystify - and provide hints - here.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 12:07 PM
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ITINERARY – Chose hotels over casa particulares (homestays - all the rage for budget travelers and for those seeking to experience ‘the real Cuba’ while boosting the local economy). We also considered airbnbs, an easier way to book the casas and private apartments, but Mr. C insisted on two bathrooms and the pickings were slim for our dates. We finally went with hotels because we wanted our views and to relax poolside after sightseeing. This wasn’t in the cards in Viñales – the pool was empty (the hotel promised access to another hotel’s pool, but logistics were inconvenient – a casa would have been a better move.)

4 nights HAVANA, HOTEL SEVILLA (not one of the ‘it’ hotels, but with the ideal location, lots of old world charm, awesome live music, stellar service, faded luxury and history). The tile work looked like it was lifted out of the Alhambra and my son thought the facade was reminiscent of the Grand Hotel Budapest. Booked on the Accor website (many chic French guests). Emailed the manager in advance and got large, quiet 8th floor corner rooms w/ killer views and VIP breakfast.

2 nights VIÑALES, LOS JAZMINES – 2 nights, breathtaking views, otherwise laughably awful. Booked on HotelClick (pre-paid). Pool was empty, boys’ bathroom flooded, buffet was scary, front desk guy was grouchy, but son had an excellent massage for 25 CUC. All rooms have balconies where you could gaze in awe at the oxen making their way through the amazing valley, which reminded us of rural Asia. After our bathroom flood we were switched to rooms in the main building with high ceilings and more charm - if you do stay here, insist on those.

1 night MEMORIES JIBACOA– Chose for proximity to the Varadero airport, our point of entry and exit. The AI world is not our scene, and our beach day was hampered by rain/wind, but we did relax, despite the appalling drinks and barely edible food.

FLIGHTS – Booked one of the first AA offerings from LAX-MIA-Varadero, with an overnight stay at MIA where we met up with our NY son. When HAV flights became available we thought about changing, but heard about chaos/delays at the HAV airport, so we stuck with the plan and enjoyed the 1.5 hour traffic-free drive. Flights were on time (38 minutes) and the VRA airport was very mellow on peak travel days - took about 25-30 minutes to get through customs, immigration and exchange money, less time for the return...although our newbie AA agent had no idea how to issue boarding passes for connecting flights - We had to explain what the LAX was.

TRAVEL CATEGORY – This is for OFAC (US government) - We checked a box when we booked our ticket. Selected ‘Educational’ with a people-to-people focus. Met with musicians, artists and others recommended by friends who had taken organized tours, also had many spontaneous encounters. Took meds to a community pharmacy in a Havana synagogue where we attended a Chanukah celebration(!). Also donated pens to a middle school and bass strings to a music conservatory.

TOURIST CARD - This is for the Cuban govt. (They don't care about your US reason for travel.) Cuba Travel Services, subcontracted by AA, called three weeks before our trip and gave us the choice of paying $100 for the tourist card at MIA or $125 for expedited home delivery. This is not a traditional visa - just a very short form you fill out yourself. We went for the cheaper option and bought ours airside in Miami w/ USDs – you can use a US credit card landside. There are reports online about strict rules which state you must use black ink and not make a mistake (or you'll have to buy a new card!), but the tourist card vendor was very chill and just told us to fill ours out on the plane - Nobody checked to see if we had the card before we boarded. The required Cuban travel insurance is included in the AA ticket fare. We also bought comprehensive travel insurance that covered evacuation.

CUBA-READY US CREDIT CARD – Our fave travel accessory. US credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, there is a 10% or greater surcharge for changing USDs and only one hotel (the one in Viñales) allowed us to prepay. So to avoid carrying massive amounts of cash, I originally contacted a guide who said he could rebook our hotels and let us prepay with a US card online – This didn’t work out because his fee kept increasing. We then decided to procure the one Cuba-approved US credit card from Stonegate Bank - took almost 2 weeks to arrive. We were thrilled when the card actually worked at our hotels and also at Café Ajiaco, our first paladar, but that turned out to be the only eating establishment that didn’t require cash. For other expenses we took euros to avoid the 10% USD surcharge. Changing money at the Varadero airport took about three minutes, but we also found the same regulated rate at all of our hotels.

All in all, the prep and paperwork was not nearly as daunting as expected. The last time I visited I felt as if I had landed on another planet. This time it was only slightly more bureaucratic than going to certain other Latin American countries. But booking paladares (private restaurants) during high season is another story...please stay tuned!
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 02:05 PM
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Thanks for this, crosscheck. Interesting to read that one could use Euros!
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 03:30 PM
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Thanks, TDudette, To clarify, you still need to exchange the euros, but there is not a 10% surcharge as there is with dollars.
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Old Jan 12th, 2017, 06:02 PM
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@TDudette--
Here is a good article dealing with currency for Cuba (and if it is worthwhile to change USD for any other):
https://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g....Exchange.html
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 02:42 AM
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Nice start, crosscheck. Interesting what you say about the varying qualities of hotels. We were put off using them because of the reports about poor service but by the sound of it, the one you found in Havana was very good. We went into a few hotels in Havana for something to eat or drink, and of course they varied too, but not in the quality of what we had, just in how quickly we got it!

We had the chance to see Los Jazmines when we got the HOHO bus and from the transfer bus too, and it looked lovely, but of course we didn't see the inside.

BTW, just my two penn'oth on the currency issue. Of course as brits we didn't need to worry about the 10% surcharge, but we did not realise that we would have as easy access to ATMs as we did; they are ubiquitous and just like ones at home. So we took cash - lots of it. [actually, not that much considering that we were going for 3 weeks and we were going to be paying for everything as we went along as we didn't have any pre-payments]. we used money belts for carrying it around but I have never felt so safe! [Apart from anything else, any Cubans who had nicked it would have had terrible trouble changing it - you need a passport to change any money and I suspect that any locals turning up with Bank of England notes would have to have a very good explanation].

however, we did encounter a problem with the condition of the notes we took, despite the fact that we had asked the back for new ones. Unless they are pristine, you run the risk of their being rejected. The tiniest tear or mark can mean that they won't change them. We also ran into trouble with changing £50 notes outside Havana - one bank decided in the end that their system was down so they couldn't change them, but it was obvious that the reason was they didn't know what they were. [they had spent 10 minutes looking at the computer screen so that clearly wasn't the problem]. I walked round the corner to the Cadeca and changed them in about 30 seconds flat.

SambaChula - I note that the otherwise very useful TA article you cite does not mention ATMs, which may not be much use at present to US citizens but can of course be used by everyone else.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 08:22 AM
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"I note that the otherwise very useful TA article you cite does not mention ATMs, which may not be much use at present to US citizens but can of course be used by everyone else."

Apply online for a Stonegate bank credit/debit card sufficiently ahead of time. It is able to be used in Cuba at ATMs and for purchases.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 08:32 AM
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That's not what I was getting at, SC. My point was that the existence of ATMs wasn't mentioned at all. [to be fair, it's not mentioned anywhere else either]. Europeans and Canadians for example don't need the card you mention, because they already have debit cards they can use, but end up bringing large amounts of cash unnecessarily.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 11:16 AM
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The article also fails to mention that, unlike in most countries where you get different exchange rates at airports, hotels and banks, the rate is the same all over Cuba. We agonized about how many Euros to exchange at the airport, when in fact we got the same rate at our hotels.

Here's Crosscheck's concise guide to money in Cuba, which I just prepared for friends and might post on TA:

1 - There are two currencies, CUCs and pesos. Tourists use CUCs (pronounced "kooks"), not available outside of Cuba. Cubans use pesos - worth a lot less - CUC bills say 'pesos convertibles'
2 - Other than at hotels and recently some online payment for tours, Cuba is mostly a cash society - you will pay for meals, taxis, cigars, rum, art, etc. with CUCs.
3 - Euros, GBPs and CADs are exchanged for CUCs at official govt rates, now close to 1 CUC = 1 Euro. Rates are the same at the airport, hotels, banks and 'CADECAS' (casas de cambio).
4 - There is a surcharge of 10% (sometimes more) for exchanging USDs, so it's a good idea to bring euros instead of $s if you can get the euros at a decent rate.
5 - Make sure your get small bills for tips when you exchange money.
6 - Non-US credit cards work at hotels and also at ATMs for obtaining cash, although there are anecdotal reports of issues with Mastercards at ATMs.
7 - US credit cards don't work anywhere, with the exception of the Stonegate card, easily attainable from a Miami bank (takes two weeks, works at banks for emergency cash (with surcharge), otherwise no fee, you need to advise them that you're traveling to Cuba before your trip). https://www.stonegatebank.com/credit_cards.htm

TDudette - We used the Stonegate card for hotels and Euros exchanged for CUCs for everything else. Stored extra cash in hotel safes and used money belt for cash, felt very safe everywhere, even late at night.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 11:54 AM
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Good idea. If you're going to post this advice more widely, though, please make a couple of corrections in the phrasing.


" 1 - There are two currencies, CUCs and pesos. Tourists use CUCs (pronounced "kooks"), not available outside of Cuba. Cubans use pesos - worth a lot less - CUC bills say 'pesos convertibles'"

There is no prohibition on tourists using CUP/pesos. Tourists cab obtain and use them. They are worth: 1CUC=24CUP. However, they are best for local street food and other inexpensive items.
Tourists should ensure that they can tell the difference between the 2 currencies and get the correct change when purchasing.
-------
Re:#2 AirBnB also takes credit cards online, but the same casas (booked online with CubaJunky or another site) are cheaper paying in cash on arrival.
------

"4 - There is a surcharge of 10% (sometimes more) for exchanging USDs, so it's a good idea to bring euros instead of $s if you can get the euros at a decent rate."

The official rate you'll get is 87 CUC = 1 USD (everywhere, unless your casa owner can help you get a better rate with some friend).
If your home currency is USD. you should do the math before buying other currency to then convert into CUC in Cuba. It is often not worthwhile. (crosscheck, read some of the FAQ and other comments on Thorn Tree about "doing the math".)
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 12:38 PM
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Thanks so much, Samba! I will incorporate your changes. I knew about foreigners using pesos, but left that out because the friend I prepared the email for would never buy cheap street food

I didn't include airbnb because that's really about accommodations, not currency, but I will add that for TA since I mentioned hotels. Several of our sons' friends have used airbnbs in Cuba and I think the service charge is worth it just for the booking convenience and better advance communication with the casa owner or manager.

As far as whether to convert to euros, I think the people on TT are a different demographic. If we were just bringing $1000 and staying casas for $20 a night, I agree that it's not worth the hassle to save $50. But as a heads up for more upmarket travelers, we witnessed a young man from Brooklyn in our hotel freaking out because he was charged $300 on top of the 1100 euro reservation he had booked online...because he was paying in US dollars.

We are not budget travelers and live in a city where exchanging money is an easy errand. There are numerous currency exchange places competing with each other which rarely charge more than 1-2% for transactions. We also always usually have/don't mind euros lying around because we go to Europe multiple times a year, so for us bringing euros was a no brainer.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 01:48 PM
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As far as AirBnB having better communication with owners, I booked through CubaJunky by email direct with casa owners and got an immediate response. I had some questions and a few emails passed between us in a timely manner, and in good English on their end. The casas are so inexpensive that carrying cash to pay on arrival did not seem burdensome in the least. So from my experience, I don't see an advantage to paying more for the very same accommodation.

The first room was waiting when I arrived. That casa owner called a couple of days ahead to confirm my booking with the next casa owner, etc. I have read that the casa owner can also arrange the next casa, but I did not attempt that.

Upmarket seems like an oxymoron when speaking about lodging in Cuba. I saw rooms in both the Hotel Nacional and the Havana Libre and was not impressed, particularly for the rates charged.

The situation of the young man you mention was not what I was thinking of, paying in dollars for a reserved room. The hotel was doing a courtesy exchange and taking a hefty fee to do so, as some do elsewhere in the world. He might have avoided that situation had he simply exchanged at a cadeca or bank and paid in CUC. I have traveled too widely to think that USD is acceptable to use everywhere as if at home in the U.S.
When I went, the exchange rate was such that I could have bought only .88 Euros for 1 USD. Since I got .87 CUC for 1 USD, it did not make much sense to exchange twice and also pay an exchange fee.
If I had had Euros left over, I suppose I would have taken them to exchange, but at that time I only had MX, Reais, Turkish lira and some other harder to exchange currencies in the safe. ;-) I suppose that's what happens when you routinely travel to more off the path destinations.
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Old Jan 13th, 2017, 05:53 PM
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I will get back to the report shortly - just wanted to say that I wouldn't consider the Nacional upmarket because the rooms and pool area are not renovated.

The only two hotels that are being billed as 5 star are the Saratoga and the Parque Central. I went at looked at both - the Saratoga is lovely, with a swanky Miami vibe and a really great pool area. Hangout of celebs. Parque Central is actually two high rise hotels in one and reminded me of a Marriott - bland, didn't feel Cuban, full of Americans. I liked the location of the Sevilla more than either of the above and also the Old Havana vibe. But for truly discerning travelers who care about towel quality, etc. I guess the Saratoga would be the best choice. We have many friends who stayed there on tours and thought it was fine.

I also took a peek into the Marques de Prado, a fave of a friend who leads music tours. It's part of the Habaguanex chain, all in Old Havana with traditional Cuban architecture. None has a pool, which was a requirement for us, but I took a look at the lobby of the Marques and it looked fab.
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Old Jan 14th, 2017, 06:57 AM
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For a discerning upmarket traveler, a trip to Cuba must be considered slumming, among people who make per month what that traveler spends on one drink. What's the attraction? A ride in a poorly restored and maintained 1950s car?
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Old Jan 14th, 2017, 09:30 AM
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The first room was waiting when I arrived. That casa owner called a couple of days ahead to confirm my booking with the next casa owner, etc. I have read that the casa owner can also arrange the next casa, but I did not attempt that.>>

SambaChula - that's what our first casa owner did for us, with varying results. Not her fault but in some places there was so little accommodation left that the people she knew were full and she had to resort to "friends of friends".

>

We didn't see any rooms there, but we did stay in a hotel in Santi Spiritu which though not 5 star was pretty upmarket for Cuba; there were 2 more hotels of the same sort in the town. We also ate twice in a hotel in Remedios which seemed to be of the same "boutique" type and of a high standard.

>

we did the same sort of thing, crosscheck, and though we didn't see the bedrooms, the public areas looked fab.
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