Cuba travel facts. Cuba has a passion for music and for waiting in lines. The music is incredible, but the lines suck. Here is a recap of things you should be aware of before you travel to Cuba. Cuba is taking its first baby steps to wake up from 55 years of communism and one man authoritative rule.
Travel to Cuba
Americans can now travel legally for 12 different reasons under a General License to Cuba. As a traveler you will self-certify which reason you qualify for. The Department of Treasury which is responsible for managing the embargo on Cuba apparently is not policing the Americans who visit Cuba (Upon returning to the US, I was not questioned about my visit to Cuba). In other words, click whatever box you want, no one is going to check in the U.S. Also, you can now legally bring back those Cuban cigars and Rum in amounts allowed by U.S. customs.
No more sneaking in from Toronto or Cancun. Americans can now fly direct on charters and commercial airlines from the US.
I traveled with Cuba Travel Services who contracts their flights via XTRA Airlines. If there is one piece of advice I can impart on you, AVOID Cuba Travel Services and XTRA at all costs. Not only does Cuba Travel Services disregard their customers’ well being, they actually have outright contempt for their customers. Look at flights being run by American Airlines or JetBlue.
Cuba Travel Services is quick to charge fees. CTS only allows for 44 pounds including your carryon. This is extremely limiting and arbitrary. Expect to start paying extra fees over this weight. They also charge a baggage fee for any checked luggage of $20 per bag. Then it is $2 per pound after the first 44 pounds. And Cuba Travel Services charges a punishing $80 for a tourist card. The tourist card is simply a piece of paper you write your name on which allows you to get your passport stamped in Cuba. Competitors are charging typically $20-$25 for the same tourist card.
My actual flight to Havana was a brutal experience. After purchasing my ticket and then receiving my confirmation, I was a bit surprised that I was required to check in at 4 am for my 8 am flight. On the day of my flight I dutifully arrived at the dark airport in Miami. The check in process took only 20 minutes. The only difference compared to a typical commercial flight, was I needed to wait in one additional line to pay for all of the extra fees that CTS charges.
At 5 am, I was uncomfortably waiting at my gate for my flight. An agent at approximately 7 am approached the podium and informed us of a gate change. The throng exited the gate, went through security for the second time. As I settled into my new seat, I gazed over at the electronic board at the gate. My 8 am flight, had miraculously been delayed to 12 pm. Frustration washed over my face. I was going to spend 8 hours in the airport for my 45 minute flight. I looked frantically for a gate agent to provide some answers and hopefully a solution. Cuba Travel Services and XTRA had disdainfully neglected to man the gate to assist their 150 confused and frustrated customers.
I exited the gate area and made my way to the check in area. There half a dozen employees lounged around indifferent to the plight of their customers. After some time, a representative from XTRA and CTS spoke to me to explain the situation. The reason the flight was delayed for 4 hours was Crew Rest. In other words, the pilots had flown over their allotted time and now had to rest for several hours before they could legally fly again. One reason to avoid charters is their limited resources. As you can see, XTRA does not maintain back up crews to fill in. I asked the staff why they had not informed their clients of the delay since they had known the day before of this situation. The XTRA representative stated that they do not maintain any contact information of their clients. I then confirmed with the representative that CTS had all of the passengers’ contact information. She then told me the CTS office is closed at night, hence XTRA could not retrieve this information. I asked the representative if this was their first delayed flight since they have been in business. Of course the agent confirmed that previous flights have been canceled or delayed. I suggested they receive a file with their customers contact information so they could proactively reach out to the passengers when a flight is delayed. This would allow XTRA and CTS, just like every major airline, proactively communicate with their customers. The CTS representative helpfully suggested that the US government possibly would not allow XTRA to legally email or text their customers in regard to the delay. I looked at him dumfounded, “you are telling me the US government is preventing your company from emailing your customers about a delayed flight?”
His response “it is possible. I don’t really know. But it is possible that we are not allowed to email our customers.” This was the final straw. There was no point in speaking with these contractor drones. Cuba Travel Services and XTRA were more intent on pointing fingers and avoiding blame than taking ownership of the problem.
And I was not the only one who felt this way as our flight was now delayed an additional hour, increasing my wait time to a cumulative 9 hours at the airport. I noticed a commotion at the gate and wandered over. Six policemen had gathered at the gate including one armed with an assault rifle.
Customers’ frustration and anger had boiled over. Cuba Travel Services and XTRA’s indifferent response resulted in a threatening paramilitary overreach.
Cuba Travel Services had one more joke to play on me. The following week, my departing flight from Havana was scheduled to leave at 930 am. Again I was instructed to be present at the airport at 530 am. Against my better judgment, I arrived punctually at 530 am. The sun had not risen above the horizon and the airport slept in complete darkness. It was closed. I sat outside in pitch darkness until the doors slide open at 7 am.
Total disdain. Please avoid Cuba Travel Services and XTRA at all cost.
Updated. On August 31st 2016, the first commercial flight, JetBlue, took to the skies and departed for Cuba. The first commercial flight since 1961. Take a look at all of the other airlines that offer routes from the US to Cuba. Visitors now have many more options to travel to Cuba.
Leave your ATM and credit cards at home. They will not work in Cuba. In other words, plan accordingly and bring enough cash to sustain your travels. Consider prepaying for things such as hotels to lessen the amount of cash you need to bring.
Cuba has a dual currency system. Cuban Pesos for the locals and CUC (Convertible Pesos) for foreigners. In theory, 1 CUC equals 1 US dollar. But Cuba imposes a 3% conversion fee and an additional fee of 10% for US dollars. So in other words, the exchange rate is really 1 CUC equals .87 cents or even less. If possible, bring Euros or Pounds which are only subject to the 3% fee. After many efforts in 3 US cities, I was not able to attain Euros at a favorable exchange rate. The same rules applies in Cuba as other countries, bring crisp, new bills.
Remember this is a sleepy communist nation that is not attuned to customer service. When I arrived in Cuba, I proceeded to the Departure Terminal where it is advised to go for shorter lines to exchange currency. By shorter, I mean, I waited 45 minutes to exchange my US dollars. Also, please remember to bring your passport when you want to exchange your money.
In the town of Trinidad I was met with similar circumstances. Trinidad had three options for exchanging money. The first bank was closed, and the second bank had a scrum of 50 people fighting to enter the bank. I opted for the third option which also included a group of 50 people waiting to enter the bank. The positive here was an orderly queue. After an hour, I had successfully exchanged my money. You can try the cigars of Cuba and after it you will immediately understand why it is so famous all over the world.
A possible work around are major hotels. I was able to exchange money quickly. I did have to lie and say I was a guest of the hotel. And the hotel had limited funds, and only offered to exchange half of my funds.
One other note, the exchange booth at the airport was closed when I checked in for my 930 am flight. And even if it was open, you might not be able to wait the 30-60 minutes to navigate the potential queue.
I clutched my wrinkled map and twisted around for the third time trying to find my bearings. I missed my Google Maps on my iPhone. In the last several years, I have been conditioned to buy a local SIM card and surf like a local. This is not an option in Cuba.
But you can still get access to the internet. My go to option for wifi were bigger hotels. Most of them had wifi set up in their lobby. It is not very good. Do not expect to watch videos or make a call on Skype. Do not be surprised if you get kicked off the network or pages simply will not load.
To access the internet you will need to purchase an ETECSA scratch card (think instant lottery ticket). ETECSA is the provider for Cuba. This is more difficult than it sounds. Then nominal cost is 2 CUC for an hour. But at one hotel I was quoted 7 CUC. Cards at a corner store included a 100% mark up.
Sometimes a hotel would not sell me internet cards since I was not a guest, and other times their stocks has been depleted. At one hotel, I craftily attempted to bribe the waitress with a payoff to sell me two cards. The strategy seemed sound, but I was required to wait for 40 minutes until she returned with the cards.
My advice, is if you find a good supplier, stock up for your stay in Cuba.
There is an interesting hierarchy of taxi options in Havana. And at the top end you, will find prices that rival your local Uber driver back home. For a country where a university educated architect earns 15 CUC a month, it pays to be a taxi driver in Havana.
The hierarchy is as follows, from most expensive to cheapest:
- Pristine, beautiful American classics
- Western, modern looking taxis
- Beat up, Soviet Ladas
- Ancient, tank-like American classics
When leaving Old Havana one evening, determining the cost of a taxi was like a solving a math equation. Variables included the type of car and the distance I walked. Within yards of leaving the old city, the prices began at 20 CUC for a beautiful classic American car for my ten minute ride home. The further I walked the lower the price became. I settled on a 4 CUC ride home in a sturdy but ancient Plymouth.
So some thoughts when taking a taxi. First, remember there is no meter, so bargain and decide on a price before you get in. Unless, you have a need for white glove amenities, opt for the last two categories to save money. Also, please remember do not use a taxi that is waiting in front of a hotel or a high traffic tourist area. These taxis are waiting to charge a premium.
One final thought….some of these cars are in rough shape. On three occasions, my car door swung open when taking a corner. Make sure the door is secure and don’t lean up against it.
Traveling Between Cities
You have three primary options for traveling domestically. The first option is flying domestically. I did not fly in Cuba. The second option is the bus line Viazul. The buses are relatively comfortable. You are unable to buy tickets online and must buy in person at the bus station with your passport. The hours are limited so please double check the hours. During the high season, it behooves you to purchase tickets several days before your actual departure for these buses will sell out. You are also required to present your ticket and passport 30 minutes for departure and luggage is limited to 20 kilograms. The third option is private taxi/car. A baseline is .50 CUC for each km, but you should be able to negotiate. As an example, I paid 110 CUC for a 4 ½ ride from Trinidad to Havana. The alternative was a 7 ½ hour ride for 25 CUC.
One benefit of Cuba’s arrested development economy is there is virtually no traffic in Cuba. There was no traffic during my drive from Trinidad to Havana, on my two rides to the airport, or driving around in Havana.
For a country with a per capita income of $5000, the hotels are priced fairly high. For example, Hotel Presidente is around $125 per night and is not centrally located. I opted to utilized Airbnb which means I stayed with three different families during my travels. My experiences was a bit of a mixed bag. Two of the three rooms did not have hot water. One was lacking water pressure and a functioning toilet. Though I screened for English speaking hosts, one of my hosts spoke halting English. One room was centrally located, where the other two were on the outskirts. All three hosts were pleasant. And the rooms were much cheaper than the hotels. I averaged around $45 a night.
Of course, it helps if you can speak Spanish. But I was able to survive without any difficulties. Staff at hotels and restaurants would know a varying amount of English. Taxi drivers would occasionally know a spattering of English. It helps to know words like “how much” and be able to count to ten in Spanish. I also had a Spanish dictionary app that functioned off line.
Be aware of the voltage when charging your phone or laptop. I noticed many of the sockets in Cuba are 220 volts. The voltage in the US is typically 110 volts.
I hope these Cuba travel facts were helpful. Check out some additional great blogs on Cuba: