Everything you should know about traveling to Cuba from America | Travel Guide
A few Americans have often found their way to Cuba in the past, but now that President Barack Obama has officially lifted the embargo more are making the excursion. The island of Cuba is beautiful and full of culture & diversity. As Cuba continues to expand their tourism industry, they still have some infrastructural changes to make. I put together an important list of things to know before making your journey. I highly recommend booking a private tour with a company in Cuba. It will save you time, money and frustration.
Currently JetBlue and Delta are flying out of New York City. Other companies fly out of Florida as well. Right now prices are about $200+ and it's the perfect time to go. During booking or immediately after, ask your airline company if they can arrange your Visa for you.
For my trip Delta Airlines made arrangements to get my Visa and it cost me $50 USD.
ARRIVING AT AIRPORT
When you arrive at JFK airport, Delta Airlines has a separate check-in area for flights to Cuba. The airline is responsible for making sure all paper work is correct/in order before boarding the flight. At the time of check-in you will also pick up your Visa.
This is probably the most important section of the travel guide. Many of my friends have asked me "How did you obtain your visa for Cuba?!" It's pretty simple. There is 2 ways that I know of:
Delta Airlines can obtain your visa for you during the booking of your flight. Once you get to the airport you will check-in and fill out a REASON FOR VISIT form. I checked off for (People to People) interaction. There are several other options listed on the straight-forward form. Stick with the simple reason: "people to people" or "educational". Once you fill that out, the ticket agent while give you a REPUBLICA DE CUBA visa. You're ready to head through TSA and board your flight.
Please Note: Your visa must be correct and cannot have any mistakes on it once you fill it out or you will have to PURCHASE a new one at the original cost.
If you're flying into Havana it's pretty easy. You only have a few options once you land: customs, baggage claim and exit.
Once I was at customs they asked me to take a picture, took 1 half of my REPUBLICA DE CUBA Visa (the other half you keep until you depart Cuba) and they waved me through the turnstile and on to baggage claim. Be prepared to wait about 20 minutes for your bags to come out on the carousel.
If you scheduled a tour guide (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED), he/ she will pick you up at the exit a few feet from the baggage claim. After that you should change over your money to the Cuban Pesos (CUC) before leaving the airport. The line for currency exchange was pretty long. Our tour guide was savvy and knew enough not to wait in the airport exchange line. Instead, he took us to a local bank in Havana to exchange our money.
When it comes to money in Cuba, be resigned to the likelihood that your American credit cards don't exist. At least for the time being; 9 times out of 10 they will not work at any of the Cuban ATMs or restaurants. Bring all the cash you need for the ENTIRE trip. Bring a little more as a cushion in case of an emergency.
There are TWO currency's in Cuba: CUC (tourist) and CUP (local) currency. You want to use the CUC.
1 CUC = 25 CUP (You don't need to know this conversion. Just for reference.)
Note: The CUP currency usually has people printed on it. The CUC currency has buildings/monuments printed on it. Be sure that you are paying attention when conducting transactions with locals that you receive CUC back not CUP Pesos.
There is a 10% penalty tax on the US dollar from the embargo. Before you leave the US, you should go to your local bank and switch your money to the Canadian or Euro currency. It sounds confusing, but It's very easy to do.
Also Note: The Cuban Pesos (CUP) only works in Cuba. In the future they are working towards having one currency, the CUP which will allow for global exchange. You will want to exchange your money before you return stateside.
As an American I feel obligated to tip, especially when I'm traveling to other countries. 1 CUC Pesos (equivalent to about $1 USD (0.87 to be exact)) goes far for a family that may only work off of 50 CUC Pesos a month. While tipping in Cuba is not the same percentage as in America, you should still set aside a little money for tipping. I would suggest about 50 to 75 CUC Pesos for a week stay.
Trips to the Banos (bathroom) while out on the town get costly. They have bathroom attendants in most of the rest rooms keeping everything clean. Other times, you may feel inclined to tip the maracheta singer in the restaurant you're visiting for dinner.
Beware: Tourist are going to be charged more in most situations. It's better to have someone you trust when you get there instead of trying to figure things out on your own and end up being "the cheap tourist".
Souvenirs in Cuba can be found on every corner you visit throughout the island. The locals make a living by selling trinkets out there home or small shops. Stock up on little knick knacks for family and friends closer to the end of your trip. Cubans pretty much sell ALL the same items wherever you go.
PLEASE NOTE: If you traveling back with your souvenirs (excluding rum and cigars) in your carryon luggage, you may need your respective airline gate attendant to come pick your items up from Cuban TSA.
While departing Cuba our gifts were TEMPORARILY confiscated until our Delta flight attendant came and picked them up for us. It's slightly inconvenient if your running late. Just make sure you're at the airport 3 hours early.
Wi-Fi in Cuba is a privilege and limited to certain areas. In Old Havana there are areas were people gather to use internet or video-conference. All Wi-Fi spots are a great way to interact with locals and other tourist. When you land in Cuba you can get a Wi-Fi card at the airport or most major hotels. For a 1 hour card the average price is 2 CUC Pesos and for a 5 hour card (RECOMMENDED) it's 10 CUC Pesos.
The 5 hour card should last you your entire trip. In cities like Matanza and Trinidad you can access internet in the town's center plaza. Some applications like Snapchat, Uber and others do not work. Take this time in Cuba to disconnect from the world and enjoy the people.
By now you should know that you don't drink local water when your visiting another country. Your body is not use to it. Purchase bottles of water and keep them on hand with you as you explore Cuba. When taking day trips to other cities you should have water on hand just in case there isn't a store around.
Cuba is a great place to visit and engulf yourself in a new culture. The locals are some of the genuinely nicest people I've ever met. I hope this little guide helps you on your journey to discover Cuba. There is so much more to learn, but I'll let you create your own adventure.