Cuba is very different to any country that you’ll visit. The biggest difference that most travellers will find is that there’s limited access to the internet. That means you need to prepare a few things before you arrive in the country and we’ve put them into our travel guides for Cuba guide. Here are our 11 things to do BEFORE you arrive in Cuba.
What's in This Article?
- 1. Get yourself a Cuban Tourist Card
- 2. Get Yourself a VPN for travel to Cuba
- 3. Download maps.me to navigate Cuba
- 4. In Cuba prebook your accommodation
- 5. Book your Cuban transport in advance to save time
- 6. Buy a Spanish phrase book & Read Up on Cuba
- 7. Get yourself an SD card to back up your photos
- 8. Make a list of what to eat and drink in Cuba. And where.
- 9. Take “stuff” with you to Cuba
- 10. Get travel and medical insurance for Cuba
- 11. Tell your bank that you’re going to Cuba
1. Get yourself a Cuban Tourist Card
If you’re doing this in the UK, then the best place we found was cubavisa.com it was the cheapest and the quickest and there was NO NEED to provide an itinerary or a list of accommodation that you’d pre-booked.
If you’re doing this in Mexico – where we did. Then you just buy it at the airport. We flew with Interjet – and here’s a short article on how to buy your Cuban Tourist Card in Cancun without being scammed. Your tourist card is valid for 30 days. I’m assured that you can renew it. I don’t envy anyone trying that one.
2. Get Yourself a VPN for travel to Cuba
If you want to use Skype when you’re in Cuba you’ll need a VPN. (If you want to read more about how a VPN can help you when you’re travelling, then check out our Common Sense Guide to VPNS for travel. ). You’ll be able to use Facebook and WhatsApp once you’re on the internet in Cuba (did you check out our great guide on getting onto the internet in Cuba yet?).
You should also use a VPN if you’re going to be using anything that you put a password into – like your internet banking, any booking sites, your social media access. Our number one choice as the best vpn for Cuba is ExpressVPN > Buy yourself a VPN and be safe and secure in your electronic travels. – you’ll get an extra 3 months for FREE with this limited time offer too!
You can read the report about what types of sites are blocked in Cuba – all the more reason to read up on what real Cubans think before you get there.
That’s right. Download the maps.me app to your phone or tablet. And then download the local maps for ALL OF CUBA. Because they’re invaluable. Sure this app will chew up your battery, but at least you’ll know where you are and where you’re going. Because your data plan just isn’t going to cut it in Cuba.
You can find maps.me here and all the associated downloads. Maps.me is just one of the resources that we use when planning a Trip. Check out our 20 key resources that we use when researching our travel.
4. In Cuba prebook your accommodation
The less time you have, the more organised you have to be. If you’re only going for two weeks, do yourself a favour and book something. If you know where you’re going and how long you’ll spend in each place, go ahead and book it now. I’d say that you’ll be able to find somewhere to stay if you don’t book. But save yourself the time in country for seeing the country.
Use Booking.Com to Prebook Accommodation in Cuba
Its now possible to prebook both Casa Particulars AND Hotels for your stay in Cuba. Check out some great rated spots to stay in Cuba with Booking.com. There are now more than 1,000 properties that you can prebook with booking.com in Cuba – both hotels and Casa Particulars. If you only have a short time in Cuba, then think LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.
In Havana we recommend the following places:
Casa Particulars in Havana
- Where we stayed in Havana – Casa Rafaela (we LOVED it and Rafaela is amazing)
- Hostal Katy & Leo: A great location in Old Havana with friendly English speaking owners – Book now, this isn’t often available!
- O’Reylli Casa – an amazing location close to La Bodeguita del Medio – amazing terrace, fabulous luxury. Spoil yourself in Old Havana and book this now.
- Apartamento Cristina y David – fab homestay experience in a Casa Particular – great breakfasts and a fab location that you’ll want to book now!
Hotels to Stay at in Havana
- Hotel Nacional: Iconic, THE place for a sundowner Mojito, in lazy, laid back Vedado > Check out prices and availability now.
- Hotel Saratoga: Push the boat out with unlimited luxury and lifestyles of the rich and famous. Find a room and prices here.
- Hotel Mercure de Sevilla: Old style grandeur here. Wifi in the lounge and a fabulous location. – Get the best price and availability.
If nothing else you should prebook your first nights accommodation, which will most likely be in Havana.
Use AirBnb to Prebook Accommodation in Cuba
The other way to prebook (and prepay) accommodation in Cuba is AirBnb. You can get £25 back (or a similar amout in your local currency) if you use this link. Note that it’s only for NEW Airbnb accounts. So if you’ve booked before, why not have another person in your party create an account?
You don’t want to be spending time looking for accommodation if you only have a short time there.
You can book some rooms through hostelsworld.com, (but only some), you can book some through the Spanish/Cuban site Melia (and they’re lovely looking rooms, but around US$200 a night!). You can book through the various Casa Particular sites – but you’ll pay in person when you get there. In cash. And your confirmation will be SLOW! Unless you’re booking months in advance, expect the casa that you want to be fully booked. You will be provided alternatives.. but…
5. Book your Cuban transport in advance to save time
Transport for tourists is in limited supply at the budget end of the market. So unless you’re renting a car (expensive and you’re going to want to speak Spanish at the very least). Or unless you’re hiring a car and driver for your stay, you want to get this on the top of your list to do, if not before you arrive in Cuba, then immediately that you do get there. The Tourist agency buses run by Viazul are your primary way to get around the country for a reasonable (it’s not cheap) price in more comfort than a hot sweaty cramped collectivo. We put together the Ultimate Guide to the Viazul Bus Network – and it includes ALL the 2018 timetables and routes..
6. Buy a Spanish phrase book & Read Up on Cuba
More so than any other country in the region you’re going to need this. Despite our bookings through Airbnb for our first two weeks in the country (and thus expecting our hosts to be more anglicised).
We found Spanish our primary language of communication Sure we met folks who were travelling around with ZERO Spanish. But you’re really going to help yourself if you can at least get the basics down. Perhaps if you have some time to spare, spend a week or two learning Spanish in Guatemala.
Take your guidebook on your Kindle or e-reader with you. Or take a real book if you like carrying heavy things. Download all the content that you want to read about Cuba before you get there. Because your internet access is going to be severely limited while you’re in the country. > Here’s more about Internet access in Cuba in 2018.
Be sure to also read up about your history. All of the museums that you visit will primarily be in Spanish and in a similar fashion to Russia and Vietnam, there’s a party line. You will find it useful to at least get a potted history of the country, her leaders and her potential from someone OUTSIDE the country.. No matter how well you tip your guides if you take guides you’ll get the standard party line. Cuba is a communist country. It’s potentially dangerous for folks to tell you how they really feel.
7. Get yourself an SD card to back up your photos
We’re heavy Dropbox users for all our content, photos and – well our life basically. Because it’s WAY lighter than a hard drive. BUT it relies on internet access. And that’s something you’re not going to get a lot of while you’re in Cuba. And you’re going to take LOTS of photos because Cuba is both amazing and irritating. You’re going to want to capture every part of this schizophrenic country.
8. Make a list of what to eat and drink in Cuba. And where.
Cuba, we were told by numerous sources, is basic. There may be lots on the menu. But nothing in the kitchen. It’s probably going to be rice and beans every day for a month, they said. So we made a list and worked our way through it diligently. Sometimes you might think that Cuban’s get all their calories from rum. And while I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it might even be your cheapest option sometimes. Make a list. Work your way through it. Be ready to compromise.
If your normal modus operandi is to look things up on TripAdvisor for places, then be aware that your internet access is likely to be limited. So don’t rely on it! Find our more about how and where to get Internet Access in Cuba in 2018 in our ultimate guide.
9. Take “stuff” with you to Cuba
Anything that is imported in Cuba is expensive. Seriously so. And that’s if it’s available and you can find it. So don’t assume you’ll be able to walk into a Walmart (there aren’t any) or a supermarket (they’re few and far between) and buy whatever it was that you forgot. So if you want to, say, for instance, snorkel, then take your gear with you. If you’re staying in one of the resorts – like Varadero – then you’ll be able to rent snorkelling gear, but it’s going to cost you.
I really recommend that you take a filter water bottle with you. You’ll not only save the environment, but a lot of money too – filter water bottles means that you’ll be able to drink tap water wherever you are in the world.
If you’re diving in Cuba, and you have your own gear, you’re probably going to want to take it with you. The gear we used when diving in the Bay of Pigs was old, (including steel tanks! And holey wetsuits!), but serviceable.
There were LOTS of opportunities to go snorkelling. If that’s your thing take your snorkel with you. And because many of the beaches will be remote, lock your stuff away and tie it to a tree – you’ll want the fantastic pacsafe for that (we left laptops, phones, money and all sorts locked in ours while we snorkelled).
You’re also going to want to make sure you have a hat, an umbrella (for rain or the sun), sun cream and toiletries. I’m not saying you can’t buy these, but they’re going to be expensive and probably not what you’re used to!
Other items that you NEED to bring with you
- Tampons / Sanitary Towels
- The relevant electrical converter from your home country > more here on that
- Any medication that you need
- Mosquito / sand fly repellent
We tend to be self sufficient – take a look at our Pack These Things that keep us sane on the road.
10. Get travel and medical insurance for Cuba
It’s a mandatory requirement in Cuba for visitors to have medical insurance. Cuba might have one of the best healthcare systems for her citizens (1 doctor to every 120 people), more doctors than the whole of the African continent and some of the most innovative ways to treat illness – BUT there is a legal requirement on your entering the country to have medical insurance. If you don’t have it and you’re asked to produce evidence, and can’t, then you’ll be forced to buy some from the relevant government authority.
If you’re already on the road and need to get insurance, then we recommend World Nomads – You do not need to be in your home country to take our their policy. Neither do you need to have lived in the same place for the last few months either. Perfect for Nomads!
11. Tell your bank that you’re going to Cuba
Cuban is primarily a cash society. Unless you’re staying in a high end resort. You can only obtain Cuban currency (CUC) in Cuba. If you have a US ATM card, then tough luck you’re probably going to have problems, but if you have a European, Australian or British card, and then you shouldn’t have any problems. UNTIL your bank decides that it might not be you taking US$300 of local currency out of an ATM every few days. And because the mobile coverage is flaky for international partnerships and you probably won’t have internet access, then getting your card turned back on again may prove tricky. Take a backup! (We, of course, speak from the experience of it having happened to us!).
Cuba has 2 currencies, the CUP for Cubans and the CUC for non-Cubans.
The exchange rate works at 1 USD$ = 1 CUC
When you exchange money at a cadeca or take money out of an ATM you’ll get CUC. CUC (and CUP) are a controlled currency, so you can’t get any before you get to Cuba. You need to get your money on arrival.
US ATM cards do not usually work in Cuban ATM machines, although, as Brits ours worked (most of the time). However, that’s not to say that Americans should take US Dollars to Cuban in cash. There is an automatic 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. So if you;re taking cash, take Euros or Mexican Pesos.
Be Aware Where you Spend Your Money in Cuba
In November 2017 the US State Department issued rules on where US Citizens can NOT spend money. Theses are organizations with connections to the Cuban military. Here’s the list.
Have you been to Cuba? What else do you recommend before you get there? We’d love to hear from you!
- Where we stayed in Havana – Casa Rafaela (we LOVED it and Rafaela is amazing)
- Consider learning a little Spanish before you come to Cuba – we went to Guatemala to learn Spanish