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 arriving in Cuba and we’ve put them into our travel guides for Cuba travel. Here’s our guide to what you need to before you go to Cuba – your ultimate Cuba Travel planning check list.
1. Get yourself a Cuban Tourist Card before you go to Cuba
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 – before you go 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 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.
PIN FOR LATER
3. You Must have 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 (there’s 1 doctor for 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.
4. Book your Cuban Accommodation Before You Go to Cuba
The less time you have, the more organised you have to be. If you’re going to Cuba for two weeks, do yourself a favour and book your accommodation. 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.
Read our Ultimate Guide to Casa Particulars in Cuba – its everything you need to know!
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’Reilly 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 a new account?
You don’t want to be spending time looking for accommodation if you only have a short time there.
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 before you go to Cuba – to save huge headaches
Transport for tourists is in limited supply. 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 2019 timetables and routes.
6. Book Your Cuba Tours before you go to Cuba
There are places that you’ll want to go – perhaps a day trip to Vinales, or a city tour of Havana, or a convertible car tour along the malecon. Maybe you want to go diving in the Bay of Pigs? Most businesses that operate these tours prefer cash when you book in Cuba. And if you’re reading this article further down you’ll find details on cash in Cuba. Prebooking your tours and trips before you go to Cuba lets you pay for them on a credit card and not have to worry about carrying a lot of cash around with you. Here’s our full article on Cuban currency.
Here’s just some of the recommendations of tours and trips in Cuba that you can prebook.
Check out our list of iconic things to do in Cuba – from walking the Malecon in Havana at Sunset to visiting the Casa de La Trova in Santiago de Cuba – read it here.
7. Electricity in Cuba
The power supply in Cuba is primarily 110 volts. (The UK and Australia are 230 volts, the USA and Canada are 120 volts – you can check other countries here). If the voltage in Cuba is lower than your country voltage it just means your devices will charge more slowly.
Many modern hotels have dual voltage with all sockets in rooms being 220 volts. This may not be the case if you’re staying in a Casa Particular, where it is likely to 110 volts. Most casa particular rooms are not set up for a large number of sockets, so you’d be wise to carry a 4 gang extension to charge all your devices, plus of course an adapter.
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.
9. Practice your Spanish before you go to Cuba.
More so than any other country in the region you’re going to need at least some basic Spanish to truly experience Cuba. Despite our bookings through Airbnb for our first two weeks in the country (and thus expecting our hosts to be more anglicised), they weren’t.
Cuban Spanish phrasebooks
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 2019
10. Read up on the history of Cuba
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.
You can also learn a little about the history of Cuba through her cocktails – check out these 4 Cuban cocktails that tell some of Cuba’s history.
11. 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.
12. Buy Essentials before you go 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
- Any medication that you need
- Mosquito / sand fly repellent
13. Plan your Cuban Money before you go to Cuba
Cuban is primarily a cash society. Unless you’re staying in a high end resort and are playing with a credit card all the time.
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 and you should take cash. US dollars work well, and you can change them at cadecas (currency exchanges). If you have a European, Australian or British ATM card then you shouldn’t have any problems. UNTIL your bank decides that it might not be you taking US$300 of local currency out of an ATM every few days. So inform your bank of your travel plans, because the mobile coverage is flaky for international partnerships and you probably won’t have internet access, then getting your card turned back on again may prove tricky. Take a backup card! (We, of course, speak from the experience of it having happened to us!).
Here’s the basics of Cuban money, but you can find out more about Cuban currency here.
Cuba has 2 currencies, the CUP for Cubans and the CUC for non-Cubans.
The exchange rate works at 1 USD$ = 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.
Well that’s it for now – our Ultimate Check list of what you need to do before you go to Cuba – Have you been to Cuba? What else do you recommend before you get there? We’d love to hear from you!
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