With the launch of the first commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba in over 50 years, we tell you everything you need to know about visiting the island.
After the island nation was essentially off limits for decades, new commercial flights are sending more Americans to Cuba than ever before. However, a trip to Cuba isn’t as straightforward as simply showing up with a passport—there are still strict regulations about visas, it can be tough knowing what to pack, and exchanging money is complicated. The good news? Several Condé Nast Traveler staffers—deputy digital director Laura Dannen Redman, associate director of community development Dominica Lim, and contributing digital editor Lilit Marcus—are already veterans, and we’re here to walk you through the process of how to visit Cuba.
How do I get there?
You can fly directly to Cuba with several domestic airlines including American, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest. These airlines are currently allowed to fly to nine Cuban cities, excluding the capital. JetBlue’s first flight, between Ft. Lauderdale and Santa Clara, kicked off today. American plans to launch nonstop service from Miami to both Cienfuegos and Holguín by September 7. For more adventurous itineraries, you can fly through cities like Cancún or Nassau. You can book those flights through Cubana de Aviación—Cuba’s largest national airline—or carriers like Aeroméxico. You can also get there by ship if you cruise on the Fathom Adonia. Norwegian’s Oceania may have Cuba sailing rights by the end of the year, and more will likely follow in 2017.
Do I need a visa?
As a visitor traveling from the United States, you must obtain a visa, which you can apply for before you leave for Cuba. You will also need to prove that your visit falls under one of the 12 categories of approved travel to Cuba, as outlined by the U.S. government, which include humanitarian missions and journalistic activity. Officially, you can’t visit Cuba if you are just looking to sip mojitos on the beach. Tour companies often are able to help obtain a visa for you: You will need to provide info like a copy of your passport, but most people-to-people operators can do the rest, and they often have relationships with the government so that they can get their visas in batches. Travelers flying through Mexico on a layover to Cuba can obtain an on-the-spot visa at the airports in Cancún or Mexico City for $25 in cash. Visas can only be supplied by Cuban embassies, travel agents, and companies approved by the Cuban government. Alistair Riddell, director of tour company Cuban Pioneers, has been traveling to Cuba for 15 years and notes that your visa is included in the price of your ticket on some airlines like Air Canada. Otherwise, the cost of applying for a visa can vary. Cuban Pioneers, for example, charges $30 each plus a $30 courier fee to get a visa before you depart for your trip.
How should I exchange money?
Travelers can exchange money at the airport in Havana (or any other port of entry) with euros, pounds, or Canadian or American dollars. You can also exchange money in cities at Cadeca money exchange stores (casas de cambio) in the city. We recommend exchanging as much as you can while you are at the airport in case your flight arrives early or late and you are unable to find a store open nearby. Ask your tour guide where the closest Cadeca is and check to see when they are open, as hours may fluctuate.
Should I bring credit cards?
Bring cash; most American credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba. You can exchange money at airports and major hotels, though. Just keep in mind that if a lot of planes or cruise ships arrive at once, there will be long lines and it’s not uncommon for Cadecas to run out of CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos, the main unit of currency for non-Cubans). You may have better luck with international credit cards, if you have one.
How much cash should I bring?
Depending on the type of activities, cost in Cuba can vary. Expect to carry around 100–125 CUCs (1 CUC is equivalent to 1 U.S. dollar) per day for food and activities. You’ll probably want to budget more if you’re expecting to buy gifts or go on out-of-the-city excursions. City tours, like a ride around Havana in a classic car, will typically cost 20–30 CUCs.
Do I need travel insurance?
Yes. Travelers to Cuba must have proof of travel health insurance. Since this insurance must be recognized in Cuba, many U.S. health plans may not be accepted, so purchase separate travel insurance from your tour organizer. For non-U.S. citizens, World Nomads travel insurance is a good option. Make sure to ask what type of coverage you will be receiving while you are in Cuba, as you will want to make sure it is comprehensive and spend time reading the fine print. Example: Does the policy cover ambulances or an emergency flight home? Tour companies in Cuba will charge anywhere from $5-10 per day per person to cover the cost of Cuban state insurance. Although there has been talk of the option to buy health insurance at airports, that has not materialized yet. Most charter flight operators already provide insurance as part of the price of the ticket.
Is the Wi-Fi as bad as they say it is?
Cubans and expats alike tell us that the biggest change in Cuba has been access to Wi-Fi. You can get access to Wi-Fi at parks and squares in most cities, including Havana, Santa Clara, and Viñales. It will typically cost you 1 CUC or 1 U.S. dollar for an hour of Wi-Fi. Some hotels in Havana also offer Wi-Fi, but strength and consistency of service are spotty at best.
What do I pack?
You’ll want to wear comfortable clothing and shoes—the style is less Manhattan and more Miami or Barcelona. Both men and women dress confidently and boldly. Women often dress in feminine, colorful arrays, while men wear jeans or cotton pants and a T-shirt or a guayabera, a traditional lightweight, loose button-up shirt. We didn’t see a lot of people in black, which makes sense considering the weather. You’ll also want to bring comfortable shoes, especially in cities like Trinidad to navigate its cobblestone streets and hills. Because of the heat, bring lightweight clothes and hats. Pack your preferred brands of bug spray and sunscreen, as well as travel-sized toiletries and meds you can’t do without, including Tylenol, Band-Aids, Pepto-Bismol. Many of these things aren’t available on the island or are only in a few tourist shops. Cruise ship travelers can buy basic items from their on-board shop.
CNT Editors, Condé Nast Traveler
August 31, 2016