With travel restrictions slowly being lifted, lots of Americans are interested in heading to the land of mojitos, cigars, music that gets your hips moving and beautiful, wonderful, amazingly strong coffee. Ah, Cuba. A forbidden country for so many years as Americans, it’s easy to see why there’s such an influx in tourists. I was just there two weeks ago and wouldn’t hesitate to head back again.
My current recommendation? Go now. First and foremost, we ran into plenty of Americans while in Cuba. In my experienced traveler opinion, this will only increase and with such a tourist increase, there’s bound to be some complications and drawbacks. Second, and perhaps most important, we were asked by more than one Cuban what will happen once Trump becomes president. All of us sadly shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads. The fact is, no one knows how much longer this will last and my inclination leans more towards the relationship declining between our two great countries. While you’re still able to – Go!
So, how does one travel to Cuba as an American. I’ve laid it all out below:
How To Travel To Cuba As An American
12 Categories of Travel
“Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.” From The US Embassy in Cuba
These 12 broad categories are as such:
- Visiting family
- Humanitarian projects or to provide support to the Cuban people
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research
- Educational activities by persons at academic institutions
- People-to-people travel
- Religious activities
- Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
- Authorization to provide travel services, carrier services and remittance forwarding services
- Activities of private foundations, research or educational institutes
- Exportation of certain Internet-based services
We chose the bolded category. Earlier in 2015, the U.S. government made a significant change to the rules around people-to-people educational travel. Before the change, Americans were required to be accompanied by a sponsoring organization subject to U.S. jurisdiction. If you looked into that, which of course I did, it was really expensive. Now, we can organize our trips as individuals, as long as we had a full schedule of educational activities planned – and we did.
We were fully prepared to show the excel spreadsheet of our daily itinerary, including tours and guide names, in case any one asked. (And they didn’t.)
Perhaps I could have tried to use the journalistic activity category because of this here blog, but ideally I didn’t want to push the validity of this site. But I have 600+ followers on Facebook, Cuban immigration officer.
The categories are broad and my assumption is this is meant to be more welcoming, but you still need to state the purpose of your trip. You simply can’t go only to lay on the beach and drink Cuba Libres all day. And honestly, why would you? This country is full of absolutely wonderful things to discover and learn. It is up to you which category you feel you fall into, if any. Tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited, so you will need to choose in order to get your Tourist Card.
Cuban Tourist Card
Most American-based airlines now fly to Cuba. While before, you’d need to fly to Mexico or the Bahamas first, now you can head straight to Cuba from your homeland. We flew from Miami, MIA, to Havana, HAV, on Delta Airlines. Even got upgraded.
You can get your Tourist Card at the airport before your flight. Once we got to the airport and since we weren’t checking bags, we asked an agent if we needed to get our Tourist Card prior to security or at our gate. She pointed us to a large table to fill out our form stating one of the 12 reasons why we were traveling.
Once filled out, even though we were checked-in online, we simply showed our Certification of Travel to Cuba paper to the agent, she checked our passports and then gave us a Tourist Card to fill out. “Don’t mess up,” she warned, “If you fill it out improperly, you’ll need to pay for a new one.”
The Tourist Cards cost us $25 each.
Then we were off! We arrived in Cuba where they took the second half of the Tourist Card at immigration. I simply looked at the camera (wasn’t allowed to smile), was told I had beautiful eyes (duh) and then I heard that wonderful pound–BAM–as my passport was stamped. Next stop, Currency exchange.
As I’ve mentioned before, there are 2 types of currencies in Cuba: Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). While this may seem confusing, it’s not, because as a tourist, you won’t be using the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUP is designed for Cuban citizens and the CUC for tourists.
$1 USD = $1 CUC
While this is great, there’s an extra penalty for converting US dollars in Cuba. It’s a hefty one too – 10%. So it’s really more like $1 USD = .$90 CUC…probably closer to .$80 CUC once you add in the exchange fees.
Anywho, a great workaround is to bring Canadian dollars or Euros. There is not an extra penalty for those currencies. You can go to your bank prior to leaving and request it or, if you’re lucky like us, have one of your friends who is in Europe traveling bring back Euros and then pay her back.
American credit cards will not work in Cuba. It’s essential that you have enough cash. Your budget is personal, but I would allocate at least $100/day per person. It may be excessive, but you don’t want to be left without any cash to get around an island that does not recognize your credit cards.
We stayed in an amazing AirBnb and if I were to go back to Cuba, we’d use AirBnb again. For one, you can pay with your US-based credit card prior to leaving and for two, you really get to experience the culture from a local perspective.
It’s hard for me to share this wonderful place since I don’t want it to be booked the next time we go, but Antonio was so wonderful, it would be a shame not to share the love: El Paseo Penthouse
You can also stay in places called Casa Paticulares. These are privately owned Bed & Breakfast houses. We have heard that since they are private, not government owned, the accommodations are a bit better. Very often, you’ll get breakfast and interact with the owners.
Additionally, you can stay in government owned hotels or major non-American resort/hotel chains. The latter will cost you a bundle and, due to the infrastructure, you will not be getting the 5-star experience that comes in the price tag. US-based hotels are now making their way to the island, with a Starwood property just opening this past month.
While I will post in more detail about our tours, these are the 2 tours we took and I would highly recommend each. Don’t expect a good internet connection in Cuba, so you need to book these prior to arriving. Additionally, it’s important to have it all laid out if you choose the People-to-People travel category.
Again, I highly recommend traveling to Cuba. It’s left a footprint on my heart that is hard to describe. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot them my way below!