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Vacationing in Cuba

Vacationing in Cuba [how to plan your trip]


Many things have changed in the last years of the Cuban-US relationship. Both countries have new presidents, Trump and Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Is vacationing in Cuba still an option? What are the new restrictions? Can you travel to Cuba with a US passport? What if you have different nationality’s passport?

I am just back from another trip to this beautiful country. I usually travel with an Australian passport, however, conditions of entry are similar for most countries.

Every time I arrive in Cuba I have a surprise. The last time was the famous “blue” form missing.

But that was easy to fix. I almost got stranded once. More on this later, and hopefully I will be able to avoid any bad surprise for your next trip.

Besides the organisation, Cuba remains an island suspended in the blue Caribbean Sea, between illusion and disillusionment, a place of nostalgia and at the same time of contagious joy.

It’s one of the few countries I visited where the locals, young or old, doctors or poets, players or soldiers, have their houses always open, for a drink, for a talk or for business. Tourism still is the most lucrative industry for the locals.

And even if you read from some websites that it is not recommended for people of US to travel to Cuba, I can tell you for sure that Cuban are so welcoming and do miss American people which have decreased in the last 2 years, because of Trump restrictions.

In this article, I have added only a few from my Cuban photos. You can see my best 55 photos of Cuba in this post

Travel to Cuba restrictions, requirements and how to get a visa

I came to understand one important thing with all my trips to this marvellous island.

What?

Honestly, I am not overstating here. Uncertainty is the only certainty in Cuba. And it all starts when you book the flights.

How to travel to Cuba

Havana, or Varadero, will be most likely the airport cities that you will use to enter the island.

Here is the first bad news. In some countries, you cannot book flights to Cuba. As an example, from Australia, you can’t buy a ticket to Cuba. This is not to say that you can’t fly there. It’s just the local government that has imposed restrictions on the booking systems.

If this is the case, you have to buy two separate tickets. From Australia it is best to fly to Mexico (Cancun or Mexico City). And from there to Havana. Just make sure to leave 4-5 hours for the stop-over, just in case of any delay.

From Europe and Canada, there are direct flights to Havana or Varadero, mostly charters. From Europe, it may be sometimes cheaper to fly through Canada.

A question I got asked a few times was “can you travel to Cuba with a US passport ?”. The answer is pretty easy. Yes, you can, it is however slightly more complicated with Trump. Just follow the process below.

Flying to Cuba from USA is quite easy nowadays as there are direct flights from a few cities (New York, Miami and others, subject to change) and a few airlines (Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, United, American, Frontier, subject to change)

I have to use the “subject to change” quite a bit because new policies may suddenly alter things, especially for the US citizens

If you fly from anywhere through US or Canada you will also need a transit visa for US or Canada, even if just for a connecting flight. It can be seen as a ripoff, and probably it is, you may just spend a few hours at the airport like it happens anywhere in the world, but that’s the way it is, you need a visa for that.

In my latest trip, I had a friend joining from Germany and flying through Canada. He was not aware of it and he was denied the flight in Munich. Luckily these visas can be done easily online and it takes minutes to have them (assuming you are not in the blacklist LOL)

You can apply for the US transit visa here (called ESTA), and here for the Canadian one (called eTA).

By now you know everything on how to travel to Cuba. It’s now time for the bureaucratic part of the trip.

How and where to get a Cuban visa/tourist card

You read and search through the internet and there are so many opinions and suggestions. Sometimes I really wonder if people actually visited Cuba.

There are a few countries that do not require a visa and can visit the country up to 90 days in a few cases. There is another small number that does require a visa. However, the majority of the nationalities require just a tourist card.

Check this useful Wiki map for more details. US citizens, most of the Europeans and Australians need just a tourist card.

Here below you find more information about the tourist card. For visa applications, you should check within your country as things may different immensely based on your location.

By now you will not be surprised if I say that there is not a real official process for the tourist card and it depends on the country you fly from and obviously your citizenship.

If you are a US citizen then things are really easy. The tourist card is provided by the airline if you book a direct flight. Strangely enough, the card can have a different cost ($50 to $110) based on the airline that provides it.

Tourist card for US citizens (pink color)

The tourist card for US citizens (pink colour)

For Europeans, things are less clear. Sometimes the airlines do provide it, other times they do not. When you buy the ticket ask, this is the best way to be sure. For example, Canada Air does provide it, included in the ticket price (ask anyway, just in case).

If you can’t find a definitive answer, just apply for the tourist card at the Cuban embassy. For example, if you are in Australia then check the Consulate here. This is the most secure way to have it, however also the most expensive one.

If you fly with Aeromexico from Cancun or Mexico City then you can get the tourist card at the airport. The question is: where should I go to get the tourist card at the airport?

Just queue up at the check-in and an official will show up. It seems a bit of a dodgy system, however, that’s the way it works, there is not an office I could find.

The tourist card for anyone else except US (green colour)

The tourist card for anyone else except US (green colour)

Again, apply at the consulate or embassy if you prefer to avoid any uncertainty. Just be aware that, for example, in Australia, you get charged $100 when done at the consulate. Viceversa in Cancun the price is just US$20 (get the right change with you).

When applying for the tourist card you may need to declare the reason to travel to Cuba. There are 12 categories to choose from. Just go for “Support for the Cuban people”. You will be able to travel in an organised group or independently.

So, now you have all you need, even if you are from the US to travel to Cuba.

The travel insurance in Cuba is an entry requirement

You are required to have an active travel insurance before entering Cuba.

What is the reality of this requirement?

First of all, I always suggest having a travel insurance, does not matter which country you visit. Now about Cuba, officials check from time to time if you actually have it. It’s a rare check but it may happen. Just do a print out of yours, that should be enough.

If you do not have it then you are required to buy a local one at $4/day for the length of your stay. US citizens should go for this option as your personal insurance will be very unlikely to pay any expenses, due to the embargo.

I met a guy from New York and he told me that his travel insurance was included in the airline ticket. I can’t confirm it so it is better if you check it with your airline in case you take a direct flight from the US to travel to Cuba.

Personally, I have one with my credit card and that was enough.

The famous blue form

So what is the famous blue form?

It’s a simple blue paper where you declare what you bring to Cuba and if there is anything inappropriate.

Strangely enough, Cuba is the only country where you can bring in more than $10k, no worries, not that I need to, but just unusual I thought.

The tricky part is where to find this blue form. Nobody is gonna give it to you unless you have any proactive official at the border check, which I doubt.

So, once you go through the usual passport and luggage check, just ask one of the police officers the blue form (“forma azul”). They usually understand English or at least “Blue form”. Fill it in, collect your luggage and you are ready to leave the airport and get a taxi.

From the airport to Havana city

There is no public transportation from the airport. You grab a taxi, that is your only option.

It costs $25 as of 2018. They will ask usually $30 to $40 but you can easily bargain it to $25 which is the “official” fee. A Scottish friend of mine managed to go down to $20, but he must have some special skills I reckon, Scottish skills LOL.

It does not really matter where you stay, $25 works for any area in Havana. The trip takes around 20 minutes.

There is no peak traffic hour, just because there is a very limited number of cars in Cuba and therefore no traffic, which is one of the most beautiful things in Cuba.

A tip for the taxi back to the airport at the end of your trip. Carry with you the right money otherwise, the taxi driver may tell you he does not have the change and you either miss the flight or live the change.

Money and credit cards

Cash is king and there are no queens.

What does it mean?

It means that credit cards are not accepted, doesn’t matter where you go.

Moreover, if you are American you will be very likely to have your card refused by the bank and the ATM machines.

Even if you are not American there is a good possibility that your card will not be accepted at the ATM machine.

As a rule of thumb, a credit card which has no connections with the US should work. In saying that, it may not. I know, confusing and more uncertainty.

My experience

I never got pre-paid cards to work. I think the international connections do not work on pre-pay, or maybe just unlucky.

My VISA card (Australian) did work but not in all banks. My Mastercard never worked.

How I usually deal with that

I usually bring with me 60-70% cash of the money I think I am going to use. Whenever I find an ATM that does work with my VISA then I get cash from there and go back there whenever possible.

In Vedado (Havana) my VISA card worked without problems at this bank, next to the convenience shop, and this other bank, in the restaurant area.

Another unusual and unique thing of Cuba is that it is the only country in the world with 2 local currencies, the CUP (or national money, the one used by the locals) and the CUC (convertible, used by the tourist and 1:1 with the US$).

You will be likely to pay everything in CUC. The banks will give you CUC (unless you request CUP). Everything related to tourism is in CUC, which is easy to manage being one to one with the US$.

There are small eateries, cafes, bakery and local shops that charge in CUP only. You can still pay in CUC, however, the change will be in CUP.

If this is confusing just carry both currencies with you.

I met people complaining they got screwed with the change and I had a big laugh. Why?

Because the exchange rate is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. So in the worst case scenarios, you may get 10-15c of dollars less than you should, wow, big deal.

Be aware that if you exchange US$ you will be charged a 10% tax on top. It is therefore recommended to take with you Euro or Mexican Pesos

You can find more information on the two currencies in this Wiki page.

Best place to vacation in Cuba

Cuba can be visited with an organised tour or in an independent way.

They both have the own benefits and drawbacks. I honestly can’t suggest one over the other.

I personally like to travel in an independent way, but that’s me. Everyone is different.

Here I can tell you what, in my opinion, should be on your bucket list if you visit Cuba.

Havana

Havana is the capital and the heart of this country. I may get some people disapproving however I believe that vacationing in Cuba without visiting Havana would not give you the real experience of this country.

Havana is a beautiful city, full of music, art and vibe that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.

The old city is a maze of small lanes which you really want to get lost in. If you love photography you can easily spend hours shooting thousands of photos.

The city centre is the street party area. At sunset, everyone comes in the street with loud music and sports games. There is no internet and TV (well, just 3 state run channels), so the life is enjoyed the old way, with the neighbours in the streets.

Vedado was the rich area of Havana, with villas, mansions, and green areas everywhere. Some of the buildings are now being renovated, trying to rejuvenate the old establishment area.

Miramar, the beachside, is so decadent. A real heaven for street photography.

So many beautiful things in this city. You can read more on my free full guide on where to stay in Cuba here.

Viñales Valley

Such a beautiful trekking, horseback riding and cycling place to be.

Immagine huge valleys, unique mountain formations that recall the famous China sudden peaks, caves to explore on your own or with private tours and so much more.

Get a taxi or a bus to head to the beautiful local beach, with that typical turquoise colours.

Not tired, head to the main square for an all-night party with the typical reggaeton music 

Trinidad

Is Trinidad de Cuba the most beautiful town in the world?

Hard to say, unless you have spent the last 100 years visiting the world LOL

What I can say is that both Trinidad and Havana are absolutely must places to visit in Cuba. Without any doubt.

The town centre is closed to the traffic I guess mostly because it is all based on cobblestones, probably still from 1514, when Trinidad was built. So characteristic. I think it hasn’t changed anything in the last 500 years.

The houses have all this Spanish mansion design with the centre yard. Some of them transformed either in restaurants or bed and breakfast

These above are just three of the must see places in Cuba. You can read more on my free full guide on where to stay in Cuba here with more towns and beaches, a deeper description of every place and three itineraries for 1, 2 and 3 weeks.

Is it safe to travel to Cuba

Easy answer.

Yes, it is safe to travel to Cuba, even on your own.

From time to time, you will meet someone trying to make some money suggesting restaurants, bars or accommodation but, really that is it. Safety is not an issue

I never had bad experiences and I never heard of. Maybe only a couple now that I think back, but in both cases because of boundaries that people should not push.

No drugs should be bought. They will be offered to you, just say “no gracias” with a smile and the seller will leave. If you get caught with drugs in Cuba you will be in real trouble.

Meeting locals is a tricky thing. Let me explain.

If you are a female, you are allowed to stop, talk and walk with locals, does not matter the sex.

If you are a male, you are not allowed to walk with local girls. The main reason is that Cuba 20-30 years ago was a place famous for prostitution. The government decided to fight it in the strongest way possible. Not allowing any contact between tourists and local girls.

The result is that surely there is no more prostitution in the streets. However, these restrictions in Cuba can be sometimes annoying. 

If the police stop you with a local girl then the girl may get in trouble, you are less likely. 

In my last trip, I saw the police stopping a couple, a local girl and a western boy, both very young (I am sure there was prostitution involved). Probably he was unaware. I saw the police taking her away in the car. He was left however they wrote down his name.

Just enjoy your trip and you will be fine.

And remember that if a local makes $5 suggesting a place to sleep, AirBnb would make $10 doing the same and charging you more, so the local service is a bargain.


Travel Photography Stefano FerroStef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.

Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry. 

Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world. 

 

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Stefano Ferro
Photographer
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry. 

Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.
  1. Reply

    Made our first trip to Cuba in 2012 via Costa Rica. Back then it was still a no, no for Americans to visit. Loved our experience although we didn’t make it to a baseball game. Would love to go back to see how things have changed in six years and finally take in a game.

    • Reply

      Things have changed luckily. Now it is so much easier.
      I remember my first trip 1996 I met a couple of American guys that entered through Mexico. They had the VISA stamp on a separate paper and not on the passport. In this way, I guess American authorities would not see the trip to Cuba.
      Interesting enough, a few months ago I was in Havana and I met a couple doing the same, still. They were scared that the passport would go under investigation once back in the US. I think there was a bit of overreaction to Trump election.
      I hope you can make the trip back. Absolutely suggested.
      Cheers

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