Cuba is fascinating, there’s no way around it. The country is filled with fast driven classic cars, the most colorful buildings you’re likely to see and the whole of Havana looks to be crumbling before your eyes. If you’re interested in seeing that, then you should jump on a plane and go. In fact, almost any blog or guide book you read will tell you such, and that’s fine, only they won’t linger on the details and you and I (and anyone who travels much) know that details are important. In a week or so we will publish our review of Havana, but for now, let me just give you some up front information and helpful tips that might just save you miss planning your trip or loosing a hell of a lot of money.
Cuba is not cheap. Whatever you’ve heard or read, you can go ahead and just essentially throw that out of the window. With certain things it’s cheapish yes, a Mojito will range from $2 to $5, which is decent, but that’s where it ends. Let’s give you a real upfront take on the place to work with before you begin planning.
1 – When you book your flight, be careful with dates. We were unfortunately forced to book on particular dates, going weekend to weekend at the start of April. Had we flown midweek to midweek it would have been around $250 per flight, but weekends bumped that up to $600 per flight. Ouch.
2 – Once your flights are booked you’ll be told to obtain your travel card, a supposedly mega important document required to enter the country. It’s essentially a scam, and a juicy money making tool for both Cuba and the Airlines. The Cuban government charges you $50 for each card you buy. Your airline will email you a day or two after you buy flights to pay for them. then adds on their fees and then they bolt on postage. For the two of us to get cards it cost $200! Double the cost of the actual cards (thanks American Airlines). The hardest pill to swallow is when they arrive they are blank, you have to then fill them in by hand yourself, make a mistake and you will have to buy a new one. So you’re essentially just paying hundreds of extra hidden dollars to fly in. Make sure you order these at least a week prior to flying to account for postage time.
3 – Hotels in Cuba cost similar prices to US hotels. I wouldn’t do it, there is a better way. Click this link to AirBnB who now have Cuba under their umbrella, use them and stay in local (often amazing) colonial buildings with locals for around $30 a night. Note though, the $30 ones are usually a 15 minute walk away from old Havana, the centre of action. If you want to stay in that zone they will cost a little more. Cuba has its own version of AirBnB too, stay in what they call local Casas by going to this website here (Casa Havana Particular). We used both and they all worked out well.
4 – Food costs you a good $10 a meal once you factor in tip, and it’s not great. We read in our guide books that you can eat for $2 a meal, and maybe thats true in Santiago or Martanzaz, but we certainly couldn’t find food for this price. Even cheap places charge a good $5 a meal. Expect slow service, minimal options and small portions.
5 – Travel… wow.
So if you want to move around then you have three options. Walk, Taxi or Bus. Walking is the whole fun of being in Havana so if you’re just staying in the city you’re all good. If you want to leave however, different story. Our un-named reputable guide book told us to ‘take a quick day trip to Varadero to spend a day on their famous beaches’. We’ll take two! we thought. No no, taxi’s are more expensive than in the states! A cab ride (for an hour) costs around $120 dollars. Doable if you can find someone to share the journey with or are traveling in a larger group but very over budget for two travelers. The trusty guide book then makes mention (in two throwaway lines) to a bus system made for tourists called the Viazul. Great! Except it’s over an hour walk out of Havana to get to it, and although tickets are only $10 each way, you are required to be there in person to book. Be aware these do get booked up so don’t expect to get on a bus the day of. If you are using the Viazul for your entire journey throughout Cuba we would recommend booking all your buses at once.
Having not done this ourselves we found ourselves stranded in Varadero needing to get back to the airport. After a lot of walking and rudeness from unhelpful hotel information desks we finally found that the best way to move between locations is on hotel shuttles or via the local tour company buses like Transtur. These can be purchased from the excursion desk within the resort receptions and cost $25 to Havana airport. It was a nice bus and we could have gone on mini expeditions all week with them (pretty cheaply) had we known earlier. Traveling around Cuba is stressful and hard work. Car rental is ill advised and difficult to book. Taxi’s are expensive- unless you can find a way to split them. In short, head to the Viazul straight from the airport and get your tickets for the whole trip all at once, eliminating your transport stresses early on.
6 – Cash
Finally you are not able to obtain Cuban currency before you get there. They throw an extra 10% charge on US dollars so we recommend taking Euros or Canadian dollars. Obviously after everyone has disembarked the planes they need to get a taxi into Havana but no one has any cash. So the ill equipped airport requires every passenger to stand in a line at one of two currency booths in order to acquire the Cuban Peso. Expect to wait a minimum of an hour. We managed to get a taxi driver to take Euro instead and changed our currency at our Casa and the banks. American credit and debit cards can NOT be used in Cuba so be aware whatever money you have brought in is everything you have. You can use cards from other countries, if you have one, but only at cash points. Likewise when you go to leave the country expect to get an awful exchange rate in changing your money back as they are well aware you can’t do so anywhere outside of Cuba.
As the country continues to modernize no doubt things will get easier, the Viazul website is currently a joke, once you book you get no ticket confirmation and have to go in person anyway. Internet is finding its way into homes now as the government eases restrictions on its citizens and communication should improve. Unfortunately as technology quality rises, so will prices. I read a lot about getting into Cuba this year before it starts to raise the costs and play on the hapless tourists, and though I’m glad I got to see a fascinating place trapped in time, it looks like Cuba’s time as a cheap budget getaway has already passed.
Our biggest annoyance with the execution of this trip was the misinformation we encountered prior to it. Most blogs and books create a Cuba which is simple to navigate and extremely cheap, this is simply not the case, be prepared to struggle a little, and take way more cash than you think you’ll need, a good $150 per day should cover it. If you go in knowing what to expect, you’re gonna have fun.
p.s. If you have any specific questions regarding Cuban trips send us an email or comment below!