Cuba is such a different travelling experience to most places so you have to be prepared for your trip. There’s so much you need to know before you go. Otherwise, you may not enjoy this beautiful country as much as you should. I visited Cuba in June 2019 on the Cuban Rhythms tour with G Adventures. The first thing we were told by the Cuban tour guide was to ‘embrace the bizarre’. I’m here to prepare you for that with 10 top tips to prepare for your Cuba trip.
Don’t Take USD to Cuba
You can’t head to an Exchange Bureau in your home country to get your Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). That means that you have to get some currency when you arrive in Cuba. Due to the US/Cuban relations, it means that if you try and exchange USD into CUC then you’ll be charged an extra 10% commission fee. Whereas on other currencies there’s 0% commission or fees.
You should only exchange money at the state-owned CADECAs. Be careful of people outside CADECAs telling you they’re closed and they know a better place. Spoiler: they don’t.
I took some GBP and got a much better exchange rate than taking USD. EUR is probably even better but keep an eye on the rough exchange rates before you head over. This is my top tip for preparing for your trip to Cuba. You don’t want to get caught out with the USD commission.
Know the Difference between CUC and CUP
Another money tip to prepare for your trip to Cuba here. There are two different currencies used in Cuba. The first is the ’tourist’ currency which is the CUC. The second is the Cuban Peso (CUP). This currency is only used by locals.
The massive difference is the exchange rate. One GBP is roughly 0.77 CUC whereas it equates to 35 CUP. That can make such a big difference in the amount of money you pay for things. Keep a keen eye on exactly how much things cost and remember the difference between the CUC and CUP.
Top Tip: We were made aware of a CUC/CUP scam whilst we were in Cuba. If you pay a shop in CUC then they may try and give you CUP as change because it would be much less money but the average tourist might not notice. One way to notice this is that the CUC has buildings or monuments on the notes whereas the CUP mostly has people. So always check your change when you’re paying for things.
Don’t Rely on Credit/Debit Cards
When I travelled to Cuba I took a little bit of cash but I had most of my money on my Revolut travel card. Big mistake. Cuba isn’t like everywhere else.
Firstly, a lot of places don’t accept credit or debit cards. Secondly, I visited a good few ATMs but had problems with almost every one. They were either switched off or had no money left or were contained in buildings that had strange opening times. I would definitely recommend taking as much cash as you can beforehand to then exchange it when you’re in Cuba.
Top Tip: When you see a working ATM or a short queue at the CADECA then get as much money as you need for the next few days. Definitely plan ahead.
Buy Travel Insurance
If you want to prepare for your Cuba trip before you leave then I’d definitely recommend getting some travel insurance. When you’re looking for insurance make sure you’re appropriately covered for the activities that you’re doing and make sure they cover Cuba too.
We were able to travel to Cuba from the UK easily, via Canada. We made sure our travel insurance with American Express was suitable.
The medical services and hospitals are actually really good in Cuba. The guide on the tour was explaining the history but they are quite well renowned for their excellent medical facilities. It’s better to be safe and to make sure you’re covered just in case anything does go wrong on your trip.
Learn Some Spanish
Regardless of where you go its always good to go with some of the native language. The same goes for Cuba. Although a lot of the younger Cubans do speak really good English, the older generation may only speak Spanish. This can make it quite difficult to order food in restaurants or to ask for any assistance.
Print Important Documents
You’re going to struggle to find internet from the moment you land in Cuba. That means you don’t want to have to rely on any of your emails or any files on your phone. I’d recommend taking along your travel insurance documents, any accommodation reservations, any further travel bookings and also any activity confirmations. That way you’ve got everything you need just in case you have any difficulties.
If you do really need the internet then you will have to buy the ETECSA pre-paid Nauta (Wi-Fi) card. This card can only be bought from official stores, sometimes with long queues. After buying the card, you can then find Wi-Fi zones in parks in towns and cities.
Be Prepared for No Internet
As I’ve mentioned, the Wi-Fi/internet situation in Cuba can be problematic. That means that you should come ready, and expecting no internet. If you have any recommendations for restaurants or things to do then save it on your phone so you can access them offline. I’d recommend taking some Trip Advisor recommendations and offline maps. Check out my article on the best Travel Apps here but remember to check you can use them offline. If you can’t then use your notes app on your phone.
Another top tip for you to prepare for your trip to Cuba is downloading the Triposo app. This app is really great for Cuba. This was a great recommendation I got before I went. I downloaded everything I could so I could use it offline. It was so good for finding the best things to do and also it gives you a bit of history about Cuba too which was a nice touch. I’m not sure it’s really updated anymore but the information I found on it was still good for my trip in June 2019.
Research Accommodation Options
Cuba is slightly different (again!) with its accommodation options. When visiting you’ll be staying in hotels or casas particulares. Casas particulares are private houses. This has become quite a lucrative business for locals due to the tourist boom over the last number of years.
The hotels are either government-owned places or international chains. Only certain international chains have been allowed to establish places in Cuba. This means that your best bet is probably a casa particular. I stayed at around four or five in Cuba. These ranged from small city houses to houses literally on the beach with its own swinging chair and veranda in Playa Larga. The casas particulares can be much cheaper but they can also vary quite significantly in standard.
I would say places in Cuba are probably at a lower standard than you’d get in many European cities. A three/four/five-star hotel in Cuba won’t be as nice as in Europe. That’s not to say it won’t be nice, it’s just something to be mindful of. Same with casas particulares. You’re living in someone’s house so be prepared for that too.
You’ll also be able to experience Cuba with locals when you’re living in casas particulares so I’d recommend you go down that route. These can be much cheaper than the international hotel chains if you’re on a budget.
Bring the Essentials
This is such a simple tip to prepare for your Cuba trip. It’s an essential one though. If you’re staying in casas particulares around Cuba then you’ll need to bring the essentials. Some of these vary in standard so I would recommend you bring some soap and some antibacterial hand-wash. These come in really handy when you find the bathroom lacking in soap…
Should you bring toilet paper to Cuba? You may have read other people saying that sometimes Cuba doesn’t have toilet paper. I didn’t find that. We took some in our suitcase but found everywhere we stayed did have toilet paper. Not one toilet in a casa particular allowed you to flush toilet roll down the toilet though. You always had to use the bin provided. If you have room in your suitcase I’d take a roll but you’ll probably be fine if not!
I would also take sunscreen, insect repellent and painkillers too. Depending on where you go you may struggle to get the basics from pharmacies. If you’re in the outside in the warmer months you can be swarmed by bugs so I’d definitely take insect repellent. Luckily my other half seems to attract insects so she gets all the bites whereas I’m usually fine with or without insect repellent!
Know Cuba’s History
The Cubans are extremely proud of their country and extremely patriotic. If you want to properly prepare for your trip to Cuba then know a little about its history. Cuba lies just 100 miles away from the US. However, the economic status of each country couldn’t be more different. Cuba is a socialist country and has been under a commercial, economic and financial embargo from the United States since 1960. I won’t go into too much detail but you’ll see a lot of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and communist influences in Cuba. I’d definitely read a little before you go.
Almost everything is government-owned too in line with their socialist ideologies. That means that everything is controlled by the Cuban state. So prices, salaries, health care etc. are all outlined by the government for the greater good of the state. The average salary is roughly 700 CUP a month (£20 / 24€ / $26). Although that seems low to a lot of people, the Cubans I spoke to were proud of their country and how it operates.
The Cuban tour guide spoke in glowing terms about Cubas free healthcare with medical procedures carried out within days. He also spoke very highly of the education system where it is all free up to University level too.
Cuba does appear to be changing ever so slightly with more private venture opportunities for Cubans. This means that the landscape may change even more in the coming years.
I’d recommend travelling soon before any potential changes do happen. This is one of the charms of Cuba.