Now that Cuba is open to U.S. citizens (sort of), Americans can legally visit the country for the first time in decades. But, it can prove difficult for unprepared travelers. Here are six key things you should know before traveling to Cuba.
Wi-Fi Access Is Almost Non-existent
The country is among the least connected in the world for Internet access. Because the service is prohibitively expensive, the vast majority of Cuban homes still aren’t wired for it. Most sites that cater to tourists — including hotels and restaurants — also lack service. Travelers need to purchase a prepaid NAUTA card (with a scratch-off username and password) before logging in. Rates for foreigners are fixed at 1.50 CUC ($1.50 USD) per hour when purchased from a state-run ETESCA telecommunications office (substantially more when bought from a hotel). The best place to find service is the lobby of most larger luxury hotels. Be prepared, however: the service can be maddeningly slow and unreliable.
American Credit Cards Don’t Work in Cuba
Although Americans are now allowed to visit Cuba, the laws governing credit card banks in the country still haven’t caught up. Credit and debit cards from banks in the United States will not work anywhere in Cuba. What’s worse is that stories abound of travelers having their cards frozen and confiscated while traveling in the country. Which is why …
You’ll Need to Bring Plenty of Cash
Without the ability to make ATM withdrawals in Cuba, Americans need to carry plenty of money (approximately $50-100 USD per person per day) to last the duration of their trip. Remember: if you run out of cash in the middle of your trip, you’re out of luck! While this makes Americans an easy target for pickpockets and thieves, incidents of crime in Cuba are rare. Larger, upscale hotels always offer in-room wall safes, and smaller hotels and casa particulares (guesthouses) often provide them as well.
Cuba Has Two Currencies
To further complicate things, Cuba has two currencies. Locals rely on the Cuban Peso (CUP) while tourists use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). CUCs (known locally as “cooks”) are pegged to the American dollar at a 1:1 exchange rate. To the untrained foreign eye, however, the two notes look similar. Be sure, whenever exchanging money, that you’re getting CUCs in return. Scams abound of hustlers exchanging American dollars for lesser CUPs (as of April 2017, 1 CUP = less than $0.05 USD).
Health Insurance Is Mandatory for Foreign Visitors
Technically, traveler’s health insurance is compulsory for all foreign visitors to the country and immigration officers can request proof upon entry. However, in practice, we find that this is rare. Either way, most airlines (including Southwest) include the required insurance with the purchase of every flight to Cuba. If for whatever reason, you find yourself without it, inexpensive policies can be purchased at the airport or marina upon arrival.
By American standards, life in Cuba can appear frustratingly slow. The country — particularly outside of Havana — has a long way to go toward full modernization. Things break down regularly, whether it’s the taxi you’re in, the ice machine at the restaurant, or the hot water for your shower. So, it’s important to be patient and don’t expect everything to go exactly as planned. Because it won’t.