What to know before visiting Cuba for the first time

Posted: 26-Apr-16 11:35

Visiting Cuba for the first time can be a confusing process for some travellers. There are certain things you need to know to make your trip easier and possibly void of certain pitfalls that end up costing visitors more than they expected. With that in mind, one writer offers up a comprehensive list of what you need to know before you go.

What to know before visiting Cuba for the first time

While a trip to Cuba may sound appealing, a first visit can be confusing. From what to pack to what to see and even how to get there, writer Georgina Wilson-Powell recently outlined her list of the important things to know when visiting Cuba for the first time in an article for Lonely Planet.

Although travel restrictions have been eased, Wilson-Powell points out there are still some challenges when travelling from the United States to Cuba. Currently, there are direct and non-direct flights from various points around the globe but you cannot take a direct commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba yet. Having said that; certain U.S. airlines could gain approval later this year.

In the meantime, the author claims many airlines get around this by travelling through Mexico, Canada or Spain. Cruise ships are also expected to soon set sail from Miami to Cuba.

Wilson-Powell reminds that visitors need a 30-day tourist card, which can be extended once you arrive. She advises purchasing one from an airline office or travel agency in advance, though says you’ll receive the card for free during a major airline flight from Toronto or Madrid.

She also suggests checking your home country’s website for entry requirements and other specific information, as well as calling your airline office prior to traveling. Most importantly, she reminds, you need to have your tourist card on hand and present it at the airport to leave Cuba. If you misplace it you may have to wait in Cuba at least another day.

The author recommends Americans check the U.S. Department of Treasury website for the latest guidelines. She mentions that while travel restrictions have eased for Americans, including the addition of solo people-to-people travels, U.S. citizens still have to meet one of the 12 U.S. government-approved categories.

Another consideration is money. Cubans mostly use cash and you cannot exchange for Cuban currency off the island. The author says visitors have to use CUC but warns against exchanging U.S. dollars. This is because, she says, Cubans pass on an inflated charge to convert U.S. currency. To avoid the higher price she recommends bringing in euros or sterling. She also advises that usable ATMs can be hard to find and that commission and rates charged by many hotels vary. The writer says you will need at least $1 CUC to tip everyone who helps you, including per cocktail purchased (but this might be a little exagerated) and to use bathrooms outside your hotel. In the case of bathrooms her claim is not exactly correct, as any spare coin pocket change is enough (usually 25 cents will do).

As for Internet service, Wilson-Powell says it’s expensive and cumbersome. She claims connections are slow at some of the higher-end hotels, while you’ll likely only find dial-up at Internet cafes. Despite the recent addition of some public Wi-Fi hotspots, the author recommends downloading movies, books and guidebooks before leaving home.

The author warns you won’t find convenience stores in Cuba, either, so pack snacks in your suitcase. She recommends making up a basic first aid kit, too, including personal care items, which may be difficult to find.

When it comes to travelling throughout Cuba, Wilson-Powell suggests air-conditioned coach buses. She says they are dependable and reasonably priced. If you need to get somewhere in a hurry she advises car taxis. She says they usually costs $1 CUC upfront, then an additional $1 CUC per kilometre, though sometimes drivers offer foreigners a flat rate. Outside of Havana’s city limits, Wilson-Powell says you can hire cart, bicycle or horse taxis, but says it’s important to barter ahead of time.

Finally, the author concludes by saying it’s important to stay flexible. Frequently, she points out, open and close times change without warning. She also advises purchasing water from your hotel because it’s otherwise not easy to buy.


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