Contrary to popular belief, planning a trip to Cuba from the US isn't difficult. You'll need a reason to go, but with an option like educational activities on the list of permitted reasons, it's a total cake walk. From salsa lessons to tours around the country, there are plenty of opportunities to learn that you can use to justify your trip.
I visited the island this year and had an amazing experience because I was thoroughly prepared. Here are 10 things you should know before you go — that aren't common knowledge — to make sure you have the best trip ever.
Your ATM and credit cards from the US will not work.
Any blog or YouTube video about traveling to Cuba will tell you this, and yet my travel buddy still overheard someone on the plane calling their bank to notify them of their trip. Their voice quickly changed when the customer service rep undoubtedly told them they were royally screwed.
The moral of this story is bring cash! Dining and shopping in Cuba is relatively cheap — unless you plan on balling out on cigars — but bring enough money to give yourself a cushion in case of a rainy day.
My friends and I brought $500 each for a trip that lasted five days. We were able to eat, drink, pay for taxis, visit museums, go on a tour to a tobacco farm, and buy souvenirs comfortably on that budget.
The US Dollar and Cuban CUC has a 1:1 exchange rate, but you might be better off converting your money to Euros and Canadian dollars before converting to CUC.
The US dollar is subject to a 10% penalty when you convert your money to the Cuban CUC in Cuba. So even though there is a 1:1 exchange rate, if you bring $100, you will automatically be cut down to $90. That amount will be reduced even further when you take the additional currency exchange fee you will be charged when you convert your money into account.
You need to consider if converting your cash to Euros or Canadian dollars before you leave the US will give you the most bang for your buck. This was yet another piece of advice I heard over and over again while I was preparing for the trip, and yet there were still people who waited to figure their lives out at the currency exchange counter at the airport. Don't let this gif be you moments before your flight, especially if math isn't your forte.
Exchange rates fluctuate on a daily basis, so do your research in advance before you make a final decision on whether or not you should convert your US dollars. The vast majority of people I came across on the internet converted their US dollars to Canadian dollars. However, choosing Euros was the best decision for me on the day I converted my cash.
Cuba has two currencies with very different values. Don’t get got.
Cuba's local currency is the CUP, while the currency that tourists get when they convert their money is the CUC. When I was in Cuba, 1 CUC was equivalent to 24 CUP. I was warned to be very careful about paying for things in CUC and getting CUP slipped into my change. The coins are very easy to confuse.
Wi-Fi is practically nonexistent.
Wi-Fi in Havana was only available at secret hotspot locations throughout the city. You know you've hit the jackpot if you spot a horde of people glued to their phones loitering outside a building.
But finding a hotspot isn't the only challenge. Wi-Fi isn't free and you need to buy a card that will give you access for a certain number of minutes. Tracking one down is another odyssey. You can stand in a long line to get one from a local phone company, track down a hotel that still has some in stock, or pay a premium to someone hustling the cards on the street.
Although my friends and I managed to track down both things, my iPhone was the only one able to connect consistently to the Wi-Fi. My friends with Androids had a much more difficult time, to the point where there were days they couldn't connect at all. The moral of the story: Don't count on being connected to the internet at all during your trip.
Your phone's default Maps app will be useless. Download an app that works offline in advance.
No access to your phone's cellular data — roaming isn't an option — and Wi-Fi means that your Google Maps app will be dazed and confused in Cuba. The two apps that saved my friends and I were Maps.me and Cuba by Triposo.
Make sure everyone in your crew has both and that the maps for each city you are visiting have been downloaded within the apps before you leave the US. There were times when the apps were unable to find my location, but they worked on someone else's phone.
The time of year you visit matters. Hurricane season may ruin your beach plans.
While my friends and I went to Cuba for educational purposes, we definitely wanted to get some beach action during our trip — at Varadero, to be exact. Unfortunately, we went in June which was right at the beginning of hurricane season in the area. It rained every day while we were there, so our beach plans were washed out.
A local told us that the best time of year to visit is between November 15 and the end of April. Keep that in mind to increase the chances of having some fun in the sun during your stay.
Beware of cigar scams.
Hustlers are abundant in Havana (just like in any other country in the world) and they know cigars are a hot ticket item for visitors. If a random person approaches you on the street trying to sell you any or starts telling you it's the last day of a cigar festival, keep it moving. You will more than likely be sold fakes at an inflated price.
Keep your third eye open around taxi drivers.
Many will charge you a price based on how you look. Haggling is the way of the land, so get an estimate from your Airbnb host or your hotel about how much you should expect to pay for your trip. If you feel like they're giving you a hard time because they don't think you know better, just move on to the next taxi and you'll be surprised at how quickly that first driver will change their tune.
It's also important to note that taxis are more expensive late at night, so if you plan on going to a club, expect to pay more to get home.
The amount of people asking for change or to be tipped will be so unexpected.
While tipping at a restaurant or a taxi is something that we're used to in the US, having random people approach you on the street asking for money can be unsettling.
This is especially true if you assume that all Cubans live comfortably because they have access to free healthcare and education. However, most people have very modest salaries (a local told us that the average wage is equivalent to around $24 per month). Citizens have a rations book that allows them to pay very low prices for food, but if they run out and want more, they need to pay two to five times more. Unless they have a side hustle like owning a restaurant, Airbnb, or taxi, things are very tight, which leads to panhandling, offering you help only to charge you a fee at the end, or creative strategies like drawing unsolicited portraits for extra cash.
Give yourself boundaries before you go and carry plenty of change if you do plan on being generous. Bringing clothes and toys or even small things like toothpaste and baby wipes that you can give away to locals is also greatly appreciated.
You will fall in love.
From the friendly Cuban people to the stunning sights to the food to the country's fascinating and controversial history, there will be no shortage of reasons to fall in love and want to visit again. I'm already planning my next trip.